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Assam Elections: A Battle Of Identities Where Everyone Could Lose Out

29/03/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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BIJU BORO via Getty Images
An Indian security personel stands guard as voters queue at a polling station in Manja, some 245 kms from Guwahati, the capital of the northeastern Assam state on April 12, 2014 during the fourth phase of the Lok Sabha (lower house) elections. India's 814-million-strong electorate is voting in the world's biggest election which is set to sweep the Hindu nationalist opposition to power at a time of low growth, anger about corruption and warnings about religious unrest. AFP PHOTO/Biju BORO (Photo credit should read BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)

The Assam Legislative Assembly elections scheduled for 4 and 11 April will be heavily influenced by which political party is capable of reflecting back the 'group identities' of the population. Be it the Asomiya identity, the Bodo identity, the Dimasa identity or the Bengali identity, it is anticipated that people will vote for that party which they believe will take forward their ethnic community. Assam is a land where group identity, and loyalty to that identity, matters. And group identities in Assam have been historically formed based on who is not the group, or more simply, by the process known as 'othering'. So, anybody outside of that 'imagined' Assamese or indigenous community is an 'outsider' not worthy of political, moral or social consideration.

[The] Assam elections are being fought on the basis of which party will best tackle the issue of illegal Muslim migration from Bangladesh...

And hence, the present Assam elections are being fought on the basis of which party will best tackle the issue of illegal Muslim migration from Bangladesh which is perceived as a threat to the Assamese and indigenous identities. Since India became independent in 1947, the issue of Bengali Muslim immigration, both legal and illegal into Assam, has animated the political space. In 1946, during the provincial elections, the Congress used this tack in an electoral fight with the Muslim League led by Sir Syed Muhammad Saadulah, and who had formed three consecutive governments in Assam since 1937. They urged the people of Assam to vote for the Congress in order to save their heritage. Assam had witnessed a surge in migration since the early 19th century when the British brought thousands tribal people from Bihar, Bengal, etc, to work in their tea estates. Muslim migration begun under Lord Curzon's "Grow more food" programme between 1899-1905, especially for the cultivation of jute, tea and, rubber.

[D]eporting those who have come illegally, as well as the importance of safeguarding jati (nation) and mati (land) have become critical.

While the issue of illegal migration from Bangladesh has long festered, it became a major political hot button during the Assam Agitation (1979-1985) when malpractices were discovered in the electoral procedure of 1979. That year, in the Mangaldoi Assembly elections, 45,000 illegal immigrants' names were found on the voters' list. The first strike against this was kick-started on 8 June, 1979. The All Assam Students' Union (AASU)-led agitation demanded that the 1951 National Register for Citizens be utilized to determine the citizenship of all those living in Assam. Subsequently, the 1983 state elections--a farcical affair featuring tremendous voter malpractices and the a heavy handed State response to non-violent dissent--lit the embers of one of the most persistent and violent ethnic movements in Assam--the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). ULFA was formed on 7 April, 1979 at Ranghar, Sivasagar, a site of historical significance since the time of the Ahom rule in Assam. Fuelling Assamese nationalism and demanding self-determination or Swadhin Asom (Independent Assam), ULFA from 1992 onwards widened its support base to include all non-Assamese by stating that theirs was a movement for all Asombashis (people who resided in Assam). ULFA sought to revert the state's status to the Ahom-ruled Assam that existed before the 1826 treaty of Yandaboo between the British and the Burmese, and which ushered in British rule in Assam.

As long as [Bangladeshi immigrants] worked invisibly and were not politically organized, Assamese society utilized the cheap labour they provided.

Given this background, the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections have been dominated by alleged 'vote-bank' politics of the Congress led by the present Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, and the rise to prominence of a minority-based party called the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). The AIUDF, led by Badruddin Ajmal, claims to represent Muslims, tea labourers, and Scheduled Tribes. However, the entry of the BJP in collaboration with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) could prove to be a game-changer. The BJP's growing influence in Assam was evident when in 2014, it bagged seven out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats, a first by the party in a historically Congress stronghold.

While the struggle for the 126 seat legislative assembly will be a three-cornered fight between the Congress, the BJP, and the AIUDF, deporting those who have come illegally, as well as the importance of safeguarding jati (nation) and mati (land) have become critical. Included in these are questions of who actually is an Assamese. Now, Assam is home to a myriad of indigenous communities who are not Assamese but include (but are not limited to) the Dimasa, Kuki, Hmar, Jeme, Bodo and Mising. The questions of identity and who is a 'daughter of the soil' have taken centre stage.

[The] cracks between the majority community (the Assamese), the indigenous communities like Bodos, and the illegal immigrants, will decide the 2016 Assam elections.

Ironically, for a very long time, poor Bangladeshi immigrants have been a part and parcel of Assam's economic landscape doing manual jobs especially in construction, selling vegetables, tilling the fields, pulling rickshaws for unbelievably low wages. As long as they worked invisibly and were not politically organized, Assamese society utilized the cheap labour they provided. However, the illegal migrants started acquiring political capital, and started organizing themselves politically vis-à-vis other ethnic groups. The first fissures were noticeable in the Bodo areas of Assam when in July 2012 violence erupted when two student leaders belonging to the All Assam Minority Students' Union (AAMSU) and the All Bodoland Minority Students' Union (ABMSU) were shot at in Kokrajhar district during a bandh called by them. This allegedly led to a retaliatory attack by the minority community, killing four former members of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT). This in turn led to an escalation of violence in the Bodo Territorial Area District (BTAD) and the nearby Dhubri district. The seeds of the violence were in the growing unease of the indigenous Bodo community of the political empowerment of the illegal Bangladeshi minority as they saw it. The BJP has brought back the issue of illegal migration to the centre stage again with Prime Minister Narendra Modi promising to stop any such movements across the border into Assam. Whether that can be realistically accomplished given very poor border control, corruption, the push and pull factor of Assam's political economy is another matter. These cracks between the majority community (the Assamese), the indigenous communities like Bodos, and the illegal immigrants, will decide the 2016 Assam elections.

[A]ll the talk of development is actually meant to benefit a particular select class while the local people suffer the hardships of poor infrastructure.

The other issue that is becoming dominant in the run-up to the Assam elections is development. Most parties are crying hoarse about the lack of development in Assam, the high infant and maternal mortality rates, the dismal infrastructure. One of the most historic islands of Assam, Majuli, the seat of the Assam Satra tradition, has been pitted in the elections as an island key to the development of tourism, as well as culture. The BJP chief ministerial candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal, is contesting from this island.

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At the ferry crossing to Majuli from Nemati Ghat, Assam, 2015. Picture Credit: Namrata Goswami.

Incidentally, in April 2015, I had paid a visit to Majuli.

Growing up in Assam, I had heard about the beauty of the river island, as well as how the Central and state governments have pledged to make it a world tourist destination. I was in for a shock. When we arrived in Nemati ghat (port) to cross the Brahmaputra to Majuli, there was filth everywhere, no toilets for the passengers, broken down sheds and no proper ferry landing sites. The ferries themselves looked decrepit. Cars, bikes and people precariously hung onto the overloaded ferries, risking their lives.

My 'audacious hope' is to see the people of Assam rise above the negative understanding of identity couched in an 'us. vs. them' frame...

While the island itself felt peaceful, the lack of tourist infrastructure including any common centre for showcasing local handicrafts made life difficult for local artists. The quiet resilience of the local people, their ideas for eco-tourism as they spoke to me contrasted with the sound of the helicopter overhead, bringing in some local politician bypassing that hazardous ferry ride. That visit gave me the insight that all the talk of development is actually meant to benefit a particular select class while the local people suffer the hardships of poor infrastructure. The political class really did not care whether the development needs of the common people were really met, given the comforts they enjoyed once they got elected. This state of affairs goes against the idea of India as a democratic republic, by which the representatives are elected to make the life of their constituents better, not amass huge personal gains for themselves.

My 'audacious hope' is to see the people of Assam rise above the negative understanding of identity couched in an 'us vs. them' frame and to instead give life to more transparent institutional levels of governance through which they can truly prosper.

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