Of the four states and a Union Territory whose election results will be declared next month, the outcome in Assam is the most crucial.
A myth about the Assam elections is that the BJP is in a good position there because Sarbanda Sonowal and Himanta Biswa Sarma, the two front-ranking leaders in the BJP in Assam, do not have an RSS background and had cut their teeth in the politics of the student movement of the 1970s and the 1980s. Nothing can be further than this from the truth. For long, the RSS has been targeting the North-East to Hinduise the region. Sonowal and Sarma are just pawns in the big game.
Assam is an ethnic, cultural mosaic with a colonial and pre-colonial history. Post-independence India took it upon itself the task of managing this society. In the Assam assembly, an MLA can take an oath in Assamese, English, Hindi, Bengali and a tribal language.
The assembly polls of 2016 and the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 have introduced a new element not there earlier in a strong way. It was the introduction of a party, the BJP, which has been spreading the cause of Hindutva. The designing of the BJP’s campaign was to pit the Hindu Assamese versus the Muslim Bangladeshis. But this is not a very neat equation. One look at the contours of the Assam students’ movement of 1979-85 shows that it sought to play off the Assamese Hindus against all Bengalis, including Muslims from Bangladesh. This politics of targeting led to the Nellie massacre of February 1983. And this time too such targeting is being practised. The top leaders of the BJP have said if the NDA wins in Assam, the Bangladeshis would be thrown out. In other words, ethnic cleansing.
By forming an alliance with the Bodoland People’s Front, the BJP thinks it can capitalise on the anti-Muslim sentiment among the Bodos. It is true that the Bodos and the Muslims have been on the warpath since 1952, and the riots of 2012 are fresh in people’s minds. But the Bodos did not fight just the Muslims. The Assamese-speaking people were among their first targets. In 1996, Bodo militants killed about 100 Santhals and other adivasis (brought by the British from central India more than 150 years ago for tea plantation work). In July 1997, at least 33 Bengali Hindu settlers were killed. About 300 non-Bodos (including the victims of a train blast in 1996) were killed between 1993 and 1997.
The political scientist Paul Brass has written that in Assam there have been many interstices of confrontations: Bengalis vs Assamese, Hindus vs Muslims, plainspeople vs tribal hill people, tribals in the plains vs non-tribals, etc. The BJP is unmindful of this and wishes to drive cart and horse through this tapestry of ethnicity.
Is Assam headed towards perpetual violence?
CP Bhambhri taught politics at JNU
The views expressed are personal