More than 150 years after the British brought them to cash in on Assam’s natural wealth, three communities continue to matter the most during elections in the state.
But unlike past polls, the Congress is now not the sole claimant of the vote banks these communities — referred to as Ali, Kuli, Bongali in order of their voting strengths — comprise.
Indira Gandhi loyalist Devakanta Barooah, Congress president during the Emergency (1975-77), had popularised the ‘Ali-Kuli-Bongali’ slogan. Ali stands for Bengali Muslims settled by the British along the riverbanks for paddy and vegetable cultivation. Kuli is for Adivasis brought from central India to work in tea plantations and as loggers for the timber trade.
Migration of Bengali Muslims and Hindus forced by Partition in 1947 and events leading to Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 led to demographic complications and friction with indigenous groups. The British relied on ‘Bongalis’, or Bengali Hindus, for clerical jobs and petty trade.
Post-independence, the Congress banked on this troika to win elections. They invariably stood by, even in 1985 when the party won the least number of seats — 25. Together, these communities have dictated the outcome in 90 of Assam’s 126 assembly seats. Bengali Muslims hold sway over 40 seats, Adivasis in 30, and Bengali Hindus in 10.
In a little over a decade, perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has eaten into the migrant Muslim vote base of the Congress while BJP has made inroads among Adivasis and Bengali Hindus.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi emphasised the importance of these communities by addressing rallies, first in Muslim-dominated Barpeta district of western Assam, the tea-growing belts of eastern Assam, and Bengali Hindu-dominated Silchar in southern Assam.
CM Tarun Gogoi, eyeing a fourth straight term, refers to his Muslim MLAs to claim the Congress has “never really lost them”. But Ajmal says Muslims are opting for AIUDF.
The BJP’s minority cell has ideas about penetrating Muslim areas but the party is more confident in constituencies dominated by Adivasis and Bengali Hindus. Five of the seven Lok Sabha seats it won in 2014 were from the tea-growing areas of eastern Assam while Bengali Hindus played a role in helping the party bag the other two. The sub-text of this victory was the lead BJP took in 69 assembly segments.
The importance of these two groups has made BJP promise ST status for Adivasis and refugee status for Bengali Hindus who fled religious persecution (up to December 2014) in Bangladesh.