Post-1977, every election in Assam has pivoted around the fear of the indigenous being overrun by infiltrators from Bangladesh. For the first time, the focus has shifted from Muslim migrants to Hindu migrants.
Bengalis, mostly settlers from present-day Bangladesh since the late 1800s, have been an electoral bugbear in Assam. The primary reason is that they outnumber the Assamese and all other indigenous communities.
But the spotlight during elections had invariably been on one section of Bengalis – the Muslims who account for 32% of the population, are an overwhelming majority in seven of Assam’s 27 districts and dictate terms in 52 of 126 assembly segments.
The 18% Hindu Bengalis weren’t considered an electoral force until the BJP began cultivating them to reap dividends in 2001. The saffron party subsequently termed them ‘refugees’ as distinguished from ‘migrants’ associated with Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The BJP’s line differed from former ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the political semi-avatar of the anti-foreigners pressure group All Assam Students Union. For the latter, migrants were migrants irrespective of religion.
Two successive drubbing has made AGP weigh all options, and that includes warming up to Bengali Hindus this election. The Congress is not far behind.
Campaigning in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley in southern Assam, chief minister Tarun Gogoi endorsed ‘refugee’ status for Bengali Hindus. “They deserve refugee status because they persecution forced them to come to India,” he said.
Party insiders said Gogoi was trying to undo the “damage” done by AICC general secretary Digvijay Singh who had earlier said Muslim and Hindu infiltrators would be judged alike. But political scientists have sniffed a plan to wean away Bengali Hindus from the BJP, which is stoking the demographic dread the most.
The issue of demographic invasion took centre-stage after former Assam governor SK Sinha submitted a report on illegal migration to the President on 8 November 1998. It was built upon former Union Home minister Indrajit Gupta’s statement that India has some 10 million illegal migrants, the bulk of them in West Bengal and Assam.
The Gauhati High Court took the fear a step further in July 2008 by noting that Bangladeshis have become kingmakers in Assam while pointing out how easily they get into the voters’ list.
The All Assam Bengali Youth Students’ Federation, meanwhile, said the Congress stand on Bengali Hindus was confusing. "If the party is serious, it has to ensure that the government machinery stops harassing, detaining and deporting some 1 million Hindu refugees," a spokesman said.