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Majuli: Past perfect on shrinking sands

A biodiversity hotspot and heart of Assam's Vaishnavite culture, Majuli is a shrinking island, writes Rahul Karmakar.

india Updated: Mar 29, 2006 19:21 IST

Welcome to Majuli, the world's largest inhabited river island.

It is India's only mainland island Assembly constituency, and one of the last where caste Assamese Hindus continue to be the deciding factor in the battle of ballot.

A biodiversity hotspot and the heart of Assam's Vaishnavite culture — 15th Sankardev century saint founded the first sattra (monastery) here — Majuli is a shrinking island.

Much like the caste Assamese Hindu voters, who, caught in a sea of tribal and settler communities, are an electoral force in less than 20 constituencies.

The facts are telling. Majuli measured 1246 sq km in 1853; its size has been reduced to 886 sq km today.

It had 65 Vaishnative monasteries two decades ago; there are 30 left, most having shifted to the mainland.

The plight of the Assamese voters is no different.

They were a force to reckon with in 1951, the year of the first elections, but matter today in barely 20 of the 126 seats today. Conversely, settler Muslims hold the key to 45 seats, tea tribes in 38 and Bengali Hindus in 15.

Ironically, this caste Assamese bastion is reserved for ST. The parties thus have to field candidates belonging to the Mishing community, the largest of the tribes inhabiting this island of 1,45,000 voters, though numerically less than the caste Assamese.

The AGP has Padma Pegu, the Congress Rajiv Lochan Pegu. Sitting MLA Padmeswar Doley, denied ticket by AGP, is contesting as an Independent.

In an island where the heads of sattras exercise some clout, the BJP has penetrated the community. But the moot is sue for them is to have a candidate of their own.

Islander Jayanta Sarma says there has been an effort to increase the number of caste Assamese in order to carve out a non-reserved seat. That seems unlikely with many islanders having shifted to the mainland never to return.