Lok Sabha elections 2019: BJP looks to get North-East equation right
May 7, 2014. Narendra Modi, the campaigner, made a speech in Krishnanagar, a town in West Bengal, declaring that there are two kinds of people that came to India from Bangladesh — infiltrators and refugees. Those who fled the Bangladesh war of 1971 were refugees, he elaborated. The rest, infiltrators. Five years and one election later, this definition of an illegal immigrant may come undone in the North-East, even in the place where it was perhaps calculated to benefit the BJP most: the districts that centre on the river Barak in lower Assam, and the second largest town there, Silchar.
The first wave of saffronization in Assam began with the Partition and the carving out of East Pakistan from undivided Bengal. Assam saw its first wave of Bengali migrants from across the border, into towns on the border such as Silchar. Now, in an election season, the Modi government has tried to remove the scabs on old wounds. But a combination of circumstances has meant that candidates are uncertain about whether to use the outsider-insider, infiltrator-refugee divisions.
It’s just after harvest in Silchar. BJP candidate Rajdeep Roy has been campaigning in Muslim-dominated villages such as Sonai and Nutan Bazar. His campaign is in Bengali in a part of Assam that is Little Bengal. In 1947, this part of Assam was part of Sylhet. It was ripped out and apportioned to East Pakistan, leading to a mass exodus of Sylheti Hindus who spoke a particular dialect of Bengali; after the Bangladesh war, there was another exodus. Like most border areas, people — Indians and Bangladeshis both — have criss-crossed these borders for seasonal work, not having to think about whether this is legal. Soon after the Bangladesh war, Assam was in flames with student and civil society groups demanding that illegal immigrants be sent back. They had Bengalified Assam and the Assamese natives began to find themselves crowded out of their share of jobs and resources, the most contentious of which was land.
But even after six years of protest, when the Assam accord was signed in 1985, no government found a way to successfully identify and deport large numbers of illegal immigrants. Then, a petition was filed by an NGO in 2013 in the Supreme Court which then directed the government of Assam to update its citizen list. Soon after Modi became Prime Minister, the Supreme Court order was taken cognisance of and electoral rolls dating back to March 1971 were dug out and translated from Assamese into Bengali and other languages. People were identified as those whose ancestors came to places such as Silchar before 1971 and those that came after, which, by the rules of the Assam accord, made them illegal immigrants. In the end, 4 million people across different districts in Assam found themselves notified. They had to appear before claims commissions set up in different places, with documents and family members in tow, to prove their bonafides.
The trouble was that many of the people notified in Assam were Hindus — migrant labours without papers. The BJP tried to rectify this by writing a new bill — the Citizenship Amendment Bill to try and change the definition of illegal immigrants to include all minorities from neighbouring countries except Muslims; that was to ensure no Hindus on the NRC list would be deported. The bill led to widespread protests not just in Assam but all across the North-East. The only places where people were silent were those dominated by immigrant Bengalis for whom the Partition and the Bangladesh war are an inheritance that came down from one generation to the next. Like Rajdeep Roy. The fact that Rajdeep Roy’s hometown of Sylhet is now in Bangladesh still rankles. It’s part of his inheritance of anger, loss and politics. And one of the reasons he says he can beat his rival from the Congress party — Sushmita Dev, who won the seat the last time and is a strong contender even now.
Rajdeep Roy makes his rounds of the district, telling his voters, “Majboot sarkar ko vote do, majboor sarkar ko nahi” — vote for a strong, decisive government, not a desperately cobbled together alliance.
Roy’s grandfather was a freedom fighter and a Congress politician. But by the time Roy’s father was in politics, the struggle for Independence was overtaken by Partition and its aftermath, and his father joined the Jana Sangh. Roy went to RSS shakhas as a child. There are now 1,000 shakhas across Assam and 2,600 across the entire North-East, and 10,000 ekal vidyalayas or RSS-run schools in the region. Proselytization has been slow and steady.
Roy explains how the RSS began to address old wounds, primarily of Bengali Hindus in the region.
“When the plebiscite took place in July 1947, (and people voted on whether Sylhet should stay in India or go to East Pakistan), around 150,000 tea garden workers were not allowed to vote. As a result, the people who wanted to stay back in Pakistan won the election and Sylhet went to East Pakistan,” Roy says; 70 years later this still makes for dining table conversation not just in his family but across Silchar. And these are the voters the BJP is now hoping to target through the Citizenship Amendment bill.
In the last general election, the BJP won half the seats in Assam – 7 out of 14. This was its best performance since it first made its presence felt in the state by winning two seats in 1991. This time, party insiders say they are targeting at least 10 seats. They were hoping that the consolidation of Hindu votes would play a big role in that.
It’s the main reason that BJP president Amit Shah made the RSS such a crucial part of the campaign team in Assam, with Ram Madhav, an import to the party from the higher echelons of the Sangh, playing a key role.
It’s a leeching of old prejudices with the new. An old stalwart in the party, Kabindra Purkayastha, described by many as an L K Advani look-alike, states the anti-Muslim sentiment explicitly and the reason for the party pushing the Citizenship amendment bill. “Bengalis are not harmful. Muslims are because they wanted to make this a Muslim land. Their activities are not good for this country.” Purkayastha won the Silchar seat thrice, but in the last election in 2014, he lost out to the other side of the demographics of the region; 37% of the district is Muslim. Sushmita Dev won.
It has been a tough campaign for Purkayastha’s successor in the BJP, Rajdeep Roy. “We are committed to the citizenship of displaced persons,” he says, but with the Citizenship Amendment Bill having caused a furore in much of Assam and then lapsed in Parliament in February, it hasn’t been an easy promise to sell.
If the polarisation wasn’t going to be enough, the BJP would have to factor Muslims into their campaign as well.
In the strange and complex communal cauldron of Silchar, in this election, everything and its opposite seems to be true at once. Despite the obvious polarization, as Roy campaigns, many Muslims also turn up to listen. A cynic dismisses the presence of Muslims as entirely opportunistic; “they are only there for whatever inducements maybe on offer.”
Away from the hard-sell of Roy’s rallies, Nazir Akhmad Chaudhury sits in his nephew’s house in a rural part of the Sonai block. “The thing about the NRC is that we have to produce legacy documents and no one has a fool-proof set of papers going back in time,” he says, leaning forward from the red plastic chair he is in. “All those years ago nobody bothered with getting marriage certificates made. This will definitely be an election issue.” Moinuddin, his nephew contradicts his uncle and adds that he would vote depending on which way the wind blows and for now, he can’t tell which way that is.
In a predominantly Muslim area, this may be the BJP’s best selling point. They are in power and that begets more votes.
At the other end of Assam, Queen Ojha, the former mayor of Guwahati, currently contesting the seat on a BJP ticket, had a much bigger problem on her hands. Unlike Silchar, there were protests by the Hindu Assamese in the rest of the state against the Citizenship Amendment Bill because it would pave the way for more Hindu Bengali migrants in state where the Assamese already felt crowded out. Ojha cut her political teeth on the agitation in Assam against the influx of Bangladeshis. The six-year-long agitation from 1979 to 1985 resulted in the Assam accord, where the cut off for illegal immigrants, irrespective of their religion, was March 24, 1971.
She later joined the party that came out of these protests as its political face – the Asom Gana Parishad, or the AGP. Now that she is in the BJP and contesting an election, she has to delete the past and the fact that the bill her current party proposed undid the Assam accord.
The bill is something she considers a “bahut controversial topic, very controversial.” As party workers flood her drawing room and lawn, she adds, “Election ke time me mai itna nahi baat kar sakti. Mostly development ke barey me hoga (campaign). In an election season I can’t talk so much about it (the bill). My campaign will focus on development.”
Muslims make up just 12.5% of the population of her constituency, lower than the national average of 14.2%. So consolidating the remaining 84.89% of the Hindu votes may make more electoral sense.
But in the Lok Sabha constituency of Mangaldoi, where her party colleague Dilip Saikia is contesting, things are quite different. The Muslim population is a little over a fourth, at 27.59%. No wonder Saikia, sitting in the BJP party office on the festival of Holi, his face covered in pink gulaal, says he isn’t going to bring up the Citizenship Amendment Bill.
The overall campaign strategy of the BJP in the state, and the region is being shaped in the drawing room of Himanta Biswa Sarma, a man who joined the BJP only in 2015, after 14 years in the Congress party. Since 2016, he has been incharge of the party’s alliances in the North-East.
As Sarma leans back in his couch, flanked by a large Buddha and an aquarium full of giant orange and black koi fish, he proclaims proudly, “Whatever you have seen in the political dimension in the North-East today, you can rest assured that everything is controlled under one stream. Who joined where, who contested there, it has no meaning. It is all being (managed) from this room.”
It was especially significant that Sarma underlined his pivotal role as the BJP’s election strategist for the North-East a day after the party announced its list of contestants for all 12 seats in Assam, causing something of a political storm in the state. Three sitting MPs were dropped from the list and Sarma’s own name that many expected to see as the party’s candidate from Tezpur was nowhere on the list.
An RSS insider, close to Ram Madhav, the other architect of the Sangh’s overall North-East plan, suggested that Himanta Biswa Sarma’s ego had gotten too large and that the party president, Amit Shah, had to cut him down to size. The Sangh has reminded everyone of just how powerful it is, says the RSS man, grinning.
It is turning out to be a much more complicated election than the BJP or the RSS had perhaps bargained for. An aborted Citizenship Amendment Bill, a campaign to polarise that is being undone by some candidates on the ground. And finally, an age-old ego clash between leaders in the RSS and the BJP causing nerves to be frayed in an election season.
On the day Himanta Biswa Sarma wasn’t given a ticket to contest, he shrugged it off.
“You are asking such a raw nerve question to a politician like me. Am I a student of Class 5 that I would say ‘mujhe ladney dijiye, ladney dijiye’? Where is my application? Who have I gone and asked for a ticket?”
Sarma is making up for it by displaying his Hindutva credentials as loudly as he can. And going back to the Sangh’s central idea behind its steady campaign in Assam. The outsider versus the insider. “We are secular because we are Hindus,” Sarma says. “We cannot distinguish 5,000 years of India’s culture with the recent adoption of the Constitution. Your Constitution was itself made a secular Constitution by those devoted Hindus, thinking that Hinduism as the main religion will always be honoured by the citizens of India. They never thought that liberals will come one day. Otherwise they would not have made the Indian Constitution a secular Constitution.”
The question is of course whether the plan, which seemed to be working all too well till the middle of last year, will deliver the BJP’s much needed results. Collectively, the North-East accounts for 25 MPs. And in an election where the BJP is calculating that it may win 30 fewer seats in Uttar Pradesh than the last time, this is one part of the country where it hopes to make up for those losses.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context in December 2018. She tweets @revati)