Assam Election Results 2016 – Challenges to Pluralist Ethos: Ram Puniyani

Guest post by RAM PUNIYANI

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Once cut off from the electoral list, getting re-enrolled is a painful exercise for these migrants who work outside Assam. Fear of being struck off voters’ lists and branded Bangladeshis haunts them.

(Picture Credit – The Hindu)

This time around (2016 Elections) BJP has managed to come to power in Assam, though as a coalition with its allies. Its vote share this time came down to 29.5% from the earlier 36.5% (2014); still because of the strategically stitched alliances it beat the Congress in the number of seats won. BJP election appeal was centered on the divisive issue of Bangaldeshi immigrants. It took care to regard 3% native Muslims on the ground of ‘Native Assamese identity’ while the Bengali Muslims (32%) were singled out as immigrants; outsiders. The Bengali immigrant Hindus were projected as refugees. BJP’s propaganda was on the lines of Hindus versus Muslims. Cleverly it was presented as natives versus outsiders.

Elections 2016

Taking recourse to communal historiography the election was presented as the second battle of Saraighat, where Lachit Burfukan had defeated the Mughal army in 1671. As such the many commanders and soldiers of Lachit were Muslims also like Bagh Hazarika. Mughal army had many Hindu generals and soldiers. By spinning the tale directed against Mughals projected in the form of Badruddin Ajmal, who was the main target as he was presented as a symbol of Bengali Muslims. At electoral level the Muslims votes got split between Congress and Ajmal’s party. Now the new Government is planning to identify the Bangaldeshi immigrants and throw them out. As such Assam has been witnessing the harassment of Muslims and many of them have been denied voting right putting them in D Votercategory (D for doubtful).

Background

The immigration has been presented in the communal colors in Assam. Essentially the problem is due to pressures related to jobs and other livelihood issues. In the decade of 1980s parochial forces gave the slogan ‘Assam for Assamese’ quite on the line of Maharashtra for Marathis by the sectarian Shiv Sena in Mumbai. The first major catastrophe in this occurred in the 1980s, when the All Assam Students Union (AASU) demanded exclusion of Bangladeshi immigrants from the electoral rolls. In 1983, over 3,000 people were killed in Nellie, near Guwahati. Those killed were Muslims, dubbed as illegal migrants and occupants of land that belonged to Lalung tribe. Tribhuban Das Tiwary Commission was constituted into the Nellie massacre, but the AASU, now Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), after coming to power dropped all the criminal cases against the culprits and the report of the Commission was never made public. A decade later there were another series of violence, the victims of which are still living in relief camps.

At another level agitation of Bodo’s led to creation of Bodo Territorial Council (BTC), giving most powers to Bodos in the four districts, Khokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalgiri; three of which have undergone the massive violence in July 2012. This violence was preceded by a rumor that people from Bangladesh have brought in a huge cache of armaments. This rumor soon triggered into violence that left lakhs people displaced and some killings.

The claim that Bodos are majority and need to preserve their ethnic identity and interests in the area, does not hold any water since the estimate of percentage of Bodos in this area varies from 22 to 29% only. With full powers given to them under this council they have marginalized other sections of society very badly. The other point of view is that despite the formation of Bodo Territorial Council, the Bodos did not surrender their arms, which was one of the conditions for accepting the demand of this regional council.

Bengali Immigration: History

The study of population statistics will make it clear that the beginning of coming of Bengalis speaking Muslims in Assam was due to the policy of British in early part of 20th Century. There is a long history of Bengali speaking Muslims in Assam. For example there were close to five lakh Muslims in Assam in 1931. In the beginning Bengal was the very populous and politically most aware area. Assam at that time was sparsely populated. British undertook a ‘Human Plantation policy’ in the beginning of twentieth century. The basic idea of British policy was three fold. One was to ensure the shifting of people from the overpopulated Bengal to Assam. Two, it aimed to reduce the incidence of famine and unrest in Bengal, and three British wanted to habitat Assam and collect revenue from that area.

Irrespective of the propaganda about Bangla Deshi infiltrators, research based on population statistics of last century shows that Muslims in the region are settlers from pre partition Bengal to begin with. Later there was some migration at the time of partition in 1947 and still later in the after math of 1971 war with Pakistan, leading to formation of Bangla Desh. Nilim Dutta in ‘Myth of Bangla Deshi and Violence in Assam’ shows that the migration has taken place over a period of time and the increase of population stops after 1971.

The Assam accord of 1985 granted citizenship rights to all these who had settled in Assam till 1971. This accord recognizes all those living in this area as the legal settlers and so most of the Muslims fall in that category. Not to deny that that some small number of illegal immigrants, the ones’ forced to migrate for economic reasons may also be there.

Despite these facts, the issue has become a big fodder for communal politics, which keeps harping on ‘Bangal Deshi infiltrators’. They go on with the propaganda that ‘Hindu migrants from Bangla Desh are refugees while the Muslims are infiltrators’. Even the 2012 violence was labeled by communal forces as strife between Bodos (Nationalists) and Muslims (foreigners!). The plight of the Muslims who speak Bengali is pathetic as not only that they are marginalized and looked down upon, many of them do not even have the voting rights and some of them are put in the category of D voters. There is an active hate industry blaming that the ruling party is encouraging infiltration for the sake of votes while in reality the economic migrations which are associated with the regional disparities has also come down heavily with Bangla Desh economy looking up in last few decades.

The political Challenges

During last Lok Sabha elections (2014) BJP won   seven (out of 14) MP seats from Assam. Though the present victory of BJP is not due to its vote share, still it has brought the BJP government in power and giving it further opportunity to strengthen the work of RSS combine in the state. RSS has been very active in the state and has started Ekal schools (nearly four thousand); Sarswati Shishu Mandirs (590), nearly 100 students Hostels, there are nearly 12000 RSS shakhas in Assam. It is these thousands of volunteers who campaign during elections for the victory of BJP. Through Seva Bharati it is running health services in villages.

All in all the challenge for democratic forces will increase tremendously as these RSS run organizations now will have more influence due to the direct state patronage. The RSS indoctrinated teachers and volunteers will be spreading their sectarian ideology in a stronger way. Already there is plan to open RSS run schools in most of the areas.

Tasks ahead

The Bihar experiment of Mahagathbandhan (Grand alliance) did tell us that it is possible to halt the march of communal forces if the political elements believing in pluralism and democracy come together. At another level the social and cultural work to promote the values of pluralism and amity are the need of the hour. The major acts of violence have been precipitated on the issue of Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. As these Muslims have a long lineage in India they need to be given due justice as citizens of India. The process of identification and exiling them lead to great harassment to many Bengali speaking Muslims. The plan of RSS-BJP to identify and exile them needs to be opposed. The role of BJP has been putting pressure to target them to create social divides. Social groups have to take the challenge of communal politics at multiple levels, not just on electoral grounds.

2 thoughts on “Assam Election Results 2016 – Challenges to Pluralist Ethos: Ram Puniyani

  1. Jaiklong Basumatary

    “The claim that Bodos are majority and need to preserve their ethnic identity and interests in the area, does not hold any water since the estimate of percentage of Bodos in this area varies from 22 to 29% only” what does this even mean ???? So because bodos are not majority we don’t have any right to preserve our ethnic identity and interests ???? This goes against your own idea that the identity of muslims and their interests need to be preserved since muslims are also minorities not majority.

    And you have completely ignored why bodo movement started in the first place, in the 1980s and 1990s and even before that bodos faced worst discrimination than what bengali muslims by assamese people faced that’s why bodoland movement started, it did not come out of the blue, bodos lived in utter proverty back then due to Assamese dominance, our culture our language faced aggression from Assamese people. Do you even know about gohpur masscre and rapes of bhumka in the late 1980s??? Hundreds of bodo villagers killed and hundreds more had to take refuge in arunachal in gohpur masscre of 1988, in 1989 ten bodo girls mostly underage were raped by assamese policemen…. All of this led to bodoand movement.

    You non tribals have no right to question our rights, the bodoland area has been a tribal belt and block recognized by the govt since indian independence. Bodos and other tribals were majority in bodoland and many other areas of lower assam back in the 1960s, now because of illegal non tribal migration we have become minority, Aren’t showing balant Anti Tribal attitude by blaming bodos ??????

    And who gave you right to generalize bodos???? By saying “bodos did not surrender their arms” you are generalizing entire bodo community to be bearers of arms, where it is only groups like NDFB and BLT(surrendered) who bear arms and they do not represent bodo community, you are doing the same as those people who generalize all muslims to be terrorist.

    If your reading this the I hope your views are broadened now.

  2. All those who feel concerned about the unity and emotional integration of our country have to remain always on guard against the sinister designs of those organisations and forces which are there to play upon the ethnic ,religious,regional and other primordial distinctions.Day in and day out we hear about unity in diversity as the cornerstone of our strength as a nation.But what we witness in their practice is just the opposite. I think the commentators may also be strictly particular in this regard while analyzing the situation.

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