Wracked with internal turmoil following disastrous NRC rollout, Assam’s regional parties are shifting their rhetoric away from ‘Bangladeshi aliens’ to preservation of Assamiya culture
Has regionalism reached its limit in Assam? Four explosions on Republic day 2020 after a prolonged spell of relative peace and stability certainly breathed new life into the question in Assam's context. The secessionist wing of the ULFA, which operates from abroad, has claimed responsibility. But even without the ULFA's explosive intervention, fresh questions had arisen about the relevance of regional parties like the AGP after the recent NRC updating exercise.
The NRC's objective was to ascertain accurately the number of illegal Bangladeshis staying in Assam, generally estimated at around 5 million out of a 3.2 crore state population. Post-NRC, the final figure of the 'undesirables' according to unconfirmed reports, may not exceed over 200,000 or so, once the appeals are disposed of. This end result is much too anti-climactic to be accepted by Assam-based political parties, fed liberally on visions of "lakhs of termites (read Bangladeshi aliens) to be herded in 16 special high-security detention centres" as the much-hyped NRC exercise got underway.
Worse, the ill-conducted NRC initiative, while not settling the critically important question about Assam's future, also turned out to be extremely negative for India's image abroad. India's proud projection of itself as the biggest secular democratic country in South Asia and the world's largest functioning democracy, took a severe mauling that will take much time to heal. Influential institutions in the EU and the US severely reprimanded the methods of NRC officials in dealing with the poorest of non-Assamiya Hindu and Muslim citizens. Clearly, such people could never have been expected to provide the sort of documentation of their citizenship the NRC had asked from them.
And such harassment of the poor was not just condemned by foreigners meddling in India's internal affairs. Civil rights workers based in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata confirmed that even they could not provide such elaborate documentation that sought evidence of settlement of previous generations! Imagine the plight of villagers living in remote Goalpara or Dhemaji to Tinsukia, as they scurried helplessly from authority to authority in the fruitless search of such papers.
Human rights groups had repeatedly implored the Supreme Court to be more proactive and initiate steps to prevent the excesses allegedly committed by NRC officials, as lakhs of complaints poured in. The apex court had a greater role in the NRC operations in that it had ordered it, not the BJP government ruling the country.
Assam-based minority organisations allege that long-suffering citizenry received precious little relief from the judiciary. Quite apart from spending over Rs 6,000 crore in running around from pillar to post to prove their citizenship claims, around 54 people committed suicide, failing to secure any relief. Their families received no compensation either.
BJP as the ruling party at the Centre has copped most of the blame somewhat unfairly in this case. The party had not been a party to the 1985 Assam Accord, which included the idea for an NRC, nor had it monitored the progress of its operations. That responsibility lay fully with the Supreme Court.
Within the country, the NRC rigours horrified the Muslims across the nation. They felt they were being specially targeted. "Neither NRC nor NPR" has become the most powerful political slogan nationally, as state governments and political parties have united in standing up to the BJP. This despite the fact that more Hindus than Muslims went unlisted in the final NRC list.
BJP has temporarily ceded some political space to the opposition nationwide, thanks to the disastrous Assam NRC exercise. But regional parties like the Asam Gana Parishad (AGP) have suffered more, along with leaders of the Assam cultural establishment. The AGP has suffered a split. One section is currently led by its anti-BJP faction leader and former Chief Minister, Profulla Mohanta. The other group is led by former AASU activist and AGP Minister Atul Bora, who still supports BJP.
The dominant political narrative in the state pits the ruling BJP against the weakened Congress INC as its main opposition.
At the extreme end of the political spectrum, the ULFA has rejected the NRC findings. Observers fear that the blasts that rocked the state on January 26, signal the end of relative peace and tranquillity.
However, a major positive factor in the situation is the broadly secular, tolerant mass culture of Assam. Ethnic peace harmony prevailed even during the contentious NRC exercise, barring a few cases of incitement. Considering recent developments in Bengal or UP, no praise is enough for the Assam administration and the civilised nature of the state's political discourse.
While the AGP may have shot its bolt, for now, there is news that a new regional party will be launched by the AASU. This organisation, which spawned the AGP, had scrupulously avoided playing a direct political role earlier, in order to avoid compromising its goals, say its leaders.
At present, with the question of a secure future for Assamiya culture/identity left unaddressed, what can the AASU offer in its proposed new avatar as an election-oriented party? Will it take a line closer to the ULFA or take an orthodox mainstream position close to existing political alignments? Observers feel that any new organisation would urgently need to field newer, younger faces with bold slogans and fresh vigour to appeal to the young millennial generation of educated voters with special aspirations.
Significantly, the Muslim-dominated AIUDF has announced its unconditional advance support to the AASU's venture for a new party without discussion concerning political agendas or programme. Furthermore, the influential Asam Sahitya Sabha has approached party chief, Badruddin Ajmal, whose decisions have not always been understood by people in Assam during elections (some see his outfit only as a means to divide the Muslim vote to spite the Congress) for help.
Ajmal, not a native Assamiya, has announced his party's total support for the Assamese language/culture. The Sabha hopes that Bengali Muslims will follow Ajmal's lead and declare Assamiya as their mother tongue during the 2021 Census, to preserve Assamiya dominance.
The ruling BJP, as it monitors these new trends on the present political churning in Assam, is not about to cede further space either to the Congress or the regional parties. It has announced that Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, ensuring Assamiya preponderance in government jobs and administration, would be enshrined and all relevant steps will be taken to prevent any dilution of the Assamiya identity/culture.
It proposes that job seekers in Assam in future must not only speak in Assamiya but also acquire a writing proficiency in the language. Such a step has not been taken in other states also promoting regionalism, in Maharashtra or elsewhere. These measures are being announced by the bigger national party seeking to restrict the operational space further for the regional outfits.
More aggressively, BJP leaders have also focused on the lasting damage caused to Assam's economic prospects and its identity by the 'extremism' of Assamiya regional parties/regionalism. State Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma warns the people that the main threat to Assamiya identity comes from the sudden spurt of Arabic medium schools and madrasas being set up in several districts. Nine out of 33 districts in Assam are Muslim majority, as against four only a decade or so ago!
The BJP has campaigned relentlessly to persuade the people to realise that Bengali Hindus were not and never will be, a threat either through their numbers or language, unlike the Muslims. If present demographic trends continue, Muslims will certainly put up Chief Ministers from within their community in the medium term. And the majority of Muslims in Assam are old settlers from Bangladesh, with Assamiya Muslims accounting for only 10 per cent of their aggregate population.
With much emotional/political churning going on in Assam for some time, the political future for Assam and the NE region is going to be very intriguing. India as a whole will need to monitor Assam and related regional developments very closely in the days ahead.
Views expressed are strictly personal