By Sagarneel Sinha
Identity factor has always played a role in the politics of Assam — and this election is no different. In fact, with the Supreme Court’s order in 2013 to complete the pending updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — based on the historic Assam Accord signed in 1985 by the Centre led by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with Assamese organizations, including AASU (All Assam Students’ Union) — in the state, identity politics took the centre stage. State’s maiden BJP government led by Sarbananda Sonowal, a former member of AASU associated with the Assam agitation, which resulted in the signing of the Assam Accord, took steps to fasten the much-complicated process of the long-pending NRC updation. The Supreme Court-monitored NRC updation, which gave birth to many controversies not only across the state but also across the country, was finally completed in 2019 — although failing to satisfy most of the Assamese groups and political parties, including BJP and Congress.
The identity politics took a more sharp turn with the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) brought in 2018 by the Narendra Modi led BJP government — but the bill failed to convert into law as the government failed to get required numbers in the Rajya Sabha — unlike the Lok Sabha. Even though CAB is very much opposed by the majority of the Assamese speaking community, BJP during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections promised to bring it back, if elected back to power. In the 2019 general elections, BJP returned to power with a bigger mandate at the Centre — and even won big in Assam. As promised during the election campaign, BJP brought the CAB again in the same year and was successful in converting the bill into a law — Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — by managing the required numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Subsequently, protests against CAA erupted in Assam and the north-east and later spread to different parts of the country.
However, it was the Covid-19 pandemic that halted the anti-CAA protests — but CAA remains a factor in Assam. It is this anti-CAA factor that has given birth to new regional parties in the state. The parties are the Raijor Dal, Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM). The Raijor Dal and AJP — backed by influential non-political organizations like AASU, All Assam Jatiya Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) — are fighting together against the two major other alliances — BJP led NDA and Congress-led Grand Alliance. AGM led by journalist and Rajya Sabha MP Ajit Bhuyan is a part of the Congress-led Grand Alliance. AJP is led by Lurinjyoti Gogoi, former general secretary of AASU, while Raijor Dal is led by Akhil Gogoi, who formed the KMSS. Akhil Gogoi is presently in jail and is contesting from the Shivsagar constituency — an important center of Assamese regionalism. Importantly, the Assam agitation against Bangladeshi illegal immigrants gave birth to Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), which once was a major player in state politics and is now reduced into a minor player and presently a constituent of NDA.
With new regional parties jumping into the election fray, Assamese regionalism is back into focus — although issues like development and peace are still the most crucial factors in this election. Particularly, AJP and Raijor Dal are focusing on the anti-CAA factor and Congress too is leaving no stone unturned to make it clear that the grand old party is also strictly opposed to the CAA. Amid this, Assamese regionalism is more visible in this election due to the Congress party’s alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) led by Dhubri MP Badruddin Ajmal. The Assamese-speaking population and the tribals view AIUDF as a communal party as they believe that it represents the interests of the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Importantly, AIUDF was formed in 2005 when the Supreme Court in the same year struck down the much controversial IMDT act or the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act. The IMDT act brought by Indira Gandhi’s government was seen by Assamese as a pro-Bangladeshi illegal immigrant.
The Atul Bora-led AGP — fighting for existence in the state as an ally of BJP — is now trying to recover its ground by attacking Congress for its decision to ally with the AIUDF. AGP is facing threats from new regional entrants like AJP and Raijor Dal — as they all share the same vote-bank, Assamese regionalism.
No doubt BJP would face some setbacks in Upper and North Assam dominated by the Assamese due to anti-CAA factor but Congress is unlikely to reap benefits due to its alliance with a communal party like AIUDF. Upper Assam and North Assam account for 43 and 16 seats respectively. Importantly, it was the Congress party that once used to label Ajmal’s party as a communal one. Now the irony is that the same Congress party is reiterating repeatedly that AIUDF isn’t a communal party! On the other hand, the ideological divide whether to ally with the Congress-AIUDF alliance has resulted in cracks between the two regional parties — Raijor Dal and AJP. Raijor Dal is open for alliance with the Grand Alliance to unite all the anti-BJP forces but the AJP has issues with AIUDF and also with Congress. Both the partners are also having friendly contests in 9 seats.
Amid all this, BJP with its style of regionalism is trying to negate the anti-CAA views in the elections. To highlight BJP’s regionalism card, both Sarbananda Sonowal and finance minister Himanta Bishwa Sarma — party’s strongman in the north-east region — are attacking the Congress for its decision to ally with AIUDF and are also focussing on work done by the saffron government to allot land pattas to indigenous communities and grants given to develop the Vaishnavitesatras and namghars, including the birthplace of Shri Sankardeva, the 15th-16th century Bhakti saint of Assam.
On the other hand, in the Barak valley, which accounts for 15 assembly seats, BJP is expected to gain — as the Bengali Hindus of the valley are vocal supporters of CAA. Also, Congress’s alliance with the AIUDF is largely going to affect the party in the region as seen in the 2019 polls. The Barak valley is almost equally divided between Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims — and the region is now more polarised among religious lines due to the CAA factor. Significantly, the Congress-AIUDF alliance is expected to gain in Lower Assam — as the region is dominated by Bengali Muslims, a major vote-bank of both Congress and AIUDF. Lower Assam accounts for 47 seats.
Actually, in Assam, illegal immigration has always been a major factor. This was worsened by vote-bank politics practiced for decades by the Congress party, which dominated mostly the state since independence. Undeniably, there has been a lack of seriousness shown by the ruling parties, including Congress, AGP and also to some extent by BJP, over the last decades in the state to resolve the identity issues of various communities. That’s the reason the state keeps facing the same old identity issues every time — and this election is no different. (IPA Service)