By Ashis Biswas
With most major parties adopting an ethnicity-based approach in their pre-poll campaigning, voting in the coming Assembly elections in Meghalaya could be sharply polarised, according to observers. Intriguingly, such a trend may be less noticeable in Tripura.
The involvement of Assam-based political heavyweight leaders with elections in neighbouring Meghalaya, which used to be a part of the larger Assam state in the past, is a significant factor in the 2023 polls. Assam Chief Minister Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma heads the Bharatiya Janata Party’s(BJP)’s overall campaign in the Northeast. Mr Sarma’s style of governance in Assam so far and his approach towards the religious minorities according to observers, tend to accentuate rather than reduce, ethno-centric politics : one has only to ask the average Muslim voter in Assam, to know their feeling about security in the state.
However, Mr Sarma’s aggressive campaign style has made an impact . It has forced parties challenging the BJP to readjust their objectives and adopt counter measures. The Bengal-based Trinamool Congress (TMC) for instance, finds itself automatically lining up behind Christian voters in Meghalaya, sworn as it is to oppose the BJP at every turn. For some time, this party from ‘outside’ has been trying to establish (none too successfully) a foothold somewhere in the Northeast. In a region where the Christian church remains an important political entity, backing it strongly helps the TMC to blend more easily with the familiar components and cross currents of the NE political scene, as it were.
In the present scenario where the BJP has stuck to its policy of not concealing its commitment to traditional Hindu values (its opponents call this Hindutva), wooing the majority community among voters, the TMC has emerged as the new champion of tribal/Christian interests in Meghalaya. Its state leaders strongly condemned recent attacks and acts of vandalism targeting the Church in BJP-ruled states at a news conference. The BJP was only keen to divide common people and rule, but the NE region was free from such tendencies, they said.
The TMC would fight the BJP’s ‘divisive’ ways all the way and not just as mute spectators either, they told media persons some days ago.
So far, TMC has announced the list of fifty two candidates out of the 60 seats in the assembly and the party is far ahead of other contending parties in the campaign. The ruling NPP-BJP alliance is having tensions over BJP’s policy regarding Uniform Civil Code. Chief Minister Conrad Sangma has announced that his NPP is opposed to UCC and his party will fight it even among the voters in the campaign. There is no joint rally of NPP and BJP.
But Meghalaya elections are not just about mobilising political support among Hindus (non tribals) or Christians (tribals). There are also forces, not perhaps as apparently assertive as the BJP or the debutant TMC, to speak up for Meghalaya-based non tribals (Bengalis, Sikhs, Biharis), too. The initiative came from Mr Debabrata Saikia of Congress, the leader of opposition in the Assam Assembly.
In a recent letter to Meghalaya Governor Mr B.D. Mishra, Mr Saikia strongly deplored an attack in broad daylight by an aggressive tribal outfit in Meghalaya against a peaceful procession of non tribals. Some of the marchers were beaten up, even the women not being spared, in full public view as the local police did not move a muscle to help. The incident was duly reported in Shillong-based dailies.
Mr Saikia appealed to the Meghalaya administration to ensure peace and social harmony and prevent the recurrence of such incidents. He also called for the punishment of miscreants involved in the incident. The non tribals living /working in Meghalaya were , he pointed out, Indian citizens enjoying the same rights as anyone else.
There has been no official response from the Meghalaya government or the Governor’s office on the matter.
However, the fact remains that in Meghalaya, the considerably large mixed non tribal groups, too, have been complaining of harassment and discrimination, but they feel that their grievances over the years have not been effectively addressed. Long time Sikh residents have complained of harassment from authorities and tribal groups over the location of their settlement and other issues. Bihari labourers have complained of exploitation, harsh working conditions and treatment from their employers in local mines and other places of work. Old Bengali citizens have been denounced by tribal organisations as ‘illegal Bangladeshis’.
Most non-tribals also strongly complain of official discrimination from authorities in securing jobs and in the matter of receiving routine help from the police.
With Mr Saikia boldly speaking up for the non- tribals in Meghalaya, most ethnic groups , have been assured of some form of political backing ,at least in theory. Congress had won the highest number of seats in 2018 Assembly polls in Meghalaya, with non-tribals providing it with major support, before the much smaller BJP upset its calculations by aligning with other parties to cobble together a coalition of sorts.
As for Muslims, the religious minority that finds itself at the receiving end of some controversial administrative decisions in Assam ruled by Mr Sarma — they have been automatically aligned within the broad non tribal group of voters. Normally the TMC arrogates to itself its self-appointed responsibility to speak up for the community all over India, offering it blanket support.
However, it is yet to do so in Meghalaya. Surprisingly, this has been the case in neighbouring Assam too, where the TMC in effect threatens to divide the Muslim vote by opposing the AIUDF as well as Congress.
As for Tripura, a different situation prevails. The rising Tipra Motha tribal organisation , totally unlike other ethnic communities/groups in the NE region, has as a matter of policy projected itself as a party that would represent the interests of all communities in the state. Its leader Mr Pradyot Manikya Debbarman has also not pressed for additional territories from neighbouring NE states while calling for a larger Tripura state. (IPA Service)