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General Election 2019

Demography is Destiny

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In Assam, reports Siddharth Singh, it’s a contest between river and religion

AT THE EDGE of Dhubri town lies what many would call ‘civil lines’. A neat row of colonial residences overlooks the huge expanse of the Brahmaputra river. A sliver of parkland hemmed between the river and the rows of houses allows one a fine view of boats plying men and material. Starting at the crack of dawn, boats from as far away as the Mankachar area—a thin stretch of territory sandwiched between Bangladesh to the west and Meghalaya to the east—end up in Dhubri. Milk, fresh vegetables and other produce grown on fertile chars—riverine islands—are quickly snapped up in the local market.

This is as close as one can get to an interstitial zone in India. In the course of the river, it is hard for untrained eyes to figure out where India ends and Bangladesh begins. There are chars that belong in parts to both countries. This is a sensitive topic in Assam. With a large number of such islands in the area, the perennial fear is the presence of a large number of illegal voters. Chars are not unique to Dhubri district but a feature of the entire course of the Brahmaputra. A majority of those living in these islands are Muslims. Fairly or unfairly, the suspicion that chars are a habitat of illegal migrants has for long been an article of faith in this part of the country. It has also, silently, polarised society and politics, much before the advent of that variety of politics in the Indian heartland.

“We voted for the Congress in the Assembly but now we will vote for maulana [Badruddin Ajmal, the sitting Member of Parliament],” says Joyan Ali, who plies a boat from Katlamari char near South Salmara—toward the southern bank of the Brahmaputra. When pressed for a reason, Ali says, “Ajmal is the right person to handle the community’s issues in Delhi and he is also a respected leader.”

Beyond a point, Ali is reluctant to speak more on the issue. “I have to return to South Salmara.” But one of his fellow travellers, a person from the neighbouring char, is candid. “Wazed Ali Choudhury, the Congress MLA from South Salmara, is a good man and he helps us. But the [Congress party] did not give a ticket to a Bhati. We have decided to vote for Ajmal.” The Bhatis and Ujanis are the two main Muslim communities in this region. Like anywhere else in India, the distribution of party tickets is based on considerations of ‘numbers’ behind a candidate, something that is key to the chance of winning.

It was received wisdom until recently that Muslims vote en masse for the candidate the community decides is favourable to its interests. That, at least, seemed to be the logic behind Ajmal’s string of victories for the last decade. That seems to be changing now. From ticket distribution to actual voting, the constituency is now witnessing a keen contest, one that has opened up space for alternative political options. Instead of a single bloc, the two main Muslim communities, the ‘forward’ Bhatis and Ujanis, the ‘indigenous’ Muslims, now want a share of the political pie that for a long time was largely in the hands of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). There are intricate calculations behind these changing equations, ones that are hard to fathom fully. In the constituency there are an estimated 800,000 Ujani voters and around 400,000 Bhatis. Generally, Ujanis are considered to be in favour of the Congress party. At the ground level, this is abundantly clear from the performance of the party. In elections to local bodies, just three months ago, the party bagged 19 out of the 23 panchayat constituencies.

That, however, is just one calculation. There have been constant rumours of a tacit understanding between the party and AIUDF. The list of candidates sent by the state unit of the Congress featured the names of Abdur Rezzak from Dhubri and Abdur Rouf from Barpeta. Rezzak and Rouf were considered weak candidates, something that not only fuelled speculation about the ‘secret alliance’ between the two parties but also caused a lot of heartburn in the district-level units. Ultimately, Congress President Rahul Gandhi had to weigh in. The final list that was released at the end of March included Abu Taher Bepari from Dhubri and Abdul Khaleque from Barpeta, both thought to be ‘strong’ candidates.

Bepari is from the Ujani community as is the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) candidate, Zaved Islam, who is contesting in an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Islam, who hails from a political family in Mankachar, is considered an outlier in what is essentially seen as a contest between the AIUDF and the Congress. MLAs of the Congress in Dhubri area were instrumental in trying to persuade the state leadership to put forward a strong candidate. Local observers believe that had Bepari not been given the candidature, it would not have been surprising to see the party’s MLAs silently back their AGP-BJP rival. Ironically, Bepari, a strong Congress contender may have just made life tougher for Islam.

So what does the AGP-BJP candidate rest his hope on, for Dhubri has never seen an AGP, let alone BJP candidate win? For one, some crafty numbers. In 2014, some 298,000 voters voted for the BJP candidate here. Since then, these numbers are estimated to have gone up by 9-10 per cent. Then there are some 50,000-odd voters in the belt along the district’s border with Kokrajhar. These voters are widely believed to be under the influence of the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), an alliance partner of the BJP in Assam. Together, these numbers add up to around 350,000 votes.

There are other factors at play too. In the last two years, ever since the process of completing the National Register of Citizens (NRC) gathered steam, Muslims in lower Assam have been discontented with Ajmal. One local told Open that “He [Ajmal] never came and helped us. The only time he shows up is during elections.” Then, there is the issue of Islam hailing from Mankachar, a remote and isolated area by the southern bank of Brahmaputra in the constituency. There is a degree of sympathy for him in his own area that accounts for roughly 210,000 votes.

IN THE END, however, it is hard to deny the brute strength that AIUDF enjoys in Dhubri. It has a strong organisational base. The demographics, too, favour the party. If one looks at the char areas from the eastern edges of the constituency in Goalpara all the way to the point where the Brahmaputra enters Bangladesh, the number of voters in these areas is in excess of 300,000. These voters are largely illiterate, conservative and under the deep sway of the AIUDF. For all the noise against Ajmal, they represent a deep reservoir of support for him.

“He [Ajmal] has religious sentiment of the people with him. He has created that. He has won twice on the basis of promising a lot of things to the people of this constituency. But things are changing. Earlier, one could not even hope to say anything against him in villages. Now people are listening to us,” Islam, the AGP-BJP candidate, told Open in Dhubri.

These are optimistic words from a candidate who knows the deck is stacked against him. The real question is how will he convince voters in char areas? Not only are they traditional Ajmal supporters but even door-to-door campaigning is tough here.

We are going from house to house and asking people what have they gained under Ajmal and his ideas? We ask them, just look at your life and tell us what do you foresee for your children?,” says Zaved Islam, AGP-BJP candidate

“It is true that people in this area are educationally and economically deprived and hence it is easy to mislead them. We are going from house to house and asking these people what have they gained under Ajmal and his ideas? We ask them, just look at your life and tell us what do you foresee for your children? You will be surprised to know that people respond positively to us. The grip of religious sentiment was so strong that this was unthinkable some years ago,” says Islam, a former Ranji player.

Locally, BJP leaders are upbeat even if they realise the magnitude of the task they have at hand. “What we need in Dhubri is vikas,” says Abu Sayed Ahmed, who contested in local body elections on a BJP ticket but lost even after a vigorous campaign. “We are trying a positive campaign here. People need to be told about the evils of child marriage and voting blindly for people who try and exploit religious sentiments. It is a fight but we are up to it,” he adds.

If vikas is a classic BJP message, so is the one about national strength and security after the Balakot retaliation. Even if one discounts the idea considerably, vikas has far greater resonance in Dhubri than Balakot ever will. But in reality these messages are drowned in the brute demographics of the area.

Something similar is at work in the adjoining Barpeta Lok Sabha constituency. The same combination of riverine islands and Muslim voters is to be found, even if in an attenuated form, in this area. To the east and south of the constituency lie Jania, Baghbor and Chenga Assembly constituencies. In all these areas, voting takes place solidly along demographic lines. On the ‘land side’ are Assamese and Bengalis and some other Hindu denominations. “It is not as if real issues don’t exist. Erosion along the banks of Brahmaputra is eating land away. There are almost nil employment opportunities in this area,” says Razzak Ahmed, a local observer.

Unlike Dhubri, where demographics are greatly lopsided, Barpeta is less so. Here, there is a keen contest between the AGP- BJP alliance candidate Kumar Deepak Das, the Congress contestant Abdul Khaleque and the AIUDF nominee Rafiqul Islam. Because of the late announcement of candidates, campaigning in the constituency was low key in the last week of March and early April. The Congress candidate had by then paid visits to ‘minority areas’ of Chenga, Baghbor and Sarukhetri. It is, of course, a misnomer to dub these areas as ‘minority’-dominated. Barpeta as a whole has a majority of Muslims.

So what is the contest here all about? One local observer who did not wish to be named says the themes of the “mainland” had “invaded” Barpeta as well. The Congress says just defeat the BJP, and the latter says the Congress will destroy the country. In the bargain, the real issues that affect the constituency have been lost. Voting takes place along bloc lines.

Are there any Muslims who tend to vote for the AGP-BJP and Hindus who vote for the AIUDF? “All is not so stark. But a lot depends on the leader in question. This happens around Barpeta Assembly constituency. Gunindra Nath Das, our local MLA from AGP, is popular and is considered to be honest by everyone. There is voting in his favour across party and religious lines,” he adds.

The result is that a three-cornered contest where both the Congress and the AGP-BJP candidate have something to offer is at hand. Experts concur with this.

“One must remember that even in 2014, the Congress had managed to keep its vote share intact when there was a Modi wave. So the party is not a write-off in any way,” says Udayon Misra, an astute observer of Assam politics and a former professor at Dibrugarh University told Open in Guwahati.

Misra says it was a bit early to say anything about the prospects of parties in lower Assam as the polling is still some time away. “One can say that in Barpeta the chances are that there will be bloc voting towards the Congress or the AIUDF. From that perspective, the AGP-BJP candidate, too, will keep a hold on his vote base,” adds Misra. He was pessimistic about the chances of AGP-BJP in Dhubri and says the coalition was making its “presence felt” but is not considered a serious contender. The contest is between the Congress and the AIUDF.

If lower Assam presents a relative certainty about which way its electoral politics is headed, upper Assam presented a very different picture until very recently. Much of the turmoil in this part of the state had to do with the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which was passed in the Lok Sabha early this January.

No sooner did it take place than Assam entered a state of turmoil. AGP, the BJP’s long-standing partner, withdrew from the alliance government. Activists of all stripes began arguing for a ‘renewed Assam agitation’, taking the state one step closer to the agitations of the kind last seen in the 1980s. Then on the last day of the current Parliament when the Rajya Sabha did not take up the Bill as it had been passed in the Lok Sabha, it signalled an effective end to the pursuit of the law in the near future. Had it been passed, the law would have opened a door to Indian citizenship for illegal migrants of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian and Parsi origin from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Assam, this is a contentious issue as a large number of Bengali Hindu migrants from Bangladesh are considered ‘outsiders’ and illegal residents.

The failure of the Rajya Sabha to pass the Bill effectively ended these protests that had at one time threatened the BJP’s chances in the Lok Sabha elections. Some activists, however, differ. One prominent activist who was closely involved in the protests and was booked for sedition by the Assam government told Open: “The effect continues. The BJP brass has made it clear that if the party wins then the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) will be brought back. That has ensured that the controversy will not die down.”

This is an opinion that many are not willing to purchase in Guwahati. Many observers feel the AGP had no choice except to go back to the BJP. The only holdout is former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta who walked away from any kind of election-related political activity in a huff.

“People have profound confusion about the CAB in upper Assam. At the same time, the BJP is very vocal about CAB to protect Assamese interests… its effect has now diminished to a very considerable degree,” says Nani Gopal Mahanta, a professor of political science in Gauhati University and an authority on separatism in Assam.

“You must also remember that anti-CAB forces are discredited. Look at some of those who have built the case for the agitation against CAB: they are part of a ‘donation economy’ that hurts the local people,” he told Open.

The effect of the controversy is interesting. In Guwahati, for example, many believe that the Congress did not carry out the ticket allocation properly. As a result, the anti-CAB, anti-BJP vote is not coalescing toward the Congress but in favour of a powerful independent candidate. The result is that with its voter base intact, the BJP is in the midst of a powerful campaign in the state capital.

In contrast, in many seats in upper Assam where the BJP has a strong supporter base in the tea garden tribes, as for example in Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Tezpur, the CAB effect is likely to be offset by this group, Mahanta says. Tea-garden voters account for roughly 7-8 million votes.

Then there are other factors that are seldom noticed in what is a bitterly contested election, says Mahanta. “To give you one example, the Direct Benefits Transfer [DBT] is having a huge impact on women voters, something that is rarely talked about,” he says.

The net result is a complex mix of local-level contests that are keenly fought between rival parties and candidates. This is over-determined by dynamics that impart a very different hue to politics in lower and upper Assam. It is at this level that a degree of determinism enters the equation: in areas in the lower banks of the Brahmaputra, demography was always destiny. Even a cursory look at the winners in Dhubri and Barpeta shows this clearly. It is upper Assam—long held to be the major driver of politics—that is catching up with the trend. Now it is demonstrating its own variant of demography is destiny, and in a very sharp contrast to lower Assam.

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