Assembly Elections 2016

Assam Assembly Election 2016: Priestly Tales by the Brahmaputra

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An imam and a primus and how faith and identity can swing the Assam vote

SOME 40 KM from Guwahati, across the Brahmaputra, lies the small town of Hajo. It is a bit of a misnomer to call Hajo a town as it is more of a populated strip than an urban centre. Here, the split between the Hindu and Muslim populations is close to that of Assam as a whole. With 56 per cent Hindus and 44 per cent Muslims, there is a kind of tenuous equilibrium, at least in numerical terms. And Hajo votes accordingly. From 1951 until 2011, the constituency has sent members of both communities to the Assam Assembly in a pattern that defies a clear trend.

Hajo has a distinction: it is home to one of the holiest sites of Islam in Eastern India, the Poa Macca Masjid. An apocryphal story has it that it was originally constructed with soil brought from Mecca. Whatever the truth of that claim, its preacher has always had a degree of influence over the faith’s followers, not only in this constituency but in Kamrup district—where Guwahati is located—as well.

So what does he think of politics and politicians?

His response matters because Assam is one state where caste, religion and ethnicity blend in a bewilderingly complex manner. And in Hajo, identity distinctions are sharp.

A preacher with considerable political influence, Imam Musa Ali says, “I am a man of religion and I have nothing to say about political matters. It is the will of god that decides who gets what. What can I say?” Over tea, he dwells on the history of the mosque, the leaders and persons who have contributed to its care and upkeep. “I will always be grateful to Anwara Taimur for what she has done for the mosque.” Taimur, who was the only Muslim (and woman) Chief Minister that Assam has known, lasted at the helm for six months in 1980-81. In that short period, she helped in building a road to the mosque. She quit the Congress party in a huff in 2011. Today she is with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a party that pursues the cause of Muslims in Assam.

Would he ask his followers to vote for her in case she contested from Hajo? “Many leaders come here, pray and seek my blessings. But I always tell them that it is for the Supreme Being to help you,” Ali adds without yielding anything.

Surely, there must be a human, material, side to his life that is not devoted to religious pursuits? The answer is visible from the place where Ali lives, the Fakir Tola locality of Hajo. His is one of the few pucca houses in an area that is otherwise poor.

“I passed my matric examination in 1960. I did not get any government job and have survived on God’s grace. My son, who has passed higher secondary (class XII), too, does not have a job. We are too poor to send him to college.”

Isn’t that sufficient reason to choose carefully the candidate and the party he votes for? There are many awkward moments of silence. Finally, Ali answers, slowly and carefully:

“What matters is the security of Muslims here. People here [in Hajo] vote for the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. But I have always voted for the Congress. If a party says that there will be a beef ban and there is a chorus that says Muslims will be driven out of Assam, I don’t have to think much whom I am going to vote for.”

When asked if he will give the same answer to his followers, Ali offers a curious response in Arabic. It is a formulation straight out of the Qur’an that commands the faithful to do what is right and forbids what is wrong. And what is right and what is wrong in Assam today? “I just told you a bit earlier,” Ali adds nonchalantly.

Poa Macca was built at the command of Shuja—a son of Shahjahan— when he was the governor of Kamrup, as Assam was known then. An Archaeological Survey of India plaque in the mosque dates the construction to 1657 CE, one year before the bloody War of Succession that brought Aurangzeb to the throne of the Empire.

Coming down the picturesque and densely forested Garudachal Hill, atop which Poa Macca is located, one cannot help thinking that religion and politics remain intertwined in the life of Indians even now. At least in Hajo, the answer is clear.

THIS FORMULA OF religious authority and political power is neatly inverted in another, important, district of Assam: Barpeta

The religious composition here is highly skewed: 70 per cent of this district’s population is Muslim; almost all the dub-divisions are Muslim majority units. In terms of numbers, Barpeta probably has more followers of Islam than any other district in Assam except Dhubri further to its west. Of the 13 times that Barpeta has sent someone to the Lok Sabha, the representative has been a Muslim nine times. The current Member of Parliament, Sirajuddin Ajmal of AIUDF, is the brother of Badruddin Ajmal, the party’s chief.

Like Hajo, Barpeta, too, is home to one of the most important religious and cultural institutions of Assam. Established in 1583 CE, in what was India’s Medieval Age, the Barpeta Satra, is matched in influence only by the one on Majuli in Upper Assam. A satra is much more than a temple or a place of worship: any satra combines monastic discipline with religious learning. The outlook of these institutions borrows heavily from the Bhakti tradition, imparting them more of a cultural flavour than religious orthodoxy. Since 1583, a lamp that signifies the spirit of faith has burned continuously at Barpeta Satra. Only one priest, who has taken a vow of abstinence for life, is tasked with keeping the flame alive.

The primus of the Barpeta Satra is the frail 75-year-old Basishtha Dev Sarma. In contrast to the Imam of Poa Macca, Sarma is clear and precise in his political views and minces no words on being asked where his political loyalties lie and what he would like his followers to do: “There is a serious crisis in Assam. There is an influx of outsiders, especially from Bangladesh. Our culture and religion has been under threat for long. I fear the Assamese people will not be able to withstand this threat for long.”

“An Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) government was in power in Assam for two terms. They promised that they would drive away the Bangladeshis. But they did nothing. The Congress government has been in power for 15 years but it has encouraged Bangladeshis to come and settle here for [the party’s] political benefit. The BJP says that it will do something about the problem. I don’t know if this will happen. But there is a chance that it will do something. It should be allowed to form the government in Assam.”

There may be an element of the Satra’s own interests involved here: its authorities allege that around 1,000 bighas of its land in Barpeta has been grabbed by Bangladeshis. Ask any Hindu in Barpeta’s polarised environment—away from the Satra—and he will tell you that what the Satra says is right.

If there is a chorus that says Muslims will be driven out of Assam, I don’t have to think whom I am going to vote for

It is, however, another matter that this influence is only weakly correlated with political outcomes. The brute truth in Barpeta is that Muslims outnumber Hindus vastly and the voting pattern is strictly along religious lines: it is hard to explain the data otherwise. Elsewhere in Lower Assam, however, the Satra’s word and guidance in political matters does count for something.

Is religion the only dividing line in Assam’s fractured political landscape? There is another, equally divisive, identity at work, especially in Lower Assam: ethnicity.

In this part of Assam, National Highway 31 is the marker of a violent ethnic divide. As one moves from Barpeta to Guwahati, on the left hand side lies Baksa, one of the three new districts that were created in 2003 and 2004 under an agreement between Bodo militants, the Assam government and the Union government. The purpose of creating these districts was, in officialise, to ‘fulfil the aspirations of the Bodo people’.

Instead of fulfilling aspirations, these artificial lines ended up creating fear and mistrust that only rises each time there is an election or Bodos end up getting another slice of power from the governments in Guwahati and Delhi. Baksa district is a good example of this process. Carved out of Barpeta, Nalbari and Kamrup districts, it lies on the ‘Bodo side’ of NH 31 but has only 34 per cent Bodo population and 66 per cent Assamese people.

“We came here in 1959 when there was nothing but a dense forest here,” says Chandra Mohan Halloi, a school teacher in Subon Shiri village in Baksa, some 25 km off NH 31, not very far from the Bhutan border. Halloi says that he and his family originally hailed from Nalbari—on the other side of the highway—but their search for land brought them to this side of the district. “At that time, there were very few Bodo villages in this part of Nalbari.”

Our culture and religion has been under threat for long. I fear the Assamese people will not be able to withstand
this threat”

But such is the quest for ‘fulfilment of aspirations’ that geography has to submit to ethnicity in this part of Assam.

“Imagine my plight when last year I discovered that I could not pass my land and my house on to my daughter,” says Halloi. “I am nearing 60 and I wanted to will my property to my daughter. But I was told that under the rules of the Bodoland Territorial Area District (BTAD), no land can be diverted to a non-Bodo. Where will my children go?”

In 2014, there was extensive violence in the four districts ‘ceded’ to BTAD—Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri—between Bodos and non-Bodos, especially Muslims. These events led to a political earthquake of sorts. For the first time, Muslims, Assamese Hindus and other non-Bodo people banded together in the Parliamentary elections a few months later to elect a non-Bodo MP. Naba Kumar Saraniya, known better by his nom de guerre, Heera Saraniya, is a former militant of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). The violence in 2014 was, in part, due to Bodo ire against the defeat of ‘official’ candidate Chandan Brahma of the Bodoland People’s Front. The BPF is led by a former Bodo militant, Hagrama Mohilary, who is now chief executive of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), the autonomous body set up under the Bodo agreement of 2003.

“The answer to one militant has to be another militant,” says another villager in Subon Shiri. He does not want to be identified for the fear of violence by Bodos.

“First, in the 1990s, the Bodos got the Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC), then they got the BTC, and later they even got three new districts created. With each step their power has increased. Why must the Assamese pay the price for satisfying others?” asks Gunjan Bhuiya, an activist of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) in Baksa.

So what do these villagers think of the political situation in Assam?

“The BPF and Mohilary are cunning. [Mohilary] knows which party to side with. He has an uncanny political sense. For the last one decade, he was with the Congress. Now that he knows the Congress is losing, he has cast his lot with the BJP. We fear that if he wins this time, he will ask the BJP for a separate Bodoland. That will give Bodos a licence to wipe out the Assamese. We—along with Saraniya—plan to field 14 candidates in these four districts. Don’t forget that Assamese and others are 66 per cent [of the overall count] here and Bodos only 36 per cent,” Bhuiya adds in a tone reminiscent of an AASU activist of the 1970s.

In this small village surrounded on all sides by a dense forest, almost all villagers gathered at Chandra Mohan Halloi’s house concur. In these parts north of the Brahmaputra, the idea of a separate Bodoland state generates anger and fear in equal measure.

What does it take for a party to win (and conversely, lose power) in Assam? In one word: luck. The state’s extreme political heterogeneity—its ethnic and religious schisms map chaotically onto its political and territorial divisions—makes any effort to win elections a matter of tying up the right political equations at the right time. And this is to a great extent a matter of chance. If a party can win in Upper Assam without any coalition—by appealing to Assamese pride—it is bound to encounter setbacks in Lower Assam and in the Barak Valley. Conversely, it could effect neat victories in Lower Assam and other peripheral regions of the state by getting the right coalitions, but then its chances in Upper Assam will be dodgy. For 15 years, the Congress got the trick right. Now the BJP is trying its hand at that game. Both need loads of luck to win.