In the tea town of Chabua in Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh, the scars of the 2019 violence are still visible. In the heart of the town, a vandalised post office has anti-CAA graffiti scribbled all over it. Less than a kilometre away, in what used to be the circle office, official documents and shards are strewn all across the abandoned building.
The town was one of the epicentres of a wave of violence that struck Assam in December 2019, as Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA — an emotive issue in the state that shares its borders with Bangladesh and where the sensitive issue of identity politics dominates the debate.
Chabua saw pitched battles between security forces and local activists, who believe CAA would lead to a change in the socio-cultural fabric of Assam by allowing an influx of Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh. CAA fast-tracks citizenship of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis who have arrived in India from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh before 2015.
THRILLER IN THE MAKING
The town, which has already voted in the first of the three phases of the Assam elections, seems to have come a long way since those violent days. A host of new issues, such as price rise, floods and development, have taken the centre stage in Chabua, where locals expect a close electoral contest.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition has allotted Chabua to the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), one of its allies. Sitting BJP legislator Binod Hazarika, whose house was attacked during the violence, has shifted to the neighbouring Lahowal seat.
“It is going to be difficult for the BJP alliance to retain this seat. A lot of voters may not be willing to vote for the elephant (election symbol of the AGP),” says a local activist of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), requesting anonymity. The AASU is opposing the ruling side and has spearheaded anti-CAA protests in the area. “The BJP has given out doles to shut the people,” another activist says.
At the lush Chubwa Tea Estate in the town, where the British first successfully planted tea in 1836, local workers say the issue of the citizenship law is no longer relevant. Congress leader and Wayanad parliamentarian Rahul Gandhi visited the tea estate on March 19 and had lunch with workers there.
“There is no mention of CAA anymore,” says Sarai Kumar, a workers’ union leader. “We have seen all governments. The Congress in the past and the BJP now. It is the BJP whose work is visible,” he says.
Anti-CAA stance is a major pillar of the campaign being run by the opposition Congress-led alliance as well as the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP)-Raijor Dal (RD) combine (the two parties were born out of the anti-CAA protests). However, the new law is missing from the BJP’s manifesto, and largely absent from its campaign in the Brahmaputra Valley.
Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley, spanning from Tinsukia in Upper Assam to Dhubri on the Bangladesh border in lower Assam, account for 106 of the state’s 126 assembly constituencies. There are 15 assembly constituencies in the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley in southern Assam, and five in the hill districts of Karbi Anglong, West Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Brahmaputra Valley’s 47 constituencies went to polls in the first phase on March 27.
In 2016, when a BJP-led alliance (also featuring the AGP and the Bodoland People’s Front, or BPF), stormed to power for the first time in the state, it won eight seats in Barak Valley and all five in the hills. Of the 47 seats that went to polls in the first phase, the BJP’s alliance won 35. To retain power, the party will need to repeat this performance.
BJP’s GAME PLAN
“Our aim is developed Assam, secure Assam,” senior leader and BJP minister Himanta Biswa said on March 24, concluding his road show in Naharkatia town ahead of the first phase of polling on March 27.
Naharkatia, 40 kilometres from Chabua, is another key constituency in Upper Assam where BJP candidate Taranga Gogoi is pitted against Lurinjyoti Gogoi, the former general secretary of the AASU and the chief of the newly formed AJP.
As the BJP looks to retain power for a second straight term, it has adopted a multi-pronged strategy of highlighting its development work and schemes, while attacking the Congress for aligning with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)’s Badruddin Ajmal, who the ruling alliance says is as an enemy of the Assamese identity.
“Those who sit with Ajmal, can they stop infiltration?” Union home minister Amit Shah asked in one of his election rallies in Nagaon district in February. “It’s only for the lust for power that it (the Congress) has joined hands with Ajmal,” Shah said.
In Assam, the AIUDF is perceived to be a party having the support of Bengali-speaking Muslims, whose ancstors came from Bangladesh. Many contend they pose a threat to the state’s cultural identity.
“We are focusing on development and threat perception. The culture and civilisation of Assam are under threat from people such as Badruddin Ajmal,” says Dilip Saikia, the BJP’s national general secretary and an MP from Assam’s Mangaldai.
The Congress rubbishes these allegations. “When they (the BJP) took the support of the AIUDF in local polls in Nagaon and Darrang, and the Rajya Sabha elections in the past, then there was no problem. Now, the AIUDF is opposing the BJP. So they have become a threat to the state. Those who are with the BJP are as pure as Ganga jal, and those who are not, like farmers in Punjab and Haryana, they become Khalistanis and terrorists,” says Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, who is the Congress party’s observer for Assam, referring to the farm protests against three central laws.
The BJP wrested power from the Congress in 2016, when it said it was committed to protecting jati, maati and bheti (identity, land and hearth). Sarbananda Sonowal, a former AASU president locally hailed as “jatiya nayak (community’s hero) became the chief minister.
CHALLENGES AND RESPONSES
Over three years later, the citizenship law put the BJP at odds with local sub-nationalist politics, which it partially co-opted to oust the Congress. But the BJP is confident that its outreach efforts will yield results.
“The people who were opposing CAA realised there was a false campaign that crores of Bangladeshis will come to Assam with their bag and baggage,” Saikia says, sounding confident of the party’s efforts. “Most of the regional forces were opposing it (CAA). Even our alliance partner, the AGP, opposed it. But we braved all of it courageously.”
Saikia adds that many leaders who opposed the new law have joined the BJP. “It (CAA) is a national commitment. It is related to national security.”
And it was not just CAA. The BJP found itself in a difficult spot on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise conducted to identify undocumented migrants. While the BJP supported the exercise, the outcome — the final list in August 2019 excluded 1.9 million people, including a sizeable number of Bengali Hindus — put it in a dilemma of sorts.
The local BJP leadership joined the chorus for rectification, claiming a large number of “intruders” have managed to escape the list because of faulty processes. The promise to bring in an accurate NRC is among the party’s manifesto promises.
In order to shore up its image as the protector of the Assamese interests, the BJP’s manifesto also promises a task force to recover encroached lands of Sattras, or vaishnavite monasteries; and laws against “land jihad” and “love jihad”, a term used for forceful conversions by way of marriages. Among other promises, the manifesto says Assam’s political rights will be protected through delimitation.
But long before the manifesto, the BJP had focused on strengthening its outreach to different sections through more sops and more schemes, while trying to negate possible adverse impacts of identity politics.
Saikia explains how the party has reached out to 19 million beneficiaries of the central and state schemes. It has distributed land pattas to indigenous residents, which was a long-pending demand.
“We have contacted the beneficiaries, connected with them through social media and other programmes,” Saikia says of the outreach that began even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in March 2020.
While that helped the party to some extent, a senior BJP leader, who refuses to be named, points to some “issues on the ground”, especially on seats where the AGP is contesting. “We have to put in a lot of effort. There are issues on most of the AGP seats except one or two where they are comfortable,” this leader adds.
While the BJP is fighting 92 seats, the AGP contesting 26 constituencies; it is in a friendly contest with the BJP in five others, including Naharkatia.
The AGP, a party of AASU activists born out of the Assam Agitation of the 1980s, found itself in a tight spot with its partner pushing for CAA. It withdrew support on the issue, only to re-join the alliance later
“We did not want to divide the votes further (which would have helped the Congress alliance),” a second senior BJP leader says, explaining why the party still chose to align with the AGP.
Another challenge for the party could come in the four districts of Bodoland, where it abandoned its old ally, the BPF, and joined hands with the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), which is led by Promode Boro, a former Bodo student leader who played a key role in the new Bodo pact signed in 2020. The UPPL is contesting eight seats.
The BPF, which emerged as the single largest party in last year’s Bodoland Territorial Council polls but lost out to the BJP-UPPL alliance, has since joined hands with the Congress. It is contesting all 12 seats that it won in the 2016 assembly polls.
Nonetheless, the senior BJP leader quoted above says the party is comfortably placed. “We came first in 69 assembly segments in the 2019 national elections, even though we contested just 10 Lok Sabha seats (it won nine of them),” he adds. Assam has 14 Lok Sabha seats.
Saikia, too, appears confident. “We will come back to power with a good majority,” he says.
Disclaimer:Sadiq Naqvi is a freelance journalist based in Guwahati