In the 2021 Assam assembly election, the Congress’s Khalil Uddin Mazumder pipped the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Gautam Roy by 6,939 votes to win the Katigorah constituency in a contest that went down to the wire.

Katigorah is in Cachar, one of the three districts that make up the Barak valley in the southern tip of the state. It is also one of several districts whose boundaries were changed by the Himanta Biswa Sarma government last month. The contentious decision, ahead of a delimitation exercise, has led to fears that it might tilt electoral contests in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s favour in areas where Bengali Muslims are in the majority.

The Cachar region, bordering Bangladesh, still bears deep imprints of the Partition, which means politics here largely revolves around a Hindu-Muslim binary. Numerically, both communities are almost neck-and-neck.

It is here that the BJP first tasted electoral success in Assam, with the constituency of Katigorah being the crown jewel of sorts for the party. It won the seat three times in a row starting in 1991 – the only place in the state where the BJP enjoyed such enduring success in that period. At the time, the party had only a marginal political presence in the state.

After two successive defeats in 2006 and 2011 to the Bengali-origin Muslim-centric All India United Democratic Front, the party wrested the seat back in 2016 – the year it stormed to power in Assam.

However, it lost the seat again in 2021.

An expansion problem

According to observers, the loss was the result of a consolidation of Muslim votes – the All India United Democratic Front and the Congress had fought the election together.

Although the political dynamic in the Bengali-majority Barak valley differs substantially from the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra valley – the two main regions that make up the state of Assam, in addition to a small track of hills in the middle – the results of Muslim-majory Katigorah reflected a largely state-wide pattern. The BJP and its allies swept to a victory banking on Hindu votes while the Congress-AIUDF combine finished a distant second, its tally buoyed almost entirely by a unification of Muslim votes in its favour.

Even as the BJP consolidates its position in Assam, a significant Bengali-origin Muslim population has meant that its presence has had certain geographical limitations. In areas such as parts of Barak valley and western Assam where the community holds sway, the party has struggled to expand its footprint.

It is to break the stronghold of the community in around three dozen such seats that many allege the BJP has so enthusiastically batted for a delimitation exercise in the state.

Delimitation as a solution?

In 2020, Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was then the state’s finance minister, had said that the delimitation will ensure that “at least 110 seats are meant for the indigenous people of the state.” The Assam legislative assembly has 126 seats.

Ever since, he has only upped the ante in favour of delimitation, insisting that it would protect the political rights of the state’s “indigenous” communities.

In the last week of December, the Election Commission, at the request of the Union law ministry, announced that it had started the redrawing of assembly and parliamentary constituencies in the state.

Days later and hours before an Election Commission ban on creating new administrative units ahead of the delimitation exercise came into effect, chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma announced the merger of four districts with the ones they had been carved out of. Simultaneously, Sarma also altered the maps of 11 other districts, changing the administrative jurisdiction of as many as 122 villages in the process.

For many critics, the dramatic redrawing of the state’s administrative map ahead of the delimitation only confirmed their suspicions: that it was all being done to politically marginalise Muslims of Bengali origin.

Manoj Kumar Goswami, who edits the Assamese daily Amar Asom, said the rationale behind the move was to ensure that Muslim votes got distributed and Hindu votes consolidated.

“They [BJP] have done it for their own political benefits,” said Goswami. “They have already said that 100 seats will be controlled by them. So, they are just executing their planning accordingly.”

The number game

A look at Cachar, one of the 11 districts whose boundaries were changed, suggests there may indeed be some truth to these apprehensions.

For instance, this alteration is likely to have a strong bearing on the constituency of Katigorah, local residents say.

The Hindu-majority town of Badarpur, which was part of Karimganj district till last year, will now be in Cachar – and likely form a part of the Katigorah seat. Locals suspect this has been done to enable the inclusion of Badarpur in the Muslim-majority constituency of Katigorah since the Election Commission’s rules discourage assembly constituencies to be spread over multiple districts. The Delimitation Act, 2002, says, “All constituencies shall, as far as practicable, be geographically compact areas, and in delimiting them regard shall be had to physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communication and public convenience.”

“This has been done because of election purposes so that BJP can win Katigorah without many difficulties,” said Zahid Ahmed, a journalist from the area. “All the elected members of Badarpur municipal board are Hindu and there are about 15,000 Hindu voters in Badarpur Municipal Board area but they don’t play a decisive role in Badarpur assembly seat. However, the transfer of these voters to Katigorah will ensure BJP’s win.”

Correspondingly, 12 Muslim-majority villages, which were part of Cachar and under the Katigorah constituency, have been now shifted to Karimganj district, said local residents.

However, two Hindu-dominated villages, purportedly sandwiched between these Muslim villages, were left alone, alleged locals.

“It has been done so that the Katigorah assembly seat can be won by a non-Muslim,” alleged Sahidul Islam Laskar, who identified himself as a farmer from one of the 12 villages.

In Hojai, members of All Assam Minorities Students' Union protest the merger of Hojai district with Nagaon. Photo: Special Arrangement

Striking a ‘balance’

While chief minister Sarma denied the realignment of district boundaries was connected to delimitation, he conceded in a press conference in Guwahati recently that it could have a bearing on the process.

Other leaders of the BJP have spoken openly of there being a connection. The party’s national general secretary and Mangaldoi parliamentarian Dilip Saikia told that the merger of districts was a “temporary” arrangement for “balancing” the Hindu-Muslim population so that some seats which were now held by the Muslim leaders could be won by people from “indigenous” communities.

“It has been done for safeguarding the indigenous population,” said Saikia. “One particular community has abnormal population growth and now political power will go into their hands. We can’t let it happen, so we have to balance it.”

However, opposition leaders say this is empty rhetoric. They point to the example of four Muslim villages in Darrang district with a combined population of around 7,000 people, which have been transferred to the neighbouring Udalguri district. These hamlets used to vote in the Kalaigaon constituency which the Bodo People’s Front’s Durga Das Boro won in 2021, defeating the BJP candidate by a slender margin of 7,102 votes.

The Muslims of these four villages, according to local political observers, were strong supporters of Boro. “These anti-BJP voters are now taken to Udalguri so that BJP can win from Kalaigaon,” alleged Ainuddin Ahmed, a local resident and leader of the All Assam Minority Students’ Union.

Boro also saw a similar design. “I don’t know how the transferring of the religious minority people from one administration unit to another will save the jati [indigenous communities],” he said. “It has been said indirectly that this is an attempt to shrink the Muslim-dominated seats.”

Hindu or indigenous interests

Detractors of the BJP say the communal intentions of the exercise are all too evident. Academic and noted public intellectual from the state Hiren Gohain said delimitation would “most surely ensure reduction in the number of minority constituencies”. “It is similar to what happened in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Gohain.

Gohain also expressed doubts about the BJP’s claims of the exercise safeguarding “indigenous” interests.

“It is designed to weaken indigenous representation in legislatures, and ram through measures certain to endanger their rights and inheritance,” Gohain said.

Proponents of Assamese nationalism view “illegal migrants”, irrespective of religion, as a threat to local culture and resources, unlike the BJP which believes only Muslim migrants are a risk to indigenous interests.

Former Assam police chief Harekrishna Deka also wondered how “increasing Hindu votes in constituencies” would protect indigenous interests. “If increasing Hindu votes benefits any party, it is only the BJP,” he said.

What has also added to these concerns are allegations that the district realignment has led to several non-tribal villages being made part of the Bodoland Territorial Region, a contiguous area of four districts in western Assam, where the state’s largest indigenous community, the Bodos, enjoy special
privileges under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

Protests have broken out in the area over the reported transfer of 21 non-Bodo villages from Darrang and Nalbari to the Bodoland Territorial Region districts of Udalguri and Baksa. “The boundary of the BTR can’t be altered by the state government as it is governed by the Sixth Schedule,” said MLA Durga Das Boro.

Opposition parties protest the merger of Biswanath district with Sonitpur. Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Protests in the erstwhile districts

There have also been protests by residents of the four districts which have been dissolved: Hojai, Biswanath, Tamulpur and Bajali.

The Assamese nationalist outfit All Assam Students’ Union has led the stir in Biswanath, a crucial junction between the north bank of the Brahmaputra and Arunachal Pradesh. “We have no objection to the delimitation exercise but we will not allow the sudden abolishing of the district which we got after 30 years of struggle,” said its Biswanath unit president Bikram Bikash Bora.

Uddipana Goswami, a resident of Sonitpur, the district into which Biswanath was merged, said the latter’s district status had helped local residents get access to better administrative facilities. It had also, Goswami said, led to local businesses flourishing. “This is one of the first such demotions from district to subdivision,” Goswami pointed out. “It not only discards the long struggle of the local public to achieve district status, but it also is a waste of the infrastructure that the government has invested in over the last few years to make it a fully-functioning administrative hub.”

Yet, Sarma’s popularity has meant the protests have largely been sporadic. In Bajali, for instance, they were rather short-lived. “He [Sarma] has said it is a temporary decision and the need of the hour for protecting the jati,” said Bijay Bayan, a local leader of Assamese nativist outfit Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad. “So, we will now wait and watch.”