Every year, without exception, the Brahmaputra washes away villages that fall in the Chenga Assembly constituency in lower Assam’s Barpeta district.

“In 20 years, the river has advanced almost 5 km,” said Jiliam Uddin, the headman of Malipara village on the bank of the Brahmaputra. The villages here are built on chars – the sandbanks of the Brahmaputra or islands that dot the river – which are home to a large population of Bengali-origin Muslims.

Almost all the areas of a nearby village, Chenimari, have disappeared under water, Uddin said. The river now flows only 50 metres away from the Chenimara government school, threatening to drown it. “The Brahmaputra never stops advancing and no government tries to solve this problem,” rued Uddin.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha election, Uddin would have liked to bring his concerns about erosion to the notice of the candidates of various parties asking for his vote.

But not a single candidate standing for the Dhubri Lok Sabha seat had visited the area, as on April 30.

This was not the case in earlier Lok Sabha elections. What changed?

Uddin and residents of nearby villages blame the delimitation exercise. Despite being part of the Barpeta district, several villages in the Chenga Assembly segment have been added to the Dhubri Lok Sabha constituency.

Both Barpeta and Dhubri parliamentary constituencies in lower Assam go to the polls on May 7.

Uddin pointed out: “In the past, when we were part of the Barpeta Lok Sabha seat, candidates used to come and listen to our issues. They at least gave some assurances.”

Rajiv Ali, a 32-year-old construction worker of Chenglidia village near Malipara, said: “Chars are already far for candidates to reach, politicians barely care for us.” The distance between his village and the Dhubri district headquarters is 250 km. “That is 5-6 hours away. Who will come here?”

A communal exercise?

As Scroll had reported, the delimitation of constituencies carried out in 2023 in Assam has been a contentious one. Analysts have described it as “an attempt by the government to reduce the number of Muslim legislators” in the Assembly.

Muslims constitute approximately 35% of Assam’s population. Barpeta and other lower Assam districts like Dhubri are home to a large population of Bengali-origin Muslims, who are often vilified as “illegal immigrants” and pejoratively referred to as “Miya Muslims”. According to the 2011 Census, Dhubri had a Muslim population of 79.67%, and Barpeta 70.74%.

The figures have often been cited as evidence by Assamese nationalist groups as well as the BJP of the threat from “illegal immigrants” to the state, its resources, culture and identity.

Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has asserted that delimitation has secured the representation, if not domination, of “indigenous” or majority Hindu communities in 100-odd Assembly seats. A senior minister in his government had claimed that the exercise will bring down Muslim legislators to 22. Currently, Assam has 31 Muslim MLAs.

In a seat like Barpeta, which has mostly elected Muslim candidates in all but two Lok Sabha elections since 1967, delimitation has reconfigured the demography – some allege to ensure that no Muslim can win from it in the future.

While Muslims made up 60% of the constituency’s electorate before delimitation, their share has come down to around 35%, said local Congress and CPI(M) leaders.

Abdul Khaleque, the incumbent Barpeta parliamentarian from Congress, told Scroll that if the three major Muslim Assembly seats – Chenga, Baghbar and Jania – had not been added to Dhubri, Barpeta would have got a Muslim MP this time too. “The delimitation was done in a politically motivated way so that no Muslim can win from Barpeta,” he said.

Significantly, no major party has put up a Muslim candidate in this election in Barpeta, because of the changed demography.

Muslim residents of Chenimari village in Barpeta district said their protests to Election Commission fell on deaf ears.

‘I live in Barpeta, my vote is in Dhubri’

Multiple residents of the Chenga Assembly segment pointed out that panchayats with a large Muslim population have been taken out of the Barpeta Lok Sabha seat and added to Dhubri.

But nearby panchayat areas with a significant Hindu population have been added to Barpeta – in effect, a demarcation along religious lines.

“The Bahari reserve gaon panchayat, where Hindus are in the majority, has been moved out of the Chenga Assembly segment and added to the Barpeta segment,” said Juzar Khan, a 55-year-old retired havaldar of the Indian Army and resident of Chenimari.

He added: “We are residents of Barpeta, we live just 20 km from the Barpeta town. But we have been added to Dhubri which is 250 km from my village.”

Khan said several villagers had protested the Election Commission’s decision but to no avail. In redrawing the seats, the Election Commission appeared to have gone against its own guidelines that say that “physical features, existing boundaries of administrative units, facilities of communication and public convenience” be taken into consideration during delimitation.

Similarly, take the example of Gajia Medhirtari gaon panchayat of Barpeta district, which is just outside Barpeta town.

Two of its villages – Gajia and Jyoti Gaon – with significant Hindu populations have been added to the Barpeta Lok Sabha seat. In contrast, Muslim-majority villages like Bheragon have been added to Dhubri parliamentary constituency.

“My home is 2 km from Barpeta town which is the district headquarters,” said Amtab Ali, 45-year-old resident of Bheragon village. “Despite being residents of Barpeta district, we can’t vote for Barpeta Lok Sabha.”

Khan underlined what several political parties and analysts have pointed out. “The government is of the BJP. So they have redrawn the constituencies so that a Muslim representative can never be elected from either the Barpeta Lok Sabha or the Barpeta Assembly seat.” After the delimitation, the Barpeta Assembly seat has been turned into a Scheduled Caste reserved constituency.

The baffling manner in which the constituencies have been sliced has led to the creation of Muslim-majority seats with huge populations – in effect, reducing the relative value of the vote of each resident.

For example, the total number of voters in Dhubri Lok Sabha seat is 26.43 lakh, while an average parliamentary seat in Assam includes 17.35 lakh residents.

The parliamentary constituency includes the entire Dhubri district, three Muslim-dominated Assembly segments from Barpeta district and two Muslim-dominated Assembly segments from Goalpara district.

Before delimitation, the population of Dhubri parliamentary seat was 16.85 lakh, according to 2019 data from the Election Commission.

The BJP has little to no presence in Dhubri, where the contest is between the All India United Democratic Front’s Badruddin Ajmal and the Congress’s Rakibul Hussain.

Rajiv Ali (middle), a 32-year-old construction worker, said delimitation has increased the distance between development and his village.

The electoral math

Barpeta has traditionally been a Congress bastion, with the party winning the seat in all Lok Sabha elections except 1991, 1996 and 2014. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Abdul Khaleque from the Congress won by a margin of over 1 lakh votes.

In the fray this year are former minister and Asom Gana Parishad candidate Phani Bhushan Choudhury, Congress’s Deep Bayan and Manoranjan Talukdar of the CPI(M). The Bharatiya Janata Party is not contesting the seat.

The new demographic map of Barpeta Lok Sabha seat, especially the exclusion of Muslim-majority areas, has given the Asom Gana Parishad, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, an advantage, said observers.

Besides moving Chenga, Baghbar and Jania Assembly segments to Dhubri, Hindu-dominated segments of Hajo, Sorbhog and Nalbari were added to the seat from adjoining parliamentary constituencies. This, said observers, has made things easier for the AGP in a three-cornered contest with the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

A senior Barpeta district leader of All Assam Students’ Union told Scroll that as the Muslim voters are now fewer in numbers, the AGP-BJP stands a good chance in Barpeta.

“Delimitation has secured the Barpeta Lok Sabha seat for the Hindu majority in the future too, and this sentiment has added to the support for the AGP among Hindus,” the AASU leader said.

Dijen Das at his shop at Bahari market.

Take Dijen Das, for example. The 56-year-old shop owner at Bahari market, about 5 km from Chenimari, pointed out that no one from the Hindu majority community had won the Chenga Assembly election before.

While Bahari gaon panchayat, where Das lives, continues to be part of Barpeta Lok Sabha, all the adjacent Muslim villages are now part of Dhubri.

“Delimitation has been good for us,” he said. “Earlier, not a single Hindu won in Assembly elections but now not a single Muslim can win from Barpeta, as Hindu voters are more in number.”

According to Jyotirmoy Talukdar, a writer from Barpeta district, the Opposition vote will end up splitting between the Congress and the CPI(M). “The minority vote will be divided but the majority vote will remain with one person largely.”

Meanwhile, the villagers in Barpeta’s char areas remain concerned about the value of their franchise and the future of their constituency. “The development of a constituency depends on its political map,” said Forid Bhuyan, village headman of four villages in the Cheinmari char area. “Not a single candidate from Dhubri has visited our village yet. Will he visit after winning? Will he give us any importance?”

All photographs by Rokibuz Zaman.