Assamese politics is at a crossroads. For the first time, a non-Congress party headquartered in Delhi has positioned itself as the primary voice of Assamese Hindus. After its spectacular success in Assam in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Bharatiya Janata Party is aiming to cause a political earthquake by emerging as the party with the largest number of seats in the coming assembly elections.
This election will decide whether Assamese nationalism (what Delhi think-tanks refer to as “Assamese sub-nationalism”) – a particular type of identity-based pro-federalism politics in the non-tribal areas of Assam – will give way to a more general Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan-type Hindu-Muslim politics in the state that the BJP symbolises.
Defying the decision of its general council, top leaders of the Asom Gana Parishad, the principal electoral voice of Assamese nationalism (with “regionalism” and federalism being their signature planks), have allied with the BJP and settled for a measly 24 seats out of 126, underscoring how its political-base has shrunk after years of haemorrhage.
An ideological split
There is a distinct possibility that the BJP-led alliance might win. But it seems that to a significant section of the AGP cadre and some of its leaders who are ideologically more rooted, winning is not everything. The alliance has led to a split in the AGP , with the party’s former youth wing president Sunil Rajkonwar leading a new formation that is being called AGP (Ancholikotabadi Moncho/Regionalist platform). “People supported the AGP because it is a secular regional force and fought for regional interests,” Rajkonwar says. “People will not tolerate them joining hands with the communal BJP ”.
While it’s improbable that AGP(AM) will immediately emerge as a principal pivot in Assam politics, the orphaned ideological stances that it wants to defend go to the soul of post-Partition Assamese politics and the principles enshrined in the 1985 Assam accord. The accord ended the movement led by All Assam Students Union, or AASU, which stood for protecting the rights of the sons of the soil of Assam (this movement has served as the template of the Bodoland agitation and various other such homeland identity and rights movements in the region).
Decentralisation and federalism
On the one hand, this meant demands for the identification and banishment of illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, irrespective of religion. On the other hand, it sought to develop an Assam-centric politics, including protection of Assamese culture and language, protection of economic and homeland rights. These issues are tied to the devolution of power from the Centre to the state and hence, greater political democratisation. This democratising and decentralising thrust forms the core of federalist politics in India. The AGP was born out of the churning of the Assam movements and was for many years one of the strongest votaries of decentralisation and federalism.
On the communal question. AGP’s ideology is diametrically opposed to that of the BJP which considers India to be the natural host to all persecuted people of Dharmic faiths (Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc). This is where AGP’s homeland imagination becomes clear – it naturally starts and ends with Assam. The AGP stance has been that if the government of India insists on hosting persecuted Hindus and Buddhists of Bangladesh, they have to be settled and given political rights in the rest of India, not in Assam.
Thus, Muslim Bengalis of lower Assam and Hindu Bengalis of Barak valley have long been the support base for the Congress, which has ruled Assam for the longest period by forging a broad front of various ethnic minorities along-with a section of the Assamese themselves. In this election, many fear an implosion of the Congress front – with Muslim Bengalis remaining with the Congress and the Hindu Bengalis going with the BJP, which has promised illegal immigrants among them a path to citizenship.
Many of Assam’s BJP leaders earlier belonged to AASU or AGP. With the Muslim Bengali being constructed as the biggest threat to Assam, the shift of a significant section of Assamese Hindus to the BJP would make the communal polarisation complete. Assam will join the “mainstream” via tried and tested Hindu-Muslim politics of South Asia. This is most damaging for the Assamese regionalists, who fear being left without a core constituency.
The Muslim Assamese dilemma
The situation of Muslim Assamese is particularly tricky, who are faced with an unenviable choice between their faith and ethno-linguistic identity, due to BJP’s aggressive Hinduisation of what has long a very composite Assamese identity in the Assamese national imagination.
In November last year, BJP member of Parliament Yogi Adityanath tried to Hinduise Ahom glory by hailing the legendary Ahom general Lachit Borphukan as a Hindu general who defeated Aurrangzeb’s invading “Muslim” army at the Battle of Saraighat. What is deliberately left unsaid is that the invading “Muslim” army was led by Ram Singh I, the ruler of Amber and the elder son of Raja Jai Singh I. Crucial to the Ahom victories under Lachit Borphukan was the daring bravery of the top Assamese military officer “Bagh Hazarika” Ismail Siddique, an Assamese Muslim. In fact, in the Assamese historical imagination (including that of the United Liberation Front of Asom or ULFA), both Lachit Barphukan and Ismail Siddique were on the side of Asom and the native Assamese people while Aurangzeb and Ram Singh I represented then, what Yogi Adityanath represents now - the forces of Delhi.
If people from the land of “Bharatmata ki Jai” were to visit Assam, they would see in every corner, monuments and slogans hailing another territorial mother, Mother Axom. The slogan “Joy Ai Axom” (Ai meaning mother) speaks of a different imagination of mother and motherland. Such aspirations may be deemed illegal in a super-centralised politico-judicial system that views dissenting diversity as the greatest enemy but they are neither illegitimate nor unreal. The various ethno-linguistic homelands which constitute the Indian Union have always been in various degrees of integration with the concept of India.
A simple thought-experiment would demonstrate this. Close your eyes and try to place Madhya Pradesh, Assam and Nagaland in an increasing order of integration with the concept of India. Your particular ordering is unimportant but the fact that this mental exercise can be done at all tells us something. However, degrees of integration are not uniform within the constituent ethno-linguistic homelands either. Even there, there exists a broad spectrum – from total identification and association to complete alienation and separateness. In case of Assam, this spectrum is represented by the AGP and its splinters, AASU, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad, pro-talk ULFA, surrendered-ULFA, BJP, Congress and other organisations, including those factions like ULFA(I) which cannot make themselves heard in the official “public space”.
Though the Indian Union provides an over-arching context and has also been understood as the force whose hegemonic Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan thrust is most likely to defeat the particular culture and identity of Assam, this is essentially an internal dialogue within the Assamese people about the soul of Assam. What is the destiny of Assam as a homeland, as a society, as a culture, as an identity? Intricately tied to this question is the future of Assamese nationalism.
This debate about the destiny of Assamese identity has various stake-holders who represent viewpoints and imaginations of Assam’s future, even an Assamese future. In the political battlefield so polarised between “Bharatmata” and “illegal Bangladeshis”, Ai Axom is lonelier than ever.