At a press conference in Guwahati on Thursday, All India United Democratic Front president Badruddin Ajmal spoke pointedly in Hindi. “I think the statements General Rawat made are based on misinformation or he has been misguided,” he said. “We are not just a party of Muslims. We have given tickets to our Hindu brothers in every election.”

The speech was delivered with measured calm. “If the security says immigration [from Bangladesh] is happening, then it is,” he said. “That is not our work. We are a political party of citizens.”

Ajmal was responding to remarks made by Army chief Bipin Rawat on Wednesday. In a lecture linking growing immigration from Bangladesh to the machinations of the “northern neighbour”, or Pakistan, he had name-checked Ajmal’s party.

“There is a party called AIUDF,” Rawat had said. “They have grown in a faster time frame than the BJP grew over the years. Jan Sangh [predecessor of the BJP] had two MPs [in its first few years]...where they have reached. AIUDF has grown at a faster pace in the state of Assam.”

‘A party called AIUDF’

Ajmal’s party started life in 2004, powered largely by the personality cult that surrounds its president. A perfume magnate with a reputation for religious learning and acts of charity, Ajmal had converted his personal clout to political advantage in the districts of Lower Assam. In these parts, he goes by the honorific “huzoor”.

Four districts – Goalpara, Dhubri, Barpeta and Bongaigaon – form a volatile borderland with Bangladesh and also happen to be the vote base of the All India United Democratic Front. These districts saw waves of migration over the 20th century, first from the Bengal province of the colonial state, then from East Pakistan, and finally from Bangladesh. In Dhubri district, where Ajmal’s Lok Sabha constituency lies, 79.67% of the population is Muslim, according to the 2011 census. A large section of population speaks Bengali, marking them as distinct from the Assamese speaking mainstream.

Though the party lays claim to a secular image, it was built around protecting the interests of Bengali Muslims. In a state that has seen violent movements of ethnic nationalism, and where outsiders are looked upon with deep suspicion, this is a constituency with several vulnerabilities.

These districts are desperately poor, and have often complained of being neglected by state governments that devote their energies to Upper Assam. Frequently branded as “Bangladeshis”, the Bengali Muslims of Lower Assam have also had trouble accessing the basic rights and services of citizenship. In Dhubri, for instance, many were marked as “D voters”, or doubtful voters, during the Assam government’s drive to purge electoral lists of so-called foreigners.

“There is no bigger insult than being called Bangladeshi when you are a citizen of this country,” said Ajmal.

The Assam accord

This is why the party is now vociferously calling for the completion of Assam’s National Register of Citizens, being updated for the first time since 1951. One of the main aims of the exercise is to root out illegal immigrants from the state.

The list is predicated on the terms of the Assam Accord of 1985, which was the culmination of the anti-foreigners’ agitation launched by the All Assam Students’ Union. Under this accord, all those who could not prove that they or their ancestors came to the country before 1971 would be branded foreigners and deported.

After the accord was signed, part of the students’ union morphed into the Asom Gana Parishad, a political party that embodied the same Assamese nationalism and suspicion of foreigners that had driven the Assam Movement. Yet on Thursday, it was Ajmal who urged that the accord be upheld and the register updated, “so that Bangladeshi and Indian Muslims are separated”.

Ajmal also championed the border fence being built by the government in a bid to keep out Bangladeshi immigrants. “We were the first party which wanted fencing and talked about spending crores on it, then other parties started talking about it,” he declared.

‘No Islamistan’

Ajmal also refuted Bipin Rawat’s claims that his party had grown at a phenomenal rate. “Our speed is not faster than the BJP’s he said. “If we won 10 seats, how does the sky fall down? If we were a Muslim party, this is a state with 34% Muslims so we should have got 34% votes. But we did not, others took away our votes.” The predictions that Assam would turn into “Islamistan”, he pointed out, never came true.

The All India United Democratic Front may have three members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, but its tally went down in the 2016 Assam Assembly elections. In 2006, it had won 10 Assembly seats and in 2011 it won 18, but was down to 13 in the elections of 2016. Ajmal himself lost the South Salmara constituency to the Congress. Incidentally, the BJP went from 10 seats in Assam in 2006 to five in 2011 to 60 in 2016. In terms of vote share, Ajmal’s party did post a marginal increase over the last decade: 9% in 2006, 12.6% in 2011 and 13% in 2016. The BJP’s graph was 12% in 2006 and 2011, spiking to 29.5% in 2016.

Ajmal bristled towards the end of the press conference. By insinuating that the All India Democratic Front was fed by immigrants, the Army chief had brought a “bad name” to the party, he said. “We have given tickets to our Hindu brothers, now which of them will want to take tickets?” he demanded.

Ajmal concluded that the Army chief was speaking “the way RSS, BJP people speak”. “Soldiers should remain soldiers and political parties should remain parties,” was his parting advice.