Fifteen months ago, within 24 hours of Parliament passing the Citizenship Amendment Act, five young men fell to police bullets in Guwahati as scorching protests swept through Assam.
The controversial amendments fast-track Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Assam, which shares a long border with Bangladesh, angry protestors declared the new law would spell the death knell for the Assamese identity. For years, the Congress had sheltered “illegal” Muslim migrants, they claimed, and now the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had promised to chase away all “infiltrators”, was doing the same by paving the way for the entry of Hindu migrants from Bangladesh.
Assam assembly elections are less than 15 days away.
But in the Upper Assam districts – the heartland of Assamese politics, where the first fires against the law were lit before they spread to the rest of the state – the Citizenship Amendment Act barely features in election conversations.
“How does my life change with or without CAA?” asked Bitupan Baruah, who sells fried noodles and egg rolls in his mud-walled “fast-food restaurant” by the highway near Sivasagar’s Amguri. “Some people have become leaders after the movement, but I am where I always was.”
Seventy kilometres south-west, in a village near Jorhat town, the talkative Amulya Bora, who sells broiler chicken meat alongside Campus shoes, is equally blasé. “I have been hearing about this bidexi [foreigner] issue since I was a child,” said Bora, who is in his late thirties. “But what has come of it, really? During the 2019 protests, I also raised my hand and said CAA nemanu [We won’t accept CAA – the war cry of the movement], but that doesn’t mean I really care.”
Budhin Doropdhora, who runs a grocery shop in a village near Jorhat, cares about implications of the Citizenship Act. “As an Assamese, how can I support CAA,” he said. Yet, he was quick to add: “But that really does not matter when it comes to voting.”
The importance of the Assamese heartland
If politics in Assam has largely revolved around the question of identity since the anti-foreigner movement of the 1980s, this election was supposed to be all about it. After all, the last five years have been marked by cataclysmic events: the National Register of Citizens was updated, leaving the citizenship of nearly two million people under a cloud. With a large number among them Bengali-speaking Hindus, the BJP claimed the Citizenship Amendment Act would rehabilitate them, which led to Assamese groups declaring the law “jaati-dhonxi” or anti-Assamese.
The mass protests gave birth to a movement – and from the movement emerged two new regional political parties: Asom Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dol.
The ferment seemed poised to alter electoral dynamics. Assamese-speakers play a deciding role in nearly 40 of the state’s 126 Assembly constituencies. An overwhelming majority of them are in Upper Assam. The districts of Jorhat, Sivasagar and Charaideo particularly stand out for their largely homogenous populations in an otherwise acutely multicultural state. The Tai-Ahoms, an ethnic community whose ancestors ruled much of Assam for 600 years beginning the early 13th century, and the caste-Hindu Assamese rule the roost here. The two groups arguably wield the highest amount of social and political power in the state.
In the 2016 Assembly polls, the BJP successfully wrested large sections of both these communities away from the Congress. That hurt the grand old party severely. A cursory glance at the election results shows these areas were at the heart of the Congress’s undoing in Assam.
Electoral maths suggests the Opposition would have to reclaim these areas this time to stand a fighting chance of dislodging the BJP. For that to happen, the caste-Hindu Assamese and the Ahoms, who deserted the Congress in 2016, would have to return to its fold, or back the new regional parties. This is all the more crucial because the BJP has been successful to a large extent in quelling the dissent of the other smaller ethnic communities such as the Morans and the Motoks who were part of the protests and hold sway in other parts of Upper Assam. Over the last year or so, they have brought back to their fold the leaders of many of these groups.
But travelling through eight constituencies in the three districts of Sivasagar, Jorhat and Charaideo, this reporter spoke to scores of Assamese-speaking people across the social and economic spectrum. An overwhelming majority of them insisted that it was not identity, but economics, that would inform their voting choices.
Voting, an exercise in pragmatism not protest
As Binod Khatoniar, a resident of Bamungaon, an exclusively Brahmin village on the border between Sivasagar and Jorhat, put it: “I can only think of dex [country, literally – but a reference to Assam in this case] when my house is in order. And that will only happen when the stove in my kitchen is lit.”
Most people interviewed for this story, particularly those from low-income families, seemed to believe the current government was doing just fine in ensuring that. They cited the slew of welfare schemes that the government had introduced over the past year. “For the ordinary person, this government has given enough to survive,” said Bipul Saikia, a marginal farmer when we met in a village close to Titabor. “Everyone has got something or the other.”
Near Nazira in Lakhimi Pukhuri village, Junuma Gogoi, whose husband is a daily wage labourer, said the government’s cash assistance schemes had helped her tremendously. “Everything from feeding the children to buying them notes,” said Gogoi. As for the CAA, she said: “I can’t stop it alone, can I? What is meant to happen will happen.”
Most of those who identified themselves as “middle-class” shared a dim view of these “populist” measures which they believe had come at their expense. But they endorsed the view that there had “at least been development”. “There are pucca roads everywhere, even where there is barely any need so we have to credit the government for that,” said Subhrajyoti Baruah, a contractor from Sivasagar who executes developmental work for the government.
Not everyone has a rosy opinion of the government. But the detractors of the BJP also framed their disenchantment as economic – they complained the promised development never reached them.
Bhagyajyoti Baruah, a professional bodybuilder from a village called Bogoridubi, part of the Dergaon constituency which is divided between Jorhat and Golaghat districts, said his problem with the government was not that it brought in the Citizenship Amendment Act, but that it could not get the main road in his village gravelled. “Maybe they think roads are no longer necessary since petrol prices have risen so much that people who own bikes have started commenting on cycles,” said Baruah, who has recently opened a dhaba with his wife who does the cooking.
Satyajit Mazumdar, a garment trader who sells his wares in weekly haats in and around Jorhat town, had grievances rooted in similar sentiments. “I am neither a jatiyotabadi [Assamese nationalist] nor a hardline Hindu,” he said. “For all I care, they [the BJP government] can bring in as many foreigners as they want to – but just make sure everyone has jobs. And clearly they haven’t been able to do that.”
Of course, for some, the protests still hang heavy in their minds. “It’s not right to vote for the people who brought the CAA,” said Bijit Gogoi, a tempo-driver in Titabor. “There are many people who think like that but they won’t say that because they fear something bad will happen to them. If this government comes back, they will be deprived. ”
But a somewhat telling sign that people like Gogoi may be in the minority is the relative obscurity of the new parties which are fighting the elections on the plank of regionalism. There are few spontaneous references to them.
Who cares about the AIUDF?
Perhaps even more striking is how detractors of the BJP in Upper Assam seem to be perceiving the Congress allying with the All India United Democratic Front, a party that largely represents the interests of the states Muslims of immigrant origin. An alliance with a party perceived to shelter “illegal migrants”, many warned, may help consolidate Muslim votes in Lower Assam but could hurt the Congress’s prospects among Assamese voters in an election where ethnic identity was seen to be a major, if not the deciding, factor.
But few people on the ground seem to care. “How is that important here?” asked Rajkumar Das, a fisherman from near Jorhat.
Indeed, despite the BJP’s strident efforts to portray the alliance as “unholy” and antithetical to Congress’s position on the CAA, few Assamese voters in Upper Assam, especially those unhappy with the saffron party, seem to think much of it. As the garment-seller Majumdar put it: “If the AIUDF is a Muslim party, the BJP too is a Hindu party. What is the difference?”
Even leaders of Assamese nationalist outfits who are in public critical of the AIUDF’s politics concede in private that “people don’t care about such things”. “People who would have voted for the Congress will do so in any case,” said a functionary of the Sivasagar district unit of the All Assam Students’ Union, the most powerful of student outfits in Assam.
The Congress’s challenge
But this indifference about identity politics may not necessarily work in the Congress favour in the larger scheme of things. At the heart of its poll campaign this year is the Citizenship Amendment Act. Among the five things the party has promised if voted to power, the first is a legislation that would nullify the Act in Assam.
Local leaders of the party in the area seem to be cognisant of this nebulousness. “There is definitely resentment against the government, but it’s not because of CAA,” said Pramod Bhuban Phukan, a senior functionary in the party’s Amguri unit. “So in our constituency we are not focusing too much on that.”
Besides, the Congress’s perceived track-record may not quite work to its advantage in an election fought on “development”. “We did Congress all these years, but nothing really changed,” said Shehina Begum from Sivasagar’s Mezenga, who owns a shop in the town market. “So this time my husband switched to the BJP, and so have I.”
An identity-less election?
But what explains this almost strange absence of identity politics in an election that was supposed to be all about it?
Political scientist Sanjib Baruah attributed it to a combination of fatigue and familiarity. “As in any other society, since these communities have been around for generations people have become accustomed to their presence or they don’t think proposals like detecting foreigners and deporting them are realistic,” he said. “This can only be a good thing.”
More specifically on the absence of the Citizenship Amendment Act from conversations around the elections on the ground, Sandhya Goswami, professor emeritus of political science at Gauhati University, blamed it on “opposition parties as well as the civil society groups [having] failed to exert themselves on these issues at the ground level”.
Baruah, however, had a somewhat different reading. The Citizenship Amendment Act, he said, was “an abstract issue at the moment”. By which Baruah meant that people were yet to really visualise the fears the agitators said the law posed. “If the trend of Hindu emigration from Bangladesh continues and large numbers come to Assam it can become an issue again in future,” he said.
It was, after all, he argued, migration “dramatic enough to be visible to the naked eye in the 1920s and 1930s or in the 1970s after the Bangladesh liberation war” that resulted in mobilisations large enough to impact electoral processes.
Indeed, there seems to exist a sizable section of people who certainly do not support the Act, but do not think it is such an urgent threat. “The xongothons [student outfits] used to say one crore people will come, but that seems a little hard to believe, isn’t it?” said Nirmal Chandra Sonowal, a farmer from Titabor.
But as Baruah pointed out, it is perhaps fatigue with this seemingly never-ending discourse of “foreigners” in the state that seems to have worn out people.
Of foreigners and fatigue
Take for instance, Dulal Arondhora from Charaideo. Arondhora, now in his late 50s, was once Udit Neog. That was when he had crossed the border in the late 80s to Myanmar’s Kachin to train in armed warfare as a young cadre of the banned secessionist militant outfit, United Liberation Front of Assam. Arondhora’s radical turn, he said, was a result of disillusionment with the outcome of the Assam Movement, a six-year long mass anti-foreigner movement that convulsed the state from 1979 which culminated with the signing of the Assam Accord.
The Accord created a new definition for Indian citizens in Assam: anyone who arrived in the state before March 24, 1971, the beginning of the Bangladesh Liberation War, and their descendants. In the elections that followed the Accord – the first proper one in the state after a gap of seven years – the Asom Gana Parishad, an off-shoot of the All Assam Students’ Union that spearheaded the Assam Agitation came to power. “But nothing changed, our Assam continued to remain under the clutches of Bangladeshis, so I went to the jungle,” said Arondhora. “Even after I returned nothing changed. So, what is the point of anything? At least, the BJP has given me some benefits in my old age.”
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.