On an unseasonably warm mid-March afternoon, the All Moran Students’ Union’s newly-elected president Naba Moran recounted a story when we met at the outfit’s headquarters in a leafy neighbourhood on the outskirts of Upper Assam’s Tinsukia town.

Moran had been recently summoned to Guwahati by two senior Congress leaders, apparently to discuss the upcoming elections. The duo had a question for Moran: “What is this closeness to the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] all about? What is it that we lack?”

“I openly told them,” Moran recalled. “It is not like the BJP has solved all our problems, but it is just that at least there is now an atmosphere to talk, to exchange two words. But that gap was so big during the Congress regime, it was humiliating.”

A saffron romance (with a few tiffs)

The All Moran Students’ Union represents Assam’s ethnic Moran community who live primarily in the state’s easternmost district of Tinsukia. According to local estimates, the community’s over 1.2 lakh voters play a crucial role in all five constituencies in the district.

The outfit has significant sway over them. “We are a small community with very few IAS, IPS, or other high-ranking officials,” explained Moran, referring to the Indian Administrative and Police Services. “So people come to us for guidance. Let me tell you this: if we endorse a party, it will get at least 80% of total Moran votes.”

In the 2016 Assembly elections, the call to the community on the All Moran Students’ Union’s part was to vote for the BJP, thanks to its promise of granting the community, along with five others, Scheduled Tribe status, the Morans’ long-running demand. True to the outfit’s influence, a large section of the Morans voted for the BJP. The saffron party won all but one seat in Tinsukia and wrested a sweeping majority in the state.

But in the subsequent five years, the Morans did not get the Scheduled Tribe status which resulted in confrontation with the government every now and then.

The relationship became even more fraught in the winter of 2019 when the Centre pushed through the Citizenship Amendment Act. The All Moran Students’ Union under the leadership of then president Arunjyoti Moran emerged as a key constituent of the movement against the amendments which provide an expedited pathway to Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Assam, many fear migration could step up across the state’s long-running border with Bangladesh.

But just when it started to look like the outfit’s love affair with the BJP was well and truly over, something rather dramatic happened. Arunjyoti Moran, who had moved court against the law, joined the BJP this January. He was soon made a spokesperson for the party’s state unit.

What made Arunjyoti Moran take such a drastic step?

When we met at a BJP election meeting in a small town in Doomdooma constituency, he said he viewed the current government as a larger protectorate of sorts under which the interests of the smaller ethnic communities were secure. “What do my people want? To protect their identity and dignity,” he said. “I honestly don’t think there is any party apart from the BJP who can do that.”

Naba Moran (right) with his deputy in the All Moran Students' Union, Dilip Moran

The BJP salvages its rainbow coalition

Moran is not the only ethnic leader who once shared a radical anti-CAA stand and has now switched back loyalties to the saffron camp. It is a pattern that is common to many others who claim to represent the state’s smaller indigenous communities that for most parts identify themselves as Assamese – but also claim a distinct cultural identity.

For instance, several outfits of the Matak community, that shares a cultural affinity with the Morans, have returned to the BJP fold. The Mataks, who are also aspirants of the Scheduled Tribe status, are spread across the districts of Dibrugarh, Tinsukia and Sivasagar. According to the estimates of community leaders, their numbers add up to almost seven lakh.

Kajal Gohain, the former general secretary of the All Assam Matak Sanmilan, an influential community outfit, was a vocal critic of the Citizenship Act and led mobilisations against it in December 2019 before joining the BJP in February 2020. In May, he was appointed chairperson of the Tinsukia Development Authority.

The BJP came to power in Assam in 2016 riding on a string of alliances with outfits representing a myriad of ethnic interests. The Citizenship Amendment Act threatened to undo many of these coalitions. But as elections loom, it appears the BJP has held on to support from these communities, courtesy a range of power sharing devices and arrangements.

In October, for instance, the BJP government paved the way for the creation of autonomous councils for three of the state’s ethnic communities including the Morans and Mataks. The autonomous councils are vehicles for more administrative and political autonomy, the bedrock of ethnic politics in the North East.

The Congress had done its version of council politics: it had granted over 30 communities their own “development councils”. (This included a Brahmin Development Council.) But these councils had few instruments of self-governance and did not offer much to fulfill the political aspirations of smaller communities such as the Morans and Mataks. “They were purely ornamental in nature,” said Dhoroni Gohain, who heads the Matak Yuba Xatra Xongtha, the community’s youth organisation. “No money, no political autonomy, nothing.”

In contrast, the Matak Autonomous Council formed under the BJP has significantly more powers. At least 15 senior level functionaries of the Matak community outfits agitating for greater political autonomy joined it immediately.

Given their influence in the community, it is likely to pay off for the BJP. As Durjoy Baruah, the president of the Tinsukia unit of the Matak Yuba Xatra Xongtha, said: “If the leaders have gone, the supporters have to follow. How can we defy our seniors?”

While the Congress had used similar manoeuvres to win over the leaders of smaller communities in the past, observers say that the BJP’s motivations go beyond just winning elections.

“Every time there would be some demand, they [the Congress] would dole out something and douse the fires temporarily,” said Chandan Kumar Sharma, a sociologist at Tezpur University. “But the BJP is backed by their own idea of nation-building, of course nation-building as they see it.” In this view, shared by many others, the ruling party is accommodating the interests of smaller communities, not because it desperately needs their votes, but because it has set its sights on the longer-term goal of remaking Assam in the Hindutva mould.

The power of representation

If the BJP is guided by ideology, what are the leaders of smaller communities aiming for?

Naba Moran said it was easy to attribute their moves to a “lack of ideology”, but insisted there was more at play. For starters, the leader of the All Moran Students’ Union claimed the BJP was more sensitive to issues of representation. “For a small community like us with no political capital, the position of a chairman in a government body is a big deal,” he said.

Dhoroni Gohain, who heads the Matak Yuba Xatra Xongtha, agreed. “For the longest time, the Congress wouldn’t bother giving anyone from our community tickets and instead focus on the tea tribes because they are bigger in number,” he said. “But aren’t we the original indigenous people of this state? The BJP is mindful of our interests and has been way more generous in that regard.”

But, most importantly, the leaders of these smaller ethnic communities say it is self-preservation that makes them wary of pulling their weight behind the two new regional parties that the anti-CAA movement birthed. “The fact that we do the kind of politics we do is ultimately at the end of the day to protect the interests of our community,” said Gohain. “We are not secure politically yet so we cannot beyond a point make common cause with Assamese nationalism.”

Naba Moran broadened the idea: “We believe that the CAA is an assault on the Assamese community, but that doesn’t mean we can possibly oppose a Moran candidate.”

Explaining his point further, he said: “We don’t support the CAA, of course, that’s why we protested against it. But we have to be mindful of our larger cause, the very point of our fight: political power and representation for the community.”

Dhoroni Gohain and Durjoy Baruah of the Matak Yuba Xatra Xongtha

The many schisms within

The Assamese identity is complex. It includes several communities with their own cultural and political aspirations that fear they would lose out if they make common cause with the more dominant homogenous strands of the identity such as the Ahoms and the caste-Hindus.

These contradictions tend to be particularly visible with the larger tribal communities that have established cultural and political identities such as the Bodos, Dimasas and Karbis, for instance. All three communities, which enjoy a significant degree of political autonomy under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, had at one point agitated for separate ethnic homelands.

Even during the Assam Agitation, the tumultuous anti-foreigner uprising that convulsed the state from 1979-’85, while they joined hands with the Assamese mainstream against the “illegal migrant”, there were differences galore. The Bodos even violently clashed with Assamese-speaking groups.

After the movement was over and an accord signed with the Centre, the differences became even more stark. The tribal communities claimed they had felt sidelined and used. As the late Bodo leader Upendranath Brahma said in an interview soon after: “[the Assamese] had taken the cake and left us the crumbs.” Naturally, these three communities did not participate as keenly as other Assamese groups in the recent anti-CAA movement.

For the BJP, the larger tribal communities are easier to co-opt: after all, the political autonomy these communities enjoy under the Sixth Schedule can be best leveraged only when you side with the government in power. Only an upheaval can unsettle established these patterns – for instance, a new Bodo accord complicated the power-sharing equation in Bodo areas recently and pushed the Bodo People’s Front into joining the Congress alliance.

Where the BJP has made significant breakthroughs are with the smaller groups, such as the Motoks and Morans. These groups with less pronounced political identities often took more fluid positions, but the BJP seems to have successfully weaned them away from Assamese nationalistic politics in a way the Congress failed to.

An ever-expanding list

The BJP has also been able to draw to its fold ethnic leaders and groups that kept an arm’s length from both Assamese nationalistic politics and the Congress.

Consider the Misings, Assam’s second largest scheduled tribe, who live primarily on the Brahmaputra’s north bank in the district of Dhemaji. The community largely backed the Assam Movement, but since the 1980s, a movement for greater political autonomy took wings among them. In the last decade, the politics of the community which traditionally lives in riverine areas also dovetailed with the anti-big dam resistance in Assam.

The BJP has been successful not only in making an ally out of the Sanmilita Ganashakti, a left-leaning anti-Congress organisation with considerable influence among the Misings, but has also been able to bring to its fold some of the outfit’s most prominent faces. (As a result, the anti-dam resistance is all but over now.)

Ranoj Pegu is one of them. Pegu joined the BJP in 2017 and was immediately given a ticket to contest the Dhemaji bye-elections which he won.

What explains Pegu’s sharp right-ward turn? “The BJP has given that much needed space to smaller ethnic communities that neither the Congress nor Assamese nationalism has space for,” he said.

His colleague, independent MLA Bhubon Pegu, who joined the BJP earlier this year, offered a similar explanation. “We don’t fit into this concept of Assamese nationalism,” he said. “We have our own issues, our nationality aspirations and the Assamese nationalist organisations don’t want to cede that space to us.”

As for the camaraderie with the BJP, Bhubon Pegu explained, “We made our political capital by destroying the Congress’s…now we want to expand it and that is only possible with the BJP.”

Another tribal community that was once a strong ally of Assamese nationalism, which the BJP has been able to win over despite the CAA, are the Tiwas. The Tiwa Jatiya Akya Mancha, a party that claims to represent the community, merged with the BJP in 2019.

Ronoj Pegu, the BJP legislator from Dhemaji, cited the BJP-Tiwa relationship as yet another example of the party giving precedence to indigenous communities. The Tiwas are a sizable number in Marigaon constituency, nearly one-thirds of the population by most estimates. “Yet the Congress would never nominate a candidate from the community,” Pegu said. “The BJP made it a point to do so.”

In 2016, Rama Kanta Dewri, an ethnic Tiwa, won and contested the Marigaon constituency on a BJP ticket. Dewri is the BJP’s candidate this time too.

In Lower Assam, the Rabha Joutha Mancha, an outfit that represents the ethnic Rabha community, has also joined hands with the BJP. Shyamjit Rabha of the Mancha is contesting the reserved Dudhnai seat on a BJP ticket.

Ranoj Pegu arriving for an election meeting in an interior village near Gogamukh

The Congress’s ploy – perfected by the BJP

Political observers say there is some truth to the ethnic groups’ claims of the BJP being more accommodating of their political aspirations, at least in terms of representation.

“The BJP has indeed actually given them well thought-out representation in terms of power sharing,” said Kaustabh Deka, who teaches political science at Dibrugarh University. “At a larger level, I think this is part of the BJP’s North East thrust under which there are more funds. So there are more spoils basically to share among more parties.”

As for the image of a larger protectorate the BJP seems to enjoy among a section of these communities, Deka said this was essentially a case of BJP mastering what the Congress also did at one point. “The Congress particularly under Hiteshwar Saikia was also seen by smaller ethnic communities as this party who gave them a voice against this kind of caste-Hindu middle class Assamese nationalism,” said Deka, referring to the former Assam chief minister who was at the helm for two terms, 1981-’83 and 1991-’96.

“That’s why they probably sustained for that long,” he continued, “but then they became a purely managerial party.” The BJP, in contrast, is backed by the ideological framework of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he pointed out, echoing the views of Chandan Kumar Sharma, theTezpur University sociologist.

Bhubon Pegu addressing an election rally in Dhemaji's Jonai

The power of ideology

The co-option of leaders of smaller communities, academics say, is meant to serve a much bigger purpose than mere electoral success. As Sharma explained: the BJP’s patronage is aimed at getting these leaders to push the party’s long-term Hindu majoritarian agenda.

Unsurprisingly then, chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” are ubiquitous as these leaders address their constituencies. Sometimes, things go a little further too. In an election meeting in Dhemaji’s Kulajan area in mid-March, the once-left-leaning firebrand politician Bhubon Pegu exclaimed to his largely Mising audience, many of them rice-beer drinking, pork-eating animists: “Unlike the Congress era, in this BJP sarkar, our satras [neo-Vaishnavite monasteries] and naamghars [community prayer halls] will be given money, irrespective or whether trips to Mecca are funded or not.”

How does anti-minorities politics sit with a tribal leader who claims to be fighting to keep alive the distinct identity of the small community he belongs to? “What is the problem?” he asked. “Don’t the tribal people worship Shiva, Lakshmi, anyway? The name of our gods changed a long time back...that happened the moment Sanskritisation started.”