“It is an attack on Assam’s brotherhood, history and culture,” said Congress leader Rahul Gandhi when asked about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s constant vilification of the All India United Democratic Front chief Badruddin Ajmal. It is “not an attack on Ajmal, but an attack on Assam,” he added in support of his partner in the mahajot, or grand alliance, which is seeking to unseat the saffron party in the upcoming Assam assembly election.

Gandhi’s defence came just a few days after BJP had tarnished Ajmal, yet again. In an interview with the Indian Express, BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma said: “Badruddin Ajmal represents the most dangerous phase of Assam’s politics. He is bringing money from fundamentalist organisations in the name of social service, he is creating a network which is not conducive to Assamese culture. Not as an individual, but as a symbol of certain people, they are our enemy.”

This open sparring over Assam’s most influential Muslim political figure reflects the centrality of identity and belongingness in the political arithmetic of the state. More specifically, it shows the heightened sectarianism that the saffron party has deliberately fuelled in Assam to consolidate the Hindu vote and corner the self-professedly secular Congress. In many ways, both parties reflect the two opposing ends of Assam’s polarised political spectrum today, with one openly identifying Bengal-origin Muslims as the enemy and the other co-opting them into a strategic electoral fold.

A quick look at BJP’s election manifesto reveals how conscious it is of identity as a driver of political sentiments in Assam.

Among its “10 Sankalp for Atma Nirbhar Assam” are promises to review the National Register of Citizens, protect satras (neo-Vaishnavite monasteries) from “illegal encroachment” and redistribute land to “Indian citizens”. All these, in one way or another, feed into the larger Assamese nationalist imagination of indigeneity and belongingness, which the BJP aims to harness for electoral gains.

Shelved Plans

Let’s first look at the National Register of Citizens. The BJP has promised during this election cycle to initiate “correction and reconciliation” of the list to “protect genuine Indian citizens” and “exclude all illegal immigrants”. This is not unexpected. The Supreme Court-mandated list’s final iteration was published way back in August 2019, but the BJP government at the Centre has been dragging its feet. In fact, the final list has still not been notified by the Registrar General of India, because of which the appeals process hasn’t begun.

Amit Shah electioneering at a rally in Assam's Kamrup district. Credit: Amit Shah/Twitter

The BJP has been wary of confirming the final list because a large chunk of the 19 lakh people left out of it are Bengali Hindus – a key voter base for the party in Assam. It had hoped to bypass this by bringing in the Citizenship Amendment Act, which regularises Bengali Hindu refugees from Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan). But the controversial legislation was met with an avalanche of public protests in Assam, which posed a major problem for BJP’s electoral prospects in the state.

One subtext of a “correct NRC”, as mentioned in the BJP’s manifesto, is to potentially regularise the excluded Bengali Hindus. This then means that the National Register of Citizens becomes an exclusively Bengali Muslim-identifying project.

In any case, any such reverification exercise would mean another round of documentation scrutiny, anxiety and misery for Assam’s people, particularly the Bengal-origin Muslim minority that has been at the short end of the headcount exercise from the beginning. Unlike earlier, when the Supreme Court was monitoring the project, this time the recalibration would largely be done by the executive since the apex court’s monitoring mandate has lapsed. This is a perilous prospect as it opens the exercise to political manipulation.

Cultural Nationalism

Another promise that the BJP has made in its manifesto is to “strengthen the nāmghars and protect the rights of satras”. Satras, which are essentially monastic establishments, came out of the neo-Vaishnava Bhakti Movement in Assam during the 17th and 18th centuries. Nāmghars, which are modelled somewhat like a Hindu temple, house the manuscript of Bhāgavatpurāna, which is meant to replace the images of deities in the neo-Vaishnavite order. Both are symbolic of an orthodox order of contemporary Assamese society, which retains very less of the heterodox Bhakti movement.

The BJP proposes to set up a task force to “recover lands of the satras and places of worship of the tribals from illegal encroachers” and promises financial assistance to the tune of Rs 2.5 lakh for each of these institutions. On this, the Congress too has promised to preserve the Madhupur satra in Borduwa.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Assam. Credit: BJP/Twitter

Protection of nāmghars and satras in itself is not a new political agenda. Other governments and parties in the past had made similar promises. Both these institutions are central to the cultural lifeworld of the Assamese-speaking population in Assam – something that the BJP knows well.

Linked to the BJP’s special focus on both is its constant invocation of one central historical figure who remains an important symbol of Assamese nationalism and culture – Srimanta Sankardev. His name has been evoked ad nauseam this poll season by prominent BJP figures, including Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath, in almost all public rallies and interviews. There is a good reason for that.

Sankardev played a significant role in the Bhakti Movement and eventually became a socio-religious institution in himself. In many ways, he is the bedrock of Assamese cultural nationalism. Thus, for BJP, an investment in satras and nāmghars is not only a symbolic statement, but also an engagement with the political man in Sankardev who can potentially become a Janus-faced figure – one which is appropriated by the Hindu Right, and the other by the caste Assamese.

BJP’s passionate investment in satras and nāmghars is also about selective investments in certain socio-religious institutions and ratcheting up anti-minority propaganda. For instance, only recently, the Assam government announced the closure of all state-run madrassas through the Assam Repealing Act 2021, withdrawing state funding from minority educational institutions. More importantly, its constant reference to the satras being encroached upon by “illegal Bangladeshis” is yet another way to paint Assam’s Bengal-origin Muslims as the state’s cultural enemies.

Identity Politics

What is expressly missing from the BJP’s manifesto is implementation of the Clause 6 committee report, which was independently released in public by the All Assam Students’ Union last August. The BJP government at the Centre, which had sanctioned the report in 2019, has been stalling it since then, much to the displeasure of Assamese nationalist groups who want it implemented immediately. In fact, these groups have been demanding for decades the full implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord (1985), which promises social, political, economic and safeguards for “Assamese people”.

But the BJP isn’t keen on this because the committee’s final report recommended special privileges for the Assamese-speaking population of Assam and set the cut-off year for entitlement to 1951. Such measures would instantly render a large chunk of the Bengali-speaking population as second-class citizens. This is a problem for the saffron party, which has traditionally banked on the Hindu Bengali vote in Assam for political consolidation.

Notably, even the Congress steered clear of this sensitive issue in its manifesto as it would alienate the Bengal-origin Muslim voter base of its powerful ally, the All India United Democratic Front. Additionally, both Clause 6 and the Brahma Committee Report, which registers the language of the indigenous very religiously, is missing from the broader election focus of both the BJP and Congress. In fact, both parties have categorically avoided using the term indigenous in their manifestos. This shows the vastly open-ended nature of the term in Assam’s context.

The Congress manifesto is predominantly targeted at social-economic upliftment. It talks about, among other things, subsidised distribution of sugar and kerosene through the Public Distribution System, support to all artists affected by Covid-19, a rural library equipped with digital facilities in each constituency, 15% increase in forest or green cover in the state in the next five years, and improvement in rural medical units.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel at a rally in Assam. Credit: INC/Twitter

The most striking aspect of the Congress manifesto is its de-emphasis on the identity issue. It has refrained from portraying a singular Assamese identity and has indeed taken an unusually ambivalent position about identity, unlike the BJP. While its election slogan, “Save Assam”, is primarily centered around opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act, its manifesto focuses mainly on immediate socio-economic issues.

In Assam, identity has always been a core platform for electoral politics across the board. However, this time, it has become a defining force, not least because this would be the first assembly election after the completion of the National Register of Citizens and the introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act. At the same time, it is the BJP, not the Congress, that has put the spotlight on the issue in its manifesto. This could be because the grand alliance stitched together by the Congress includes partners that are seen as “non-indigenous” to Assam.

It is the first time that we see mainstream political figures explicitly and unapologetically identifying a concrete enemy of the Assamese people (read: Bengal-origin Muslims), instead of talking about an abstract other like bidexis (foreigners). This reflects the radical manner in which the BJP is redrawing the contours of politics in Assam through its time-tested Hindutva handbook.

Angshuman Choudhury is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Delhi, and former visiting fellow to the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin.

Suraj Gogoi is a doctoral scholar at the National University of Singapore.