Forecasting election results in India is usually a foolhardy exercise. Yet, travelling through Lower Assam – as the western districts of the state are called – it is fairly obvious who is leading in the area outside the perimeters of the autonomous Bodoland Territorial Region.

The districts of Barpeta, Goalpara, Bongaigaon, Dhubri and South Salmara-Mankachar are home to a large Muslim population of Bengali origin, most of whom identify as Assamese now. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s Himanta Biswa Sarma has repeatedly said the party did not need the votes of the community this election.

To make things even more concrete, the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front, a local party which claims to represent the interests of the community, have come together. A breakdown of voting numbers shows the few seats the BJP won in the area in the 2016 Assembly election was largely a result of the Congress and the AIUDF contesting separately.

Probably, nothing underlines this mathematics better than the BJP’s state president Ranjeet Dass, the incumbent MLA from Barpeta’s Sorbhog, deciding to contest from adjoining Hindu-majority Nalbari’s Patacharkuchi instead after the opposition got together.

The results may indeed be a foregone conclusion in this part of the state, but voters, particularly those young and educated, caution that it does not necessarily reflect an endorsement of the AIUDF or the Congress’s politics. It is merely a strategic choice to keep the BJP at bay since it has resorted to a deeply communal pitch this election.

“To tell the truth, we are option-less,” said Siddiqua Nasrin, a 23-year-old from Barpeta’s Jania town, who is studying to be a dentist in Bengaluru. “The BJP of course can’t be trusted, but even the political parties, the ones which claim to speak for us, are only capable of a certain kind of politics when it comes to us.”

Siddiqua Nasrin, 23, from Barpeta's Jania, is studying to be a dentist in Bengaluru.

The rise of a middle class

Assam’s Muslims of immigrant origin have for years suffered a marginalised existence, plagued by low literacy levels, high fertility rates, and the persistent social stigma of being viewed as “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh, pejoratively called “Miya”.

Increasingly, though, an educated middle class seems to be emerging. There are more doctors, engineers, scientists, bankers from the community than ever before. Like Nasrin, more and more young people are going out of the state to pursue professional degrees chasing their dreams, determined not to bow down to majoritarianism like their ancestors. All of that while proudly embracing their history and reclaiming the once derogatory “Miya” as a distinct marker of their identity.

This is probably visible more than anywhere else in Barpeta, owing in all likelihood to the district flourishing as a commercial hub in the last couple of decades.

This upwardly mobile, ambitious and educated group is insistent that they will not be hostage to political parties who claim to “represent” them. “No political party can be the saviour of a community,” said Mahababur Rahman, who studied alternative medicine in Bengaluru and now practises in Barpeta Road, besides running his own gym-cum-mixed martial arts training centre. “And they certainly don’t represent the aspirations of the youth.”

Mahababur Rahman is a doctor and professional mixed martial arts practitioner.

A tale of two parties

For decades, the community has been disparagingly – although not entirely inaccurately – referred to as the most reliable “votebank” of the Congress.

That, however, changed to a certain extent beginning 2005 when the AIUDF came into the reckoning. Led by Badruddin Ajmal, a perfume baron and an Islamic scholar, the party’s pitch largely centred around the community’s many citizenship woes. It positioned itself as an alternative to the Congress, which it claimed had done little to protect the interests of the community despite being in power.

A large section of Muslims of Bengali origin bought that – evident in the party’s electoral success in areas dominated by them. From the 10 seats the party won in the Assembly elections of 2006, its tally ballooned to 18 in 2011. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it won three seats, as many seats as the Congress.

This sharp rise took place against the backdrop of great communal strife in the area between Muslims and tribal communities such as the Bodos that finally culminated in five days of maddening violence in 2012 which saw at least 40 people being killed and more than two lakh displaced.

Failing to meet expectations

Starting 2016, though, the AIUDF’s fortunes started to decline. Observers see this as a direct fall-out of the BJP’s rise: people chose to vote for the party more likely to stop the BJP’s juggernaut, the Congress. But many contend it was also a function of the community’s upward mobility. They were no longer enamoured by a leader whose main currencies were charity and religion.

“Many minority people don’t like it when Ajmal says things like minorities should unite and vote,” said Atifur Hussain, a 28-year Barpeta Road-based criminal lawyer and political activist who is backing the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate in Sorbhog constituency. “When a leader says such things, even if I didn’t care earlier, I would now think to myself twice a day, ‘Oh, I am a minority.’”

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is in an alliance with the AIUDF and Congress. “Minority people will vote for AIUDF this time of course,” Hussain continued, “but Ajmal should know they are not in love with him.”

Several educated people from the community spoke to made similar contentions.

As 45-year-old Eusub Hussain, who heads the history department in a government college in Kamrup, put it: “When you are speaking of fighting for our rights, why invoke Allah? We want our rights as enshrined in the Constitution as any other citizen of the country.”

Eusub Hussain, 45, studied in Aligarh Muslim University and is currently the head of the history department in a government college.

More crucially, though, many point out that the party has not been able to fulfil what is at the core of its formation: citizenship troubles of the community.

“As I see it, the AIUDF does not want to solve that problem,” said 30-year-old Mohibul Khan, a humanities graduate who now runs a pharmacy in Barpeta’s Chenga. “Because that is what is keeping the party going, this fear of minorities that they will be thrown into a detention centre any time.” Khan was referring to the detention centres that the government runs to house people declared “foreigners”.

Thirty-six-year old Mirza Lutfar Rahman from Kamrup’s Sontoli, a post-graduate in English, perhaps put it more succinctly. “Has our life been any different after the AIUDF came into being?” asked Rahman who runs a YouTube channel called “Mi-Chang Stories” that showcases the cultures of the community, particularly those who live in the Brahmaputra’s shifting islands called char. “I don’t think so.”

But there are also people who say that it is unfair to hold AIUDF and Ajmal to a higher standard when the Congress, with considerable time in power, has done no better. If nothing else, Ajmal’s personal philanthropy, they say, has helped many from the community get a higher education that they could have not have otherwise afforded.

“Women’s empowerment and independence are not priority for any party as such,” said Helmina Rahman Bhuyan, who teaches Physics in a private school in Barpeta’s Kalgachia town. “But Ajmal’s foundations at least provides education and scholarships to women. So I think this allegation of Ajmal being conservative is not correct.”

Helmina Rahman Bhuyan teaches Physics in a private school in Barpeta’s Kalgachia.

The Congress problem

Indeed, the disdain for Congress is hard to miss. “We voted for the Congress in 2016 in the hope that it would keep the BJP at bay, but that did happen,” said 34-year-old Abu Taleb who runs a State Bank of India customer service point in Barpeta’s Kadam Guri area. “So what is the point of choosing them over the AIUDF? Besides, the Congress has its own limitations when it comes to speaking for Miya Muslims because they have their other constituencies to appease.”

Also, people point out that it was during the Congress’s regime that the community suffered the worst bouts of communal violence. “The generation of our abba would blindly vote for the Congress, but the new generation doesn’t trust them,” said Nasrin, the young dentistry student who lives in Bangalore.

Abu Taleb is quite open to the idea of the BJP.

The BJP makes a (brief) impression

In fact, the disillusionment with the two parties run so deep that some say they wished the local leaders of the BJP had not taken such a communal line as they had in recent times.

“To tell the truth, we do not think the BJP in Assam is the same as the BJP in Uttar Pradesh,” said Mahababur Rahman, the doctor and martial arts practitioner. “The leaders are not fundamentally communal.”

“But it is just that they have to impress their masters outside,” he continued. “I wish they did not succumb to that pressure because under this government there have been no major cases of communal violence in the state.”

This sentiment is more common than one would expect among several educated people from the community. Taleb Ali, the banker, also said he did not really believe the state BJP leaders meant the communal rhetoric they have been indulging in of late. “I think that is their political compulsion, because all of them have business relationships with people from our community.”

To be sure, despite its reputation, the BJP did receive a fair amount of votes from the Miya Muslims in the 2016 elections – a result of a lingering frustration with the Congress and the AIUDF that remains till date.

In search of options

Consequently, new options for the future are being constantly explored. There seems to be some amount of enthusiasm for the two new regional parties that the movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act in the state birthed.

This despite the fact that some of the organisations behind the movement and the newly formed parties have in the past targeted the community for their ethnicity. For instance, the All Assam Students’ Union, whose leaders form the bulk of the newly-formed Asom Jatiya Parishad, has been at the forefront of the anti-foreigner movement in the state that has frequently led to the victimisation of Muslims of Bengali origin.

Yet many are willing to let bygones be. “All we want right now is a party who treats us as equals, anyone who says all those who came before 1971 is Assamese,” said Mahababur Rahman, referring to the cut-off for Indian citizenship in Assam.

Mohibul Khan, 30, a humanities graduate now runs a pharmacy in Barpeta’s Chenga.

Taking the plunge

Some say the only way out is to take matters in their own hands.

Nasrin, the dentist in training, said it was often a matter of discussion among her peers. “We have this WhatsApp group called Progressive Miya – there’s an IAS aspirant, another doctor, people from all occupations with a progressive thought process,” said Nasrin. “And we often discuss that when we reach a certain stage in our professional lives, we should maybe do something in politics. It’s a thought that has personally crossed my mind too.”

Some already have taken the plunge this time. Two firebrand progressive young activists from the community, Ashraful Islam and Ashraful Hussain, are contesting the elections this time. Hussain on an AIUDF ticket from Chenga; Islam from Jania on the platform of the jailed peasant leader-led Akhil Gogoi.

Hussain, who has a police case against him for writing poetry in the Miya dialectseen as a transgression by a section of the Assamese-speakers – is somewhat defensive when asked about his choice of party, given a certain discord between his personal politics and the AIUDF’s. “You need an organisational base to contest elections,” he said when we met as he made his way from one election meeting to another in deep rural Barpeta on a wet March evening.

Ashraful Hussain, a poet and activist, is contesting on an AIUDF ticket.

Hussain seemed all too aware of the realities of being part of a political party. “Personally, I, Ashraful, Hussain, will continue to speak up on issues of citizenship,” he said. “But that does not mean the party will act on my whims, the party has a committee on those issues.”

As we parted, he added: “I hope if I become an MLA, I will be able to bring some new direction to the party.”

But not everyone is willing to make the adjustments. Not yet at least. Atifur Hussain, the criminal lawyer, who is actively rallying behind the CPI (M) candidate in Sorbhog said if the campaign culminated in victory, he would wait for six months at most. “If he does not speak up about our issues within that period, I will withdraw my support and tell my people to do the same,” he said. “We will not be in anyone’s pocket anymore. Walk the talk if you want our votes.”