In the recent state elections, amidst their blinding dust and bustle, the high-pitched melodrama and posturing of election podiums, cynical engineering of venomous divisions, stinging speeches, dizzying stakes, thronging crowds mustered in defiance of every safety norm of the Covid-19 pandemic and the open vulgar play of big illegal money, one iridescent story stands out, with hope.
This story demonstrates that even with flaws in the Indian democracy, it is still possible for a young person from an intensely marginalised community to fight and decisively win elections with empty pockets, equipped only with idealism and the Constitution, where your only capital is the trust that earned from selfless service of one’s people. This is the story of Ashraful Hussain.
At 27 years, this tireless rights activist, journalist and poet is the youngest legislator elected to the 2021 Assam assembly. He contested the election on an All India United Democratic Front ticket. His constituency is Chenga, the achingly beautiful but ecologically intensely fragile and impoverished riverine islands of the Brahmaputra River. It is not unusual for some of the islands to get washed away every monsoon. He did not inherit the seat from his parents as is common with most youthful legislators in India. His father was a village school teacher and is now a small shopkeeper. His mother was injured in an accident, his sister is speech challenged.
Citizenship crisis and activism
I have visited his modest home in Haripur village, on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra. Each month, he would bring little money home, but his parents were glowingly proud of the service their son offered to their people.
His determined work was particularly valued through the fraught process in which millions among India’s impoverished and poorly lettered people were forced to prove their family tree through vintage documents before hostile and sceptical officials, to establish that they were indeed citizens of this land. Ashraful’s parents were proud of the love that he had earned, of the many thousand people he had tried to help, and importantly their trust.
I have known Ashraful now for many years, and share the same pride in him as his parents. He studied in his local village school and then graduated in engineering at Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology. Before long he joined a well-paying corporate job in Pune. However, the turbulent citizenship crisis in Assam compelled him to change the course of his life and return to his people.
He came back home and started working first as a freelance journalist to write the stories of pain and suffering of people whose citizenship was arbitrarily and unjustly contested by the government. It was around then that I got to know him. Just before the 2014 General elections, a forest village in a remote island in Baksa district was ravaged by the merciless gunning down of around 40 women and children by Bodo militants.
I went to the village as part of a fact-finding group. Devastated by the suffering of the survivors of the massacre, especially children, I made a call for young people to volunteer for healing, harmony and justice and to record the truth of their stories. Ashraful was one among those who volunteered, as a journalist who fearlessly reported the story of the massacre.
In the autumn of 2017, I had made a call for a journey across the country to the homes of survivors of lynching and hate violence. We called this the Karwan e Mohabbat or Caravan of Love. To the homes of each family stricken by hate, the Karwan went as we would to the homes of those who had been brutally bereaved, as friends and loved ones.
We assured each of the stricken families that there are many people in India who care intensely, who suffer with them. We sought their forgiveness for what our country had become. We promised that we would steadily stand with them in their battles for justice and as they rebuilt the broken pieces of their lives.
And that we would tell their story, not letting it die. The Karwan continued its journeys for three years, right up to the Covid-19 lockdown. The first journey of the Karwan began in Assam in 2017, in a village in Nagaon in which two young boys had been slaughtered with great cruelty, the mob charging them with cow slaughter. Ashraful joined this first journey and went on with us to Jharkhand, Delhi, Mewat, West Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and coastal Karnataka. He became inseparable from the Karwan e Mohabbat.
The work of the Karwan soon included supporting families in Assam to negotiate their complex and intimidating bureaucracy, as they struggled to collect decades-old documents to establish their family tree and prove that they were Indian citizens. Ashraful was one of the leaders of this process.
We worked through local volunteers who we called Samvidhan Saathis or Friends of the Constitution. During the years of the National Register of Citizens process, he and his Samvidhan Saathis supported the bewildered, frightened, poorly lettered people living in remote and transient river islands and eroding river banks.
It is in these years, in the course of this work, that he won the trust of his people. They had in the past sold all their belongings to pay bribes to officials and fly by night lawyers who disappeared with their fees and never came back again. Here was a band of fresh-faced young people who took no money from them, who treated them with respect, helped them fill forms and negotiate the maze of the unwelcoming and opaque officialdom, and treated them with care and respect like sons and daughters.
During these years, a movement of protest poetry began in Assam that shook the entire state. Bengali-origin Assamese are pejoratively called Miya. The protest poets proudly claimed this abuse and called themselves Miya poets. Prominent among the Miya poets was Ashraful Hussain.
Political leaders, intellectuals, writers across Assam condemned the Miya poetry as an insult to Assam, an act of treason against the Assamese people. The police registered crimes against the Miya poets. Those listed in the police records as criminals included Ashraful.
He had written, for instance, in white rage:
I stand in the witness box and look at your face;
Are you the symbol of justice?
I shut my eyes and give you everything,
My birth certificate, records of my childhood, youth,
Senility, riots, Quit India, ‘83, Basbari.
You turn my worn-out moth-eaten papers,
Your stamp goes thump, thump, thump,
Your pen draws a long line,
The sounds fall on my ears,
But my eyes are shut.
My heart trembles.
I open my eyes and my hands,
Are in the hands of salaried gunslingers.
I am taken to my cell.
My days pass in fear and uncertainty,
Like a common criminal,
Lost to dignity, lost to justice.
Who I am is my crime,
What I am is what I look like,
And my crime of language is what makes me stateless.
His was an extraordinary election victory in many ways. When he was given the ticket by the All India United Democratic Front, he had a fortune of just Rs 1,074 in his bank. He was opposed by not just the BJP alliance candidate, but also a candidate of the Congress that was fighting the elections in alliance with the AIUDF.
The Congress described this as a “friendly fight”, whatever that means. His opponents were veteran politicians, wealthy, with vast resources to deploy in the battle. Ashraful was undaunted. The indigent villagers of his constituency raised money for his election. At many places, they sold their eggs and livestock to contribute to his fund. He won in the end by over 50,000 votes. His two senior opponents totted up only around 20,000 votes between them.
I talked to him after his election. I spoke to him of other rights activists who were widely loved and respected by the people, like Medha Patkar and Irom Sharmila. But they could never win an election. How was he different? I asked him.
“My opponents had converted this election into a marketplace of money power,” he replied. “I told my people that if I throw money at you today as bribes to vote for me, then tomorrow I will have to engage in corruption to earn back my bribes to you. Therefore, I will not give you money.”
“I assured them that instead, I will work for you,” he said. “I will talk raise my voice for you, loudly and logically. I will be in touch with you all the time. I will be accountable to you for all my activities. That’s why people have voted me.”
“People knew me for my work as a journalist and social worker,” he said. “I had built relationships with each of them. I would talk to them about their petty issues and try to solve them. I can recognise each and every one of the villagers in my constituency. There are more than one lakh families in village areas, I know people of every family.”
I asked him if he feared that he would slip and make basic compromises in the “reality” of today’s politics in India. He was an activist, a journalist, a poet. What would he do to keep his voice clear and honest? He replied – “it was not I who was elected, it was the people”.
“I have power now, as an opposition leader, he sais. “But I must remember to use this power always for the people, not for myself. Do not worry, I will not get sold out. I am in politics for my poor people, to add strength to their struggles. I will never betray the faith of my people”.
He spoke to me of the dread that has grown among his people – the Bengali-origin Assamese Muslim, the Miya – because of the BJP. This has mounted hugely after they had been returned to power in the elections. They had openly declared that if they were returned to power, they would reopen the NRC in Assam because they were dissatisfied with the results.
“Now look, what type of NRC is the BJP is thinking of creating?” he said. “This NRC will only be a biased NRC, designed to detain or expel the Muslims, to keep the Muslims segregated and fearful, to exploit them. They will make the children of this country foreigners. That’s the great danger my people will face in the coming future”.
I recalled the searing words of one of his poems:
Brother, I am a man from the chars [the river islands]
On the Brahmaputra among kohua, jhau-ikra;
In the shade of nal-khagori is my jute-stick house.
People call me a choruwa, bhatiya, immigrant shaykh,
Suspected Bangladeshi, non-aboriginal,
Bangladeshi and what-not.
And though I was born in Assam and pride in
Calling myself an Assamese
The language does not slide down my tongue
My father wears a blue-checked lungi
My mother wears a saree
My sister wears mekhela or churidar
And me, brother, I wear jeans pants.
My father wears on his chin a handful of beard
A topi on his head, a string of beads on his hand, a jute bag on his shoulders
But because he wears on his jaw broken Assamese,
He walks from work to the police station
Sometimes as a Bangladeshi, sometimes as a fundamentalist.
The big men say chacha-chacha and help him out of the lock-up.
The next day he is off to work again
To repay the hefty bribe.
He added, I know we have a long way to go. He underlined what we had learned together, that we need to approach each battle against our adversaries of hate and division with love and the Constitution.
“I will speak and work according to the Constitution,” he said. “When we uphold the Constitution, we dream of great things, of a country that is built on the foundations of brotherhood or sisterhood.”
Harsh Mander is a human rights and peace worker, writer, columnist, researcher and teacher who works with survivors of mass violence, hunger, homeless persons and street children. His Twitter handle is @harsh_mander.