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Sushanta Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2016-11-05

Citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis: Assam Chief Minister’s tactical position indicates Himanta Biswa Sarma’s growing clout

 

Assam Education and Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s statement that “Assamese people should choose its enemy between Hindu and Bangladeshi migrants and accept Hindu Bangladeshi migrants to safeguard their own  the identity from growing Muslim population” has not gone down well in his own party as it has provoked strong protests across the state. However, the latest developments clearly indicate that the ruling party cannot afford to antagonise the former Congress minister, who played a crucial role in formation of the first BJP-led government in the state.

This was evident when state BJP spokesman Rupam Goswami, who rushed to denounce Dr Sarma’s statement on the issue of Hindu Bangladeshis as “not the party view but as his own ( Himanta Biswa Sarma’s),” had to retract in less than 24 hours and clarify that that the Health and Education minister’s views were also the also the party’s views on the issue.

Such development within the ruling party perhaps also explains Chief Minister and state BJP president Sarbananda Sonowal refraining from spelling out a clear stand on the issue despite huge public outcry against Dr Sarma’s statement. Instead, Sonowal continues to reiterate his articulated position that his government is fully committed to protect language, culture and traditions of all indigenous people of the state. “This present government has been formed with massive support of all indigenous people of Assam and this government fully committed to protect language, culture and tradtions of all indigenous people,” said the Chief Minister while addressing the Third annual conference of United Bodo People’s Organisation in Guwahati on November 4. S

Not just the issue of Hindu Bangladeshis, selection of BJP candidates for by-election to Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency and Boithalangshu assembly constituency also indicate that it is not possible to get anything done within the ruling party without Dr Sarma pulling some strings. BJP has fielded its Dhemaji legislator Pradan Barua as the candidate for Lakhmpur Lok Sabha seat which was vacated by Sonowal following his election to the state assembly. Barua was a trusted lieutenant of Dr Sarma when the latter raised the banner of revolt when the duo were in Congress and followed suit after the former Congress minister joined the BJP. BJP candidate for Boithalangshu assembly by-poll is Dr Mansing Rongpi who won the seat in assembly polls earlier this year on Congress ticket but quit his membership from the state assembly and the Congress party in July to join the BJP. Dr Rongpi too was seen backing Dr Sarma in his rebellion against former chief minister Tarun Gogoi but he did not join the BJP immediately and contested on Congress ticket.

However, early rumblings of dissents in the ruling party could be heard with a senior state leader Mira Borthakur strongly opposing Dr Sarma’s statement and the party position on Hindu Bangladeshi issue. Former BJP legislator from Doomdooma assembly constituency Dilip Moran has quit from the party after being denied the party ticket and is contesting as an independent candidate in Lakhimpur Lok Sabha constituency. Moran quit to protest the party “ignoring and not-recognising the old timers and senior members.” “There is Hitler raj in Assam BJP now and both the party and the government is now run by one man,” he told journalist.

Dr Sarma’s statement on the Hindu Bangladeshi is in conformity with the RSS and BJP’s Hindutva ideology that has space only for religious identity but no space for the linguistic and ethno-nationalist identities. So, for them the Assamese is not a linguistic identity but a religious identity and therefore they see no threat to Assamese identity if the Hindu Bangladeshis are granted citizenship and if the population of Bengalis surpass the population of Assamese speakers in the state. The Sangh parivar, however, is also aware of the social realities that the Assamese pride is based on linguistic identity as speakers of rich language as well as a strong cultural identity that took shape as result of inter-mixing of communities that migrated from far and wide and settled in this part of the world. They needed leaders with strong public image of championing the cause of both linguistic and cultural identities of the Assamese to make breakthrough in the state politics. The formula did work. Having won the elections with the help of the image of the leaders with background in the All Assam Students Union, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad or the Asom Gana Parishad, which have been opposing identification of illegal migrants on religious basis, the BJP and the sangh parivar now want to aggressively push their Hindutva agenda and Dr Sarma’s statement is a manifestation of desperate attempts by the sangh parivar to influence its supporters among the Assamese voters to change their perception of Assamese identity from a linguistic and cultural identity to a religious identity as Hindus.

Dr Sarma’s desperation was reflected in his attempt to paint all the Muslims of erstwhile East Bengal origin, including the pre-1971 migrants who study in Assamese medium and who return themselves as Assamese speakers in successive Censuses, as “illegal migrants”. The BJP and the RSS believe that it would not be difficult to influence the Assamese people to change their perception on identity from linguistic and cultural identities to a religious identity given the apprehension among the Assamese people of being overwhelmed by influx of “illegal migrants” from across the porous India-Bangladesh border. However, Assamese people have been expressing apprehension of being overwhelmed by all “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion and therefore have been demanding that the porous India-Bangladesh border be sealed and all those who entered the state illegally after the cut-off date of March 24, 1971 as stipulated in the Assam Accord, irrespective of Hindus or Muslims, be identified and expelled back to Bangladesh.

Silence of the BJP leaders who have backgrounds in AASU, AJYCP or AGP on the Hindu Bangladeshi issue and ruling party’s theory that Assamese people need the help of the Hindu Bangladeshis to protect their identities is bound to create confusion among a large section of their followers which shifted loyalties to the BJP  in 2014 Lok Sabha polls and 2016 assembly polls as these leaders have promised to protect jati (nation), mati ( land) and bheti ( properties) of all indigenous people from all “illegal migrants.”

Of the 60 BJP legislators in the current 125-member Assam Assembly, 20 have Congress background who followed suit when Dr Sarma had quit the Congress party and joined the BJP last year. Of the BJP’s two coalition partners, the Asom Gana Parishad has 13 legislators and the Bodoland People’s Front has 12 legislators.

The numbers and the growing clout of Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma within the ruling party because of his efforts to further the Hindutva agenda of the BJP and the RSS perhaps explain Chief Minister Sonowal’s silence on a crucial issue of granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis.

 

Sushanta Talukdar

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