Bengali Muslims are at centre of electoral discourse, Assamese Muslims are too few to swing any seat.
In an election where the BJP is confident of having done well in the first phase, the Congress and Badruddin Ajmal’s AIUDF will each be hoping for a Muslim consolidation in its favour Monday when 61 seats of central and lower Assam go to polls.
Both parties would know, however, that the arithmetic on the ground is far more complicated than that. For, Muslims in Assam are not the monolith they are perceived to be elsewhere. More than religion, language is the demarcating feature.
At one end of the spectrum are the indigenous, Assamese-speaking Muslims, also known as Khilonjia Muslims, who include groups such as Goria (derived from the medieval kingdom of Gaur) and Moria (bell metal workers). At the other end, and politically more muscular with their sheer numbers, are the ones locals call Abhibasi, who migrated at various times from what is now Bangladesh. They hold voter cards (some marked ‘D’ or doubtful) and are at the cross-hairs of the BJP, whose Sarbar Sankalpa (promises of CM aspirant Sarbananda Sonowal) include “100% foreigner-free NRC”.
Muslims add up to over one crore, or roughly one-third of Assam’s population.
“There are 30 to 33 seats where Muslims can decide the outcome, but not one seat where indigenous Assamese Muslims can ensure the victory of a candidate,” said veteran journalist Haidar Hussain.
“There are about 42 lakh indigenous Muslims in Assam, and 60-70 lakh who had come from East Bengal/East Pakistan; some say the figure is 80 lakh. In seats such as Dhing, Rupohihat, Batadroba, Bilasipara West, it is the Bengali Muslims — mind you, most of them now speak Assamese, some of them study in Assamese too — who play a decisive role.”
Assamese Muslims have traditionally been averse to the BJP. However, with the BJP campaign focusing on what it calls a “secret understanding” between Ajmal and the Congress, fears of Ajmal emerging powerful — this is something that many Assamese Muslims are wary of — and with anger at the Congress’s traditional indifference, some political commentators feel that Assamese Muslims may just decide at the last minute to throw their lot in with BJP, a party that Haidar Hussain describes as a “conglomerate of ex-Congress and ex-AGP”.
Jalukbari in Guwahati is the constituency of Himanta Biswa Sarma, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s closest aide until he left the Congress. Here, one does find Muslims inclined to vote for him. “So what if Himanta has joined the BJP?” said Asiful Hussain, who runs a shop. “All this talk about Muslims not liking the BJP is rubbish. The Congress has made this state a Bangladeshi den, only the BJP can clean it up.”
The BJP is hopeful that Assamese Muslims would have voted for the party in upper Assam, which voted on April 5. “They were with the Congress for a long time but their interests have not been served. They will come with us,” said Rupam Goswami, state BJP spokesman. “As for the promise to weed out foreigners, let us be clear that those who came to India before 1971 are Indians; those Bengali Muslims will also go with us.”
“Assamese Muslims do not want to be clubbed with those who are not of Indian origin. They think they are superior. They look at the BJP as a North Indian party but there is also anger against the Congress for having ignored them all this while,” said Nani Gopal Mahanta, head of the political science department in Gauhati University.
“On the other hand are the Muslims who are not originally from Assam and whose profile is different,” Mahanta said. “Mark one thing — Badruddin Ajmal is the MP from Dhubri, his core base of Bengali-speaking Muslims is in Dhubri, Bilasipara West, South Salmara etc. Yet all his development work is in his hometown, Hojai. This is the politics of underdevelopment.”
Hojai is a small town dotted with institutions run by the Ajmal Foundation — hospital, school, college, madrasa — and a palatial family residence. Support for him is very vocal and the fact that the AIUDF candidate is a tribal, Dhaniram Thausel, is an added advantage. Said Abdul Jaleel, “Maulana is a generous man; he donates tens of thousands of rupees every day. Nobody can defeat the AIUDF here. Look at the BJP office, there is not a soul.” The sitting MLA in Hojai, though, is of the Congress — Dr Ardhendu De.
Posters of the BJP’s Shiladitya Deb are few and far between. Yet Sariful Islam, sitting at a tea stall across the road from Ajmal College of Arts College and Science, nodded in agreement when stall owner Bishu spoke of a hawa in favour of the BJP. “What we need is development. Look at the condition of the roads. Power went at 11 this morning, it is 3 and there is still no light,” said Sariful, who speaks both Bengali and Assamese.
A Congress sympathiser who did not want to be named cited yet another voting pattern among Muslims. In areas such as Kokrajhar and Chirang governed by the Bodoland Territorial Council, he said, Bengali-speaking Muslims vote for the Bodo People’s Front. “Safety is an important concern and in those parts, only the Bodos can guarantee Muslims that. That is why there is always a Bodo-Muslim consolidation,” he said.