Behind the Scenes of the Ali-Kuli Factor: Assam Elections 2016 

Will Migrant Muslims and migrant tea estate workers again play a decisive role in the Assam Assembly polls?

Updated
Politics
4 min read
(Photo: Tridip K Mandal/Altered by <b>The Quint</b>)

Devakanta Barua, president of the Indian National Congress during the Emergency (1975-77) and known for his infamous proclamation “India is Indira. Indira is India,” had first mentioned the “Ali-Kuli” factor describing the vote banks of Assam (Ali – migrant Muslims and Kuli – migrant tea estate workers).

Decades have passed yet the ‘Ali-Kuli’ factor remains as relevant and crucial in the political narrative of Assam. The first phase of polling for the Assam Assembly elections concluded at 6 pm on 4 April. The second phase is due on 11 April. Will the Congress succeed in retaining its hold, or will it make way for the BJP-led coalition to come to power? Will the Ali-Kuli factor play the deciding role again?

The 2011 Census found that nine out of the 27 districts of Assam were Muslim-majority districts. On 15 August 2015, Tarun Gogoi, the Chief Minister of Assam, announced the formation of five new districts in the state, and on 26 January 2016, two more districts were announced, taking the total number from 27 to 34.

Women in Jorhat after voting in the first phase of Assam assembly elections. (Photo: PTI)
Women in Jorhat after voting in the first phase of Assam assembly elections. (Photo: PTI)

If we consider the 2011 census, 41 Assembly constituencies of the nine districts of Assam going to the polls this time, are mostly dominated by Muslims. But only a small percentage of the Muslim population in these nine districts are indigenous Muslims of Assam. Most others have come and settled in the state from Bangladesh over the decades, a confusing time-frame to decide their legality.

Basics like education, healthcare, drinking water, have been a distant dream for most of them. Settled mostly in Char areas that have no permanent stature, they are living solely on the mercy of a local chieftain or the Matabar.

In most cases, the Matabar decides their electoral rights. Luckier ones, who have escaped the Char areas, are constantly evacuated by the government from one place to another without any proper policies, often for political benefits.

The Alis of Kaziranga

Musfiqur, 31, owns a small kiosk selling pan and bidis. His original village was Palkhua on the outskirts of Kaziranga. He now lives in an illegal settlement near the Burapahar Hills. Musfiqur tells me that in 1996-97, the Prafulla Mahanta-led AGP government had come to power when his people were evicted from Palkhua. They were shifted here after being evicted. Some stayed, others left for places like Aambagan, Juriya, Rupohi, etc. Most of the older people have died and their sons and daughters are living here now. They had approached the high court but the matter fizzled out. Now, because of the elections, things have come to a halt.

Musfiqur says,

Both my mother and my father have died there in Palkhua. We weren’t given any papers and all to legalise the eviction. Only 50 percent of the people have voter ID cards.

Keramat Ali, 51, makes no qualms about the fact that directly or indirectly, the Congress government has helped them to settle there. “If the BJP comes to power, we will definitely be evicted from this place. Our only hope is Congress retaining power. There is no denying this, it’s a fact,” he says. His old eyes glow as he speaks.

The Kulis of Upper Assam

Tea garden workers huddle under an umbrella as they wait for the rain to stop to resume their work inside Aideobarie Tea Estate in Jorhat, Assam. (Photo: Reuters)
Tea garden workers huddle under an umbrella as they wait for the rain to stop to resume their work inside Aideobarie Tea Estate in Jorhat, Assam. (Photo: Reuters)

Tea gardens have always been exploited, by political parties as an easy vote bank in Assam, especially Upper Assam (5 districts in Upper Assam with 24 Assembly Constituencies have a formidable percentage of Adivasi voters). The Kulis, or the Adivasis, are one of the most marginalised communities in Assam at present. Both MPs are from Upper Assam and multiple MLAs belong to the tea garden community. Brought in by the British, the Adivasis of Assam are actually Gonds, Mundas, Kols, Tantis and Kumhars from the central part of India. Over the decades, they have grown to the present figure of around 60 lakh and constitute 18 percent of Assam’s population as of the 2011 census.

Rajiv Tanti, 32, former Mohori or Overseer of a tea garden at Tingkhong, says that the daily wage of a tea garden labour doesn’t even meet the minimum daily wage limit set by the government.

A tea-garden labourer gets a fixed daily wage of Rs 139 on paper, which dwindles to Rs 100 by the time it reaches the labourer.

Tea Garden Workers as Vote Banks

Tea tribe women showing their inked fingers after casting their vote during the first phase Assembly Elections for Duliajan Assembly Constituency at Bordubi. (Photo: PTI)&nbsp;
Tea tribe women showing their inked fingers after casting their vote during the first phase Assembly Elections for Duliajan Assembly Constituency at Bordubi. (Photo: PTI) 

When asked about the stereotypical tag ‘vote bank of the Congress’, he says, “I know that, but things are changing now. We are more aware and can’t be led on like that anymore. But yes, many from the older generation still vote without proper knowledge.”

Mahatu, one Adivasi student leader, discloses, “In the tea-gardens before the elections, the labourers are being told that whatever they are being paid as daily wages, a fraction of that is given by the local Congress MLA. If they don’t vote for Congress now, then their names will be erased from the tea gardens and they will be thrown out of the quarters.” He tells me that this is happening across many tea gardens of Upper Assam this time.

The most important thing for a tea garden labourer is the tea garden itself, and nothing sounds more dreadful than losing one’s job. The young generation is more aware and they want to study and get good government jobs. But their roots still bind them to their original identity as mere vote banks.

(The writer is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist)

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