From Guwahati to Goalpara, Ignorance in Assam’s Peripheries
Under a grey morning sky, we start from Guwahati. Assam goes to the polls in two phases – 4 and 11 April. High-profile campaigners, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi are busy hopping from one meeting to another across Upper Assam for the first phase.
We head towards Lower Assam, so far relatively untouched by the election craze, to hear about the real issues that often get drowned by the electoral din.
Driving down National Highway-37, the picturesque and expansive Rani-Garbhanga Reserve Forest hills is on our left. Our first stop is Bijoynagar, a busy town under Palasbari constituency. This was a sleepy place till comparatively better-off families shifted here after suffering due to severe erosion of the mighty Brahmaputra.
Need for Party Connection
Dominated by caste-Hindu Assamese, Palasbari is one of those few constituencies where individual candidates have always mattered more than political parties. Sitting MLA Jatin Mali won the 2011 polls as an independent candidate, defeating Pranab Kalita, another independent candidate by a narrow margin.
But this time things look different, two gentlemen at a paan shop tell me. “Pranab Kalita’s nomination by the BJP will be a turning point for Palasbari,” one of them says. Another person says that people are tired of independent candidates. “They have realised the need to be connected to a political party.”
Paan firmly in cheek, we hit the highway again. The sky clears as we reach Chaygaon town. Rekibuddin Ahmed, the sitting Congress MLA from Chaygaon made news due to his association with the dissident team of MLAs led by Himanta Biswa Sarma who is now with the BJP. Ahmed subsequently had second thoughts.
“What about the BJP-supported
AGP’s nominee Dr Kamala Kalita?” I ask him.
“This will lead to vote division as one section of BJP supporters will vote for the Congress now,” he says, underscoring the after-effects of the BJP-AGP alliance and the seat-sharing formula that has upset many supporters of the two parties.
Fear of the BJP
Some Chaygaon residents, gathered at a tea vendor’s rudimentary stall, said that the Garo and the Rabha people are a bit wary after rumours that if the BJP is voted to power, beef won’t be allowed in the state anymore. An undercurrent of religious tension exists, according to them, and chances of pre-election violence cannot be ruled out.
Pointing to a warren of huts in the distance, a Rabha woman selling paan says “everything is decided by those few blocks overpopulated by Bengali Muslims. The place is teeming with them.”
Boko’s Rape Slur
Further down the highway is Boko whose sitting MLA, Gopinath Das, belongs to the Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). Das is in a piquant situation, faced as he is with charges of raping a 14-year-old girl. Widespread protests were followed by a blockade of the NH-37 before clashes broke out between two AIUDF factions.
The AIUDF has a strong presence in the char (riverine sand bars) areas. AIUDF workers said that the Boko constituency has 15 panchayats in the char areas while 11 others are under the Boko development block. Over one lakh people dwell on the char. They play a decisive role in elections.
At a local rice mill, Mukuta Bora, 46, says, “In spite of Das having a strong char vote base, this time Jyoti Prasad Das of AGP who served as MLA in 2006-11, has a better chance as he is backed by the BJP.”
While the BJP never has been a factor in previous assembly elections in Boko, the rape slur on Das might prove to be a turning point. Interestingly, the BJP candidate has suddenly decided to contest the polls as an independent candidate following the party’s decision to pave the way for the AGP nominee.
Beyond Boko, the landscape gets more breathtaking with every kilometre. Rows of saal on either side of the highway indicate that we are entering Goalpara district. At Dhupdhara under Dudhnoi reserved constituency, a clutch of BJP workers are upbeat that a Rabha candidate backed by their party will put up a tough fight against sitting Congress legislator Sibcharan Basumatary.
Dudhnoi has a mixed demography and there are villages which lack infrastructure and development.
We turn left towards Rangjuli and hit a kuchcha road, a long and narrow carpet of blazing red soil. The previous night’s rain has loosened the soil, making driving a car near-impossible.
Remote Patch of Civilisation
In a remote village on the Assam-Meghalaya border nestles a patch of civilisation that knows or cares little about election or political parties. For most villages in this part of Assam, basic amenities like electricity, water supply and healthcare are alien concepts for the villagers.
Backwardness coupled with little or no access to education characterise most parts of Rangjuli where a couple of months ago a woman who was branded a witch was killed. “The mob first set fire to her legs and then to her face. They then beat her dead”, a functionary of the Assam Mahila Samata Samiti said.
Witch-hunting is rampant in these peripheral areas and lack of access to education and healthcare has made matters worse. When people die because of water-borne diseases, which are a scourge in these remote parts of Assam, the deaths are labelled as handiworks of a “witch” – the most unpopular person in the village.
(The writer is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist)