‘Why Make This Election About Us?’: Assam Muslims Ask BJP & Sarma
“We belong here, this is our home. Our fathers and grandfathers are buried here. We are like any other voter.”
"If you have done work, good. Why keep attacking a community then?" asks Mohammad Fahim Barbhuiyan from Badarpur in Assam's Karimganj district.
Barbhuiyan is referring to senior Assam BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma's statement that the BJP doesn't need the votes of 35 percent of the population, a veiled reference towards the state's Muslim population. He asks:
“We belong here, this is our home. Our fathers and grandfathers are buried here. We are like any other voter. Why are they (BJP leaders) making this election about us?”
In the other end of the state, Bittu, a Muslim resident of North Lakhimpur echoes a similar sentiment.
"The BJP is making this about Hindu-Muslim, ignoring people's problems. This is unfortunate," he laments.
Bittu feels particularly taken aback with statements like that made by Himanta Biswa Sarma.
“Assamese Hindus and Muslims are different from Hindus and Muslims in rest of India. We are less rigid in our practices and not so concerned about religious identity. I worked in Hyderabad for a while. There I would always try to be close to fellow Assamese, many of who were Hindu, rather than local Muslims. It is sad that people are trying to divide us now,” Bittu said.
Even within themselves, Assam's Muslims are a diverse lot. According to historian Yasmin Saikia, they can be divided into at least four different groups — ‘Muslim-Axamia (also called Goriya, Tholua or Khilonjia), Bengali speaking or Bhotia, up-country or Juluha (from UP and Bihar), and immigrant Muslims, referred to as Miya’.
This diversity may lead to diverse views on issues like the National Register of Citizens but there's near complete unanimity on the statements made by Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Is Sarma's Tirade Backfiring?
The BJP, Sarma in particular, has been accused of making dog-whistle communal statements during the campaign for the Assam Assembly elections – from his "35 percent are trying to divide Assam” statement to his jibe that the Congress should make the lungi (traditionally associated with Bengali Muslims) as its election symbol.
In a recent interview to Times of India, Sarma said that Assam is facing a "civilisational" conflict and accused Miyas or Muslims of Bengali migrant origin of being a "threat to Assamese people" because they "give birth to 12-14 children".
The party has also promised a law against "love jihad", an issue unheard of in Assam where intermarriage between Hindus and Muslims is relatively more common and accepted than many other parts of India.
Sarma's comments may have excited BJP's core base but it has also led to a counter consolidation of Muslims, particularly Bengali speaking ones, behind the Congress-AIUDF alliance.
Nasim, a voter in Kokrajhar, is reconciled to vote for the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), despite the party having a past of hostility against Bengali speaking Muslims.
"We have no choice. This is a question of survival for us," he says.
On being asked if he may have voted differently had BJP leaders not been making such statements, he says, "Yes, we could have considered voting for some other candidate."
Sarma's statement targetting “35 percent” has harmed the BJP's chances even among Assamese speaking Muslims. This is a section that the party has been trying to woo.
In its manifesto, the BJP has promised that it would conduct a special socio-economic caste census to identify indigenous Muslims, including Goria, Moria, Deshi, Juluha, Maimol etc.
But when Sarma emphasises on the figure of “35 percent”, it means that he means all Muslims, not just the 20-25 percent who speak Bengali.
Arbaj is an activist of the All Assam Students' Union in Chabua, the epicentre of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests. He is particularly upset at the BJP because of the CAA and for statements made by Sarma.
"I am against AIUDF and Congress because they want to bring foreigners into India. I am against the BJP for the same reason. The BJP uses anti-Muslim rhetoric to fool people and on the sides it wants to settle outsiders here," he says.
For Assamese Muslims like Arbaj, opposition to CAA is very important.
For them, it means an acknowledgement that Assamese Hindus and Assamese Muslims are one people and that the main divide in the state is between “sons of the soil” and “outsiders”, and not “Hindu vs Muslim”.
Arbaj's sympathies lie more with the newly-formed political outfits in Assam – the Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal.
For Barbhuiya and Nasim, on the other hand, the main issue determining their vote is their constant targetting by BJP leaders like Sarma.
The Ajmals, Hindutva and the Layered Politics of Hojai
A pet target of Sarma and rest of the BJP is the chief of the All India United Democratic Front Badruddin Ajmal.
On 26 March Union Home Minister Amit Shah said at a rally in Morigaon that Ajmal is doing "land jihad in Assam", another term that has never been heard of.
The truth regarding Ajmal and Hindu-Muslim relations in Assam is much more complex than the singular narrative the BJP is putting forward.
A good place to understand this is Hojai district in the centre of Assam that votes in the second phase of polling on 1 April.
The district is dominated by Bengali-speaking migrants – both Hindu and Muslim. Hojai in many ways is a highly polarised space.
Hojai and Lumding are the two main towns and both are dominated by Bengali Hindus, with a very strong presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindutva organisations like Rashtriya Sevasharam Sangh.
Hojai also happens to be the home district of the Ajmal family. They are the most prominent business family in Hojai town, Ajmal's eldest son is the sitting MLA from Jamunamukh in Hojai district and his brother Sirajuddin Ajmal is contesting from the seat this time.
But beneath Hojai's polarised polity are layers of complexity. The Ajmal family runs a number of charitable establishments across the district that benefit both local Hindus and Muslims.
Local Hindus, even those voting BJP, often praise Ajmal for doing a lot for the city, especially by setting up the Haji Abdul Majid Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, one of the better hospitals in the district.
On the other hand, some local Muslims praise the sitting BJP MLA Shiladitya Deb for laying down roads in Muslim localities in Hojai that had been neglected for many years.
Interestingly, Deb is known to be a rabble-rouser who often makes communal statements. But when he was denied a ticket due to pressure from one faction of the Assam BJP, a number of local Muslims were disappointed and alleged that he may have been penalised for doing work in Muslim areas.
Polarisation That Didn’t Quite Materialise
Having realised that his statements may have led to a consolidation of a very sizable chunk of the electorate, Himanta Biswa Sarma is reportedly trying to control the damage and say that he was only referring to "Miya Muslims" and that too with the intent of "bringing progress" to them.
On the other hand, the Hindu consolidation that a section of BJP may have desired didn't quite materialise, except in a few seats. For instance, in Udharbond in Cachar district, a Bengali Hindu voter Biswajit said, "The electorate has seen through this Hindu-Muslim discourse. We will vote on the basis of the performance of the MLA."
In neighbouring Silchar, a BJP stronghold, the party is facing divisions from within – with outgoing BJP MLA Dilip Kumar Pal contesting as an Independent using identical slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai” and “Vande Mataram” as the BJP.
To add to the divisions, former VHP president Pravin Togadia has also put up a candidate in Silchar, staking claim to pro-Hindutva votes.
As areas like Udharbond, Silchar, Badarpur, and Hojai prepare to vote in the second phase of polling on 1 April, it appears that communal polarisation hasn’t become a major factor as many may have hoped.
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