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When Assam’s Indigenous Muslims Threw in Their Lot With the BJP

Assam’s indigenous Muslims voted for the BJP for being enrolled as Indian citizens, writes Anuraag Baruah.

Published
Politics
3 min read
 BJP workers celebrate their party’s victory  in the recently concluded  Assam assembly polls, in Bengaluru, on May 19, 2016. (Photo: IANS)

Assam is perhaps the only Indian state with a unique Muslim population that constitutes at least four different groups, each with its own set of expectations, aspirations and concerns. Axomiya-Muslim (also known as Goriya or Khilonjia), Bengali-speaking (Bhotia), Juluha or up-country (UP, Bihar etc.) and immigrant Muslims (miya).

Without understanding the history and origins of these four communities and the composite culture created by them, one will only fail to judge the complexities they bring in terms of Assam’s social and the political landscape. For example, all these years most political parties failed to understand that the illegal migrants issue had caused an immense setback to the Khilonjia Muslims who are looking for a solution. 

The BJP was quick to understand this and it relentlessly pursued the illegal migrants issue in the run-up to the Assam polls, knowing fully well that it would help them in getting the support of the Axomiya, Bhotia and Juluha Muslims. The ‘Jati-Mati-Bheti’ slogan that became the basis of the BJP’s campaign not only polarised the voters in terms of nationality but also seems to have divided Assam’s numerically strongest minority community into Bengali-speaking ‘migrant’ Muslims and ‘indigenous’ Assamese Muslims.

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Himanta and the Muslim Factor

Contrary to media reports, the ‘1951 as the cut-off year’ issue raised by ex-Congress and now BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma worked in the BJP’s favour in the second phase of elections (April 11) that covered the Muslim-dominated regions of Lower Assam. Many suggest now that this in fact proved to be a catalyst that propelled the BJP’s fortunes in the unlikeliest of constituencies of Lower Assam.

A shrewd politician and strategist, Sarma had rightly calculated that the 1951-1971 issue would hardly be a factor that would affect the BJP’s vote base, including the indigenous Muslims who had settled in the state long before Independence. This issue led to stark and effective polarisation which successfully created binaries between legal and illegal Muslims immigrants. Winning Muslim-dominated constituencies like Goalpara East and Barpeta (AIUDF seats) by the BJP wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Khilonjia Muslims.

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The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, addressing a press conference a few ago in Guwahati. (Photo: IANS)
The BJP’s chief ministerial candidate for Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal, addressing a press conference a few ago in Guwahati. (Photo: IANS)
Snapshot

Polarisation At Play

  • The ‘Jati-Mati-Bheti’ slogan that became the basis of the BJP’s campaign polarised the voters in terms of nationality and religion.
  • Congress raising the issue of 1951 as the cut-off year for enrolling in the National Registry of Citizens worked in BJP’s favour, particularly in Muslim-dominated regions.
  • High voting percentage signifies that with the NRC being updated, legal Muslim citizens voted freely and in favour of BJP.
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The NRC Effect

The updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the midst of the campaign and polling affected voting in interesting ways. Several analysts say that a high voting percentage, and that too in the BJP’s favour, signifies that with the updation of the NRC legal Muslim citizens voted freely and in favour of the party.

While NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela refused to comment, it is an open secret that the fear psychosis that prevailed among the Muslims because of the Bangladeshi tag and a faulty NRC, including the D-voter phenomenon, had favoured the Congress for decades in terms of vote bank politics.

The Assamese Muslims, whose forefathers came to the state eight centuries ago, number around 40 lakh and constitute 33 percent of the total Muslim population (1.2 crore). A few days ago, Sarma had said that in almost all the Muslim-dominated constituencies, at least 30% of the community would vote for the BJP. This is borne out by the BJP’s huge victory.

End of Vote Bank Politics?

Speaking to The Quint, BJP’s minority wing chief Sayed Mominul Awal said that the party’s landslide victory, covering Upper as well as Lower Assam, marks the support of the minority community and their negation of the Congress’ vote bank politics.

We have around 3 lakh members from the minority community and this time we had targeted at least 10 lakh Muslim voters. The results show that we succeeded in achieving our target.
BJP’s minority wing chief Sayed Mominul Awal.

The restriction of the AIUDF to less than 12 seats (as of 5 pm), from its earlier 18, along with the loss of its chief Badaruddin Ajmal in South Salmara constituency is significant. For Awal, Ajmal’s defeat marks the end of “dirty religious and vote bank politics” that had corrupted the greater Assamese society for years.

(The writer is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist)

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