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Does BJP-AGP Footsie Signal End of Assamese Sub-Nationalism?  

The BJP-AGP alliance signals the demise of Assamese sub-nationalism once espoused by ULFA, writes Anuraag Baruah.

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Even though the rise of Hindu nationalism in recent years may have raised doubts in certain quarters about the future of religious intolerance, ‘ethnic’ or what I would call ‘sub-national’ dissent in India is seen as being generally well-managed.
Professor Sanjib Baruah in the preface to his book ‘India Against Itself

While Sanjib Baruah expressed his concern about the future of religious intolerance in India, he might not have foreseen the near-death situation of Assamese sub-nationalism so soon. Sub-nationalism arose post-independence when ‘sub-national’ challenges to pan-Indianism had come from a range of quarters. What is striking about Assamese sub-nationalism is that the range of quarters varied from the extreme to the moderate to the paltry.

The key word this time across the length and breadth of Assam is ‘paribartan’ or ‘change’. ‘Joi Aai Axom’ has made way for chants of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’. Riding on a strong anti-incumbency wave, the BJP campaign so far has been aggressive and relentless. It manages to pip the Congress at the post, will it also mark the end of Assamese sub-nationalism?

Insurgency began in Assam in 1979 and gained momentum post the historic Assam Agitation (1979-1985). The AGP was formed as a result of the Assam movement as AASU leaders led by Prafulla Mahanta decided to form a regional political party. The AGP and ULFA can be regarded as the two main offsprings of Assamese sub-nationalism. The failure of the Assam movement in resolving the immigration problem along with the erroneous implementation of the Assam Accord resulted in the radicalisation of Assamese subnationalism, leading to the rise of the ULFA.

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Snapshot

Fate of Assamese Subnationalism

  • Riding on the strong anti-incumbency wave, it’s most likely that BJP will form government this time in Assam.
  • Failure in resolving the immigrant problem resulted in the radicalisation of Assamese sub-nationalism in the form of ULFA.
  • High voter turnout in ULFA-dominated constituency, an indicator of the outfit losing ground in the state.
  • AGP too seems to be losing its identity as a regional party, decline evident with the party choosing to contest from just 24 seats.
  • It is unlikely that Assamese sub-nationalism will find any resonance in the Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan kind of politics practiced by the BJP.
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ULFA Losing Ground

On December 4, 2009, ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and Deputy Commander-in-Chief Raju Barua were handed over to the Assam Police along with their families at Dawki check post on the India-Bangladesh border. Soon two factions of the ULFA emerged -- an anti-talks group led by ULFA ‘Commander-in-Chief’ Paresh Baruah and a pro-talks group led by the Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa. The pro-talks ULFA faction got into business, including coal, and soon allegations of a coal syndicate and other such mafia-styled business activities were reported across the state.

The anti-talks faction led by Paresh is struggling and has only 200-300 cadres, according to reports. Reports suggest that most of the cadres remain confined to camps as high-rates of surrender has made matters worse for Paresh-led ULFA now known as ULFA(I).

The BJP-AGP alliance signals the demise of  Assamese sub-nationalism once espoused by  ULFA, writes Anuraag Baruah.
ULFA leaders Babul Goswami and Lakhi Goswami, who were deported along with Anup Chetia from Bangladesh, arrive in Nagaon, Assam, on November 23, 2015. (Photo: IANS)

The recent attack on a BJP office, allegedly by the ULFA(I) at Dudhnoi Chariali in Lower Assam, comes after ULFA canvassed strongly in Upper Assam against the Margherita BJP candidate Bhaskar Sharma whose name is often connected with the infamous secret killings of Assam. The bomb blast, which left two dead, 21 injured, including four policemen, is seen as a desperate measure by the ULFA(I) to regain ground especially during the elections.

One former ULFA leader from a remote village in Upper Assam who refused to be named says, “The ideology, practices and principles on which ULFA was formed and for which we could touch the hearts and the minds of the common people no longer exist. Pro-talks or the anti-talks faction, it’s all the same in different guises.”

The first phase of polling in Assam on April 4 saw Chabua in Dibrugarh recording the highest turnout, a massive 85 percent. The fact that Jerai Chakalibhoriya, Paresh Barua’s home village, is under Chabua constituency is a clear indicator that ULFA, which represents the extreme form of Assamese sub-nationalism, is losing ground in the state.

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The BJP-AGP alliance signals the demise of  Assamese sub-nationalism once espoused by  ULFA, writes Anuraag Baruah.
Voters wait in queues in Amguri in Sivasagar district to cast their ballot during the first phase of assembly elections in Assam, April 4, 2016. (Photo: PTI)
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AGP in Decline

The BJP-AGP alliance was finally sealed in the wake of the Assam assembly elections after its failure in 2001. The AGP will contest a measly 24 of 126 assembly constituencies. Widespread protests took place throughout the state. Ignoring the decision of the general council and many district and block committees, the AGP leadership sealed the deal with the BJP.

The AGP has split over this tie-up with the BJP, with one faction led by the party’s former youth wing president Sunil Rajkonwar forming the AGP Anchilokotabadi Moncho while numerous other leaders like former party Vice-President Anup Phukan choose to contest as independent candidates claiming support from AGP supporters.

What has hurt several AGP supporters from Tingkhong constituency in Upper Assam is “The symbolic death, the disappearance of the party symbol, an elephant, from the EVM machines of the 102 (126-24 = 102) constituencies of Assam.”

Bikash Kalita, an AGP supporter from Upper Assam asks: “Will AGP be able to recover as a separate party ever, retain its regional identity post elections this time? What if it loses most of the 24 seats, then?”

Ideologies that the AGP has strayed from derive their soul from post-independence Assam politics and the principles of the Assam Accord which defined the ‘Axomiya’ identity over the years. Greater political democratisation, including decentralisation of power, were some of the key points elements in which AGP and Assamese sub-nationalism rooted itself. It is unlikely that Assamese sub-nationalism will find any resonance in the BJP’s Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan politics. Will this election seal the fate of Assamese sub-nationalism?

(The writer is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist)

Also read:

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

From Guwahati to Goalpara, Ignorance in Assam’s Peripheries 

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