Votes and the CAA
On January 25, the Assam minister for finance, education and health, Himanta Biswa Sarma, announced that the state government would introduce a bill which will make a person who has not studied Assamese as a subject till Class 10, even if s/he had schooled in the English medium, ineligible for a government job in Assam. This criterion would also apply for admission to state medical and engineering colleges. Assamese was to be made compulsory up to Class 10.
Once the bill is passed, his own children, Sarma admits, will not be eligible for government jobs in the state, as they study outside Assam and have not studied Assamese in school. However, it is a small price to pay for what the government hopes to gain in return the electoral support of Assamese-speaking people who have been agitating against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, for nearly two months. Unlike the rest of India, protesters in Assam are not worried that the CAA pushed hard by the BJP-led Union and state governments excludes Muslims. Rather, they fear it gives citizenship to illegal Hindu Bangla-speaking immigrants from Bangladesh, who, together with the Muslim Bangla speakers in Assam, may outnumber the Assamese in their own state.
This fear of losing their language and culture stems from the declining number of Assamese speakers and the growing number of Bangla speakers in the state. Assamese speakers went down to 48 per cent in 2011 from 58 per cent in 1991 while Bangla speakers in the state went up to 30 per cent from 22 per cent in the same period. The number of Assamese speakers could be even smaller as a large number of Muslim Bangla-speaking immigrants from Bangladesh also mention Assamese as their language in the Census, either in an attempt to assimilate or out of fear. For instance, in Dhubri, which is dominated by Muslims of immigrant origin who speak a Bangla dialect at home, the 2011 Census data shows there are 98,526 Assamese speakers as against 78,000 Bangla speakers. Now that the NRC last year has legalised most of these Muslim immigrants, they may write Bangla as their mother tongue in the next Census, reducing Assamese to a minority, says Abhijit Sarma, whose public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in 2009 led to the NRC in Assam.
This is why the Assamese and other original inhabitants of the state have continued their agitation against the BJP since 2016, when the first Narendra Modi government tabled a bill to grant citizenship to Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh and Parsi illegal immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. While the Modi government ignored the protests in Assam, the bill could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha, and lapsed. In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll despite protests in the state Modi, in a state rally, asserted that his government would certainly get the bill passed once voted to power. Indeed, CAA came into being in December 2019.
Initiatives such as making Assamese compulsory in schools are meant to counter any adverse impact the CAA may have on the BJP’s fortunes in the 2021 assembly election. There have been other announcements too such as a new bill in the next assembly session to protect the land rights of the indigenous people. While the definition of indigenous people is currently contentious, the 14-member committee on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which provides for safeguards to protect the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people, has left its 91-page report with the Assam Accord Implementation department of the state government. Sources say the committee will declare all those who (or whose ancestors) entered Assam before 1951 as Assamese’. The committee also recommends 80 per cent reservation for the Assamese in the state’s Lok Sabha and assembly seats as well as in central and state government, bank, railways and PSU jobs. If accepted by the central government, this definition is likely to neutralise any fears arising out of the CAA. However, BJP sources say the central government is not comfortable with this definition of Assamese as it would exclude a large section of the non-Assamese speaking population such as Hindu Bengalis, Biharis and Marwaris, who form a strong vote bank for the BJP. On February 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a gathering in Kokrajhar, promised the people of Assam that he would soon implement Clause 6 yet home minister Amit Shah did not give the Clause 6 Committee an appointment when its members went to Delhi to submit their recommendations.
In the assembly poll next year, the BJP-Asom Gana Parishad-Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) alliance will face off against the Congress-All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) combine. BJP leaders believe that despite the anti-CAA protests, the demographic mix in the state favours its electoral arithmetic, as was evident in the general election. The BJP won nine seats in 2019, four more than in the previous election. Assam has been resisting illegal Bangladeshi immigrants for the past five decades. A majority of these immigrants are Muslim, and the community now constitutes 35 per cent of the state population, the highest in the country. This makes Assam a fertile ground for the BJP to practise religious polarisation. The emergence of the Badruddin Ajmal-led AIUDF, whose support base is built on the immigrant Muslim, has only strengthened the BJP narrative. Among Sarma’s key arguments in favour of the CAA has been to stop Ajmal from becoming the chief minister of Assam. A pre-poll alliance will help the Congress-AIUDF sweep all Muslim-dominated seats, but they are unlikely to join hands as this will consolidate Hindu votes in the BJP’s favour, irrespective of linguistic loyalty, says Vikas Tripathi, assistant professor in the department of political science at Gauhati University.
The BJP knows only too well that the anti-CAA protests are limited to the Brahmaputra Valley, dominated by Assamese and other indigenous groups opposed to the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, irrespective of religion. People in Barak Valley, largely inhabited by Bangla speakers, have welcomed the CAA, while the act is not applicable in areas under the 6th Schedule, namely the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD), Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao. Even in the Brahmaputra Valley, tea tribes, non-Assamese and non-Muslim groups including Bengalis, Biharis, Marwaris, Punjabis and Nepalis have not shown any significant resistance to the CAA. Of the state’s 126 assembly constituencies, 17 are exempt from the CAA 12 in BTAD and five in the two hill districts. In 33 Muslim-dominated seats, where the BJP has been a non-starter, the CAA could give them a fighting chance. Sarma has said that if Hindu Bangladeshis get citizenship, they will emerge as a counterforce against Muslims in 17 of these constituencies.
The BJP is also hoping to gain the support of Assamese Muslims those who are not of Bangladeshi origin, have been living in Assam for centuries and mostly speak Assamese by proposing a Census for four such Muslim communities: Goriya, Moriya, Deshi and Julha, so that they are not denied any benefits extended to indigenous people. The state budget last year provided for a Development Corporation for Indigenous Muslims for the holistic development of the community.
A winning move? Amit Shah with Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal at the signing of the third Bodo Accord
The BJP also believes that religious polarisation over CAA will help them in six seats where Hindu and Muslim voters of immigrant origin are in equal number. Eight Bengali-Hindu dominated seats are already BJP strongholds the CAA will only consolidate their position. Nine seats are dominated by tea tribes and non-Assamese groups, for whom the CAA will have little impact; in 2016, the BJP won six of them. The non-Assamese groups are firmly with us, says a senior BJP party functionary from Assam. Our challenge is to retain the tea tribes, once a Congress fiefdom. Welfare schemes and doles will do the trick as they are indifferent to the CAA. Even in the five tribal seats outside the 6th Schedule areas, the CAA has not provoked strong protests except in Sonowal’s own constituency Majuli. The BJP won four of these in 2016.
There are 12 swing seats with a mixed population, where the CAA will play a limited role. The BJP and its ally AGP won all 12 in 2016 even if with a thin winning margin in three seats. The angry Assamese voter though only a fraction here may inflict some damage. But the biggest challenge for Modi and Sonowal will be to arrest the slide in 36 constituencies where the Assamese speakers will determine the winner. The BJP-AGP won 32 of these seats in 2016. The anti-CAA sentiment is the strongest here. It’s difficult to ascertain the magnitude of the damage, but the BJP will suffer in these seats. It will depend on the alternative narrative opposition forces will provide. The twin leadership of the BJP Sonowal’s tribal identity and Sarma’s Assamese Hindu identity still gives the BJP an emotional edge, says Tripathi.
To create an alternative political narrative, a section of the protesters are talking of starting a regional political force to counter the vote bank politics of the BJP and the Congress. The Congress settled Muslim immigrants in the state to get votes. The BJP now wants to legalise Hindu immigrants. No national party has cared for the indigenous people and the AGP has failed to reflect our voice. We certainly need a new political force that is honest and can work to safeguard the interest of legal Indian citizens in Assam, says singer Zubeen Garg, something of a cultural icon in the state. However, he has declined to be part of any such political party. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) also toyed with the idea of forming a party, but a section of the student group has strongly opposed the idea of joining electoral politics, as its first experiment had ended in disaster. The current AGP is an offshoot of AASU both Sonowal and Sarma cut their political teeth in AASU.
The other alternative force is the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, led by RTI activist Akhil Gogoi, who has been talking of opening up a political front for some time. The police arrested Gogoi on December 12 last year while he was leading an anti-CAA protest in Jorhat. He was handed over to the National Investigation Agency, which booked him under sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. He is currently in jail. In the past six years, the BJP has penetrated deep into the grassroots [sic]. It will be very difficult for a new party to infiltrate that network. Besides, this protest has not thrown up any credible leadership yet. That is why the intensity of the anti-CAA protests is gradually fading, says Ankuran Dutta, head of the communication and journalism department at Gauhati University.
Party insiders believe the BJP stands to gain from the emergence of a regional political force. We have a strong support base among non-Assamese Hindus and tea tribes. The new party will have no support from them. It will have no impact in Muslim-dominated areas. In the Assamese-dominated areas, it will take away the BJP vote that might have moved to the Congress, says a state BJP leader. Perhaps why the talk of a new political party has no serious takers.
Some observers believe that, in the absence of any regional force, the anger against the BJP may convert to support for the Congress. When I travelled to upper Assam during the anti-CAA protests, I sensed the growing support for the Congress. However, in lower Assam, where Muslim immigrants are largely found, religious polarisation may still force indigenous people to back the BJP-AGP, says celebrated poet Pranab Kumar Barman, who had supported Sonowal as CM in 2016. There are 24 Assamese-dominated seats in upper Assam. In 2016, the Congress won four; in six others, the BJP-AGP won by a slender margin of less than 10 per cent of the votes polled.
Backdoor negotiations are also on with both factions of ULFA, and an accord before the election, giving constitutional protection in certain areas of Assam, may dilute the anti-CAA sentiment, especially in upper Assam. The BJP has yet to fulfil its electoral promise of granting the Tai-Ahom, Chutia, Motok, Moran, Koch-Rajbongshi communities and tea tribes Scheduled Tribe status. To deflect attention from the CAA, the party may come good on this promise though this will increase the number of reserved seats in the state. The Sonowal government remains committed to the interests of Assamese people from day one. It cleaned up the APSC examination process, opening up opportunities for meritorious candidates. The commission is now headed by an honest former police officer. Even the state administration and police force are headed by Assamese people, says Lakhya Konwar, a senior BJP leader.
The BJP has other bets too to expand its electoral footprint in Assam. Its second ally, the BPF, has a dominating presence in the BTAD, where it won all the 12 seats in 2016. However, the BPF remains an unreliable ally as it has been part of all state governments Congress- or BJP-led since 2006. To reduce its dependence on BPF, the BJP, on January 27, signed the third Bodo Accord with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, an insurgent group demanding a sovereign country, the All Bodo Students Union and the United Bodo People’s Organisation, laying the ground for the emergence of another Bodo political party in BTAD, which will mean a division of votes between the BPF and the new formation. Not only will this blunt the BPF’s bargaining power, it may also enable the BJP to win some seats in the BTAD based on the consolidation of the non-Bodo vote.
This experiment succeeded in the general election where independent candidate Naba Sarania won two consecutive times from BTAD capital Kokrajhar, primarily backed by non-Bodos. For the BJP, this experiment is important as the dominant Muslim presence in 33 seats and 12 BTAD seats leaves only 81 seats for it to contest. If the Congress gains in these seats on the back of anti-CAA protests, the BJP could be in trouble. At the moment we can see some gains for Congress, but the election is still a year away. The Congress will have to build a credible leadership to sustain these gains, says social activist Suresh Ranjan Goduka.
The leadership issue may vex the BJP as well. The party’s electoral strategy in the face of a hostile public mood will depend heavily on the strategic manoeuvring Sarma, the chief architect of the saffron expansion in the Northeast, can engineer. But he is yet to be rewarded with a position commensurate with his contributions. The party has not shown any indication to either bring him into national politics or fulfil his long-standing dream of becoming the Assam chief minister. Whether Sarma will remain content to play second fiddle to Sonowal for another term will determine the electoral landscape of the state next year. Though both Sonowal and Sarma have avoided any public conflict in the past four years, what role Sarma decides to play will depend on what the party envisions for him after 2021. In an indirect hint of his intent, Sarma has already announced several times that he is unlikely to contest the 2021 election. That’s certainly not good news for the BJP as the party’s other mass leader, Sonowal, has moved from being hailed as a Jatiya Nayak’ (state hero) five years ago to being dubbed a Jatiya Khalnayak’ (state villain) now.
HOW THE CAA WILL IMPACT THE BJP
The BJP, along with ally AGP, won 32 of 36 seats dominated by Assamese speakers who are hostile to the CAA, nine of them by thin margins. The BJP’s challenge is to control damage in these seats and maintain status quo in 45 seats dominated by non-Muslims, where Assamese speakers have little influence. BJP-AGP won 38 seats last time. The alliance will also target the 12 seats it lost by margins of less than 10 per cent of votes polled.