Why another bout of social unrest before elections can’t be ruled out in Assam?


Amitava Mukherjee

Six months before the Assam assembly elections, there may be another bout of social unrest if the Tarun Gogoi government presses for franchise rights for those voters who bear the “doubtful” tag after their names. In a recent judgment, the Guwahati High Court rejected the state government’s plea for allowing voting rights to even those people whose cases were pending before the Foreigners Tribunal and who had not yet been declared as foreigners.

Obviously, the major political powers in the state are now busy trying to effect a realignment of political forces, having been quite oblivious to the fact that Assam is a highly strategic state and any kind of brinkmanship here may compromise India’s security structure. The Congress and the Tarun Gogoi government have been raising the issue before each election with an eye on the minority votes. But branding a certain segment of voters as “doubtful” and then segregating them in some camps is an outcome of the judicial decision and instead of pestering the judiciary with insincere appeals, efforts must be made to help it reach the finale.

For Assam, the high court judgment has far-reaching importance, much more than an earlier one by the Supreme Court which had likened unchecked immigration into the state with any external aggression or internal disturbance. The import of the judgment is subtle but clear: the central government’s recent notification of extending to the religious minorities of Bangladesh and Pakistan the right to enter into and stay in India is open to judicial scrutiny and may be scrapped any time.

Why has the BJP embarked upon such an uncertain venture? Political analysts point out that demographic dynamics of Assam easily relate to the core ideology of the BJP and the RSS. Moreover, a new urge to conquer the eastern and northeastern states is now visible among the top BJP leadership. Although it did spectacularly well in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Assam by winning seven of the fourteen seats from the state, yet the BJP leadership understands the limitations that have crept in its power base. In the 2014 poll, the BJP got 63 percent of the total votes of the Assamese Hindu community while the corresponding figure from the Bengali speaking Hindus was 62 percent.

These are certainly reassuring figures, enough for a party to sail through, given the fact that ethnic tribal votes always suffered from fragmentation. But a long period of indecisiveness – since the signing of the Assam accord in 1985 – on the part of the central government towards finally settling the foreign nationals issue has made the “dispossessed Bengali Hindu” (DBH) community restive. Secondly the ongoing updating of the National Register of Citizens in Assam is certain to debar many Hindus from voting rights because a large number of them may be unable to produce one of the 14 documents required to prove Indian nationality. In fact demonstrations are taking place against updating of the NRC.

Notwithstanding the judgment spanner, changing electoral dynamics may favour the BJP in the coming assembly elections. The displaced Hindu population in Assam ranges between 5.9 million and 7.5 million and out of this, only a small number are included in the list of 143,000- strong “D” (doubtful) voters. On election day, the first choice of the Assamese Hindu population will certainly be the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). But the AGP is disintegrating and a host of its leaders have joined the BJP.

The “D” voter issue is too sensitive and has the potentiality to disturb Assam’s communal harmony. Raising of the issue may give the Congress the much-needed political space as the minority vote bank, so far an asset of the party, is showing strong signs of a tilt towards the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) of Badruddin Ajmal. Moreover, the Congress has recently lost Himanta Biswa Sharma, one of the few state leaders with a mass base, to the BJP. Sharma is known for his connections with several ethnic tribal parties and nine of these outfits have already announced their decision to float a new political party and contest as many as 30 seats. This may further push the Congress to a tight corner.

However, the judgment and the notification granting the immigrants the right to enter into and stay in Assam might come as a boon for the AGP. There is no denying the fact that all sections of the Assamese population now feel threatened by almost incessant immigration from Bangladesh. It is only hoped that in spite of the latest focus on the “D” voter issue, the political and social atmosphere of Assam will not come under strain.

The author is an independent journalist and commentator on north-east politics