In 2019, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which eases the pathway for six religious communities (excluding Muslims) from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to acquire Indian citizenship, rocked Assam, drawing attention from the entire country. Soon, the protests were no longer limited to Assam, but had spread to the rest of the country. Shaheen Bagh, on the fringes of Delhi’s southern border with Uttar Prades, emerged as the face of resistance against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship regime.
On 13 December 2019, two 17-year old minors were shot dead by security forces in Assam while protesting against CAA on the streets. Most political commentators from the state had thought at that time that the protests would end up making a huge dent on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) seat share in the assembly election of 2021. Yet, nothing of that sort happened. The BJP and its allies managed to win the election, securing 75 out 126 seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly.
While a lot of political commentary is being offered centering the BJP’s win in Assam, with some of it reductively pointing towards a collective amnesia of the Assamese-speakers towards the essentially ‘anti-Assamese’ acts of the BJP government, a very small chunk of this narrative touches on the question of Bengali electors in the state.
During the 2019 anti-CAA protests, the Bengali-speaking Barak valley region of southern Assam saw no agitation. In fact, close to 50 civil society groups from Barak Valley, under the banner of Citizens’ Rights Protection Coordination Committee (CRPCC), offered support to the CAA.
This time, BJP managed to win 6 out of the 15 seats in the region, while the remaining 9 seats went to the Congress alliance. This is, however, 3 less seats for the BJP, as compared to the 2016 assembly elections.
Who is a Bengali elector in Assam?
This question is very much intertwined with another question – who is a khilonjiya (roughly translates to ‘indigenous’). The Bengalis are spread out across the two valleys of Assam, Barak and Brahmaputra, each named after the state’s two major rivers. If one goes by the census data, Bengali-speakers comprise some 27 percent of the state’s population, with Barak valley as a predominantly Bengali-majority region (more than 90 percent of the population in Barak valley is Bengali-speaking).
On the other hand, the linguistic demography of the Brahmaputra valley is much more diverse. The 2011 census puts the Assamese-speakers in Brahmaputra valley at 47 percent, whereas 22 percent of the population speaks Bengali. The rest of the population comprises speakers of Hindi, Bodo, Karbi, Nepali, Koch Rajbongshi, Rabha and several other languages.
But there is a catch in this data: most East Bengal-origin Muslims of the Brahmaputra valley have been returning their language as Assamese since 1951. Prior to this, the Assamese-speakers were a numerical minority in the state.
Starting from 1900s, the British began to settle Muslim peasants from East Bengal in Assam to cultivate the fertile, ‘virgin’ lands of the region. In the decades that followed, this policy came under fire from Assamese leaders of the state, both from within and outside the Congress. The fear of the ‘indigenous’ people being reduced to a minority forced the British and Assam’s legislators to devise regimes like the Line System during the peak of the nationalist struggle.
Following independence in 1947, the Assam government, under the Chief Ministership of Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi, enacted and enforced discriminatory policies with regard to land, property rights, and medium of instruction in the state. The Assamese-speaking leaders became the dominant political class in the state.
The Bengali Muslims in the Brahmaputra valley, under fear of persecution, and also in the hope of securing land and property rights, in addition to a longing for a greater assimilation in the cultural milieu of the state, started returning their language as Assamese in the subsequent censuses from 1951. As a result, Assamese regained the position of being the majority language in the state.
While a small section of the Assamese intelligentsia has accepted them as ‘na-Axomiya’ or ‘neo-Assamese’ and an integral part of Assamese culture, it is the xenophobic outlook against the Bengali Muslims as ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘outsiders’ that happens to be the hegemonic discourse in the Brahmaputra valley.
The Bengali Hindus, however, felt no such pressure in the Brahmaputra valley. Nor did the Bengali Muslims of Barak return their language as Assamese. From time to time, Bengali Muslims have had to face persecution in the state. As already mentioned, they are at the receiving end of Assamese xenophobia, which dubs them as ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘outsiders’ – a threat to Assam’s cultural identity.
The citizenship regime happens to be one of the biggest sources of persecution. Besides, the socio-economic indicators of the Bengali Muslims in Assam are one of poorest among all groups in the state. Most of them are petty traders, small cultivators, construction laborers, and the likes. A substantial chunk of them reside in the chars and chaporis (riverine peripheries and islands) of the Brahmaputra, where loss of life and livelihood due to floods are common occurrences.
The Bengali Hindu voter, however, is not a homogenous category. Caste and class location play an important role in dictating the Bengali voter’s relationship to the regime. Kaibartas and the Namasudras are the two major Scheduled Caste (SC) groups among the Bengali Hindus in Assam. While Assam does not see strong caste-based mobilisation, and caste-based parties do not fare any good in elections, caste location does influence voting patterns.
This does not mean caste-based organisations of Bengali Hindus do not exist. In recent decades, for example, Kaibartas who have achieved upward mobility in Barak valley have been able to push their way into the region’s civil society. Just like the East Bengal-origin Muslims, Bengali Dalits too are some of the worst sufferers of Assamese ethnonationalist violence.
Civil rights activists have pointed out that an equal number of Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims are imprisoned in Assam’s infamous detention centres under subhuman conditions. Most of these Bengali Hindus are Dalits. During the anti-CAA protests, the homes of many Bengali Dalits were attacked in numerous places of Assam. Unlike the upper caste Bengali Hindus, they become an easy target of violence because of their economic marginalisation and lack of social capital.
Bengali Muslims for AIUDF, Bengali Hindus for BJP?
2021 witnessed a highly polarised election, with the BJP leading the baton of communal polarisation in the state. From time to time, during the election campaign, BJP leaders, including the party’s stalwart in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, made extremely communal remarks against the Muslims.
Religious polarisation in Assam is not a new phenomenon, despite some intellectuals of the state claiming otherwise. However, the BJP’s rise in the last 10 years, and particularly after 2014 elections, has only heightened such polarisation.
The dominant political narrative in the Brahmaputra valley has always been against the CAA, but in favour of the ongoing exercise to update the National Register of Citizens (NRC). However, while the Assamese middle classes have opposed BJP tooth and nail on the CAA issue, Congress’ alliance with the All Assam United Democratic Front (AIUDF) this time seemed to have irked them more.
Formed as a reaction against the IMDT judgement in 2005, AIUDF is seen as a ‘Muslim party’ in the state. The Assamese ethno-nationalists have dubbed AIUDF as a party of the Bangladeshi immigrants, as a major chunk of its voters are East Bengal origin Muslims.
East Bengal origin Muslims in Assam, however, in both Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, have traditionally been a split vote bank for Congress and AIUDF. In Lower Assam, for instance, the AIUDF has historically being strong in certain assembly seats of Muslim-majority districts, while in others, it has been the Congress. The same holds true for Barak valley.
During elections, the choice of candidates by both parties, along with alliances between ethnic, religious and linguistic groups on the ground level, determine the success rate of the Congress and AIUDF candidates in the Muslim-dominated seats. In the 2021 elections, AIUDF’s presence in the ‘Mahajot’ (grand alliance) turned out to be beneficial for the party, as it won 16 of the 19 seats it had contested. In the Muslim-dominated seats of both the valleys, the lack of division of Muslim votes proved to be beneficial for the alliance.
In the last few years, Assam has witnessed the rise of vocal East Bengal origin Muslim youth. They are now speaking up against the xenophobia meted out to them by the ethno-nationalist political culture of the state.
Ashraful Hussain, a 28 year-old, educated political activist, belonging to a Bengali Muslim farmer family, was fielded by AIUDF from the Chenga seat of Barpeta district. He belongs to an emergent creed of vocal Miyah poets and was named in an FIR in 2019 for a seemingly ‘anti-Assamese’ poem. He won the seat by a huge margin of 54,910 votes against his rival Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) candidate. The AGP is an ally of the BJP.
BJP’s Hindutva agenda, together with an amplification of fear of loss of citizenship due to the twin regimes of NRC and CAA, led Bengali Muslims of the state to vote for the Congress alliance against BJP. Conversely, the Congress’ alliance with AIUDF might have impacted its chances in many seats in the Assamese-dominated seats of Upper Assam, and in seats like Guwahati, Rangiya and Nalbari.
Many political commentators have termed the alliance as having the impact of mitigating the anti-CAA anger against the BJP in these seats. Similarly, new regional forces, such as Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and Raijor Dal (RD), who were banking on the anti-CAA agenda, also made a dent in Congress’ vote share.
If the Bengali Muslim voters chose AIUDF, does that mean that the Bengali Hindu voters chose BJP? The answer to this question requires a nuanced analysis of data and also narratives from the ground.
If we go region-wise, in the Bengali-dominated Barak valley, the BJP alliance lost 3 seats (6 as compared to 9 in 2016), whereas the Congress, by the virtue of alliance with AIUDF, managed to gain seats (the Congress-led grand alliance bagged 9 seats this time, as compared to the Congress’ 3 and AIUDF’s 4 in 2016).
Political commentators and analysts have pointed out to the presence of a strong communal polarisation in the Barak valley this time. This is also reflected in the election results data. Cachar district, which has the lowest Muslim population (37.7 percent) among all three Barak valley districts, is where the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) gained most in terms of seats this time. Of the 6 seats that it has won in the Barak valley, 4 are from Cachar alone.
This includes the prestigious Silchar seat, where the BJP candidate Dipayan Chakraborty defeated Congress’ Tamal Kanti Banik by a margin of more than 30,000 votes. The Silchar Lok Sabha seat (encompassing all the assembly seats of Cachar district) is also a stronghold of Congress’ Deb family. BJP has also won this Lok Sabha seat on numerous occasions, starting from Kabindra Purakaystha’s victory in 1991 to Rajdeep Roy’s victory in 2019.
The CAA has offered a significant electoral advantage to BJP among the Bengali Hindus of Barak valley. As the law claims to offer citizenship to the Bengali Hindus, at least on paper, the Barak valley Hindus have largely supported the CAA, as they have faced the wrath of Assam’s exclusionary citizenship regime for decades, which has put thousands in detention centres and excluded 19 lakh from the NRC.
The Barak valley’s influential civil society faces the accusation of turning a blind eye to the plight of Bengali Muslims, for the valley has an almost equal number of Hindus and Muslims speaking the same tongue. The BJP has also been quite successful in co-opting the Barak valley’s civil society through the CAA.
At the same time, political commentators from this region have also pointed out that there is a discontent around the implementation of CAA among Bengali Hindus. A common opinion is that even if the centre wants to implement the CAA, the state unit of the party would act in contravention, because they have to appease the Assamese voters in the Brahmaputra valley. The NRC exclusion has also generated doubts about BJP among the Bengali Hindu voters of Barak valley, which might have manifested in voting patterns to a certain extent.
In the Brahmaputra valley, a mere look at the result on the Election Commission’s website cannot reveal much about the voting patterns of Bengali Hindus. However, ground reports suggest that there is not much of a difference in voting pattern of the Bengali Hindus between the two valleys.
In this part of Assam, too, the CAA drew Bengali Hindu voters to the BJP. In my interactions with Bengali Hindu voters in Sidli and Bongaigaon assembly constituencies in Lower Assam (a total of 9 respondents selected from 3 Bengali dominated localities, of which 5 were SCs), all of them agreed on voting for BJP, particularly because of its role in enacting CAA.
My own participant observation reveals that a large number of Bengali Hindus have shifted to the BJP in Lower Assam in the last few years. Members of local student bodies, such as Bengali Jubo Chatro Federation, actively campaign for BJP during the elections. The trend is not very different in Upper and Central Assam.
Such large-scale support for the BJP in both the valleys among the Bengali Hindus is, however, a recent trend. It is a post-2013 phenomenon, in which BJP has banked on its neoliberal development and Hindutva agendas. The Hindutva agenda, which regards India as the homeland of the Hindus (alongside excluding the enemy ‘other’, that is Muslims), is incidentally a firm promise for the Bengali Hindus who are at the receiving end of Assam’s citizenship regime.
Way ahead for Assam‘s Bengalis
While the Bhadralok civil society of Assam’s neighboring state, West Bengal, is celebrating the BJP’s loss in the state, the opposite is true for Assam’s largest Bengali-dominated region, Barak valley. The Bhadralok civil society here ended up supporting the BJP.
The Bengali identity assertion in this part of the country is fragmented deeply along religious lines. In Silchar, Hindutva organisations have become more powerful in the last few years. The partition experience of the Sylheti Hindus has been successfully used by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – BJP’s mothership – in drawing fault lines between Hindu and Muslim Bengalis.
Conversely, the lack of fraternalistic support on the basis of linguistic identity from the Bengali Hindus had already pushed the Bengali Muslims of Assam to politically organise themselves around their religious (and not linguistic) identity.
Perhaps, it is this fragmentation, which in itself is a product of historical and contemporary material and superstructural conditions, which should worry the Bengalis.
Views expressed are the author’s own.
Featured image: AIDUF chief, Badaruddin Ajmal (left), BJP MLA from Silchar constituency, Dipayan Chakraborty