In Tiapara village of Assam’s Goalpara, Ibraheem Ali is worried about the BJP’s promise of “correction and reconciliation” of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) list. “Why should they do it again? We have spent so much time and effort in the process,” the 48-year-old small farmer says as he gets agitated. “We have all the documents,” he says.
Tiapara falls under Goalpara West Constituency which will go for polls on April 6 in the final phase of voting for 40 Assembly constituencies. Election Commission of India said there are a total of 337 candidates spread over districts of 16 districts who are in the fray in the final phase.
The BJP is contesting 20 seats while its alliance partners, the Asom Gana Parishad and the United People’s Party Liberal have fielded 13 and eight candidates respectively. Among the Mahajut constituents, the Congress has its candidates on 24 seats, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) on 12 seats, the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) on 12 seats, CPM on one seat and the Gana Morcha’s candidate contesting in Dispur.
The newly-formed Assam Jatiya Parishad, born out of the anti-Citizenship Act protests is contesting on 22 seats while activist-turned politician Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal has also fielded its candidates on some seats which could make it a triangular contest on some constituencies.
These 40 lower Assam seats spread over lower Assam are crucial to the prospects of the Congress-led alliance. Union Home Minister and senior BJP leader Amit Shah said in Assam on April 4, how the ruling party will come back with a comfortable majority and that it has inched close to the majority mark in the first two phases itself.
The Congress-led Mahajut, meanwhile, is looking to dent the BJP’s prospects by consolidating the minority votes in minority-dominated districts and getting majority support of the Bodos in the Bodo Territorial Region constituencies where the BPF won 12 seats in 2016.
Refugee versus infiltrator
In the Muslim-majority areas of lower Assam where Bengal-origin Muslims constitute the major number, the locals are upset about BJP’s communal politics. “For five years, the BJP has done Hindu-Muslim politics. They have done work, brought about development but they have also targeted Muslims,” said Monwar Hussain, who owns a small garment shop in Balapara, a village in Abhaypuri South constituency of Bongaigaon as he referred to statements made by senior BJP leader and Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma who openly said the BJP does not need Miya votes.
“They have started identifying themselves as Miyas. These so-called Miya people are very very communal and fundamental and they are involved in many activities to distort Assamese culture and Assamese language. So I don’t want to be an MLA with their vote. I will not be able to sit in the Assembly if they voted for me,” Sarma said in February in the run-up to the campaign.
“The people who are openly challenging Assamese culture and language and challenging composite Indian culture, they should not vote for us,” he said.
Miyas, a pejorative often used for Bengali speaking Muslims and Badruddin Ajmal, the chief of the AIUDF, whose party enjoys the support of a large section of the community, have been constants in the BJP-led alliance’s campaign as it reaches out to the other section of voters in Assam.
BJP’s leaders have often said in the course of the campaign how Ajmal would encourage infiltrators if Mahajut comes to power.
“Congress and Badruddin Ajmal’s alliance means that if they come to power, they will fill Assam with infiltrators. Do you want a deluge of infiltrators to come to Assam?” Home Minister Shah said in a rally in Barak Valley.
In the same rally, Shah promised how refugees would be granted citizenship and infiltrators would be thrown out, an assurance to the Hindu refugees from Bangladesh that the CAA will be implemented.
Even as it promises citizenship to non-Muslim refugees through the CAA, the BJP has been at the forefront of the criticism of the NRC list which was published in 2019 claiming that the list is riddled with errors. It has sought rectification of the list demanding that there be a 20% sample re-verification in border districts. In its manifesto, the party has said that it will ensure the protection of Indian citizens and exclude all illegal migrants by way of “correction and reconciliation of entries under the Supreme Court mandated National Register of Citizens.”
Amid criticism, the NRC process has been in limbo since 2019 as the state coordinator of the exercise has not yet started the process of issuing rejection slips which would form the basis of appeals for those over 1.9 million who have been excluded from the NRC.
“We are from here. Still, they continue to call us foreigners,” Hussain rued. “What was the point of that expensive NRC exercise which kept us busy for four-five years,” he asks.
Bengali speaking Hindus upset but say BJP their only option
Indra Kumar Das, a Bengali-speaking Hindu from Balapara who had a fledgeling coal trading said he supported the BJP in the past but has changed his preferences this time. His business has been shut down as National Green Tribunal cracked down on coal mining in neighbouring Meghalaya.
“We are supporting the Mahajut this time,” Das said sitting at a pan shop in the small bazaar of the village. Das holds the state government responsible for the issues in the NRC process.
“How can they blame others and say that there are Bangladeshis in the NRC list when the process happened during their time,” Das asks. “People spent a lot of time and their hard-earned money going from one place to the other for NRC hearings,” Das said.
In Basugaon, in neighbouring Chirang district, one of the four which forms the BTR, Kamal Chandra Das says it is difficult for the BJP-led alliance will win the seat. Basugaon falls under Sidli constituency which the UPPL is contesting. “The BPF candidate might win in Sidli,” Das, a worker with the youth wing of the BJP said. “Non-tribals do not want to vote UPPL. They (UPPL) are very kattar (hardline),” he said.
Kamal Chandra Das accepts that the Bengali Hindus are upset with the BJP. “They have given us hope with the CAA but have done nothing yet. The law has not been implemented,” he said. “The BJP government was there yet so many Bengalis had to suffer, many were sent to detention camps,” Kamal Chandra Das continued.
His father, a small businessman was marked a doubtful voter in 2016. He was later declared an Indian citizen. “I went to the foreigners tribunal and said my two brothers are in armed forces. They are serving in Kashmir. Can their father be an illegal migrant,” Kamal Chandra Das said recalling the proceedings of the tribunal.
“There is a saying in Bengali that Nai Mama Theke, Kana Mama Bhalo,” (Having a one-eyed Uncle is better than not having an Uncle) Kamal Chandra Das says. “BJP is the only party which talks about Hindus. No other party does,” he says, explaining why he continues to work for the BJP. “I want to see them return for another term,” he adds.