Why Assam is likely to become Hindutva’s new laboratory

Immigration and conversion will be made key issues by the state’s new BJP government.

Why Assam is likely to become Hindutva's new laboratory

By Ajaz Ashraf, Scroll | May 20, 2016

Assam’s Chief Minister-designate, Sarbananda Sonowal, switched from the Asom Gana Parishad to the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2011. This means that he isn’t completely steeped in the Sangh Parivar’s ideology. In a previous interview, he declared that his party, if elected to power, would subscribe to secularism, which has acquired a bewildering variety of meanings.

Now that the BJP has won Assam, regardless of Sonowal’s own ideological inclination, the state is likely to emerge as Hindutva’s new laboratory. The experiments aren’t likely to involve the reconfiguring of ideas such as the mythology of Ram, or the imposition of Hindi on Assam, or the total ban on cattle-slaughter.

Yet, there are three reasons why Assam will become the playground of Hindu nationalism.

One: The issue of illegal immigrants, on which the BJP has swept to power, has a communal wrapping. Now that the BJP is in government, it won’t be able to soft-pedal this anymore.

Two: Muslims constitute 34% of Assam’s population. They have been communally mobilised by the All India United Democratic Front for a decade now. The immigration issue affects them most. The new government’s action on the issue will likely experience a strong pushback.

Three, and more significantly: The Hindutva project in Assam dates to the 1940s. The BJP may have become politically relevant in Assam in the last two decades or so, but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh established its first shakha in Assam in October 1946. This was at the invitation of a Marwari businessman based in Guwahati, notes Malini Bhattacharjee in her essay, Tracing the Emergence and Consolidation of Hindutva in Assam.

Having spread across the state thereafter, exploiting every conceivable opportunity that came its way – Partition violence and its aftermath, the influx of refugees, the devastating 1950 earthquake, the immigrant issue, et al – it is very unlikely that the Sangh will sit back and not pressure Sonowal to execute its Hindutva projects.

Immigrant issue

It isn’t as if the immigrant issue is not important to Sonowal, whose career zoomed because of it. As an Asom Gana Parishad MP, it was he who had moved the Supreme Court against the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983, or IMDT Act, which the Indira Gandhi government passed in response to the Assam movement.

Very simply, the Act provided for an institutional arrangement to detect and deport migrants who came to Assam after March 25, 1971. In other words, those who came before that date were deemed legal citizens.

The Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act because the cut-off date for determining who is an Indian citizen in other states is July 19, 1948. The SC also held the IMDT Act to be the “main impediment or barrier in the identification and deportation of illegal migrants”.

The result of the Supreme Court striking down the IMDT Act was that Assamese Hindus hail Sonowal as Jatiya Nayak, or the hero of Assamese nationality, notes Manoj Kumar Nath in his essay, Communal Politics in Assam: Growth of AIUDF since 2016.

Sonowal, therefore, cannot but show action on the illegal immigrant issue now. But nobody really knows what the BJP government’s policy towards the immigrants will be. But the pitch, and therefore popular expectations, on it has been definitely raised during the Assembly election campaign.

Far-reaching effects

In March 2011, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who deserted the Congress last year to join the BJP, told Reuters that if the BJP was voted to power it would disenfranchise the immigrants who came between 1951 and 1971. He estimated that there were about 2 million immigrants and their descendants who came to India before 1971.

Other leaders of the BJP-led alliance were even more strident. Some of them were quoted in the media saying all illegal immigrants who entered Assam before 1951 would be booted out. Media reports cited a one-man inquiry commission of the Supreme Court saying transfer of land should be restricted to immigrants who were Indian citizens in 1951.

From the Hindutva perspective, illegal immigrants are Muslims who migrated from East Pakistan or Bangladesh. Hindus who came from the neighbouring country are excluded from the definition. It is indeed an irony that in the earlier decades the Assamese middle class perceived Bengali Hindus a threat, fearing their educational attainment would stiffen competition for employment.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has consistently opposed the inclusion of Hindus among illegal immigrants. Bhattacharjee quotes RSS leader Eknath Ranade, who was the organisational head for the eastern zone, telling an interviewer in 1950, “In Assam the problem is of provincial narrowness. Bengali refugees are not welcome in Assam…people look at them as outsiders and feel that they should be driven out.”

Refugee vs immigrant

Decades later, RSS sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras equated the Hindus from Bangladesh as “refugees” who were being hounded out from Bangladesh by its Islamic regime. But the Muslims from Bangladesh, he claimed, were being deliberately pushed into Assam to convert it into a Muslim-majority state. He warned the Hindus of the consequences of becoming a minority in Assam.

The RSS also infiltrated the All Assam Students’ Union, which was spearheading the movement for the detection and deportation of immigrants from Bangladesh. The RSS had already a strong base among Bengalis, to whose refugees from East Pakistan it had not only provided relief but also helped in finding jobs. Its rhetoric sought to insulate them from the anti-foreigner movement.

However, in the 1985 Assembly election, following the signing of the Assam Accord, Muslim outfits and linguistic minorities groups came together to form the United Minorities Front – it won 17 seats and polled 10.85% votes. But the Front splintered because of subsequent defections.

The illegal immigrant issue was subsequently framed in religious terms – the illegal migrant was now just the Muslim. The census surveys further reinforced the fears of Hindus – from constituting 69.75% of Assam’s population in 1961, they were down to 61.46% in 2011. In the same period, the percentage of Muslims grew from 24.70% to 34.22%.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi openly declared that Hindu immigrants were welcomed and should be accommodated in India. But even before it, the emergence of the All India United Democratic Front as principal Opposition party in 2011 prompted the Assamese Hindus, regardless of their linguistic and sectarian differences, to band together.

An unlikely effect

The banding together, quite ironically, happened because of former chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s campaign. Failing to marginalise the AIUDF or splitting it, his 2011 campaign, notes Nath, revolved around asking the crowds, “Who is Badruddin [Ajmal, the AIUDF head]? He was subtly highlighting Ajmal’s religious identity and to the fact that he drew sustenance from Muslim immigrants.

Whether disfranchising Muslims, or denying them possession of land, or deporting them outright, Assam will sooner than later teeter on the brink. The Sangh hotheads will now flex their muscles, as they have been doing in parts of India after the BJP won the Lok Sabha elections.

It is only expected that the Muslims, under the aegis of the AIUDF, will resist. The AIUDF is the product of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, which is organisationally and ideologically the mirror opposite of the RSS. It has always had a strong hold on Muslims immigrants, but increasingly now also on the indigenous section in the community. It will seek to become their protector through its own brand of brinkmanship.

The RSS’s other pet project in Assam has been to target the Christian missionaries for their evangelism. Even in the 1950s, its second sarsanghchalak, MS Golwalkar, had railed against the Christian missionaries for proselytising tribes whom the Sangh claimed to have been Hindu.

The RSS sought to counter the Christian missionaries by establishing school and health centres in remote areas. It also sought to integrate the janjatis, or ethnic groups, into the larger Hindu society. In a Vishwa Hindu Parishad conference in Guwahati in 1967, there was a debate between Golwalkar and the Shankaracharya of Dwarka Peeth whether janjatis could be considered Hindu.

Drawing the line

No, argued the Shankaracharya and his supporters. This was because the janjatis consumed beef, he said. In response, Golwalkar argued that the janjatis hadn’t been made aware of the true Hindu tradition, and that they didn’t consider the cow holy only because the enlightened Hindus hadn’t reached out to them.

Thereafter, Bhattacharjee writes, the Shankaracharya declared janjatis to be Hindu and rationalised that “their consumption of beef had been born out of sheer economic necessity as there was no food available to them in the deep interiors of hilly regions”.

Proselytisation and infiltration of Muslims have been clubbed together in the RSS’s narrative as far as Assam is concerned. In 2005, Mohan Bhagwat, who is the current head of the RSS, said, rather menacingly: “The tidal waves of tsunami are a natural calamity and no one knows when they would strike. We are all aware that infiltration and conversion have been going on under a planned manner. Its outcome will be more dangerous than that of tsunami.”

To counter the threat of tsunami, precautionary measures, like installing an advance warning system, are taken. Now that the Sangh will hold the reins of the BJP government in Assam, be prepared that 11 years after Bhagwat’s warning, the state will witness action on the ground on the issues of immigration and conversion.

Judging from what has happened in large parts of India since May 2014, we know the action on the ground is unlikely to be benign.


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