Sunday, August 12, 2012

Assam will never be same again

By Swapan Dasgupta

If I was a Bodo in Assam and listening to last Wednesday’s adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha , would I be mistaken in coming to the grim conclusion that the political establishment either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about what happens in Kokrajhar? Would I be wrong in also concluding that the niceties of democratic politics are unlikely to save the community from complete marginalisation, even in the so-called Bodo ‘homeland’?

These are subversive thoughts and I hope that in the coming years I am proved completely wrong. However, judging from the complete denial of Bodo grievances by the ruling coalition and its many friends in the Opposition, some unpalatable home truths are in order.

The most important of these is the realisation that the immigrants from eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) who began the colonisation of Assam sometime in the 1900s, are on the verge of a total and unqualified political victory. From the position of captive vote banks of cynical politicians such as Moinul Huq Choudhury, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and that great buffoon Dev Kanta Barooah—all important functionaries in Indira Gandhi’s dispensation—the illegals have now acquired independent clout. They can still do with all the support they get from the misplaced secularism of the mainstream parties. But the more intelligent of their leaders—and the AIDUF leader Badruddin Ajmal, MP for Dhubri is just one of them—know that far from being a valuable stakeholder in the Ali-Coolie-Bangali coalition, it is they who are on the verge of calling the shots.

The process may yet take another decade to fully fructify. However, if as many in the know suggest, anything between 11 and 13 of the 27 districts of Assam are now Muslim majority, it is only a matter of time before the political consequences of this monumental demographic change begin to be felt. No wonder some of Sharad Yadav’s pointed questions to the government regarding the demographic composition of those in the refugee camps went unanswered.

This is a demographic upheaval that neither Assam nor the rest of India have begun to appreciate. Parties supportive of the Bodos continue to invoke the Assam Accord of 1985 and press for detection, disenfranchisement and deportation of all those who entered Assam from Bangladesh after March 1971. They don’t seem to realise that these demands are now horribly dated. Apart from the fact that 41 years have lapsed since the cut-off date, the demographic shift has made it impossible for any government machinery to conduct citizenship tests on the ground. Even the register of citizens that former Assam Governor Lt-Gen S.K. Sinha proposed in the late-1990s is certain to be flawed. Evidence from the Census operations clearly show that a disproportionate number of people tell the enumerators that they were born locally.

The likes of Ajmal know that the threats of detection and deportation are empty. This is why he has no inhibition about directing his fire power at the remaining pockets of indigenous resistance. If Kokrajhar falls and the Bodo Territorial Council becomes history, the march into Lower Assam and even the Barak Valley will be relatively effortless.

There is another facet of Ajmal that warrants attention, even admiration: the deftness with which he has enlarged the cause of Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh into an all-India Muslim cause. Confronted by one of the weakest Congress-led governments at the Centre, this approach is yielding returns.

One of the most spirited interventions in the Lok Sabha came from Asaduddin Owaisi the MIM representative from Hyderabad. Apart from suggesting that the abnormal rise in Assam’s population over the years was a consequence of Hindu migration from East Pakistan and Bangladesh, Owaisi proffered the threat of Muslim militancy in the event of the community’s grievances not being addressed.

Owaisi was not alone. The aftermath of the July riots has seen the organised and unpublicised conducted tours of Muslim politicians cutting across parties to camps where the Muslim dispossessed have taken shelter. It is this group that has mounted pressure on the Congress High Command for action against Chief Minister Gogoi. It was a desire to placate Muslim sentiments in West Bengal that also propelled Mamata Banerjee to announce that the state would happily provide sanctuary to those unsettled by the violence. In Parliament, Trinamool Congress minister Sougata Roy even stated that his party disagreed with the Supreme Court judgment striking down the Illegal Migrants Detection Tribunal.

For the moment, the trends in Muslim politics are mixed. In most areas where the community is in a minority, the trend is to support and participate in the mainstream parties, particularly the Congress. However, in areas where the community is numerically strong, there is the emergence of Muslim parties. The Muslim League in Malabar, the MIM in Hyderabad, the AIDUF in Assam and the Peace Party in parts of Uttar Pradesh could suggest an emerging pattern. If this trend is reinforced and replicated in West Bengal and Bihar, we may see a shift in the pattern of national politics.

The Congress is aware of dangers arising from a Muslim electoral breakaway. This may be why there is every possibility of the Bodo cry for help falling on deaf ears. For the moment, one community has quite effectively exercised its veto in national affairs—to the detriment of the national interest.

Assam will never be the same again.

Sunday Pioneer, August 12, 2012

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