Assam’s Bengali Muslim messiah and three-time MP, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, head of the All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is said to be a do-gooder. He may well be just as there are do-gooders in other parties, many of dubious intent and disposition.
Doing good from a nationalist standpoint, however, cannot be delinked from efforts to violate the sanctity of Bharat Mata. And it is here that the probity of Ajmal’s do-goodery begins to unravel, determined as he is to emerge a serious contender for power with the votes of illegal Muslim immigrants, better known as miyas.
The 65-year-old perfume baron is at pains to tell people not to pay undue attention to his flowing beard and skull cap indicative of his faith. Weaponizing the state’s delicately poised demography is Ajmal’s larger game-plan in which he may well succeed unless the BJP returns to power on May 2 with enough numbers to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and finalize publication of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) by correcting its anomalies under the supervision of the apex court.
Though the anti-CAA sentiment has seemingly run out of steam, it remains an issue on paper in Upper Assam where the BJP won 35 of the 47 seats in 2016. This time its pickings may plunge given the potency of the AIUDF’s poll pact with the Congress.
The ground reality is grim. Muslims, going by the latest conservative estimates, comprise nearly 38 per cent of the Assam’s population, up 3-4 points from the 2011 census. The miyas of Lower Assam make up their overwhelming numbers. compared to their Assamese speaking brethren known as the goriyas and moriyas who populate the Upper and Middle regions. They are the original Muslims settlers who trace their origins to the 13th century Ahoms. Another group of Muslims known as the julhas were brought by the British from Bihar and UP to help lay out the first railway lines.
The groupings, however, mater little during elections. Muslims voted en bloc for the Congress before the advent of the AIUDF in 2005. Tarun Gogoi could not have ruled the state for 15 straight years without their assured support. Unabated illegal immigrations happened right under his nose. Electoral considerations goaded him to turn a blind eye. It was the single biggest reason for his ouster in 2016.
The reality of hard Muslim numbers, however, has yet to sink into Hindu voters still stuck in the time warp of language and cultural identity. The fate of at least 45 of the 126 assembly seats in the 2021 polls rests on the success of the AIUF-Congress pact. Belated realization that a split in the Muslim vote would cost them dearly compelled them to close rank.
The AIUDF won 13 seats and the Congress’ 26 in 2016. This time the multi-party mahajot which includes the communists as well as the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) could win many more. The BPF, though not the dominant player in Bodo politics after breaking up with the BJP, is still the single largest party in the 40-member Bodo Territorial Council (BTC) whose writ runs over the districts of Baksa, Chirang, Kokrajhar, and Udalguri in western Assam.
Then there is the third front of two newly born outfits: the Assam Jatiya Party, a splinter group of the Assam Gana Parishad, a BJP ally, and the Raijor Dal floated by the peasant leader, RTI activist, and anti-CAA crusader Akhil Gogoi. Both may score a duck but may chip into the votes of the BJP or even the Congress.
Eleven of the state’s 34 districts are Muslim majority with South Salmara, Dhubri (Ajmal’s seat of power), Barpeta, Hailakandi, and Darrang leading the pack with a brute seventy per cent plus composition. South Salmara, in fact, is a virtual Islamic republic; 98 per cent of its denizens are servants of Allah.
Ousting Narendra Modi from power is by his own volition the sole mission of the sultan of scent (itr). With his business empire spread over dozens of countries, West Asia in particular, Ajmal’s financial resources are gargantuan. That he is also the state president of the Jamait Ulema-e-Hind, the country’s largest socio-cultural Muslim body, also adds to his political heft. Hence, the imperative need to downsize his growing influence.
The general impression is that Ajmal, though a self-made man, is potentially even more dangerous than the AIMIM demagogue, Asaduddin Owaisi. His public image is that of a Muslim with an abiding faith in the country’s ganga-jamuni tehzeeb. He dislikes Bharat being referred to as a Hindu homeland much less a Hindu Rashtra, the prospect of which fills him with revulsion.
A couple of days ago the maulana threw a huge fit on hearing that an allegedly doctored video circulated by a right-wing Hindu handle on Twitter showed him saying he would help the Congress transform Bharat into an “Islamic nation”. His words were a twisted version of an anti-Hindu diatribe delivered at Barpeta on 17 April 2019 during the run-up to the Lok Sabha poll. In his speech he scoffed at the hegemonistic aspirations of Hindus despite being in majority.
Ajmal railed that Mughals ruled India for 800 years but never thought of making this country an Islamic nation. For if their line of badshah (kings) had so desired every single Hindu would have been compelled to embrace Islam. Even the British, he said, ruled for 200 years but they too did not dare Christianize India. Nurturing dreams of Hindu Rashtra was thus delusionary, he said.
Not many Muslim leaders can mouth the platitudes he does to establish his faux secular credentials. Questioned on his party’s stand on the Bangladesh influx he once told the Lok Sabha, “You put them in jail, detention camps, or even shoot them, we have nothing to say…We are for a policy of zero tolerance towards them… no genuine Indian citizen should be harassed as Bangladeshi.”
What is generally glossed over is that Ajmal’s roots lie in East Pakistan. He floated the AIUDF immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision in 2005 (Sarbananda Sonowal versus Union of India) to scrap the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act enacted by the Indira Gandhi regime in 1983. The Act was aimed at stopping the harassment of Muslims affected by the Assam agitation. Successive Congress regimes in the state from Hiteshwar Saikia to Tarun Gogoi used the IMDT Act to encourage illegal immigration to boost their vote bank.
Late last December it was revealed that the Union Home ministry was conducting a high-level inquiry into allegations of foreign funds received by his family run NGO, Markarzul Ma’arif, in violation of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010. Among the NGO’s many projects was raising a Miya museum inside the sacred precincts of Guwahati’s Srimanta Sankardeva Kalashetra built in honor of the 15th century Assamese saint-scholar-poet, an icon of the Vaishnava sect.
The museum was proposed to reflect the native culture of the char-chaporis, the riverine islands of the Brahmaputra primarily inhabited by Muslims of Bengali origin. Mercifully, it was shot down by the BJP’s chanakya, Hemanta Biswa Sarma, the powerful minister in the ruling regime. He saw through Ajmal’s game.
The scent moghul also rubbed devotees of Sankardeva by referring to the saint as saheb at a political rally at the birthplace of the polymath in Nowgaon district. Slogans of “Sankardeva zindabad” were raised at an AIUDF rally with the mischievous intent of lowering his gurujona status.
Ajmal is symptomatic of the threat that looms over Assam. Though his electoral influence does not encompass the entire Muslim populace — 19 seats is all that AIUDF is contesting — it is only natural that his co-religionists look upon him as their protector. Hindu consolidation alone can stymie his ambitions which remains a distant prospect.
Five years of BJP rule has done much to make Hindu Axomiyas aware of the destiny which awaits them sans unity, but deep divisions persist. The Hindu in them plays second fiddle to their regional pride. Bengali Hindus, who make up a sizeable chunk of the populace, are disliked and distrusted.
Illegal immigration was the dominant issue of the 2016 poll. It helped the BJP cobble a majority with the help of the AGP (14) and the BPF (12). Pre-poll surveys had predicted a BJP sweep ranging from 70-90 seats on its own. Sixty is what it ended up with.
This time the battle will be tougher despite a fractured Opposition. Tarun Gogoi is dead and son Gaurav is a pale shadow of his father. Congress hopes are anchored on the anti-CAA plank which may not resonate with everyone. Opposition to it re-affirms that the Congress cannot survive without a Muslim mollifying agenda. The NRC, whatever its paradoxes, was a historic necessity which only anti-nationals decry. And the Congress has always been a step away from being branded as one judged by the position it takes on key issues. Allying with a downright communal outfit like the AIUDF may prove a serious misstep for a party gasping for survival.
The BJP has given Assam the best government in decades — clean and graft free. Projects begun during Congress rule have been completed, and iconic Central schemes like Ujjwala reached to the doorstep of the poor. Chief minister Sarbanand Sonowal and his ministerial colleague cum Northeast strategist, Hemanta Biswa Sarma, have proved effective administrators. No prime minister has visited Assam as frequently as Modi since 2014. In fact, were it not for the anti-CAA upsurge, winning a second term with a two-thirds majority would have been a breeze for the BJP.
Suraksha (security), Vikas (development) and Sanskriti (culture), however, remain compelling themes. Only the BJP can provide all three with conviction and sincerity. Extracting a majority from 60 per cent of the electorate is the real challenge.
Alliance with the BPF helped the BJP win well over 25 seats in the extended Bodo belt. Twelve of these lie within the jurisdiction of the BTC. Breakup with the BPF is bound to cost the BJP a few seats despite its pact with the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL), the second largest party within the BTC.
The BJP is pinning its hopes on the 30 per cent odd Axomia vote, and the 20 per cent (roughly five million) of the Tea tribes spread over 800 tea gardens in the North and Upper Assam districts of Darrang, Sonitpur, Nagaon, Jorhat, Golaghat, Dibrugarh, Cachar, Hailakandi, Karimganj, Tinsukia etc.
The Tea tribes are a suppressed and exploited lot. They voted BJP in the last two polls in the hope of being granted ST status and a rise in daily wages. Neither materialized given the complexities. The Congress too had failed them for decades. The chances are they will stay with the BJP. They know they stand a better chance of improving their lot with the same party in power in the Centre and the state.
All said and done the development card has the best chance of working for the BJP in the complex social mosaic of Assam. Religion can only be proffered as an attachment so long as ethnic concerns are given the respect they deserve. The party’s 2016 slogan Jaati (ethnicity), Maati (land), Bheti (homeland) has an eternal resonance.
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