Sangh politics in Assam

Written by Hiren Gohain | Published on: July 1, 2003

Image for representation purpose only

The issue of illegal migrants influencing demographic patterns is being revived by outfits of the Sangh Parivar in Assam but so far the AASU and AJYCP have been wary in responding to these blatant attempts to communalise the issue

A couple of months ago, at a press conference in Guwahati, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad announced its plans to organise a massive rath yatra in Assam, with processionists converging in Guwahati from different corners of the state. That press conference was addressed by Ashok Singhal, with the usual inflammatory statements and fanfare. There was some apprehension among the Muslims, but in the event the rath yatra and the rally turned out to be a fiasco. It is significant that various regionalist outfits like the Purvanchaliya Lok Parishad held out threats to resist the move to communalise the politics of Assam on the eve of the rath yatra.

People in Assam are worried about infiltrators or illegal migrants from Bangladesh, and to some extent from Nepal. The usual explanation for the vehemence of the reaction is that this unchecked influx will change the demographic composition of Assam and bring about an erosion of the cultural identity of the indigenous people. The Hindutvavadi camp or the sangh parivar has been trying to communalise this issue for a decade or so. Though people here are not keen to get embroiled in a lurid Hindu-Muslim conflict, they are reacting less and less testily to the propaganda of the sangh parivar. Hence, even though the Assamese people cherish a secret pride in their tradition of tolerance, there is no room for complacence in liberal and progressive circles.

Apart from their routine methods, such as incendiary speeches and communal provocations in sensitive areas, the sangh parivar has been making use of long-thought-out and carefully executed tactics with a host of dedicated workers. They have "converted" to their point of view, a section of the privileged local elite with the bait of plum positions in important social and cultural bodies with the attendant prestige, and further inducement of political power once the sangh parivar has consolidated its hold on the state.

Certain measures to influence public opinion adopted by the sangh parivar are indeed striking. A chain of schools called Shankardev Shishu Niketans (named after the great and beloved saint of medieval Assam) now covers the state, and they are particularly active in potential trouble-spots. These schools begin the day with saraswati vardana and remain open on Muslim holidays. Those who have entered these schools, allege that such schools repeatedly expose small children to barrages of anti-Muslim propaganda.

In the last ten years or so, with the decline in secular politics owing to the decadence of parliamentary democracy on the one hand and rank left opportunism on the other, religious movements and organisations have shown a remarkable resurgence. The Shankardev Sangha, a mass organisation of Vaishnava devotees that rallies more than 5 lakh people in its annual conferences, now offers a seat of honour to luminaries of the sangh parivar. Not to be outdone, the rival congress of religious monasteries, the Sadou Asom Satra Mahasabha, similarly bestows fraternal status on representatives of the sangh parivar. The ostensible common ground is the danger of conversion of masses of tribals to Christiantity.

As Prof. V Xaxa of the Delhi School of Economics has forcefully demonstrated in an article published in Economic and Political Weekly a couple of years ago, the rate of conversion as well as the proportion of Christians in the North-East has been highly exaggerated by mischievous elements. But neither would it be wise to pretend that conversion does not raise a few thorny issues.

First, tribal people exposed to conditions of modern life and modern education desire a transition to a broader social and cultural life than those available under their ancient tribal institutions. Hinduism with its numerous taboos and pollution norms makes this transition difficult and hedged with restrictions. Christianity makes for an easier and more democratic transition. However, Christian preachers and priests often instill a kind of exclusiveness bordering on bigotry among the converts. Militant faith and convictions lead to more antagonistic relationships with the neighbouring Hindus, and indeed with their own "animist" brethren, also significantly turned "Hindus" by Christian preachers.

Secondly, the matter of foreign funding has also raised hackles. Capitalism has brought about important changes in the organisation of religious life, and even the RSS has recently been in the news for receiving funds from NRI and other corporate groups in America. But the evangelical zeal of "the Church" (which actually includes several mutually exclusive sects and denominations) is often enhanced by funding from foreign sources with doubtful political links. President Bush, representing a destructive American variety of piety, declared soon after assuming office that humanitarian aid doled out by the United States would hereafter be routed through religious agencies— a euphemism for "the Church".

While the political front of the RSS, the BJP, seems intent on forming closer ties with the United States, to the point of sharing military strategy and intelligence, the RSS has been vociferous in denouncing the church for its foreign links. This is an ideological twist difficult for a renegade Hindu like this author to unravel. But the fact remains that the outcry against conversion does appeal to some Hindu sentiment here.

The other issue that stirs popular sentiment here is the so-called threat of the "extinction of Assamese identity". It is not often realised outside Assam that right upto 1947, present-day Bangladesh and Assam were part of one, undivided country. The migration of lakhs of impoverished peasants from East Bengal, promoted by British rulers in the nineteen-thirties created a fear- psychosis in the minds not only of the Assamese but also of diverse tribal groups of the region in view of heightening communal tensions in the rest of the country.

The tensions persisted right up to the early fifties, when hundreds of pre-Independence Muslim settlers from East Bengal were pushed back into what became known as East Pakistan. However, the lure of land continued to attract migrants from that country. But they were now known as "Pakistani infiltrators". Since there was neither any natural barrier nor any strict policing over large stretches of the border, many poverty-stricken, land-hungry peasants or poor agricultural labourers continued to cross over. It soon became a real problem to sort out genuine pre-Independence migrants from later ‘infiltrators’. The matter was further complicated by the enthusiastic support of both earlier and later migrants to projects of Assamese nationalism marked by tumultous mass-movements to establish Assamese hegemony.

Though the Congress is now largely blamed for patronising mass-migration of such foreigners into Assam, it can also be argued that the Assamese leaders of the Congress succeeded in turning Assam into an Assamese majority state with the tacit support of Bengali Muslim immigrants. At that time, the Assamese middle class had not condemned this as an act of treachery.

The electoral majority of the Congress helped the Assamese middle class to corner the best jobs and other opportunities provided by the state government. But when the large immigrant population began to produce educated contenders for the same jobs and opportunities, the Assamese grew alarmed, and the old fears of "threat to Assamese identity" revived. When in 1978, Muslims from all political parties in the state’s Legislative Assembly numbered 28 out of 126, the alarm turned into a panic. A bitter chauvinist frenzy swept over Assam, and the Assam Movement for expulsion of foreigners was born.

It must not be assumed, however, that the influx has been a mere figment of imagination or myth. The annual rate of growth of population of India as a whole had been 21.50% between 1951 and 1961, and 24.45% between 1961 and 1971, whereas for the same periods, the population of Assam showed an increase of 34.45% and 34.37% respectively. During the same periods, the growth-rate of population of some districts like Goalpara, Nagaon, Darrang and Kamrup rose above the state average by a significant margin. Migration accounts for the disparity.

The leaders of the so-called Assam Movement were not alone in raising a hue and cry. The chief election commissioner at that time, Shakdher, claimed in a number of press conferences in Guwahati in 1979 and 1980 that the electoral rolls of Assam showed an alarming increase in the number of voters, far above the national average.

Any sound opinion on the present furore over the IMDT Act must take into account both these aspects in the background. By 1984, after years of frenzied agitation by Assamese supporters of the anti-foreigner movement, and equally frenzied repression by the government, both sides had tired sufficiently to agree to a settlement. The famous "Assam Accord" of August 15,1985, followed.

In the mean time, the government had sought to impose an election on the state in 1983, and faced violent resistance from the movement’s supporters. Hundreds of immigrants in Nellie, a village of the old Nowgong district, were massacred. The police and the CRPF gunned down more than 200 supporters of the movement for opposing the election. The blood-letting induced a mood of remorse and introspection.

The IMDT Act has been exploited as an issue by the sangh parivar to increase the electoral influence of the BJP. If incidents can be provoked around this issue, the communal polarisation of the electorate might help fascist outbreaks as in Gujarat.

There is no doubt that both communal and secessionist elements had by this time infiltrated the anti-foreigner movement and guided its destiny to some extent. The RSS gained ground in Assam—for the first time after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi—with the rise of the Janata Party at the Centre after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s disastrous experiment in internal Emergency. They used the anti-Congress wave sweeping all over the country to chip away at the old Congress bases. The Assam Movement provided fresh opportunities to seize old Congress bases, especially among the Assamese population. The Congress was compelled to allay Muslim fear while not entirely alienating the dwindling Assamese support-base.

Mrs. Gandhi introduced the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act (IMDT Act) in Parliament in 1983. The idea was to protect all migrants from before independence to the year 1971, and introduce legal and judicial mechanisms for the detection of foreigners who had crossed over after 1971. (The birth of Bangladesh in the meantime seems to have had something to do with the cut-off year).

However, from the beginning there were bitter complaints from Assamese lawyers that the cumbersome provisions of the Act did more to protect the illegal migrants than detect and expel them. For example, the onus of detection was laid almost wholly on the shoulders of the ordinary citizen, and the tribunals merely provided legal form to the process. (Vide clauses 8-12 of the IMDT set of 1983). It need hardly be spelt out that an ordinary member of the public is hardly likely to busy himself with finding proof of foreign origin of any suspected infiltrator, as required under the act. The Assam Accord of 1985 virtually accepted the IMDT Act under its clause 5.8, though it mentions the central government’s commitment "to consider certain difficulties expressed by the AASU/AAGSP regarding implementation of the IMDT Act of 1985" (5.9).

For some years after the signing of the Accord, the foreigners’ problem became almost a dead issue. But when one of the wiliest politicians of the state, former student-leader Prafulla K Mahanta, returned to power for a second time in 1995 with the support of the Left camp, he sought to counter his growing unpopularity by raking up the issue of foreigners, the ineffectuality of the IMDT Act and by forming the electoral alliance with the BJP. Both the state and central governments submitted affidavits before the Supreme Court in support of a decision to repeal the Act earlier passed by Parliament.

Since then, the press witnessed a war of statements, with Assamese regionalist outfits demanding a repeal of the Act, and minority organisations and the Congress opposing that move. It has come to light that between 1983 and 2000, only 15,000 cases had come up before the tribunals, and judgements were mostly of a negative nature. Only a handful of people were eventually expelled. The political device of the IMDT Act has thus given a communal twist to a real problem, and both the BJP and the sangh parivar have assumed a militant posture on the issue of repeal of the Act.

In the meantime, powerful student and youth organisations like the AASU and the AJYCP have adopted the repeal of the IMDT Act as their main programme, of late. From time to time, they have also praised the NDA government and the BJP for taking up an issue so vital to "the presevation of the Assamese identity". But, at the same time. both these organisations are afraid that if they identify too closely with the BJP, the Assamese mainstream with its liberal traditions might be offended.

There is also the lurking fear that once BJP communalises the issue, their support-base, and that of the AGP, might be taken over wholesale by the BJP. Hence, Praveen Togadia’s typically mad statement that the government of India must attack Bangladesh to compel her to take back "50 lakh Muslims", and his dark prophecy of a Muslim Assam in the near future, have found no takers among the AASU and the AJYCP.

Many here believe that the IMDT Act has been exploited as an issue by the sangh parivar to increase the electoral influence of the BJP. If incidents can be provoked around this issue, and the atmosphere of the state poisoned by vitriol, the communal polarisation of the electorate might help fascist outbreaks as in Gujarat. The end in view is a triumph of the BJP and/or pro-BJP forces at the polls. Thus the hate-ridden rhetoric and the provocation have a distinct political motivation.

Both minority organisations and democratic opinion fear that the repeal of the Act without proper safeguards for the Muslim migrants may re-open the question of their status as citizens, providing further fuel to communal passions. In the early nineties, in a joint move against the Congress regime of Hiteswar Saikia, the present leaders of AJYCP and AASU and the leaders of the Jamait- ulema-Hind had agreed that a National Register of Citizens based on enumeration slips of censuses of the state and the electoral rolls up to 1971 would help mark off foreigners from genuine citizens who had entered Assam after 1971. It would be much easier, safer, and less communally invidious to use such a National Register of Citizens to resolve the matter peacefully and to everyone’s satisfaction. However, nobody seems too interested in it any longer.

Archived from Communalism Combat, June-July 2003 Year 9  No. 88-89, Special Report 3