GUWAHATI — Soon after switching over to the BJP in 2015, Himanta Biswa Sarma started reading books on Sangh ideologues and even claimed of going to RSS shakhas when he was a child.
That was one of the very early signals of what was cooking in the mind of the former blue-eyed boy of the late Congress stalwart Tarun Gogoi. Before joining the saffron camp, Sarma had started practicing to be more Hindu than those who were already in the BJP.
In the 2011 state elections, the BJP only managed to win five seats in the 126-member Assam assembly. The party’s stronghold in the state then was only the Barak Valley, which has a major chunk of Hindu Bengali voters. The seats came from that region only.
The saffron party never enjoyed a good support among the Assamese people in the state and that may be the reason that in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Assamese icon Bhupen Hazarika lost the Guwahati seat. He was at that time welcomed in the city with a large number of black flags.
BJP in Assam
The Assamese people were seeing BJP as a party of mainly Bengalis and Hindi-speaking communities.
Things started to change in late 2013 after the mammoth rise of Narendra Modi in national politics. In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Modi at a huge gathering in Guwahati challenged Tarun Gogoi with his Gujarat model of development.
He said that Gogoi could drive a Maruti car through the water pipes in Gujarat whereas despite having the Brahmaputra river, Assam was facing a scarcity of drinking water.
Sarma reacted to Modi’s statement with reference to the 2002 riots by saying: “Muslim blood and not water was flowing through pipes in Gujarat.”
In response, the BJP came down heavily on Sarma, and Election Commission also barred him from campaigning for a few days.
When he joined the BJP, Sarma was asked about his earlier statement, to which he said that it was the Congress party’s views and he did that as per the instructions of the leaders.
When in Congress, Sarma was known for his liberal image. He enjoyed quite a good support from the Muslim voters.
Though he started his career with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Sarma was never seen as an Assamese hardliner. Rather, he was known to be soft towards the Bengali speaking community in Assam which constitutes the nearly one-third population of the state.
Hard-core Assamese leader
Interestingly, in the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections in the state, Sarma garnered his image as a hard-core Assamese leader. He openly advocated for 1951 to be the base year for updating the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) in Assam which was a long pending demand from AASU and other organizations.
His statement created a stir as according to the Assam Accord, NRC updation process started by considering March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date. Congress jumped into criticizing Sarma for his remarks, but the statement gained votes for the BJP as the party did remarkably well in the Upper Assam area.
Sarma also sent a message that they would come down heavily on immigrant Bangladeshi Muslims which helped to consolidate the Hindu vote bank in favour of the BJP.
He further changed his position after the BJP swept to power in Assam. He started to portray himself as a Hindu hardliner leader and took charge of the education department along with various other portfolios in the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government.
At that time, in the government-run madrassas of Assam, Friday was considered a holiday. But, Sarma openly said this must be changed as we live in India, not in Pakistan or Bangladesh.
The statement attracted wide-scale criticism from the Muslim community but Sarma was firm on his position and ultimately the holiday was shited to Sunday.
The first draft of the NRC was first published on July 30, 2018. There were 40 lakh people who were missing from the list and the majority were Bengalis.
There was furor among the people and Assam saw protests in many parts. Sarma, however, used to say that the mainly immigrant Muslim population was out of the first draft though it was not the true case as a major chunk of Hindu Bengalis were also missing.
When the final draft of NRC was out on August 31, 2019, it left behind over 19 lakh people out of the 3.3 crore applicants in the state.
The ones, who could not find a place in the updated list, have since been trying to figure out how to get their names enlisted, as uncertainty looms over their future. The Hindu Bengalis constitute a good number in this 19 lakh population who were out of the final NRC.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)
When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in Parliament by the BJP, Assam was rocked by unprecedented protests. Most Assamese were staunchly against the CAA, as it would providing entry to Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Assamese people believed that the law would pave the way for a fresh wave of migration from Bangladesh and demographically swamp Assam.
During the anti-CAA protests in the state, many of the BJP’s leaders, including the then Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal were missing from the spotlight.
It was Sarma, however, who constantly insisted that the CAA would not threaten the Assamese people but liberate them from ‘invaders’, a jibe directed towards Bengali Muslims.
Sarma’s defence of the controversial CAA was a political statement to send a message that Assam’s Hindus had to coalesce to preserve its indigenous culture.
He extended it in the run-up of the previous year’s Assembly election, describing it as a “civilisational war” in which only the BJP could “save Assam” from immigrant Bangladeshis.
Before the elections, Sarma also termed the NRC as faulty and advocated for a fresh one. The Assam government has already demanded 20 per cent re-verification in the bordering districts and 10 percent in the other districts of the included names in the final NRC list.
Jayanta Malla Baruah, a Minister and Sarma’s close confidant said: “As there were a lot of irregularities which happened during the update process, we have demanded to verify the present NRC.”
The state government had already filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court in this regard.
Baruah further said that they were hoping the Supreme Court will study and analyze the whole situation and may give a nod to their appeal.
It is worth to be mentioned that in bordering districts with Bangladesh in Assam, the Muslim population is quite high and that is why the Sarma sought 20 per cent re-verification of the names there.
Shortly after assuming the office of Chief Minister, in spite of a court order, Sarma’s government proceeded with a series of eviction drives to displace hundreds of mainly Bengali Muslim families during the peak of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Darang district’s Sipajhar area, when people lost their lives during an eviction drive last year, criticisms heaped on Sarma from every corner. However, the Chief Minister claimed that there was a deep conspiracy of the Popular Front of India (PFI) and some other groups behind the entire incident.
The police were attacked that day. At least 10,000 people had attacked the police. So the police shot under a kind of compulsion. Although the question arose whether it was possible for the poor people of the village to do so.
Ever since Sarma became the Chief Minister, the police have been conducting operations against people occupying government land in various places like Mayang, Kaziranga, Bardoa and Amsai. Incidentally, much like Sipajhar, the Bengali Muslim population is in majority in those places.
After the evictions from the forest area in Patharkandi in Barak Valley, the ruling party MLA Krishnendu Pal said that the Rohingya have established a base there. But no evidence was found in favour of his claim. In fact, the idea that Bangladeshi Muslims are coming and occupying the land of the original inhabitants of Assam is being floated again and again.
The Muslim population has increased in various districts including Srimanta Shankardev’s birthplace, Bardowa in Nagaon. Sarma and the BJP alleged that the land belonging to the Assamese people is being dispossessed in many places.
So, the theory that gained currency was that the current government wants to secure land for the original inhabitants of the state. For this reason, even though it is a coincidence, the areas inhabited by the Muslim population are the main targets of the eviction drive.
Senior lawyer of Guwahati High Court, Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Chowdhury, questioned that many people are living on government land in places like Majuli, Dhemaji and Silchar. Why is there no eviction? According to him, the current government is taking steps to target the people of a particular ethnic group.
Residents of Garukhuti village in Sipajhar claimed that their names are in the NRC. They possess other government documents as well.
Hence, it is inappropriate to see them as Bangladeshi suspects.
Many locals claimed that they have been living there for 50 years. But now they are being forcibly evicted from their homes without any provision for rehabilitation. Where will they go in this situation?
It has been clearly stated in a judgment of the Guwahati High Court that the administration can carry out the eviction by arranging for rehabilitation first.
AIUDF party MLA Aminul Islam said that those people have been living in Garukhuti village since the 1970s. They used to pay land rent.
According to the MLA, later the state government deliberately stopped taking them. And this time, the local administration evicted all the children and the elderly without arranging any alternative place of residence.
But, Sarma continued to woo the Hindu voters by reacting to the eviction drives and making statement like: “If their population explosion continues, one day even the Kamakhya temple land will be encroached upon.”
Closing down madrassas
After the alteration of the holiday in Assam Madrassas, Sarma pitched for closing down all government-run madrasas in the state.
His government came up with a bill to shut down the madrassas and convert them to normal schools.
Though it was criticized by the Muslim population, all government-run madrassas in the state now have already transformed into normal schools. The Chief Minister advocated his action by saying that Muslim youth preferred to be doctors and engineers which was not possible by studying in Madrasas.
But, the critics are saying that Sarma’s government has an ‘evil’ eye on private-run madrasas also. Last month, three madrasas were demolished by the administration in the wake of the arrest of 40 people since March over their alleged terror links.
Excavators and bulldozers were deployed to demolish the two-storeyed building of the Markazul Ma Arif Quariayana Madrasa in the Jogighopa area in the Bongaigaon district on August 31. Earlier Jamiul Huda madrasa at Howli and another one by the same name at Moirabari in Morigaon district were destroyed by the police and administration.
However, Sarma claimed that Assam has become a hotbed of ‘jihadi activities’ as the links to Al Qaida in India Subcontinent (AQIS) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) terror outfits were busted in the past four months.
He said: “Interestingly, the hub of all these activities, appeared to be madrasas. I am not generalizing, but whoever has been arrested till date have had some connection with madrasas or were acting as preachers in some mosques.”
Sarma has also announced that police verification and online registration will soon become mandatory for imams and madrasa teachers coming from outside the state. Moreover, he has hinted that all private-run madrasas in Assam are on the government radar for looking into any Jihadi-type activities.
Cow protection act
Assam has implemented the cow protection act, however, in the name of cow protection, this law was being enacted in the state to actually stop beef consumption. The rules of the new law were made in such a way that it is almost impossible to eat beef while complying with it. But after Kashmir, Assam is the state with the largest Muslim population in the country.
In Assam, the sale, consumption of beef, etc. is prohibited within 5 km of religious places such as temples and namghars. Eating beef is not allowed even in the residential areas of Hindu-Sikh-Buddhist-Jain people.
As in many places of Assam, the Hindu-Muslim population is almost equal. People of multiple religions are living together in both rural and urban districts. As a result, many have feared disturbing communal harmony at some point in time on this cow protection act.
In the run-up tolast year’s Assembly polls, the BJP played the card of radical Hindutva, with Sarma at the forefront. He set the chord to consolidate Hindu votes by making harsh comments against Muslims and he was completely successful in that plan.
Apart from the cow protection law, population control, shutting down of madrasas, financial aid to temples, namghars etc. leaving out the mosques, eviction drive, demolition of madrasas — the long list has made the Sarma’s intentions clear, he wants Assam to be a highly polarised state.
The BJP currently dominates the Hindu votes, on the other hand, the popularity of Badruddin Ajmal is unwavering among Muslims.
Last year’s election in Assam has been settled on this line and Sarma wants this trend to continue in the future also. — IANS