Modi in Majuli: In Assam’s Riverine Island, the BJP Hopes to Trump its Rivals

Promises made by the BJP and a shifting vote base in Majuli, Assam, are likely to tilt the balance in favour of Sarbananda Sonowal, chief ministerial candidate of the NDA.

Majuli: A supporter wears a mask of Narendra Modi during his election rally at Majuli in Jorhat district of Assam on Saturday. Credit: PTI

A supporter wears a mask of PM Narendra Modi during his election rally at Majuli in Jorhat district of Assam on Saturday. Credit: PTI

Majuli (Assam): It was 2 p.m., the scheduled time for the ferry to depart from Nimati Ghat, which is located 12 km from Jorhat town in upper Assam, to the Afalamukh Ghat in Majuli. That part of Majuli stands at just an hour’s distance from the grey waters of the great Brahmaputra.

With 1200 square km of land, Majuli was once the largest riverine island in the world, a fact that gave Assam a unique place in world geography. However, river erosion over the past four decades has reduced Majuli’s land mass to 500 square kilometres – and thus its status – to merely Asia’s largest riverine island.

But Majuli has been best known as the seat of the Assam’s Vaishnava monasteries. These were set up in the early 16th century to follow the path of Bhakti forged by the celebrated saint Sankardeva against the Brahmanical insistence on caste and idol worship.

Inside the ferry, the rows of benches were beginning to fill up with passengers in their groups of twos and threes, some sporting bright Holi stains on their faces and hair.

“Since it is Holi today, there won’t be too many people on board,” said Bhaben Dutta, chewing on a piece of betel nut in typical Assamese style. Dutta was relieved that he wouldn’t need to jump off the ferry as soon as it touched Afalamukh today. “Otherwise, there are always more people than there are vehicles to take them from the riverside to different parts of the island, which leads to a scramble for space,” he explained, on learning that I am not from Majuli.

Fellow passenger Rajiv Nath added, “The state of the roads is something that you will have to suffer to believe in.” Others let out knowing laughs.

Runa Doley, a middle-aged housewife sitting across Nath, piped up, “Those roads are nothing compared to the Jengraimukh one, even though it leads to the MLA’s house. Whenever I ride down that road in a Magic [a Tata light vehicle used as public transport in Majuli], I get a stomach ache.”

The ferry’s engine started with a sputter. As the ferry slid into the river, the banter about the bad roads of Majuli shifted to more serious conversation about the long cherished dream of the island’s residents for a bridge that can connect Majuli to its district headquarters, Jorhat.

The BJP’s promises

The issue of the bridge is a hot button issue for the April 4 assembly elections in Majuli. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from the island and the party’s chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal has promised to build the bridge if elected. During the 15 years of Congress rule, the local MLA Rajiv Lochan Pegu failed to fulfil this dream of the people.

From Majuli, the only way out is the ferry to Jorhat, or the long link road to Lakhmpur. Credit: Google Maps

From Majuli, the only way out is the ferry to Jorhat, or the long link road to Lakhmpur. Credit: Google Maps

The need for the bridge is real – as the conversation on the ferry that afternoon made clear. Runa gave her reason: “I have been having viral fever for the last two days. Since the hospital in Majuli has no good doctors, we have to travel to Jorhat for even small ailments. I lost nearly the entire day today to see a doctor there. If there was a bridge, I wouldn’t have to leave home at 7 a.m. to catch the 7.30 ferry. And on the way back, we are always in a hurry because the last ferry to Majuli leaves Nimati at 4 p.m.”

During most medical emergencies post 4 p.m., she said, people take the road link to Lakhimpur. “Even that road is back-breaking. Because of its condition, many babies have been born before reaching the hospital in Lakhimpur.”

Reema Das, an ASHA worker in Majuli, related a rather harrowing story: “Last monsoon, a boat carrying a pregnant woman to Jorhat for delivery lost its way because of heavy rains. After getting a distress call from the boat, I contacted the deputy commissioner in Jorhat who sent a rescue boat. Thankfully, the resuce boat could trace the lost one after about an hour.”

However, unlike previous assembly elections, Majuli residents have experienced an opportunity this time around to raise their demands, which include not just the bridge but also other a host of other things. For being the battleground of Sonowal – a former president of the powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) before joining the BJP – the island has drawn the sudden attention of the state’s media. This has raised the people’s hope for a permanent solution to erosion and annual flooding, for becoming a full-fledged district (it is now only a police district), and entering the UNESCO World Heritage list (it has failed to get nominated a few times), to name but a few of their hopes.

For now, however, the biggest cause for excitement that the Union sports minster Sonowal has given the people is the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi – the first by an Indian prime minister to the island after 68 years of independence.

Two days before the PM’s visit, the enthusiasm of the people in the ferry was palpable. “I heard there will be many free buses from Garamur [the island’s main administrative zone] to Jengraimukh for Modi’s rally. I will get into one. Who knows when Majuli will see a PM again,” passenger Rajiv Payeng told this correspondent.

As promised by Sonowal, on March 26, Modi landed at Lakhimi Pathar in Jengraimukh in an air force helicopter. Many among the thousands that assembled to see a prime minister visit their area for the first time also saw a helicopter for the first time. In fact, a day before his arrival, when an IAF helicopter landed for a recce of the site, hundreds rushed from their homes and fields to spot it.

“Usually, all VVIP events happen around Garamur. That is why most people in Jengraimukh, even though this is the MLA’s area, have not seen a helicopter landing,” justifies a local news reporter.

Most people in Assam are dependent on agriculture, and the inhabitants in Jengraimukh too, who make up the Mishing and Deuri plains tribes, make a living mainly from farming. They primarily grow rice, pulses and mustard. The venue for Modi’s meeting was the largest field for community farming of rice on the island.

Modi’s speech was predictably accusatory. He talked about “Congress’s 60 years of misrule in Assam,” took shots at the state chief minister Tarun Gogoi, accused the Congress of “eating up a beautiful island like Majuli from 1200 sq.km to 500 sq km.” and of neglecting “the national heritage.” With successive state governments failing to tame the annual erosion and floods on the island in spite of spending crores of public money, Modi’s reference to Majuli’s loss of land mass certainly found a lot of takers in the crowd.

The PM, on campaign mode, said that Sonowal was “a diamond” that he would lose from his government after the elections, but that “the people of Assam will benefit.”

Much to the cheer of those present, he reiterated Sonowal’s promise of the bridge to Majuli residents. “Even before we have a government in the state, Union surface transport minister Nitin Gadkari has laid the foundation stone for the bridge… I will do in five years what Congress couldn’t do in 60 years,” he told the public.

After listening to the 30-minute speech, and thereafter gazing awestruck at the PM’s three helicopters as they took to the skies, the people disbursed.

Later talking to The Wire, Sonowal delineated his vision for the island: “For centuries, a beautiful culture has existed in Majuli. It has been a religious centre for centuries. People from all castes and communities have been living together on the island. There is unity in that diversity. My aim will be to preserve that culture of Majuli.”

Shifting political scenario

In Majuli, which is a scheduled tribe constituency, the largest number of votes belong to the Mishings, even though it has Deoris and other Assamese communities like Nath, Koiborto, Kachari, Sonowal, and Koch Rajbonshi. Naturally, then, the Mishings – who once farmed portions of the huge tracts of land that the monasteries owned and gave them as rent – have the main say in these elections. The tribe has been sending Rajiv Lochan Pegu of Congress to the state assembly the last three times.

However, two years ago, in a trend seen across Assamese tribes of late, an ethnically and politically assertive group called Sanmalita Ganasakti reared its head. Ganasakti’s acceptance by the Mishing people could be gauged from the fact that it grabbed 31 of the 34 seats of the Mishing Autonomous Council (MAC) in 2013.

For the first time, in this assembly election, Ganasakti is fielding candidates in four Mishing dominated assembly constituencies, including Majuli. Therefore, also for the first time, Pegu’s vote base is set to be divided. Since the BJP expects the general category to vote for Sonowal, this raises their hope that it may help him, Sonowal, slip through the victory margin.

Vishnu Deuri, a popular grassroots leader of Majuli associated with the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, explained to this correspondent: “The Mishing vote in Majuli is going to get divided this time, not just between the Congress and Ganasakti, but also going partially to the BJP, because Sonowal is a chief ministerial candidate. Many people want a CM to represent Majuli because they feel that, being the state CM, Sonowal will be able to solve their problems.” He added that the Deuri vote will also be divided between the Congress and the BJP for the same reason.

Ganasakti leader Nilo Doley agreed that people are showing an interest in Sonowal because he is a CM candidate, but also asked, “Tarun Gogoi has been a CM from the district [Gogoi’s constituency Titabor is in Jorhat district]. What benefits have the people of Majuli got from him?”

He sounded upbeat when he added,“Looking at our popularity in the last MAC election, we are hopeful of winning Majuli.”

If the rise of Ganasakti in Majuli is striking, the BJP’s growth on the island can be called meteoric.

In the 2011 assembly elections, the party bagged less than 400 votes. There was no party committee or party office on the island before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. A local BJP functionary credits the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for his party’s rise in Majuli. “You know that the RSS works in an area for some years and readies the ground for BJP. The same thing happened in Majuli, with support from the satradhikars [the heads of monasteries],” he said. He expressed worry about the more than 30 churches that were established on the island in the last few years and that “Mishings are fast converting to Christianity.”

Deuri stated: “Sonowal has no doubt been invited by the satradhikars to contest from Majuli. For even though Majuli is under the Lakhimpur parliamentary constituency [from where Sonowal won in 2014] he is still an outsider for us when it comes to the assembly elections.”

The “outsider” card is certainly being played by both the Congress and Ganasakti candidates while campaigning. That the tribe may lose an assembly seat because of Sonowal (he belongs to the Sonowal community, also an ST) is highlighted by both.

It is also true that many general voters, apart from seeing Sonowal as a possible CM from the island, are also seeing in him an opportunity to defeat the long-standing Mishing dominance in the assembly elections in Majuli. The local BJP district committee president Karuna Dutta, in his speech welcoming Sonowal the first time he visited Majuli after being declared his party’s CM candidate, reportedly mentioned this. Later, Sonowal distanced himself from this tactic.

That delicate issue apart, the general inexperience of handling canvassing by the local BJP was obvious till recently. A party worker told this correspondent, “We have been able to go to the villages to campaign for Sarba-da only since March 21 because there was a lot of confusion in the local office, even regarding who would fund our petrol bill. And now, since Sarba-da is a CM candidate and the state party president, a team from Guwahati has come down to decide everything, leaving no room for the local cadre to make any decisions.”

Before the state level team took over Sonowal’s campaign, “some local journalists and AASU workers [since BJP and Asom Gana Parishad are fighting for the seat together] took the lead,” according to a local reporter.

Minor heartburns aside, Sonowal’s frequent visits to the island in the last 15 days followed by Modi’s visit have certainly left the local cadre enthused. “It now looks like Sonowal will win from Majuli. Whether he would get a big mandate is doubtful though,” said a party district committee member.

A people’s doubts and hopes

The morning after Modi’s visit, the atmosphere was still charged in Majuli. In the first ferry that left the Kamalabari Ghat, the conversation among the passengers veered from Modi’s fair complexion to his oratory skills to whether Sonowal would really be able to fulfil the island’s aspirations, and also the recent sensational allegation by the United Liberation Front of Asom (Paresh) that Sonowal engineered the killing of Sourab Bora, an AASU leader in Dibrugarh University in 1986. Bora’s family migrated to Titabor in the 1960s after their house was swept away by the Brahmaputra in Ahatguri area of Majuli.

A passenger, Ramen Sarma, commented, “I wonder whether Sonowal will really bring ananda [plucked from the BJP poll slogan “xakalure ananda Sarbananda,” meaning “Sarbananda will bring joy to everyone”]. After all, he is a bit young for the post. Prafulla Mahanta was a bad example as a young CM.”

Passenger Rupali Kotoki added to this observation mirthfully, “Let’s hope he doesn’t become a Lora Roja [the infamous late 18th century Ahom child-king Gaurinath Singha who was controlled by his prime minister Purnananda Burhagohain, leading to the eventual downfall of the dynasty].”

A group of women joined in the laughter. One of the women said, “Let’s not think about extreme situations now. Let’s feel good that a PM visited us for the first time. Let’s dance and sing some Bihu songs. There is still an hour to go before we reach Nimati.”

As the ferry sliced the river waters in its journey towards Jorhat, passengers danced in the narrow aisle between two rows of benches to the sound of clapping and the words, sung loudly:

Porbote porbote bogabo paru moi, boliya hati ku bolabo paru boi…” (I can climb all the mountains; I can tame a mad elephant….”)