Don't Foresee Change in Immigrant Issue: M.S. Prabhakara on BJP's Assam Win

Assam-watcher and veteran journalist M.S. Prabhakara looks at the assembly poll results and what lies ahead

After 15 years of Congress rule in Assam, the state today took a new political turn by ushering in, for the first time, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance to form the next government. When the news last came in, the BJP, along with partners, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo Peoples’ Front (BPF), won six seats and are leading in 85 others.

Veteran journalist and Assam watcher M.S. Prabhakara takes a quick look at the poll results and comments on what may lie ahead. Excerpts:

How do you read today’s assembly poll results in Assam? From a mere five seats in 2011, the BJP is all set to become the single largest party.

The state is certainly taking an interesting political turn with these elections. Though it is too early to comment on it, I would not like to agree with those who may look at a BJP-led government as a disaster for the state. It is certainly not an end of democracy as some may like to think. As an Assam-watcher since the 1960s, my advice to all will be to wait and watch how this government and its allies act in the coming times.

After the 1985 elections, this is the first time the foreigner issue became a strong poll plank in Assam. The mandate given to the BJP and the allies seemed to have directly sprung out of it. Do you see this government solving the issue once and for all?

Yes, indeed, the issue has delivered results to both the BJP and the AGP in these elections. However, from my experience, I will say that this issue has been raised every now and then by political forces with a lot of fervour before it dies down for decades together. As far back as the 1960s, I saw a piece of news in The Assam Tribune which said a group of foreigners were pushed back into East Pakistan from Assam by the state government. It was much before Bangladesh was formed and the border was completely open. I remember wondering how it was done without an extradition treaty with Pakistan. So you see, it has been a simmering problem and finding a sudden solution to it is not easy.

Today, speaking to media persons, Sarbananda Sonowal said that his government will work towards “solutions” like completely sealing the Indo-Bangla border. But I am not too hopeful of any change in ground reality. Anyone who has visited that border will know that it is a riverine border and completely sealing it is not possible. Also, even if it is done, how can you stop people when they are desperate? Take Europe. In spite of well demarcated, manned borders, there is a huge influx of refugees there. So I don’t think it is a solution.

Also, there are some leaders who have been lately talking about preponing the cut-off year of 1971 – as mentioned in the Assam Accord – to 1951. It would be dangerous for the state. I would like to point out something from the Nellie massacre here. The children of all those who were killed in that massacre wrote the names of the dead in Assamese on the gravestones. These were Bengali Muslims, but they considered Assam as their homeland and Assamese as their language. So naturally, the children wrote their parents’ names in Assamese on the gravestones. Linguistically, they are Assamese. It will be good to remember here that the ethnically Assamese population is less than 50% in the state.

Also, if the BJP decides to move the goal post from 1971 to 1951, it will surely come in conflict with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the AGP, who spearheaded the Assam agitation leading to that Accord in 1985.

You have seen the birth and growth of BJP in the state. All the new leaders, be in Sonowal, Himanta Biswa Sarma or some others, have come to the party from other parties while its old members and leaders were relegated to the back during the run-up to the elections. Do you see any friction between the old and the new leaders in coming times?

Though I would like to wait and see how it pans out, I would not completely rule out such friction in coming times, particularly if they are kept out of the government or from playing significant roles in the party. After all, these people believed in the party even though it had no strong base in the state and stuck on.

Since these leaders have come from other parties, do you see any conflict of interest between the BJP’s ideological guide, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and the Sonowal government, and also with the alliance partners?

I don’t see any immediate problem between the RSS and this government. There may be rabid fringe elements, but the RSS’s senior leadership with a historical vision in Nagpur are now more interested in consolidation (of the organisation’s reach) than just making adventurous forays.