BJP's Gerrymandering of Assam Districts Puts Identity Politics at the Centre of Its 2024 Strategy

Coming just a day before the Election Commission's ban on creating any new administrative units in the state, the Himanta Biswa Sarma government's decision has major political significance.

New Delhi: Just a day ahead of the Election Commission of India (EC) ban on creating new administrative units before Assam’s delimitation exercise, chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s cabinet gave its nod to a decision that raised quite a few eyebrows.

Addressing the media in New Delhi on December 31, 2022, Sarma said  that four of Assam’s districts would be re-merged with their parent districts. “Biswanath district will be re-merged with Sonitpur (Tezpur), Hojai with Nagaon, Bajali with Barpeta, and Tamulpur with Baksa.”

Curiously, one of these districts – Tamulpur – was created by the Sarma cabinet barely a year ago.

Asked whether the state cabinet’s unusual decision had anything to do with the EC’s December 27 order which sought to roll out the delimitation process in the state from January 1, the chief minister categorically denied it. He called it a decision taken by his government for “administrative” reasons.

Also read: Assam Merges Four Districts Ahead of EC’s Delimitation Deadline

However, collating everything that he told the press on the day not only gives away the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s plan to renew its efforts at cajoling the majority Assamese population and the ethnic tribes through its ‘jati mati bheti (home, land and hearth)’ electoral promise in the run-up to the crucial 2024 parliamentary elections but also gives enough hint that it may, after all, help further consolidate the chief minister’s own political future in state politics.

In spite of Sarma’s denial, the state government’s decision has a direct connection with the EC’s delimitation exercise in Assam – a state where the festering citizenship and ‘foreigner’ issues and the fear of the majority Assamese community of being electorally gobbled up by ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ have often been the pivot of a constitutional decision.

But the move raises questions about the issues and politics at stake:

  • Is the timing of the delimitation largely a political decision of the BJP taken in the view of the crucial 2024 elections?
  • How can the decision help firm up Sarma’s political future in the state?
  • How is it linked to the BJP’s Hindutva agenda in the state?

Assam’s delimitation exercise

Unlike Jammu and Kashmir – the latest region to have seen the completion of the delimitation exercise in May 2022 – Assam was last delimited way back in 1976. The J&K constituencies were delimited in 1995 based on the 1981 Census.

The EC’s December 27 announcement to delimit constituencies in Assam was on expected lines, as the Union government, in March 2020, had notified a Delimitation Commission for Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland, along with J&K.

The decision to roll out the process in the Northeast was taken after the president rescinded standing orders that had put delimitation on hold in these four states due to security risks when the Delimitation Commission was re-constituted last in 2002. This could well be the argument for the EC going ahead with delimitation in Assam based on the 2001 Census and not the 2011 Census like in Jammu and Kashmir.

While until 1976, delimitation was supposed to be a regular exercise after the completion of the decadal census to equally distribute parliamentary and assembly constituencies as per population growth, the Emergency unleashed by the Indira Gandhi government, which had trained its lens on controlling the fertility rate in several states, had put a halt to it. It was only in 2002 – after the 2001 Census – that the next Delimitation Commission was formally constituted. The 2008 assembly elections in Karnataka were the first polls held after the exercise was conducted in the southern state.

Still, the 84th amendment to the constitution had ensured that the stay on tweaking parliamentary and assembly seats in any state or Union territory would not be possible. That status quo was expected to change in 2026 after the completion of the 2021 population census but the Modi government has not been able to carry out the exercise (2020 and 2021 were pandemic years) and doesn’t seem to be in any great hurry to conduct it before the 2024 parliamentary elections, when Modi would be seeking a straight third term.

Therefore, what we recently saw in J&K was essentially the carving out of reserved seats from the existing assembly seats (nine for Scheduled Tribes for the first time in that assembly), and clever manoeuvring of the reorganisation of the Union territory law to reconstitute the boundary of the assembly segments so that there can be a nearly equal number of seats for the first time from the Hindu-dominated Jammu (43) and from Muslim-dominated Kashmir (47).

Also read: With Delimitation Now Complete, J&K Politicians Allege Further Disempowerment of Kashmir

Seen therefore as a calculated move by the BJP to weaken the electoral hold of the majority Valley-based Muslim Kashmiris in the state, the outcome has made some observers deduce that the delimitation exercise was only a political tool by the ruling party to inch closer to grabbing power in the UT whenever elections are held next.

The December 31 decision of the BJP-led coalition government of Assam to re-stitch the four districts also smacks of political calculations to favour future electoral prospects for the Hindutva party in the state. To appreciate it better, the religion-wise (Hindu-Muslim) population distribution of these four districts needs to be looked at first. As well as who represents these districts in the assembly.

Representational image of Assam voters. Women stand in a queue showing their voter card during the 1st phase of Assam state assembly elections in Jorhat. Credit: PTI.

As per the 2001 and 2011 Census reports, Barpeta district had more Muslims than Hindus. Since the Sarma government has now merged Muslim-dominated Barpeta with Hindu-majority Bajali, speculation is rife on the ground about a probable attempt to weaken the electoral power of Barpeta’s Muslim voters. The current MLA of the Barpeta assembly constituency is the Congress’s Abdur Rahim Ahmed; and the Congress’s Abdul Khaleque represents Barpeta in the Lok Sabha.

In total, the Barpeta district has six assembly segments, while Bajali has three. Three of the MLAs from these segments are Muslims.

Again, Nagaon in middle Assam, as per the 2011 Census, is a Muslim-majority district. It has eight assembly segments. The BJP government has now added Hojai to the district. Though Hojai too is a Muslim-dominated district, it has a sizeable Hindu population too, many of whom are Hindu Bengalis, often considered a dedicated voter base for the BJP.

Hojai has three assembly constituencies. As many as five current MLAs from these 11 assembly segments belong to the Muslim community.

Likewise, the Hindu-majority Biswanath district will now be part of the Sonitpur (Tezpur) district, which has noted a steady spike in the Muslim population as per Census reports. The 2011 Census had put it at a little over 18%.

While Biswanth has three assembly constituencies, Sonitpur has five assembly seats. However, there are no Muslim MLAs from these constituencies after the 2021 assembly elections.

Yet another district, Tamulpur, which will now be part of the Baksa district, is a Hindu-majority district. Part of the Bodoland belt, though it has a sizeable ST and SC population, Muslims are about 3% more than them, as per the 2011 Census. Its parent district, Baksa, bordering Bhutan, is also a Hindu-majority district but has a Muslim population of over 14% as per the 2011 Census. This rise is often a cause of heartburn among the Khilonjia (indigenous) voters.

While both the existing assembly constituencies in Baksa district are ST seats, the one in Tamulpur is not a reserved one though a BJP ally – the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL)’s Jolen Doimary – is the current MLA.

In all, these four re-merged districts encompass 33 of Assam’s 126 assembly segments and four of the state’s 14 parliamentary constituencies.

Since the delimitation process is essentially based on population vis-à-vis the size and nature of constituencies, the Sarma government’s decision will certainly enable the commission to take note of the new population mix and redraw the territory of at least some constituencies as reserved for STs and SCs. Additionally, the reconstituting of the segments may weaken the electoral heft of the Muslim population in certain pockets, both in assembly and parliamentary polls.

As of now, only eight assembly constituencies are reserved for SCs and 16 for STs. Following the delimitation process, this number will most likely rise.

Here, what is to be noted is that after the 2021 polls, for the first time in the past 50 years, the treasury benches in the assembly have no Muslim MLA. The BJP gave tickets to eight Muslims but all lost. There are, however, a record 31 Muslim legislators in the same assembly. While 16 are from Congress, 15 belong to All India United Democratic Front, a party seen to be batting for the East Bengal-origin Muslims of Assam. The AIUDF is the first Jamaat-e-Islami-backed political entity in the country.

Back in 1978, 27 Muslims were elected to the Assam assembly, which had triggered a fear in the Assamese community of ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ trickling in from the open international border and attempting to take over their electoral space and dominance. That fear contributed to the narrative built around Assam’s anti-foreigner agitation which picked up steam from 1980 onwards. The 1976 tally had seen the community (mostly from East Bengal origin Muslims) claiming six seats more than it was in the 1971 assembly polls.

Like it was then, the oft-heard fear in Assam since the 2021 polls has been, if the present nature of the assembly constituencies remains in place, the number ofMuslim MLSa may cross 35 in the coming times. It is in this context, then, that Sarma’s decision to re-merge the four districts must be seen.

What Sarma said about re-merging districts

Aside from the security factor playing a part to put on hold the delimitation exercise in Assam, there was also a political demand for the same. The reason was the pending status of the update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), 1951. The All Assam Students Union (AASU) which had spearheaded the anti-foreigner agitation was of the firm opinion that updating the NRC – a singular document created in the border state of Assam in newly independent India – would weed out ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ from the state’s electoral rolls and thereby remove the electoral threat to the indigenous population once and for all.

Also read: CAA-NPR-NRC: The Law Is Being Weaponised Against the Constitution

The fear of the smaller communities losing out to a larger community electorally and thereby becoming insignificant is a potent factor across the Northeast. While it has not been addressed adequately by the state, the fear has nonetheless been utilised by various political interest groups to their advantage from time to time. In 2016, the BJP romped home for the first time in Assam by promising the electorate that  it would protect their jati mati bheti (home, land and hearth), ‘unlike the Congress’. In other words, it would throw out ‘illegal Bangladeshis’.

Addressing the media on December 31, 2022 in New Delhi after the state’s cabinet meeting, Sarma once again used the term, jati mati bheti. Clearly playing identity politics, he also touched upon the updated NRC not being acceptable to his party, even though it was carried out by the Modi government under the Supreme Court’s guidance.

While the updated citizenship register kept out over 19 lakh people from it,  AASU too expressed its unhappiness about the result. Several civil society groups have since sought a revisit to the SC-monitored exercise. Sarma told the media that day, “The NRC was unsuccessful and the Assam Accord (of 1985 that ended the agitation) also did not live up to expectations. Delimitation can be one exercise that can safeguard Assam’s future for the next two decades at least.”

File image of a protest against Assam’s controversial NRC. Photo: PTI/Swapan Mahapatra

He was also hinting at a rising fear among the Assamese community about a ‘demographic change’ with every Census report. The election of a record number of Muslim legislators in 2021 has direct links to this fear of  ‘demographic change’. While after the 2001 Census, six districts of Assam were pronounced Muslim majority, the number shot up to nine after the 2011 Census. In the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections and the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP had whipped up the issue, accusing the Congress of creating a vote bank out of ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ and thereby undermining the interests of the Khilonjia (indigenous) voters.

While whipping up that fear helped it corner several parliamentary and assembly seats between 2014 and 2019, the decision of the Modi government to protect the Hindu Bangladeshis in Assam through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) nearly toppled its apple cart in 2021.

To douse public anger, the Union government formed a high-level committee to suggest recommendations to protect the interests of the indigenous communities, but it has not yet gone beyond rhetoric – including promising delimitation of assembly constituencies to ensure the electoral heft of these communities. Now that the go-ahead to the delimitation exercise has been given for Assam, it can be seen as more of a political call which can be electorally milked in the future by the ruling BJP than wholly treating it as a constitutional exercise.

2024 parliamentary polls

Naturally then, the exercise is expected to send out a strong political message to the Assamese community to put their weight behind the BJP once again in the crucial 2024 parliamentary elections.

In the 2014 elections, the BJP could pocket seven of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats for the first time just because Modi had said in a rally that after he would form a government, ‘Bangladeshis’ would have to leave “bag and baggage”. In the 2019 polls, the party further upped its tally to nine, again hinging on the fear of the majority community that if the Congress returned to power in New Delhi, its ‘illegal Bangladeshi’ vote bank would likely get a fillip.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Assam. Credit: Reuters

However, post-pandemic, with the economy in bad shape, unemployment and inflation on a high, and the Union government failing to keep the promise of protecting Khilonjia interests over its Hindi and Bengali-speaking Hindu voter base in the state, the current focus of the party in the state on beneficiary politics and anti-Muslim rhetoric may not be enough to continue enjoying the majority community’s interest in the party. Only the appearance of concrete action on the ground would ensure success. The delimitation exercise then must be seen as a carefully timed instrument unleashed by the BJP to reap a good harvest in 2024 in Assam. Of the 25 parliamentary seats in the Northeast, the BJP had pocketed 18, nine of which were from Assam.

In 2024, the aim of the party is to take that number to 12. Last October, addressing party workers, Sarma had given that target to them, “The Lok Sabha polls are coming… We will take a pledge today. We have to contribute as much as possible from the Northeast to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi as PM once again. We have 14 Lok Sabha seats. Last time we won nine seats. This time we should win at least 12 seats. Can we do it? Do we have the josh?”

Significantly, these re-merged districts have three parliamentary seats that had not gone to the BJP – Nagaon, Barpeta and Kokrajhar. If they can grab these seats in 2024, the BJP’s aim would be fulfilled.

Sarma’s personal graph to grow

The decision of the Sarma government to re-stitch the districts has led to a certain degree of protest on the ground as it directly hits the aspirations of the local population. However, if his government’s decision succeeds in diminishing the electoral heft of the Bengali-speaking Muslims in certain pockets of Assam, particularly in the next assembly polls, it would only help further consolidate Sarma’s political future in the state. He would increasingly be seen as a man of action by the Assamese community.

In doing so though, Sarma is borrowing a leaf from his former mentor at the Congress – the former state chief minister Tarun Gogoi.

Gogoi, even while being in a national party, had played identity politics to curry favour with the majority of Assamese voters. It helped him remain in power for three consecutive terms, and thereby also make ingress into the space vacated by the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) after the pathetic second term of the Prafulla Mahanta Government.

In Sarma’s action too, what comes to the fore is that the AGP, even while being an ally of the BJP, is losing ground to the national party on identity issues.