New Delhi: The vociferous protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Assam have led to the birth of three regional parties in the poll-bound state.
Of these, the Anchalik Gana Morcha has entered into an alliance with the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) to contest the assembly polls, scheduled for this April-May. The two others – the Raijor Dal (RD) and Asam Jatiyo Parishad (AJP) – have joined hands to fight the polls as a combined anti-CAA forum against the ruling BJP.
Former state minister Jagadish Bhuyan had quit the BJP, opposing the CAA. He is presently not only the general secretary but one of the major forces behind the formation of the AJP. Bhuyan, who was earlier with the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) before joining the BJP in 2014, has claimed that because of the coming together of the AJP and RD, the saffron party will be restricted to not more than 30 seats in the elections.
In a telephonic interview for The Wire, Bhuyan categorically claimed that ‘Modi magic’ will not work on the state’s voters in 2021, as it did in 2016 and to an extent in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
Your party, the AJP, and the Akhil Gogoi-led Raijor Dal have come together to fight the assembly elections. What, according to you, is the significance of this alliance?
The voters with jatiotabadi (sub-nationalist) sentiments, particularly in the rural areas, were a bit confused with the formation of two parties hinged on regional sentiments. None wanted to tie up with a national party. They were also apprehensive about the division of the anti-CAA votes and whether that would help the BJP to win the elections. It is a psychological perception. And that is why we thought of coming together and consolidating this particular voter base.
We may have differences with the other party on certain ideological grounds but we could come together because our basic foundation is the same – that the identity of the Khilonjia (indigenous) people of Assam is under threat.
What do you mean by that ‘threat’?
Well, if you see the Census figures in the last few decades, you can understand that the rate of Assamese speakers in Assam is steadily sliding every decade in comparison to some other languages, like Hindi and Bengali. As per the 2011 census, we are only around 48%. Since this trend is constant, in the 2021 census too, it will most likely go down even further. We are a small community. There are Assamese only in Assam. So there is a genuine fear among the people if the CAA is implemented, in the next few decades, Assam may be another Tripura, where the local indigenous tribal people are in a minority today and they have not much say in their own state anymore. So our question is, is it wrong to ask for the protection of smaller communities in a large country like India? What should such communities do to protect their language, culture, if not raise their voice democratically?
If you go by the various Central government figures on undocumented immigrants in Assam, starting with the time of Union home minister Indrajit Gupta, it is a whopping number, around 70-80 lakh. Also, the present Central and state governments have been harping on the existence of only Muslim undocumented immigrants in Assam. Since there has been no official move to divide such people in terms of their religion, how is the government so sure that they are only Muslims and none of them are Hindus?
Additionally, if you include Assam in the CAA, which is a state having a history of migration from what is Bangladesh today, what is the guarantee that several among its 1.94 crore minority will never think of shifting to Assam? It is a liberal government there, so they may not think of migrating now. But what happens if a religious fundamentalist government grabs power again there? The India government has said that people who have moved to the state and the country by December 2014 from Bangladesh will be granted citizenship under CAA. But how will you ensure that? Will this not increase the conflict on the ground? The CAA has opened the path for undocumented immigration in future and thereby more conflict.
Also, Narendra Modi himself, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, had publicly said that “Bangladeshis would have to leave India” if he was elected to power. I now want to ask his party, please make public how many did you send back? If you couldn’t, then why did you emotionally exploit the voters, and have been shifting the goal post before every election? In the last assembly polls in Assam, voters were told that the state will be free of corruption and pollution. There will be poriborton (change). People believed them. Now, the goals have shifted to andolan-mukt Assam, flood-free Assam. What happened to the earlier promises?
It was Union surface transport minister Nitin Gadkari who had said during a visit to Assam that a highway along river Brahmaputra would be constructed soon. This past week, he told parliament there was no such plan. What should we believe?
Before the 2016 elections, Modi himself told the people of the Majuli island to vote for the chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal, promising that his government would fulfil the longstanding demand of the public for a concrete bridge between the island and the nearest Jorhat district. After five years, the government finally sanctioned the project. Gadkari, before the elections in 2016 were held, had placed a foundation stone for its construction, raising the people’s hopes. Why were people taken for a ride then? And how efficient is this government which takes five years to prepare a project report for a bridge construction?
To come back to your point about division of votes through these regional entities and helping the BJP in turn, there is still a concern on the ground. Some people are of the opinion that your party and RD will divide the Congress’s votes in Upper Assam and not from that of the BJP fold. The largest number of the 126 seats in Assam’s assembly are in Upper Assam.
I want to ask, who are these BJP voters that will never move away from the party? Did they come from Mars? I too was a BJP voter along with my family in the 2016 assembly elections. Let me remind you here that at least 70% of that huge number of people who had hit the streets across the state opposing the CAA in December 2019 were BJP voters. They came out to protect their identity, their jati mati bheti, based on which the BJP had got their votes in the 2016 polls. The people of the state are bound by their duty to protect their rights in their own land, and not bound to safeguard the interests of only the BJP, come what may.
Also, this concept of ‘vote bank’ is never watertight. Else, the BJP would not have been able to form a government in Tripura or in Assam, or the TMC in Bengal. In Tripura, Left supporters turned 180 degrees to vote for a right-wing party like the BJP.
I can guarantee you that the BJP in Assam will not get more than 30 seats in the coming polls. No section of the public is happy with this state government. This is the ground reality.
From the last assembly election results and the parliamentary polls since 2014, it is clear that the BJP has successfully taken away the Congress’s stronghold within the tea tribe or the Adivasis who have a substantial say in several Upper Assam constituencies. A number of sops have recently been announced by the state government keeping this community in mind.
Yes, that is true. Pre-election sops are raining in Assam aimed at various groups, not just the tea garden community. But the tea garden workers have not got what they have been seeking from this government. In the last BJP poll manifesto, they were promised that their minimum daily wage would be raised to Rs 371. But the unhealthy alliance that the party has with the garden owners based on mutual benefit has ensured that they continue to get only Rs 167. Now, the Central government has given each labourer Rs 3,000.
So, if a labourer gets Rs 3000, say for five years in a row, they will get Rs 15000 only, while if the minimum wage is hiked, they will earn much more for their work. The tea garden labourers are not fools, they understand maths. ‘Modi magic’ worked in 2016 and to an extent in 2019 too, but it will not anymore.
In 2016, people thought Modi was an emerging leader, a dynamic personality. In the last five years, he as the prime minister, spoke so many lies that nobody takes him on face value anymore. He has made a world record of sorts in lying publicly. Neither he nor the state’s chief minister fulfilled any promise made to the people including protecting their jati mati bheti, their identity.
Let me also quickly point out that the Centre has just claimed that 20,000 km of roads were built in Assam. This is nothing to be proud of, because it was our due, made from the revenue we helped the government to collect by paying so much extra for a litre of petrol and diesel, through the Goods and Services Tax and so many other taxes. People have been squeezed for every penny possible.
The prime minister must come to Assam and see the condition of the roads built under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. Usually, these roads have a five-year guarantee. But in Upper Assam, they don’t last beyond a year. This is because of rampant corruption, where the contractors are left with little money after paying so many people to get that contract. He compromises on the quality of the road. He can’t be put to task, because he would then have to reveal the truth [about corruption].
Recently, the prime minister announced that the Centre will establish six more medical colleges in Assam, essentially saying that there will be development in the state.
Well, this is spoken by the head of a government which has failed to fill the top three administrative positions in all the six existing medical colleges of Assam with permanent employees in the last five years. Temporary officials have been working as the principal, vice principal and superintendent of each government medical college and hospital in Assam for years now. It is due to a fear that if these positions are made permanent, they might not take all the orders of the ministry. It is to keep them insecure and force them to follow the diktats of the government.
Also, Modi said in the same meeting that the health facilities in the state before 2016 were in shambles. I want to ask him, but the minister for health, like today, was also Himanta Biswa Sarma then. Was it a compliment to the state leader or criticism? May be Modi didn’t know this, else he wouldn’t have aired such an embarrassing statement. Instead of providing basic facilities to the public, the BJP ministers and leaders in the state today compete with each other on how many chartered flights they use in a year. Now, when the elections are near, we see Sarma riding a bicycle in a rally to attract common people. They took chartered flights within the state to put gamusa around COVID-19 patients who were cured, only for a photo-op, which should have been left to the local medical team.
The report prepared by the high-level committee set up by the Ministry of Home Affairs on Clause 6 of the Assam Accord is still pending. Do you want to comment on it?
Yes. The prime minister was recently brought to the state to distribute land documents to people, which is the job of a sub-divisional officer. But the report of the Clause 6 committee, set up by his government, had to be handed over to the chief minister, who has nothing to do with it. The MHA is the nodal ministry for the implementation of the Accord. It is a commitment of the Centre and a continuous process. It is almost a years since the report was made ready, but the Centre is not serious about it, doesn’t talk about it. The BJP is conscious only about protecting its vote bank, it will do anything to protect it. The rest can wait.
You have given a different picture of the BJP’s electoral fortune in the coming polls but the RSS also plays a silent role in aiding the party in winning elections.
RSS in Assam is not new. It has been working here since Independence. Still, before the 2016 elections, it couldn’t make a BJP government happen in Assam. So, its role is limited. They have some dedicated workers on the ground, I agree. But the 2016 win for the BJP was not because of them. There were two reasons for it. Modi was looked at by most Assamese voters as a dynamic and decisive ruler who had promised to protect their identity in the state. The other reason was, people wanted a change from 15 years of Congress rule. There was corruption. They voted for poriborton (change).
You were with the AGP. Why did you leave it to join the BJP and why have you now helped form the AJP?
I am purely a regionalist. In 2001, I won my seat on an AGP ticket, but the party couldn’t form a government. When in 2011 too, I won but we couldn’t get the numbers to form a government, I suggested to the party executive that we must do some soul searching; must hold a people’s meet (abhibartan) like we did when we had formed the party and welcome suggestions from the people. We should tell people that we must have failed you somewhere; so we have returned the party to you; you guide us now. Most of the state’s intellectuals supported the idea and publicly called for a leadership change and the entry of some new members. But it was outrightly rejected by the party leadership and I was thrown out of the executive committee.
Around 2014, many among us were impressed by Modi; I thought that something must be done to topple the Congress government. Therefore, I joined the BJP. But the day it passed the CAA in parliament, on December 12, 2019, I lost all hope in Modi and quit the party. Fifteen minutes after the Bill was passed in parliament, I tendered by resignation to the chief minister from the post of chairman, Assam Petro-Chemicals Limited, which is a ministerial rank. I could have stayed on, like the others did. I was in charge of the BJP in Nagaland and Manipur. At that time, I didn’t know that ten months later, there would be a new regional party.
When a number of prominent citizens of the state, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and Assam Jyatiotabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) were thinking of floating a party, they put the onus on me, which I took up. And that is where we are now.
But the AGP is also still in the fray. It has three ministers in the Sonowal government. It will contest the elections too.
The Assam Accord is the foundation stone of the AGP and the soul of the Accord was its Clause 5, which said anyone, Hindu or Muslim, who entered the state without documents after March 24 1971, would be counted as a foreigner. The rest are Indians. But the day the AGP took a communal stand and sided with the BJP to allow Hindu Bangladeshis to stay on in Assam and count only the Muslims as the foreigner, it has lost its significance.
Therefore, most of the party’s ground workers are moving to our party. At the most, AGP will contest 20-26 seats. So the cadre has realised that they are being used on the ground for nothing.
A regional party can’t ride the coattails of a national party to win elections. If you see closely, the modus operandi of BJP is to make friendly overtures to a regional party, gradually eat up its base and finish it. It did so with the Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal, Bodoland People’s Front. And the AGP too will be finished after this elections. The BJP that way is the mythological Bhasmasura, puts its hand over those who help it and finishes them.
While it is almost clear that both Akhil Gogoi and AJP leader Lurinjyoti Gogoi will contest the elections. What about you?
I will contest too, from my constituency Sadiya. I had won twice from there.
Finally, the Centre has told parliament that it is in the process of readying the rules for the CAA implementation, which should be ready by this July. How do you read the timing?
You answered the question. It will bring it just after the voting in Assam’s Brahmaputra valley is completed and implement it just before the West Bengal elections. Those who have watched the party closely can easily guess the games that the party’s leadership plays.