Listen to this article:
New Delhi: On September 6, the All India Congress Committee general secretary for Assam, Jitendra Singh, said that the party’s high command would accept the state unit’s recent decision to seek the ouster of All India United Democratic Front from the grand alliance the Congress had spearheaded in the run-up to the 2021 state assembly elections.
On August 30, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee had announced that it would severe ties with the AIUDF after its core committee met in Guwahati. That the APCC’s decision would be accepted by the top echelons of the party was a foregone conclusion as Rahul Gandhi had tweeted about it a day after the core committee meeting.
“AIUDF leadership’s mysterious praise of BJP & CM has affected the public perception of @INCAssam. The Core Committee members of APCC unanimously decided that AIUDF can no longer remain an alliance partner of Mahajot & in this regard will send intimation to AICC.” –@BhupenKBorah
— Assam Congress (@INCAssam) August 30, 2021
This decision by the Congress’s Assam unit presents an occasion to delve into not only why the party had entered into an alliance with the AIUDF but more importantly, to throw light on the antecedents of the AIUDF, its significance in Assam politics, and how vote of the minority – both religious and linguistic – has been an important cog in the wheel of any party’s tryst for power in the border state.
AIUDF in Assam
The formation of AIUDF in Assam in 2005 could be seen as a watershed moment not only in Assam politics but in Muslim politics in general. This is because, AIUDF (earlier the United Democratic Front) became the first political party to be formed by Jamiat-Ulema-E-Hind through its chief of the Assam chapter, Maulana Badruddin Ajmal.
Prior to this, the Jamiat had made unsuccessful attempts in Uttar Pradesh to directly support the formation of a political party which would protect Muslim interests post-Independence.
Ajmal, a perfume baron with flourishing business in the Middle East, also had the ability to financially bear the cost of contesting elections.
The formation of AIUDF in Assam was the immediate fallout of the Supreme Court’s decision in 2005 to scrap the Illegal Immigrant (Determination by Tribunals) Act, brought by the Indira Gandhi regime for Assam in 1983. As per that Act, the onus of proving that someone is a citizen, in Assam, was put on the complainant. The Act was widely viewed by the majority Assamese community as a veritable shield created by the ruling Congress to ‘protect’ its ‘illegal immigrant vote bank’ in the state that shares an open border with Bangladesh.
The IM(DT) Act was challenged at the Supreme Court by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) which had spearheaded the anti-foreigner agitation of Assam between 1979 and 1985.
The face of that long-drawn-out fight against the Act at the apex court was then AASU president Sarbananda Sonowal. The favourable decision of the apex court helped Sonowal earn the sobriquet ‘jatiyo nayak‘ or ‘hero of the community’. This eventually paved the way for his foray into politics, and ensured for him the chief minister’s chair in 2016 when the BJP took on the Congress, accusing the party of having protected ‘illegal immigrants’ purportedly residing in the state.
In those elections, the BJP’s campaign sought to prove that the Congress and AIUDF had a common political interest – even before the Congress entered into a formal tie with the AIUDF.
Instead, Tarun Gogoi, the three-time Congress chief minister whom BJP had taken on in those elections, had long ago termed AIUDF a communal party, and had publicly announced that Congress had nothing to do with it. Gogoi had refused to enter into a tie-up with AIUDF prior to the 2016 polls, leading Ajmal to enter into a ‘grand alliance’ with other ‘secular’ parties like the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
Why 2005 was a watershed moment in Assam politics
The Muslims of East Bengal origin in Assam, the largest minority group of voters, have attempted to form a political party in the state since the 1970s. In 1975, the Muslim political leaders hailing from both the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of the state had got together to form the Muslim Parishad.
In the significant book Muslims in Assam Politics, published in 1991 (Omsons Publications, Delhi), M. Kar had written that though the Parishad had declared itself to be ‘purely non-political’, it had included all the then Muslim ministers of the state. The move was certainly a response of the community’s political leaders to find an alternative platform other than the Congress with the rise of the Janata Party (a group of political parties coming together against Congress) as a formidable force. Till then, the political choice of the community in the state was the Congress.
However, that move to have a separate political platform for the religious minority in Assam soon lost steam. The party was eventually disbanded because from within the leadership itself came attempts to treat it as a channel for the Congress to covertly reach out to the community. The presence of Muslim Congress ministers in it did not help.
The drubbing that Congress received at the hands of the Janata Party in the 1977 general elections once again led to Muslims of East Bengal origin of Assam to think up a political alternative to Congress. This led to the birth of Eastern India Muslim Association (EIMA).
Over 50,000 members from within the community signed up for EIMA between May 1977 and February 1979. EIMA also contested the Assam elections in 1978 by stitching together a coalition called the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF), also comprising Janata Congress, Citizens’ Democratic Front, Yuva Linguistic Minority Committee and Kamata Rajya Parishad. PDF pocketed several seats; Sirajul Haque of EIMA became the chief whip of the PDF.
By the end of 1978, EIMA merged with Eastern Zonal Muslim League and took up the issue of Muslims of East Bengal origin being deported by the state’s border police without being given an opportunity to prove their Indian citizenship.
The issue of ‘infiltration’ had risen its head in Assam by then and soon after, AASU would take to the streets demanding their deportation. It was at the behest of EIMA that the foreigners’ tribunals – operating in the state since 1964 and disbanded in 1969 – were brought back in 1979.
However, with Indira Gandhi backing Muslims of East Bengal origin in Assam, EIMA’s political rise was cut short.
By 1983, her government brought the IM (DT) Act which was looked at by a wide section of the community as a move towards their protection. After the Nellie riots of February 1983, Jamiat had begun to play a proactive role, aside from other Muslim organisations, to look at carving out a political platform for the community in Assam in order to protect its interests. Jamiat also sought to send a message to the Congress that backing the party since Independence in Assam had not helped to protect the immigrant community. The IM(DT) Act, brought in October 1983 (first as an ordinance), helped stem that effort of the Jamiat.
However, soon after the Rajiv Gandhi government signed the Assam Accord with AASU in 1985, a change in minority politics was observed in the state. Guwahati-based senior journalist Prasanta Rajguru highlighted that paradigm shift for The Wire, “The Accord let to the coming together of both the linguistic minority (Bengali Hindus and Nepalis) and religious minority (Muslims of East Bengal origin). Therefore, the Accord led to the birth of not only AASU-backed Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), but also the United Democratic Front, Assam (UMFA) – a platform for both the linguistic and religious minorities. Till then, both these minorities were voting for Congress. This coming together against the AGP was a rebellion of sorts against the Congress for signing the Accord with AASU and had its effects on Assam politics because AGP, even though it went on to form a government with the help of others after the 1985 elections, couldn’t reach the simple majority mark of 63 seats on its own. This showed that minority votes, both linguistic and religious, is significant in Assam politics.”
Rajguru’s observation on minority votes is significant if you place the Congress’s decision prior to the Assam assembly polls of 2021 to join hands with AIUDF, a party formed to protect the interest of the Muslims of East Bengal origin.
“If you look at Assam politics post Accord, the role of religious minority politics in helping both Congress and the second AGP government can’t be ignored. After the fall of the first AGP government (in 1990), the subsequent formation of the second Hiteswar Saikia government of the Congress in 1991 (after a bout of President’s Rule to carry out Army operations against insurgency) was with the help of the religious minority. Saikia ran his government on minority power, both religious and linguistic. These groups supported Congress for political protection as by then United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), formed to fight for the Assamese identity with arms, was a formidable force,” said Rajguru, who hosts popular shows Mejmel and Xaranxo on Assamese news channel Prag News.
“Saikia’s term was followed by the second Prafulla Mahanta government of the AGP in 1996 and that too could get seats in western Assam only because Jamiat had backed the party. The Jamiat’s decision to go with a regional force was due to its anger with the Congress after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Even then, AGP was restricted to 59 seats,” the veteran political observer from Assam pointed out.
However, Tarun Gogoi could successfully cross the 59-60 seat bracket. In the 2001 elections, his party, Congress, pocketed 71 seats – the first by any party since the Assam Accord to do so. The reason was also the backing that the Congress received from the Assamese community then, largely because of the high level of anti-incumbency against the Mahanta government.
Thereafter, Gogoi tailored a formulation with which he tried to retain Assamese voters by pandering to their sentiments (the decision to update the National Register of Citizens was one such move) while also preserving the Congress’ vote base within the tea garden community and among Hindu Bengalis to successfully remain in power for two subsequent terms.
Even though since 2005, AIUDF was making itself popular within the Muslim community of East Bengal origin, it failed to make considerable headway as Congress continued to enjoy extensive support from the community on the promise of safeguarding their political interests along with those of the majority community.
Gogoi’s clever tactics could, therefore, allow the Congress to easily distance itself from the AIUDF and term it a communal party. This helped the Congress firm up an image in the state that under Gogoi, it wouldn’t support a party that supported “only illegal immigrants”.
So why a change of heart?
Though Tarun Gogoi passed away before the elections were held in 2021, the decision to enter into a formal alliance with the AIUDF had his backing. According to Congress insiders in Assam, his son and deputy leader at the Lok Sabha, Gaurav Gogoi, also fully supported the decision to include AIUDF in the ten-party mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) that the Congress had formed in the state to take on BJP.
The game was the same – to corner votes of the largest minority, the Muslims of East Bengal origin and restrict the BJP from gaining the single majority on its own.
The BJP had already created a strong base within the linguistic minority (Bengali Hindus, Nepalis and Hindi speakers). Still, their limited numbers in upper Assam, where the most assembly seats lie, could not make them a formidable force on their own, barring in few constituencies.
The tea garden community of upper Assam, a crucial vote base in several constituencies, was and is increasingly divided on religious lines. While Hindus are largely swayed by BJP-RSS, and became a considerable factor in BJP pocketing a number of seats in the 2016 polls, the Congress had calculated that the non-Hindus (Christians) would swerve back to it for religious reasons. To pander to the overall interests of the community at large, it also raised the demand for a hike in daily wages – a promise BJP has failed to deliver. The Gandhi scions were used to raise the drum beats during a poll campaign which largely focused on that demand.
Alongside, the Congress attempted to appeal to Assamese voters by opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and holding up the Accord, as per which the state has an exclusive citizenship cut-off date, unlike the rest of India. Implementation of CAA in the state would bring that cut-off period of March 1971 to December 2019 for undocumented Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, the reason why most Assamese people are opposed to the CAA.
By tying up with the AIUDF (and also the Bodo People’s Front to pick votes from the community which is spread across different constituencies), the Congress tried to create a watertight zone to tap the votes of the Muslims of East Bengal origin, the largest minority group.
With this broad-based strategy, the party hoped to pick votes from not just the immigrant Muslim community but also from a section of the tea garden community and the rest of the majority Assamese community. The mahagatbandhan did succeed in tapping votes of the religious minority and a section of the tea garden community but the AIUDF factor was well utilised by the BJP to reach out to the majority community to drum up an old narrative – that the Congress and the AIUDF have the ‘same political interests’ in the state, which BJP took to essentially mean that they wish to protect ‘illegal immigrants’.
This, along with a clever community-wise projection of candidates, tie-ups with small tribal parties and through state government schemes of direct money transfer to beneficiaries, helped BJP to victory.
“And yet, BJP couldn’t go beyond 60 seats on its own, the same that the party reaped in 2016 even when it had a wave in the state,” pointed out Rajguru. According to him, the Congress-AIUDF tie-up did help the grand alliance to restrict the BJP within that number. In other words, the minority vote is a decisive force.
So why a rupture before the by-polls?
On past August 27, Gaurav Gogoi told NDTV, “It is time the Assam Congress be independent of mahajot”, essentially meaning it needs to break away from AIUDF.
On August 31, the state Congress core committee which includes Gogoi aside from state president Bhupen Borah, the party’s leader at the assembly, and Debabrata Saikia, among others, formally went ahead to announce the break-up. As per news reports, the AICC resolution said, “The AIUDF leadership’s and senior members’ continuous and mysterious praise of the BJP party and the Chief Minister (Himanta Biswa Sarma) has affected the public perception of the Congress party.”
What they meant was AIUDF supremo Badaruddin Ajmal’s brother Sirajuddin Ajmal, an MLA, complimenting BJP chief minister Sarma this July. Sirajuddin had said that Assam would progress under Sarma.
Then, on June 4, the chief minister of Assam’s Twitter handle posted a photo of Sarma with AIUDF leaders, receiving Rs 58 lakh from the Ajmal Foundation and Rs 25 lakh from Ajmal Perfumes to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. The official handle thanked them “for their act of generosity”.
Strengthening the current #COVID19 vaccination campaign, @FoundationAjmal & @AjmalPerfumes donated Rs 58 According to political observers of the state, those photo-ops with Sarma and Sirajuddin Ajmal’s praise have come in handy for the Congress which was eager to find a way out of this alliance before the by-election. These occasions gave the state Congress a firm handle to hold on to as it tries to turn the tables against BJP and accuse it, instead, of hobnobbing with AIUDF under Sarma, a former Congress hand.
This move of the Congress is being looked at as one which has taken into calculation the number of seats going into by-elections in Assamese-majority upper Assam. If BJP had appealed to the majority community before the 2021 polls by projecting Congress and AIUDF as the same, the Congress is likely to repeat this tactic, only against BJP, in the by-polls.
“Still, I feel the Congress won’t be able to fully discard its image of having been close to the AIUDF simply because of the formal tie-up it ended up forging before the 2021 polls,” remarked Rajguru.