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Battleground Assam: A tale of two valleys and the CAA quandary

Assam and West Bengal are neighbouring states, but their politics is entirely different. What is more interesting is that the politics of the lower and upper Assam also are poles apart from each other.

Om Tiwari Om Tiwari
New Delhi Updated on: February 18, 2021 17:35 IST
Crowd during a political rally in Dhekiajuli, Assam.
Image Source : AP

Crowd during a political rally in Dhekiajuli, Assam.

Assam and West Bengal are neighbouring states, but their politics is entirely different. What is more interesting is that the politics of the lower and upper Assam also are poles apart from each other. Their voters may act like the people from two separate states, what may suit the Brahmaputra valley (upper Assam) may not satisfy the Barak valley (lower Assam). And the same goes for the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) which has charged up the political atmosphere ahead of the assembly elections.

Though the contest this time seems three-cornered in Assam - with regional entities also forming an alliance - two major forces, the Congress and BJP, are at loggerheads over the Citizenship Amendment Act. Rahul Gandhi, kicking off his Assam campaign with a rally at Sivasagar, has vowed to block the law. While Union Home Minister Amit Shah has categorically said that the government would implement CAA once the vaccination drive is over.

The big question is how the two contenders can take completely divergent positions on a matter that may potentially make or unmake their political fortune in a region? The answer lies in the complex demography of Assam. Which also explains its unusual response to the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In 2019, when states across India witnessed protests against CAA, in Assam, the resistance had its roots in the ethnic and linguistic identity, not the religion only. The native Assamese (predominantly Hindus) took to the streets fearing that they will lose their political, cultural and land rights if the Bangladeshi refugees and immigrants (Bengali-speaking Hindus) are granted Indian citizenship.

Essentially, the long-standing Assamese movement is all about identifying and deporting illegal immigrants, including Hindu refugees, from the state, who they consider a threat to their identity and culture.

One CAA, two divergent politicking

And the infiltrator debate helped the BJP gain power in Assam in 2016, the first state in the Northeast to embrace the saffron party formally electing it to rule. The case of Arunachal Pradesh was a tad different. The National Register of Citizens (NRC) played a crucial role in the BJP's victory because it promised to unearth and expel the 'outsiders' in Assam.

With Congress continuously blowing hot and cold over the matter, the indigenous people (around 49 per cent in number) backed the aggressive BJP to settle it forever.

But with the Citizenship Amendment Act, the situation got complicated, as the law paved the way for providing Indian citizenship to all but Muslim refugees and it ran counter to the old demand of the native Assamese.

Thus, in the Brahmaputra valley, the dominant Assamese-speaking people (55.65 per cent) held protests for their ethnic rights, while in the Barak valley, the Muslims (48.1 per cent) were on the boil dreading their expulsion from India.

The Congress hopes that the formation of a Mahajot (mega alliance) of five political parties will strike a chord with almost all sections of voters in Assam and its stand against CAA will ensure the support of the natives. The party is also reaching out to the tea plantation workers assuring them a wage hike.

But many believe the alliance with Maulana Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF will prove fatal to the Congress, upsetting the indigenous Assamese, who also seek clarity on the party's position on the infiltrators. The other allies in the Mahajot (CPM, CPI, CPI-ML and Anchalik Gana Parishad) have no significant influence in Assam.

The BJP, meanwhile, has devised multiple strategies for different sections of people. Thanks to CAA, the Bengali-speaking Hindus have become staunch supporters of the BJP. Soon Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal may announce a wage-hike for the tea workers after the cash-gift doled out recently.

The BJP-led Assam government is counting on the development work to woo the voters with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself launching a slew of projects before the polls scheduled in April-May.

At the same time, PM Modi has been trying to win the hearts of the natives reiterating the 'mool nivasi' phrase in his recent speeches talking about their self-respect and rights. He also distributed land allotment certificates to over one lakh original inhabitants.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of India TV. The author can be reached on Twitter @iamomtiwari)

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