Quoting a political economist friend, Ashis Nandy said, “Gujarat model of development has not been duplicated anywhere at all, but the Gujarat model of hatred has spread everywhere in India. This communal polarisation is one of the factors aiding the BJP. And the other is their deep pocket.
Aflush with cash, the saffron party has been able to distribute money, goods including motorcycles to voters. “This election is a game of money power. There’s hardly any money in the hands of the Opposition, so there is no strong campaign by them. There’s money only in the hands of the BJP. Not being restrained by cash, the BJP candidates have been able to put posters and hoardings everywhere. Asom Gana Parishad also has money as they have been paid by the BJP,” asserts Akhil Gogoi, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti leader and an RTI activist in the state.
This election is projected as between two major groups – immigrants and indigenous people – by the BJP. With Amit Shah’s use of ‘termites’ for Bangladeshi Muslim migrants, the sentiment on the ground has been generalised to mean all Muslims.
Assam has been an ethnically diverse state. There are 97 tribes and Muslims form 34 per cent of the population. Ever since the time of the British, Assamese residents have been fighting the so-called ‘foreign population’. The British had brought several of the tea-tribes from central Indian states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Now, after several generations, they are locals.
In the early 1900’s itself, the indigenous Assamese had begun their protests against the migration of Bengali-speaking people. It slowly became a conflict between the Assamese and the Bengali linguistic minority. The xenophobic rhetoric reached its crescendo in the 70’s and 80’s and it was in 1983 that 2,000 Muslims were killed in Nagaon in what is known as the Nellie Massacre. This is what led to the Assam Accord in 1985 and eventually the National Register for Citizens.
Several indigenous people converted to Islam in the 14th century. Then, several Bengali Muslim farmers came during the British raj. During the 1971 Bangladesh war, there was an influx of Hindu and Muslim refugees into the state.
The BJP has managed to make what was a conflict between two linguistic groups into a communal one. “Pointing towards the minority Muslim percentage, the BJP has been sending the message that the Assamese will lose their majority in the state if the saffron party loses the election. The Muslims will take charge of all seats and be included in the Congress. This will lead to the alienation of indigenous local population. The narrative of what was essentially a different conflict has been twisted to mean a Hindu-Muslim conflict,” explains the farmer leader.
Reflecting this emotion on the ground is Pallav, a businessman with investments across Upper Assam. “After the BJP government has come, we don’t see the surmai-wearing Muslim menon the roads. Earlier, they used to be everywhere, and we used to be scared and intimidated by them. We couldn’t complain as standing on the road is not a crime. I am a local and I should not have to feel this way. After the BJP came to power, they are nowhere to be seen. We feel safer,” emphasises the affable 34 year old.
And he is not an exception. Pallav understands that the BJP will not be able to fulfil any of their promises, he has seen through the BJP’s NRC and Citizenship Amendment Bill stand, realises that there is corruption, but with the arrival of the BJP, he believes that they will be safer, and they will not be marginalised.
This polarisation is just what happened in Gujarat too. Just after the 2002 Gujarat carnage, which occurred again during Narendra Modi’s rule, the common refrain from the Hindus in the state was that the Muslims have been shown their place. Additionally, men stated that now girls would be able to walk around the city safely without the danger of the lurking ‘Muslim’ criminals.
And that is the dominant sentiment in Assam among the indigenous residents. The polarisation of the North-East has begun one state at a time.