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Assam: Identity as Strategy

Identity as Strategy The two phases of assembly elections in Assam held on April 3 and 10 saw a remarkably high voter turnout (75.47 per cent); this has been in keeping with similar levels noted in previous elections in the state. However, the relatively peaceful atmosphere in which elections were conducted was a sharp contrast to the pre-election scenario of 2001, that was marred by violence attributed to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), campaigning for a sovereign

ASSAM

Identity as Strategy

T
he two phases of assembly elections in Assam held on April 3 and 10 saw a remarkably high voter turnout (75.47 per cent); this has been in keeping with similar levels noted in previous elections in the state. However, the relatively peaceful atmosphere in which elections were conducted was a sharp contrast to the pre-election scenario of 2001, that was marred by violence attributed to the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), campaigning for a sovereign “Asom” state. This time, both the UPA government and the Congress government in the state were anxious to be seen

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

to be having talks with ULFA. After several violent incidents in January, the second phase of negotiations with the ULFA’s negotiating team, the People’s Consultative Group (PCG), began in February, but these have been largely cosmetic manoeuvres on both sides, marked by cynicism and distrust.

A similar manoeuvring has marked the Congress’ moves to assure Muslims, who constitute 31 per cent of Assam’s population and along with smaller ethnic groupings and migrant tea garden workers, have been the party’s main support base, especially since the elections of 1985. Eight months after the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the centre issued a notification to the Foreigners Act – the Foreigners (Tribunals for Assam) Order 2006 – applicable to Assam, making it mandatory for complaints against suspected illegal migrants to be referred to tribunals. The notification, and the act before it are ostensibly aimed at preventing the harassment of genuine citizens. However, since 1985, tribunals under the IM (DT) Act could detect an estimated 12,424 illegal migrants, of which only around 1,482 were eventually deported across the border. (West Bengal, in contrast, under the Foreigners Act enforceable in the rest of the country, deported as many as five lakh illegal migrants during 1980-2001.)

More than an efficacious measure to detect illegal migrants, the act came to be seen as a political tool. Assam’s polity since the 1980s has been marked by the rise of ever-narrowing identity politics, defined by ethnic origin, language or religion. Census figures establish Muslims as constituting the numerical majority in six districts; their numbers evidently will determine the fate of candidates in as many as 35 of the state’s 126 constituencies. Tribal groups, whose numerical presence may vary across districts, have similarly demanded and in many instances have been assured of “autonomous councils”, as seen in the case of the bodos, karbis, hmars, misings and tiwas.

Since the 1980s, democracy in the Indian scenario has been an experiment defined by elections, shaped by identities and vote banks, and decided by a play of numbers and coalition-forming. Thus, political parties across the spectrum in Assam have strategically chosen to limit their appeal to a few pre-decided support groups. This remains true whether it is a rejuvenated Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the BJP or other political formations, including the newly formed Third Front (comprising the Telugu Desam, Samajwadi Party andNational Conference who are supporting the AGP) and the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF, a conglomeration of different Muslim groups). As seen so often in Assam’s recent history, the scramble for resources, i e, development funds, among different groups, and the promises made to one group that appear to play on another group’s insecurities have fomented violent repercussions. This election, marked by an increasing rise in identity formations, can only further fuel this trend.

The Congress wielded an advantage in these elections over its main challengers. The AGP has, till recently, been in considerable disarray and wracked by splits, while the BJP’s base in Assam remains limited by its appeal to Hindutva. Despite this, it was only towards the fag end of the election campaign that the prime minister made any reference to stability or development. These elections then will do little to resolve Assam’s crises of identities; a state, that remains one of India’s most backward, will continue to be a conglomeration of different ethnic groups, locked in a battle of oneupmanship with each other. Nothing symbolises this more than the villages of Nellie which witnessed the most brutal massacre in post-independent India when – at a time when the “anti-foreigner” agitation was at its height – over 2,000 Muslims were killed in a single night’s savagery on February 18, 1983. The survivors and inhabitants of Muladhari, Silbheti, Borpolah, Mati-Parbat and Dungbari, collectively known as Nellie, continue to petition the government for flood relief, electricity, hospitals, irrigation and even proper roads. The relief promised after the floods of 2004 has yet to reach the villages; still, politicians and parties, on their part, remain content with making reassurances every election time, of there never being another Nellie in Assam.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly April 22, 2006

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