KOKRAJHAR/DHUBRI: Sitting inside his dirt-coated, poorly-stocked provision store next to a rural road at Joypur village in Assam’s Kokrajhar district, Akbar Ahmed is reticent about the ongoing state elections.
"I am so busy in my shop that I have had no time to think of it. Let voting day come then I will apply my mind," he said as cacophonic traffic-blowing gas horns raced past, kicking up plumes of cough-inducing dust. A little later he dropped guard a tad, saying in the 2016 Assembly elections he had voted for the Bodoland People’s Front, then an alliance partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Ali-ur-Zaman in Kaziranga is similarly circumspect.
Originally from Bongaigaon district in eastern Assam, he and his wife have been running a dhaba for the past four years on the national highway that cuts through the rhino sanctuary. “I will see, I can’t say anything about voting right now,” he answered in one-liners, suspicious of every question and refusing to even make eye contact. His wife hemmed and hawed in greater measure: “We are confused.”
About 350 kms away inside a weather-beaten, tin-roofed tea stall in Bagbari village, Dhubri district, Noor Islam is watching a video on his mobile of the arrest of civil rights activist turned- candidate Akhil Gogoi. Unlike Akbar and Zaman, Islam is not fearful of discussing the elections with a stranger. He declares his support for the Raijor Dal, Gogoi’s new political party, and spews venom on the BJP and its local candidate, Ashok Kumar Singhi.
The tea shop owner, Usman Moni, in between blowing out betel nut from his paan-stained mouth and teeth every 15 minutes, is also vocal about the polls, the BJP and Singhi, describing the saffron party’s nominee as “Hitlerian”.
It’s not difficult to understand why the Muslims of Kokrajhar and Kaziranga were suspicious while those in Dhubri were open, expansive and even polemical.
‘Assamese Muslims always identify themselves as Assamese, not by religion’
Demography explains the contrasting mood.
According to the 2011 Census, the Bodo-dominated Kokrajhar district has 59.64% Hindus while only 28.44% are Muslims. But in neighbouring Dhubri, Hindus are 19.92% and Muslims 79.67%. Their higher numbers in Dhubri perhaps provided them a sense of security, prompting confidence in engaging in a political discussion.
Interestingly, the Muslims of Bagbari and neighbouring Lakhiganj village said they had voted for the BJP in 2016. Asked why, pat came Usman’s reply: “Because they promised parivartan (change).”
Two things are clear from this: firstly, the characterisation of the Muslims being anti- BJP may be misplaced as many had voted for it the last time. Secondly, the narrative of Muslims being a captive voting bloc of either the Congress or the AIUDF could be erroneous. Despite the AIUDF’s strong presence in Dhubri, widely considered the gateway of illegal immigration from Bangladesh, some Bagbari villagers were willing to vote for the Raijor Dal, a political newbie.
The fear and loathing of the BJP is not surprising. The party, particularly state finance minster and Assam BJP’s strongman, Himanta Biswa Sarma, has run a campaign against the Miyas, or Bengali-speaking Muslims who came to Assam from Bangladesh. Sarma has often said the party does not need the votes of Miyas. This seems to have antagonised not only the Bengali Muslims but even the Assamese Muslims, creating a new dynamic in minority politics.
Assamese Muslims are counted among the indigenous people of the state, unlike the Bengali-speaking Muslims, who are considered as outsiders. As a result, the Assamese Muslims have been strongly opposed to illegal immigration by Bengali Muslims and have supported any political party that has fought against this.
But the campaign against the Miyas seems to have driven the Assamese Muslims to close ranks with the Bengali Muslims against the BJP, purely because they have a common religious denomination.
Sipping fruit juice from a tetra pack and cooled by a pedestal fan inside his office in Goalpara, Mofiyal Rahman, an Assamese Muslim and owner of a nursing home-cum-pharmaceutical shop, said Sarma had asked people to not eat food served by Miyas. “The comment was directed at the Bengali Muslims but this is not correct and we are upset. After all, we share the same religion,” said Rahman. Rahman’s assertion of his religion has lent a new turn to Assam’s complex identity politics.
The Assamese Muslims like Rahman have never identified themselves by their religion, always calling themselves simply as Assamese. In fact, there is little to differentiate between an Assamese Hindu and a Muslim. They speak the same language, share the same food habits, celebrate the same festivals and are culturally united. Barring the religion, the two communities are indistinguishable.
“Assamese Muslims are more Assamese than the Hindus. They have always identified themselves only as Assamese, not by their religion. Bengalis are culturally different,” said Arindam Borkotaky, a political analyst and lecturer at ADP College, Nagaon.
Many Assamese Muslims, estimated to be 20 lakh out of the total Muslim population of 1.03 crore, are said to have supported the BJP in 2016. “But this time the Muslims and Christians will not vote for the BJP. All minorities feel threatened by it,” said Satyakam Borthakur, a teacher at Dibrugarh University.