The results of the recently held Assembly Elections in Assam are of great significance to Bangladesh. Firstly, the BJP-led alliance has won with an agenda which is apparently directly detrimental to Bangladesh interests. Secondly, the same BJP is in power in Delhi and the centre's choice, Sarbananda Sonowal, who led BJP in the elections, is the Chief Minister - designate.
In order to understand and appreciate the currents and cross-currents in Assam politics, it is perhaps necessary to delve into the past.
In 1905, the British government created the province of East Bengal and Assam with Dhaka, as its capital. However in 1911, the partition was annulled, and Assam, with Sylhet district, become a separate Governor's province with Shillong as its capital.
Assam was included in the demand for Pakistan, as Muslims were a single-religionist majority in the province. However, at the time of independence in 1947, a referendum was held only in Sylhet district to determine whether it should join Pakistan. Though the outcome of the vote was in favour of Pakistan, most part of Karimgunj, a subdivision of Sylhet, was unjustly given to India by the Radcliffe Commission. Contrary to expectations or understanding, no adjoining Muslim - majority areas like Hailakandi or Goalpara was awarded to Pakistan. During the British colonial rule, large numbers of Bengali-speaking settlers had gone to Assam from districts like Mymensingh, Dhaka, Rangpur, Faridpur and Noakhali, initially at the instance of the British government to bring under cultivation large tracts of barren land. They happened to be mostly Muslims.
These settlers made Brahmaputra valley their home, fought against all odds, and made Assam an agriculturally productive land. History tells us that leaders like Maulana Bhashani and Abdul Matin Choudhury fought for their (settlers') rights during the Bordoloi government. At the time of independence in 1947, Assam was not included in Pakistan, and those settlers became automatically Indian citizens.
Till 1946, a Muslim League government, with Sir M. Saadullah as the Chief Minister, was in power in Assam. At the 1946 elections, Congress, under the leadership of Gopinath Bordoloi, made an alliance with Jamaat-e-Ulemae Hind and won majority seats in the Assembly elections. Bengali-speaking Jamaat Ministers like Muttaleb Majumder and Maulana Abdur Rashid held important cabinet posts. However, the Bordoloi government wanted to initiate a Bongal-Kheda Andolon (Drive away the Bangalees), but subsequently this initiative fizzled out.
After partition, the Muslims of Assam became loyal, law-abiding Indian citizens, and generally, Congress supporters. There were also some staunch followers of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who were ardent Congressites even from before and played important roles in the national politics. One of them, (Late) Fakruddin Ali Ahmed was elected the president of the Republic of India. The Muslims, whether Assamese speaking or Bengali-speaking, never joined any insurgency or armed confrontation, though these have been rampant all over North-east India including Assam.
Though there has been generally religious harmony among the Assamese speaking people of Assam, there have been occasional riots and attacks on the Bengali speaking settlers. In places like Neela and Manash, hundreds of settlers lost their lives and homes, though they had completely identified themselves with the Assamese and had tried to integrate into the society.
With a brief interlude, when the ultra Assamese Nationalist party AGP (Assam Gono Porishad) under Mohanto's leadership formed government, Assam has been under Congress rule. However, many among the minority communities felt that their interests have not been properly and adequately protected under the Congress rule, Badruddin Ajmal, a perfume-tycoon-turned politician, formed All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), a secular party adhering to democratic principles and protection of minority interests. The party has been, since the last three elections, participating in both Lokshava (Parliament) and Bidhan Shava (Assembly) elections and gained notable representatives. Ajmal was also elected to the Parliament. They mostly fought elections independently. This year, AIUDF was very keen on forging an alliance with the secular Congress party, and unlike PDF in Kashmir, avoided any possible coalition with the Hindu-nationalist BJP.
Another factor has become significant in Assam's politics in the last two decades. This has been the emergence of Bodo political force.
Bodos are an indigenous tribal people living in the plains. They constitute 16 percent of Assam's population of 2.7 million and the Muslims are a little less than one third. In 1993, the all Bodo students' organisation started a movement for an autonomous Bodo region for protection of Bodo rights. This eventually became an armed struggle, and eventually a settlement was made both by the central and the provincial governments with the Bodo Liberation Tigers' Force (BLTF). A Bodoland Territorial Council was formed with Kokrajhar as its capital. However, this continued to remain politically a part of the state of Assam.
In the last general election in 1911, Tarun Gogoi, the Congress leader forged an alliance with them and formed a government. This time BJP identified its interests with the BPF (Bodo People's Front -which is anti-immigrant) and with AUP (Ultra Assamese Nationalists) and the results has been a tremendous victory for them.
This time, many of the central Congress leaders were willing to strike an alliance with Ajmal's secular AIUDF. However, Tarun Gogoi was adamant not to join hands with AIUDF, apprehending that in case of a victory, he will have to share power with a Bengali-speaking leader. Interestingly, Ajmal is now more Assamese than many others and has shown great interest for working hand in hand with Congress. Tarun Gogoi, it seems, now has to pay heavy price for his short-sighted strategy. If Congress could have struck a working alliance with AIUDF, the results might have been a little different. It seems now that if all the secular forces do not work together, Gwahati (the provincial capital) will always remain "Hanuj Door Ast" -- a little too far, for them.
The following table will show how big has been BJP's gain--
The election pledges of the BJP (and its coalition partners) have been vehemently anti-immigrant. They have pledged to seal the Bangladesh-India (Assam) border and send back all the Bengali speaking settlers whom they consider to be illegal. BJP leaders have even said-- "if a Hindu immigrant comes from Bangladesh, we will give him shelter and nationality. But if the immigrant is a Muslim, we will push him back."
We do hope that now that they are in power, the BJP-led coalition, will overcome the election fever, and appreciate the ground realities. Bangladesh, of course, would like to live in peace will all her neighbours, but cannot take the burden of refugees, if they are expelled from their country. For the sake of connectivity, Bangladesh also cannot appreciate a sealed border. The people and the government of Bangladesh will have to be careful and alert in order to safeguard the nation's interests. We would, of course, offer our congratulations to Sorbananda Sanowal, the Chief Minster, designate of Assam and wish his government well in its arduous political journey ahead.
The writer is former Chairman of the Privatisation Commission and a columnist.