When the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the Legislative Assembly elections in Assam – the largest state in India’s northeast – back in 2016, there was much chatter about how the saffron party had won over an unlikely electorate away from its core northern Hindi belt.
Rightly so; the BJP had negligible presence in the northeast – a multi-ethnic region with a convoluted history of subnational movements and inter-communal conflicts – before Assam delivered its historic mandate after 15 years of rule by the Indian National Congress (INC).
While the BJP successfully engineered a favorable mandate for itself in a state where it had negligible presence before 2015-16, certain incidents that have unfolded thereafter tell a different story of political contradiction and ideological mismatch.
They indicate that the BJP’s political persuasion, based on the plank of Hindutva nationalism, may not be the most natural fit for Assam, which carries its own powerful brand of ethnolinguistic nationalism. The clash of the two, combined with certain lateral developments, forebode deep political instability for the state in the months to come.
The BJP ship set sail with much glory in Assam in June 2016. But just a few months after its victory, the party that takes pride in being rightly poised to understand the nuances of the northeast was faced with the hard realities of its largest state.
In August 2016, the militant United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent (ULFA-I) kidnapped a BJP worker and demanded a hefty ransom – in all possibility, the outfit’s direct signal to the “Hindi-speaking outsider party” to quit Assam.
Seven months later, in March 2017, inter-communal sentiments flared up in Silapathar when an obscure Bengali Hindu right-wing group attacked an office of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), the influential student affiliate of the Assamese nationalist party and current BJP ally, Assam Gana Parishad (AGP), and also the mothership of Assam’s chief minister under the BJP, Sarbananda Sonowal.
Similarly, in September 2017, an attack on a group of former ULFA members by some Bengali men – allegedly close to the BJP leadership – spurred fresh suspicions that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, was fomenting an “anti-Assamese” tide across the state.
Amid these rumblings, the BJP government announced the naming and renaming of several colleges and roads in Assam after Deen Dayal Upadhyay, an RSS ideologue who in 1967 founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the BJP’s parent party. The evocation of Upadhyay, a largely unfamiliar figure in Assam, did not go down well with indigenous groups.
A year later, in the thick of the clamor around the National Register of Citizens drive to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in Assam, the state government found itself at the center of a whole new level of ethnic polarization.
With the reintroduction of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 by the central government – which in effect accords full citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants already living in Assam (and India) – indigenous Assamese groups have begun to oppose the BJP-RSS ecosystem more vociferously than ever before. While the overt charge is that the bill violates the Assam Accord, the core of the grievance lies in an ethno-cultural threat perception.
The above instances reflect serious ideological tensions between two incongruent political persuasions: the hyper-nationalist Hindutva politics of the BJP and its politico-cultural affiliates, and the regional, ethno-nationalist politics of local parties in Assam.
While the BJP did successfully sweep the polls, thanks to endemic and exogenous factors such as anti-incumbency, underdevelopment, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cult, the party’s homogenizing ideological assertions appear out of place in this deeply heterogenous region.
Assam, in itself, is a hugely complex state with a maddeningly pluralistic demography. Indigenous groups such as Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, Mishings and Rabhas; Assamese-speaking groups of mixed ethnicities and heritages (Hindus and Muslims); Bengali-speaking groups (Hindus and Muslims); and Hindi-speaking communities from different regions of India co-exist under a single administrative domain.
For any outsider political force, this endemic social complexity is no less than a maze to unravel. With each group asserting its own sociopolitical imagination, often at loggerheads with one another, negotiating aspirations and building democratic electoral consensus can be daunting challenges. The BJP’s 2016 win, hence, was a rare political phenomenon and an impressive victory for the party’s election machine.
But how far into Assam’s fissured territory can the saffron party tread?
The northeast is largely alien to the straightforward Hindu-Muslim binary that the BJP routinely exploits in northern India for electoral gains. It is also largely unfamiliar with patent markers of Hindutva politics such as the ban on eating beef, demand for a Ram Mandir (temple of Rama) at Ayodhya, and dogmatic belief in Indic scriptures.
Instead, the tensions in the region emanate from a complex interplay of linguistic nationalism, immigration-driven anxieties, and long-standing mutual distrust between contiguous communities.
Within Assam, to be specific, the most critical fissures run along ethnic binaries based on either territorial or linguistic affiliations, rather than religious. These could be deep-seated cultural antagonisms between Assamese and Bengali, Assamese and tribal, Bengalis and tribal, or Assamese and Hindi-speaking communities. These fractures do not, however, preclude the fact that loosely defined ethnic clusters such as “Assamese” and “Bengali” are often multi-religious in nature.
These ethnic, rather than religious, divisions partly explain the unified Assamese opposition against all Bangladeshi immigrants, Hindu or Muslim, notwithstanding recurrent themes of communal discrimination by Hindu groups against Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants.
The bill that does not fit
The BJP and RSS, by selectively regularizing Hindu immigrants through the Citizenship Amendment Bill, risks aggravating these terse binaries.
The proposition isn’t new and goes back to the RSS’s early days in undivided Assam when it was creating a space for itself through flood relief programs and cultural forums. In today’s context, however, this is a dangerous recipe.
By inserting an overtly communal component into the immigration issue, the BJP stands to sharpen existing wedges between ethnic clusters and revitalize internal fractures within the state. The Citizenship Amendment Bill has already found widespread support in the Barak Valley in Assam’s south, a region dominated by Bengali Hindus with deep ties to neighboring Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra Valley in the north, on the other hand, stands in near-unanimous opposition to the draft.
These new intra-regional divisions have the potential to aggravate further once the final National Register of Citizens list is out and Bangladeshi immigrants are officially identified for detention or deportation. Further, by favoring the interests of one community while alienating dominant Assamese groups, the BJP’s Assam brigade risks destabilizing its meticulously crafted electoral calculus during the next election season.
Primarily throttled by the BJP high command in the central government, this communal proposition rests on a long-standing ideological plank of the Sangh that belies the present-day BJP’s “think national, act local” adage for the northeast.
A totalizing vision
In many ways, the central government’s attempt to bring the bill to fruition represents the BJP’s communal social imagination and centripetal political vision for regions beyond its core Hindi heartland.
It exposes the overarching BJP-RSS agenda, which places regional persuasions below “national” ones – here “national” denoting a communally tilted centralizing vision. Within this, regional development is tightly bound with the hard-set idea of “national integration,” as if one cannot happen sans the other.
The Last Battle of Saraighat, a partisan account on the Assam elections authored by two BJP campaign managers, sheds some light on this:
It says the BJP believes “that for the fulfillment of the ideological vision of ‘Akhand Bharat’ (undivided India) and for the nation to be culturally and nationally integrated in spirit and not just geography, the North-east is crucial. For the BJP, it is not a peripheral state but the heart of India.”
While the party may have customized its totalizing narrative for the northeast during election season (such as avoiding the beef issue), the core Hindutva ideology is not going anywhere and is bound to come around in the future. Even this customization (read: moderation of the pro-Hindu framing) seems to be backfiring.
In early June, close to 13,000 workers of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and its student affiliate, Bajrang Dal, resigned in protest of the party high command diktats to moderate their assertions. In the pre-poll phase, both groups – which have had a ground-level presence in Assam since 1946 and 1964, respectively – had played a key role in providing BJP’s election machine micro-level insights on voter sentiments.
This mass resignation of foot soldiers does not bode well for the BJP. More crucially, it reveals the much larger, more hardline socio-cultural forces that are distinct from the party. This support system now appears to be abandoning the BJP. If the party fails to renegotiate its political agenda in the days to come, Assam might enter a fresh phase of all-pervading instability and consequently, a crisis of democratic governance.