Hasina Khatun and her family lives in Lower Assam’s Goalpara district.
Goalpara is part of Dhubri Lok Sabha Constituency which is going to the polls on April 23 next – the third and last phase of polling in Assam.
Khatun and her sister-in-law, Ajida Begum, have still not decided whom to vote for in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. “A few days before the vote, we will discuss it with the family and the community,” said Ajida Begum.
Ajida is “disturbed” as she feels that the Muslim community is projected as “oppressors”.
Mehmood Ahmed, who runs a shop selling shoes and bags at Hailakandi district in Assam’s Barak Valley, says that not only the BJP but also the other parties do “dirty politics on religion”.
“Every year, Hindus and Muslims play Holi in the bazaar,” says the bright-eyed 21-year-old. “This year, I was the only Muslim who played Holi”.
Both Ajida and Mehmood feel that lately a lot of “communalism has seeped into the game called politics”.
As per Mehmood, nobody can predict who will win from Karimganj, which has gone to polls today (Thursday).
“Last minute, it changes,” he said. “For the last 10 years, we have been voting whichever way the trend is rising. There is a flow system here,” he stated.
Reports quoted political pundits as saying that the “Muslim vote” is a deciding factor in Assam. Going by the 2011 Census, Muslims formed 34.2 per cent of the state’s population while Hindus account for a little over 61 per cent.
For decades, “Ali” (Muslims) and “coolie” (tea garden community) voted religiously for the Congress.
The equations have changed ever since the BJP’s footprints started growing in the Northeast and Assam.
The tea garden vote has been split by the saffron party and the Muslim voters’ loyalty has also shifted – the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) has laid claim to Muslim votes since 2006. Though Muslims are slowly “moving away” from AIUDF.
Muslims in Assam are a diverse group strictly speaking in terms of whom their allegiance lies while voting.
The Assamese-speaking “Goriya-Moriya Muslims” of Upper and Middle Assam identify as “khilonjiya” or indigenous to the state. In the battles of identity that have defined the state’s politics for decades, they are grouped with the rest of the ethnic Assamese community. Most of these constituencies voted on April 11 last.
Sylheti Muslims live in Southern Assam’s Barak Valley, consisting of two Lok Sabha seats – Karimganj and Silchar – that went to polls today (April 18).
This leaves the Bengali Muslims of Lower Assam, a population shaped by migrations dating back to the 19th century.
Bengali Muslims form about 70 per cent of the electorate in the Dhubri Lok Sabha seat and 60 per cent in the Barpeta constituency which will go to the polls on April 23 next.
Here, the Muslim voters’ allegiance lies with the AIUDF. The Citizenship Bill issue in Assam which has created a communal polarisation has affected the Bengali-speaking Muslim communities of Assam.
Bengalis are still seen as “outsiders” and Bengali-speaking Muslims are tagged as “Bangladeshis”.
The Assamese-Bengali divide sharpened when in 2013, Assam started updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
NRC is meant to be a roster of genuine Indian citizens living in Assam, separating them from so-called illegal immigrants.
The rules of entry stipulated that anyone who could not prove they or their ancestors had entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971, the eve of the Bangladesh War, would be declared a foreigner.
The ties became further strained when the BJP introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill in 2016. It proposed to ease citizenship criteria for non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. To the Muslims of Assam, it suggested that they alone would be targeted as foreigners.
The indigenous community of Assam and the northeastern states also created a lot of uproar over the Bill and finally the Citizenship Bill did not get passed in the Rajya Sabha.
The saffron party is still trying to woo the Bengali voters saying that it would bring the Citizenship Bill back if voted to power.
The NRC final draft published on July 30, 2018, led to a lot of clamour among the Hindu Bengalis as over 40 lakh people were left out – particularly the Bengali Hindu population.
Says Hilaluddin Laskar of Silchar, “In my estimate, only one-third of those left out were Muslim. In the Muslim community, there is also a reassurance that the Bangladeshi tag is off us.”
The NRC exercise has not so much “ruffled” the Muslim community as it has the Bengali Hindus living in Assam.
As the Hindu Bengalis are “flustered” over the NRC final draft list leaving a large number of their people out, the BJP has played the Citizenship Bill card.
The BJP has made significant inroads among the tea tribes and vulnerable Bengali Hindus of the Barak Valley.
The Muslim votes may get divided between the Congress and the AIUDF in Barak Valley.
In Lower Assam, the angst is against the saffron party. In Dhubri district, colonial buildings have been turned into foreigners’ tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies tasked with hearing cases of disputed citizenship. In Goalpara district, it has sectioned off part of the local jail for a detention centre where those declared foreigners are incarcerated.
An independent detention centre is being built in the district, raising fears that many more would meet the same fate.
“We know people who have lived here for more than 50 years but are being harassed and declared foreigners,” said Anwar Hussain, a vegetable farmer who lives in Baladmari Char, not far from the prison. “Some have just lost their documents.”
He said that after the Modi government has come to power at the Centre, the Muslims are living in “perennial fear – just like the days of the Assam Movement”.
In these districts, the Muslim community is upset over the Citizenship Bill as they see it as a means to import large numbers of Bangladeshi Hindus into Assam, displacing its Muslim population.
“If you bring Hindu Bengalis here, where will we stay?” asked Romisa Khatun, who lives in Dhubri district’s Alamganj area.
At one point of time, Badruddin Ajmal grew so revered in Lower Assam that supporters and party workers referred to him as “huzoor”.
But, he is no longer “idolised”. In the 2016 Assembly elections, he contested from the South Salmara seat and lost to the Congress. In the 2018 panchayat elections, the AIUDF’s tally fell by 65 per cent from 2013.
The jury is out vis-à-vis Ajmal’s philanthropic activities. “Ajmal collected files from D-voters but did not proceed with cases,” said Aminul Islam, Congress general secretary in Dhubri district. “The Congress legal cell is helping them, providing free legal services,” he informed.
Most of the Muslim voters feel that Ajmal shouts too much from the rooftops – “Muslims, Muslims,” and created problem with other communities.
It is a common worry in these districts among the Muslim community that voting for Ajmal means to be branded “Bangladeshi” and underlines religious identity.
Bengali Hindus in Dhubri district revere Modi not just for the Citizenship Bill, but also for the Balakot attacks. As a group of girls say, “Only Modi can bring in development and act against Pakistan. As far as the Citizenship Bill is concerned, all Hindus should be given shelter.”