Sunday, April 17, 2016

Assam elections: what lies ahead for the state’s Bengali Hindus

Even by conservative estimates, the Bengali Hindus today constitute about 10 to 15 percent of Assam’s population. While they have substantial population in the Barak Valley, there are many legislative assembly constituencies outside the valley also where they are a deciding factor in the electoral battles.

The popular perception in Assam, especially the Brahmaputra valley is that the Bengali Hindus of the state migrated here due to religious persecution in East Pakistan and subsequently Bangladesh. However, the history of the community in the state is probably a bit more complicated.

A significant number of Bengali Hindus came into Assam with the British since the colonizers required the services of the educated Bengali babus to execute their official work. In Barak Valley, a substantial population of Bengali Hindus has been settled for many generations with many tracing their roots back to at least a couple of hundred years. And yes, after the partition of the country in 1947 and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh also, many had to migrate due to religious persecution across the borders.     

The community has always contributed significantly, especially in the fields of art, culture, music and sports. The recent anointment of Guwahati girl Priyadarshini Chatterjee as Miss India can probably considered the latest addition to the list. However, politically, the community has largely remained at the peripheries and has made no conscious attempt to represent itself effectively in the parliament or the state assembly.

Some individual leaders have certainly emerged who have held important ministerial positions both in Dispur and New Delhi, but they have never portrayed themselves as representatives of the community as such. However, due to their substantial numbers, the community is gradually being seen as a potent vote bank.

That’s why we have often seen Assam’s leaders invoking Tagore and Netaji in their speeches to attract the Bengali Hindus. We have also seen leaders like Tarun Gogoi delivering speeches in Bengali in places such as Lumding and Hojai apart from Barak Valley. BJP, traditionally has enjoyed the support of the community and still depends heavily on the Bengali Hindus for their electoral returns. Last year, they had also brought out a notification announcing protection for Hindus who had to migrate to India from the neighbouring countries due to religious persecution.    

So, with another state election passing by, what lies ahead for this embattled community which bore the brunt of the Assam movement in the 1980s and still faces discrimination in getting government jobs in the state. A close study of the attitude of the leading political parties would reveal that the picture still looks rather grim despite all the tall claims.

During the campaigning, on multiple occasions, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi referred to the warm ties he shared with the Bengali Hindu people. He proudly said that many in his family had married Bengali Hindus and how they felt at home in each other’s company. But during his 15 years of rule, Gogoi did not take one substantial step to mitigate the problems of the community.

The Congress does not object in principle to the issue of providing citizenship to the Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh due to religious violence, but this contentious topic was never brought up for discussion or debate by the party. On the other hand, poor people were branded ‘D’ voters and routinely harassed. Gogoi flatly refused to intervene and dismissed the issue as a law and order problem where the ‘law must take its own course’.  

The BJP has ridden to prominence in Assam with the help of the Bengali Hindu community. In the 1990s it got unprecedented support from the community in Barak Valley which helped it garner substantial success. But since then, the political priorities of the party have changed. Today, it is trying to occupy the Assamese nationalistic space left vacant by the downfall of the AGP in the Brahmaputra Valley.

As a result, even after notification announcing citizenship for migrants facing religious persecution, precious little has been done to enact a bill.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi kept completely quiet on the issue during his fiery speeches in Assam because any promise in this regard would have deeply dented the party’s prospects in Brahmaputra valley. Party president Amit Shah’s promise that the bill would be brought once the party gets majority in the Rajya Sabha does not sound genuine enough since the principal opposition Congress is also not officially opposed to such a bill.  

Honestly, suggesting solutions to come out of the current state of affairs seems difficult. Many have opined that the community must become politically more conscious and carve out a political party which speaks for them, but such a step is ridden with obstacles. Many from the community who are in active politics have made a name for themselves as acutely corrupt and inefficient. If the same people become the custodians of the community again, then there won’t be any credible results.

Probably the citizenry will have to become more vocal, create social organisations and pressure groups and pressurize the government of the day to solve the issues. Apart from raising contentious problems such as lack of job opportunities, other issues such as social stigma and continuous branding as illegal entrants to the state will also have to be discussed.      

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