Ethnicity as an issue has receded into the background, and the Assamese people seem more at ease assimilating themselves into the rest of India and talking roads, infrastructure, welfare schemes, jobs, water, electricity and aspirational issues — like most voters of the country. It would not be inaccurate to say that between 2016 and now, Assam’s political DNA has undergone a sea change.
As I travelled through Assam, the complete lack of any resonance of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) among voters was striking. Nobody is talking about the CAA or the need to protect the Assamese identity. The response to such issues is lukewarm with most voters claiming that it is not a factor.
Even more staggering is how this ethnic identity now seems to be getting subsumed into some larger identity that was never at the forefront. So while India still recognises Assam’s political milieu to be one filled with ethnic issues, things are fast changing on the ground.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has managed to change Assam, in ways that are conspicuous, but with far more gravity. For what immediately catches attention, the state has a new facade — more roads, massive bridges and more medical and educational institutes. But beneath these wide roads and tall bridges lies one big transformation that tugs at the heart of Assam’s socio-political milieu — the shift away from staunch ethnic identity issues to a larger, broader and, perhaps, even religion-based umbrella.
In a state where ethnicity was the prime driver of social and political movements, and thinking for decades, the CAA — which goes against the very tenet of the identity crusade of the Assamese people — is an absolute non-issue in this assembly election. The BJP took a gamble with the CAA in Assam, but seems to have emerged fairly unscathed.
The BJP, more so under Modi-Shah, not just knows how to expand its footprint in newer regions, but also alter the territory’s dynamics in a way that suits its politics and worldview. This makes the party a far more potent and tough opponent to tackle than its rivals can fathom — an opponent who changes the rules of the game midway.
The palpable shift in Assam
Assam has had a long history of resentment against ‘outsiders’, directed at anybody who is not an indigenous Assamese but is settled in the state. This ire was religion and region-agnostic, even leading to the six-year Assam Agitation and a violent outburst against the Bengalis, Marwaris, Biharis and others in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Any ‘foreigner’ dipping into the resources of the state was unacceptable to the indigenous people.
In December 2019, the passage of the CAA — which promises to give citizenship to Hindu refugees and which, in turn, means several ‘bidexis‘ (foreigners) in Assam will be legitimately accepted — may have witnessed protests in parts of Assam, but is hardly on the mind of voters now.
For instance, a voter in Nagaon district is unabashed in his views that CAA is not a problem since it is about accepting Hindu refugees, and ‘Bharat’ being a ‘Hindu rashtra’, it is our ‘responsibility’ to take care of the community. Several others echo this sentiment. Hindu, Bharat etc, words that were not a part of the political, social or cultural lexicon of Assam, seem to have replaced the bidexi, Axomiya manhu (Assamese people) vocabulary.
This, if long-term and not merely a phase, is a watershed for Assam. In fact, when you look at it now, updating the National Register of Citizens — a demand from the days of the Assam Agitation — became more of an inconvenience than a way to resolve the Assamese versus ‘outsider’ problem. People seemed more upset about being subjected to this chaos than satisfied at a long-pending demand of the indigenous Assamese people getting fulfilled. The fading of the ethnicity issue was evident even then, we just failed to read the signs.
This election, meanwhile, makes this more pronounced. Some say the anti-CAA sentiment hasn’t gone but is present as an under-current. Even if that were to be true, the fact that an emotion once so overt and dominant in Assam has become but an undercurrent should tell us something.
The BJP factor
In a globalised era where aspirations demand a greater synergy with the outside world, dilution of the staunch concept of ethnic identity is not counter-intuitive. In Assam, especially for the youth, the burning demand of the 1970s and 1980s, when the world was a different place, hardly seems relevant now.
Modi and Shah’s BJP recognised this. The party is not organic to Assam. It is, in its own way, an ‘outsider’. Ethnicity was never going to be a strong point for the BJP and the party had to change the narrative fast. Modi-Shah and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) understood the need to tap into the potential changes in Assam’s socio-political dynamics and decided to turn that to their advantage.
What the BJP-RSS combine has systematically done is harp on more generic issues that every voter relates to. Hence, Modi and his team talk about roads, bridges, colleges, hospitals and welfare. Equally importantly, they talk about Hindus versus Muslims, the Jinnah-isation of Assam and “love-jihad and land-jihad“. Essentially, they have ushered in Assam a new conversation and a new language, one that suits its political narrative and through which it can play to its strengths.
Think about it. The two top leaders of the BJP in the state — Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma — are imports from outside with their genesis in student politics that was at the heart of Assam’s anti-outsider movement. And yet, ethnicity is not an issue for the party under these leaders with both speaking the language of Modi-Shah’s BJP.
This also makes the BJP a dangerous rival. Whether or not the BJP comes back to power in Assam, the state’s altered language shows Modi and Shah know how to conquer new territories and then make them their own, moulding its people into their stream of thought.
At the age of 16, Assam’s beloved cultural icon Bhupen Hazarika wrote, ‘Agnijugor firingoti moi, notun Asom gorhim‘ (I am the spark of the age of fire, I will build a new Assam). Decades later, this seems to have become the motto for Narendra Modi and Amit shah’s BJP, something Hazarika could never have imagined.
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