Guwahati: In 1979, the Assam Agitation started out as an ‘anti-outsider’ movement. But over the course of the six years that it lasted, it changed the trajectory of Assam’s politics completely.
The movement made ethnic identity the core concern in Assam’s socio-political landscape, launched the state’s indigenous versus ‘foreigner’ schism into national headlines and gave birth to a key regional party — the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which went on to rule the state for two terms.
But over four decades since, a lot seems to have changed.
As Assam votes in the ongoing assembly election, ethnic identity is, at best, a peripheral issue and several of those who led the historic movement — leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and those who went on to join the AGP — have stopped talking about it.
This transformation has been brought about by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has, in a way, wiped out the Assam movement, relegating ethnic identity as a political issue to the margins and assimilating several leaders associated with the agitation into its fold.
Roughly, over a dozen of BJP’s important Assam leaders right now, including the top leadership like Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and senior minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, are ex-AASU leaders, or from other student unions which had the identity crusade at their core.
Equally important, the AGP is now a tag-along of the BJP — a party that is technically an ‘outsider’ and a very new entrant.
Meanwhile, for the voters, AASU is no longer a rallying point and AGP a spent force, with BJP being the more dominant political pole.
How BJP has wiped out the movement
The fact that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and, therefore, ethnicity is not a major factor in these polls shows how the central issue of the Assam movement has corroded.
Besides, what actually defines the BJP’s model in Assam is how the party has largely buried the agitation and appropriated several of those who fought for the cause of Assamese identity. In that sense, a lot of the BJP in Assam isn’t what BJP otherwise is — comprising leaders who have risen up the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad ladder.
CM Sarbananda Sonowal began his political career with AASU and then went on to join the AGP in 2001. Sonowal, who entered the BJP’s fold in 2011, was vocal about the Assamese ire against migrants and was even known as the ‘jatiya nayak’ (hero of the race).
The number two in Assam BJP, Himanta Biswa Sarma, was the general secretary of the All Guwahati Students’ Union — the Guwahati wing of AASU. Of course, Sarma’s trajectory has been different, given he went on to join the Congress, became a key figure in the party under veteran Tarun Gogoi and then jumped ship to the BJP over differences with the Gogois and Gandhis.
Chandra Mohan Patowary, minister for transport, industry and commerce, parliamentary affairs, Act East policy affairs and SEED in the state government, was in the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) before joining the AGP. He moved to the BJP in 2014.
Manoj Baruah, who joined the BJP in 2015, was the president of the AJYCP. Assam Legislative Assembly Speaker Hiten Goswami was in the AGP, as were BJP MLAs Padma Hazarika and Atul Bora.
Meanwhile, Tapan Gogoi, who is BJP’s MP from Jorhat, was the general secretary of AASU.
Other AASU products include: Former BJP general secretary Pulak Gohain, Bihpuria MLA Amiya Bhuyan, who was earlier with the Congress, MLA Bimal Borah, MLA Rituparna Baruah, who has been denied a ticket this time, state BJP minority chief Mominul Awal, Deputy Speaker in the Assembly Aminul Haq Laskar and leader Parmananda Rajbongshi, who is fighting on a BJP ticket.
Effectively, the BJP has gobbled up a significant bit of the AASU leadership, which was at the heart of the Assam Agitation and was instrumental in the formation of the AGP.
To be sure, not all these leaders were necessarily part of the Assam Agitation. However, they were supporters of what formed the core of the movement.
The AGP story
The Asom Gana Parishad, meanwhile, has been floundering. The party that won 67 seats in the assembly in 1985 and 59 in the 1996 polls, managed to win just 14 in 2016. It has even split thrice in a span of 20 years and continues to remain fragmented.
The AGP had two chief architects — two-time CM Prafulla Mahanta and Bhrigu Kumar Phukan.
Mahanta, once a firebrand leader, is now a pale shadow of himself, with the party he founded refusing to give him a ticket for the 2021 assembly polls from Barhampur. Phukan passed away in 2006.
If there is one issue that has exposed staggering gaps in the AGP and its politics, it is the CAA. The party has continued to remain an ally of the BJP, coming back into the fold after a brief break-up in 2019, despite the ruling party’s push to the CAA.
The new citizenship law tugs at the heart of Assam’s identity politics, which formed the basis of AGP.
‘AGP is BJP’s B-team now’
With a frenzied election season under way, Assam’s voters are vocal, passionate and seeped in politics. It is clear that on the ground, the BJP is the driving factor, having set the narrative and language of the elections, with all other stakeholders playing second fiddle.
For AGP, meanwhile, this means it has been completely subsumed into the larger BJP-NDA identity.
“AGP is strong in some areas, but, largely, it has just become BJP’s B-team. It was once a party that ruled Assam powerfully. Now, it merely does what the BJP asks it to. I used to be an AGP supporter, but now I vote for it only because it is with the BJP. It has nothing of its own,” said Jaideep Talukdar of Bilasipara.
Several voters across districts, who may have been AGP supporters in the past, echo a similar sentiment. Some feel, being with the BJP has changed AGP from being an ethnic party to a communal one, which is why they wouldn’t want to support it anymore.
As for AASU, once a hero for the people of Assam, the conversation around it among voters is limited. Of course, it continues to remain an influential student body with walls across the state scribbled with its messages. But by emptying out its leaders into its basket and changing the course of the body’s progression, the BJP has indeed made a big dent.
On its part, the BJP feels this modus operandi was important to get a foothold into the state. This is a strategy the party is known to follow.
In Tripura, for instance, the BJP created a cadre for itself by bringing existing Congress workers on its side. Each Congress leader who joined brought with her/him a cadre of around 3,000-4,000 people.
“The BJP always felt that their old leadership would not have the pan-Assam leadership acceptance that is needed to get the traction to come to power. With the introduction of Sarbananda Sonowal in 2011, the BJP got the right candidate who fit into its nationalistic perspective,” said a source in the Assam BJP who didn’t wish to be identified.
“Post that, they got leaders like Chandra Mohan Patowary and others who had a sizeable following in their respective areas and felt they would be the correct people to fight the Assamese versus Bangladeshi Muslim narrative required,” the source added.
CAA has made matters worse
Neither AGP nor AASU leaders were willing to speak openly on a delicate issue in the middle of a hotly-contested election. But the discomfort is hard to miss.
“See, AGP had a purpose. It was the voice of the Axomiya identity. But thanks to our constant internal fights and then a weakening leadership, we lost our way. Now we are totally dependent on the BJP, which has established itself as the primary political force in Assam. CAA has made matters worse for us, we are neither here nor there,” a well-placed AGP leader said on condition of anonymity.
In 2019, speaking to ThePrint after the AGP decided to reunite with the BJP despite the latter’s CAA plans, Prafulla Mahanta had said he was of the “firm belief that the AGP should not have gone back to the BJP after all this”.
This, at that crucial juncture, reflected the deep schisms within the party and what some senior leaders saw as political suicide.
Meanwhile, AASU leaders feel it is because AGP lost steam and BJP suddenly appeared like this very attractive force that the ruling party was able to “vacuum clean” it.
“In some ways, we have been vacuum cleaned. Where would AASU products go? AGP has been struggling. Congress is a force we have been fighting against. That left BJP, which stormed the state with its presence and quick rise to power. Who doesn’t want to be in power, after all? The Assam movement, which became our basis, is now decades old, something that the current generation does not even relate to,” said an AASU leader also on condition of anonymity.
Some members of AASU and AJYCP, meanwhile, went on to launch the Assam Jatiya Parishad ahead of these polls, with former AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi as its president.
These leaders, however, chose to form their own outfit instead of joining the AGP — once seen as the natural progression.
(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)
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