Assam: Why Alliance With Badruddin Ajmal May Cost The Congress Dear

Assam: Why Alliance With Badruddin Ajmal May Cost The Congress DearBadruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF.
Snapshot
  • The Congress apparently wanted to prevent the division of Muslim votes.

    However, the alliance with AIUDF could result in indigenous Assamese communities moving away from the Congress, including Assamese Muslims.

The alliance struck by the Congress in Assam with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is hurting the former badly.

A beleaguered Congress struck an alliance with the Islamist AIUDF — a party floated by ittar king Maulana Badruddin Ajmal with the primary purpose of protecting the interests of Bangladeshi-origin Muslims in Assam — to stave off its imminent electoral decimation in the state.

The Congress felt that the division of Muslim votes — Muslims form 35 per cent of the state’s electorate — between the Congress and the AIUDF has been benefiting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) indirectly. Hence the alliance to consolidate the Muslim vote bank.

But what the Congress overlooked is the widespread perception among the rest of the state’s electorate, including the indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims, about the AIUDF being an Islamist party and its founder, Ajmal, being a communal and divisive figure.

The AIUDF

The Maulana, who is also a Bengali-speaking Muslim with his base in lower Assam that has seen a huge demographic change due to unrestricted influx of millions from East Bengal (and then East Pakistan and Bangladesh), formed the AIUDF in 2005.

The AIUDF was formed in the immediate aftermath of the repeal of the controversial Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 (commonly called the IMDT Act) by the Supreme Court.

The IMDT Act was legislated by the Indira Gandhi government to protect the Bangladeshi-origin Muslims of Assam from harassment during the anti-foreigners’ Assam Movement.

The movement was launched in late-1979 by the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) against the large-scale illegal influx of Bangladeshis to Assam.

During the agitation, a large number of complaints were filed by citizens of Assam against suspected illegal immigrants from Bangladesh residing in Assam. The complaints were made under the provisions of the Foreigners Act 1946.

The 1946 Act put the onus of proving one’s Indian citizenship on the accused. However, the IMDT Act put the onus of proving that a person is a foreigner on the police or the complainant.

Thus, the IMDT Act was skewed in favour of illegal immigrants. The incumbent Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who was then the president of the AASU, filed a petition before the apex court challenging the IMDT Act.

The apex court upheld Sonowal’s plea and observed that the IMDT Act had become the “main impediment” in identification and deportation of illegal immigrants, and struck down the Act.

Sonowal was proclaimed jatiya nayak (national hero) by the people of Assam, and Ajmal formed the AIUDF to provide a political shield to the Bangladeshi Muslims, who were residing in Assam.

The AIUDF contested the 2006 assembly elections in the state and bagged 10 seats. Ajmal himself won from two constituencies with a large margin of votes. He successfully contested the 2009 Lok Sabha elections from Dhubri.

The AIUDF won 18 assembly seats in 2011 and emerged as the largest opposition party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Ajmal was re-elected from Dhubri and his party bagged three more seats.

The AIUDF fared badly in the 2016 assembly elections that brought the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) to power in the state. Ajmal, who had fielded himself, lost and his party’s tally was reduced to 13 seats.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that saw a repeat of the BJP sweep, the AIUDF’s tally in Parliament came down from four to one with the Maulana being the only one to get elected (from Dhubri).

Formation Of The Congress-AIUDF Alliance

For the Congress under Tarun Gogoi, the AIUDF was ‘untouchable’. Gogoi felt that any association with the Maulana’s party would cost the Congress the support of the Assamese (Hindus and Muslims alike) as well as the indigenous tribal communities of the state.

However, the present leadership of the Congress in Assam felt that if the Muslim vote splits once again between the AIUDF and the Congress, the BJP would once again sweep the assembly polls.

The Congress, they felt, would suffer grievously.

The Congress had won only 26 seats in the 2016 state elections (down from its tally of 78 in 2011) and its internal surveys showed that if it contested the elections this year against the BJP and the AIUDF, its tally would come down to about half the 2016 figure.

That sent alarm bells ringing in the state and the central leadership of the party. Such a humiliating loss would pave way for the complete decimation of the party in Assam.

“A large number of our functionaries and cadres have migrated to the BJP after the 2016 elections. If we fare poorly this time too, our party will suffer a huge exodus and will become a political non-entity in Assam,” a senior Assam Congress leader told Swarajya from Guwahati.

The Congress ‘high command’, keen to avert an imminent disaster in Assam, endorsed the state unit’s proposal for an electoral tie-up with the AIUDF.

Maulana Ajmal had, incidentally, always been keen on an alliance with the Congress in Assam and had been telling the Congress central leadership that only an alliance will keep the BJP at bay in Assam.

The Maulana had repeatedly been reaching out to a number of top leaders of the Congress in Parliament, including Rahul Gandhi, to impress upon them the need for an alliance.

However, many in the state Congress were opposed to the alliance with the AIUDF. They feared, as Tarun Gogoi did, that joining hands with the Maulana’s Islamist party would cost it the support of Assam’s indigenous people.

However, an influential section of the state Congress — especially those from lower Assam where Bengali-speaking Muslims form a significant chunk, if not the majority, of the electorate — argued in favour of an alliance with the Maulana’s party.

Assamese Hindus and the tribal communities of the state, they argued, were angry with the BJP over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that had triggered widespread protests in Assam.

Anti-BJP sentiments were still running high and the anger with the BJP would overshadow any unease over a Congress-AIUDF alliance, they said.

The Congress ‘high command’ bought that argument and okayed the alliance with Maulana Ajmal.

Why The Congress-AIUDF Alliance Could Backfire

The Congress-AIUDF alliance gave the BJP a golden opportunity to target the Congress and brand it as a party supporting infiltrators from Bangladesh.

The fear of being reduced to a linguistic and religious minority in their own homeland is, understandably and justifiably, a deep-seated and palpable fear among Assamese Hindus and the indigenous tribal communities in the state.

The Assamese Muslims also have no love lost for their co-religionists from across the border who they shun as radicals and obscurantists who give Islam a bad name.

Assamese Muslims consider themselves completely distinct from Bengali-speaking Muslims and even social interaction between the two communities is severely limited.

Many from the Assamese Muslim community had been at the forefront of the Assam movement, and associations representing the indigenous Muslims of Assam have been very vocal in demanding detection and deportation of illegal immigrants from Assam.

Assamese Muslims are well-educated, egalitarian and liberal, and present a stark contrast to the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Also, Assamese Muslims share close ties with Assamese Hindus and other indigenous communities of the state. The social and cultural bonds between the indigenous communities (including Muslims) of Assam are deep and very strong.

As such, the Assamese Muslims who had solidly backed the Congress in the past are now severely unhappy with the party for joining hands with Maulana Ajmal.

Maulana Ajmal is widely perceived in Assam as representing the cause of illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh and is treated with deep suspicion by Assam’s indigenous folks.

The BJP has been playing on this deep distrust of Maulana Ajmal among the Assamese. All senior BJP leaders, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP national president J P Nadda have criticising the Congress-AIUDF pact in their election rallies in the state.

The BJP’s chief strategist in Assam and the state Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has been warning the people of the state that Assam will become a second Kashmir where Hindus and tribals are persecuted by Muslims if the Congress-AIUDF comes to power in the state.

All star campaigners of the BJP have been harping on this, and this high-decibel campaign has put the Congress on the defensive.

What has intensified the Congress’ discomfiture with the portly and bearded Maulana sporting a skull cap and perennially dressed in long kurtas and short pyjamas (in adherence to the strict Islamist dress code) is his (Maulana Ajmal’s) communal and provocative comments.

At a rally in Dhubri (his Lok Sabha constituency and stronghold) in January this year, Ajmal alleged that the BJP would destroy thousands of mosques and prevent Muslims from wearing the skull cap or offering namaz if it returned to power in the state.

This evoked strong condemnation even from ally Congress, but an unfazed Ajmal has been blatantly trying to polarise Muslims and has been playing on the insecurities that any migrant community will harbour.

The effect of the Maulana’s controversial statements and the BJP playing up the alliance between the Congress and the communal and Islamist AIUDF seems to be having an unintended (for the Congress) consequence: uniting Assamese Hindus and indigenous tribals behind the BJP.

That is a nightmare scenario for the Congress, which is banking on a division of the votes of Assamese Hindus and tribals and unification of votes of the Bangladeshi-origin Muslims to return to power in the state.

The Congress-AIUDF alliance is also not working on the ground at many places. Despite the good understanding between the senior leadership of the parties, their functionaries and cadres at the ground level are often at loggerheads.

Having fought each other for so many years and considered each other as arch rivals, effecting a ground-level synergy between the two parties are proving to be an extremely difficult task.

Congress leaders feel that while Congress supporters will cast their votes for AIUDF candidates, the same cannot be said of AIUDF supporters. They say that AIUDF supporters will not vote for Congress candidates and will, instead, vote for independent Muslim candidates.

This, and the suspicion and mistrust that lower-level functionaries and activists of the Congress harbour towards the AIUDF, is resulting in the alliance coming unstuck in many constituencies, especially in those where the Congress has fielded candidates.

This is why the alliance with the Islamist party could prove to be very dear for the Congress. The politically astute Tarun Gogoi realised this and, despite a lot of pressure from his party high command and from some of his colleagues in Assam, kept the Maulana at a safe distance.

Tarun Gogoi’s son Gaurav, a novice without any grounding in realpolitik who is being projected as the chief minister face, is a different cup of tea altogether.

As Himanta Biswa Sarma says: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Tarun Gogoi rejected proposals to align with Maulana Ajmal, but his son has embraced the person who represents the interests of radical Bangladeshi immigrants”.

Sarma, a clever strategist with strong political instincts, adds: “In politics, two plus two (unification of the Muslim votes) does not always yield four. It can result in a minus four also”.

2 May (the day the results are announced) will reveal if Sarma’s was the last word.

But reports from Assam seem to suggest that the BJP’s strategy to drive the fear of the Islamist Ajmal among Assam’s indigenous people is evoking its desired results.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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