How Congress Gifted Its Slogans And Govt In Assam To BJP

by Sudip Kar Purkayastha - May 23, 2016 03:26 PM +05:30 IST
 How Congress Gifted Its Slogans And Govt In Assam To BJP PM Modi with Assam CM Elect Sarbananda Sonowal/ Picture from narendramodi.in
Snapshot
  • Assam has been, by and large, ignored by the mainstream Indian politics and media for decades.

    Though Assam and West Bengal have been prime victims of infiltration, the issue today affects India.

    Assam and West Bengal are the only two states which are acting as gateways for continuous infiltration. Now being in seat of power both in the centre and Assam, BJP must show that it can really act.

Assam has been, by and large, ignored by the mainstream Indian politics and media for decades. It will probably change from now. Assam has been silently and steadily sinking under the weight of large scale infiltration from Bangladesh. Unfortunately this has been receiving passive endorsement by successive short sighted political ruling regimes in the state. It was one of the key issues of this election and the people have given a clear mandate. They seem to have placed their trust in BJP for a solution to infiltration.

Though Assam and West Bengal have been prime victims of infiltration, the issue today affects India. If Assam can sort it out, rest of India will get some measure of relief. Viewed against this back drop the results of elections in this eastern province merited and in fact also attracted much media glare and national attention. Probably for the first time, Assam election results received almost same space and time slots in newspaper and TV channels as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

To be able to understand the issue of infiltration into Assam and its impact on people of the state properly, it is necessary to know its historical context.

The issue of demographic invasion from eastern Bengal was a potent issue in the electoral politics in Assam even before independence. After the first provincial elections held in British India in 1937 under the Government of India Act 1935, eleven provinces got the taste of representative governments. Then the Congress had emerged as the single largest party in Assam.

But the party committed series of strategic blunders and allowed the reins of province to be handed over to a minority government. Muhammed Saadulah , as the head of that government ruled Assam with a Muslim League dominated cabinet for bulk of the period from 1937 to 1945, in more than one spell. This period witnessed accelerated infiltration by predominantly Muslim agriculturists from eastern Bengal into the province. While Saadullah government actively encouraged the process with the blessings of the British governor, the Congress Party, away from the seat of governance, did precious little.

As a result the vast stretches of fertile agricultural land across the state in the valleys and hill slopes were passing into the hands of these infiltrators. By the time the next election was due in 1946, Congress led by Gopinath Bordoloi had realised its follies. The exasperated people from the plains and the hills joined ranks. The coalition of Congress and the Tribal League won handsome victory and the Congress under the leadership of Bordoloi secured absolute majority in that election.

The fear of demographic invasion, however, did not end up with the favourable election results. It rather grew further in an ambience of political flux. When the Cabinet Mission team came to India in the month of March 1946 to formulate proposals for transfer of power to undivided India, Jinnah was raising war cry to secure partition and Pakistan. The Muslim League was vociferous in its stance that Muslims were a separate nation from Hindus and they must be given a separate and exclusive territory to live according to their religious ideals.

As a compromise the Cabinet Team prepared a plan by (a) grouping the eleven British Indian provinces on the basis of religion of the majority population; (b) proposing a loose federation of near autonomous provinces with only a few subjects allocated to the federal government; and (c) vesting the remaining subjects and residuary power in the constituent provinces.

The Cabinet Mission proposed that the eleven provinces be grouped into three Sections- A,B & C. Six Hindu majority provinces viz., UP, Bihar, CP, Orissa, Madras and Bombay were assigned to Section A. Three Muslim majority provinces viz., Punjab, Sind, NWFP together with British Balochistan were grouped under Section B. Another Muslim majority province viz., Bengal along with the clearly Hindu majority province of Assam was assigned to Section C. The Mission also laid down the modalities as to how the constitutions of provinces, group and the union of India would be drafted.

If these groupings were intriguing, the devil lay in the provisions that the provinces would have to sit in ‘Sections’ and the Section would draft the ‘constitution’ for the provinces. Further, difference amongst members, if any, were to be settled on the basis of simple majority. Bengal had six times more population than Assam. With commensurate presence in the Section C, Bengal was in a position to dominate over the process of writing Assam’s constitution. Muslim League was at that time firmly ruling Bengal. Its overt communal orientation and activities as well as its vested interest in continued demographic invasion of Assam were matters of great concern to Assam Provincial Congress.

A nervous Bordoloi took up the matter with Gandhi. Luckily for him Gandhi appreciated his concerns. Experience of Saadullah led government was still vivid. Following Gandhi the top leadership of the Congress party stood firm behind its provincial leadership. They picked up an innate flaw in the Cabinet Mission Proposals and leveraged it. They argued that the central spirit behind the Cabinet Mission Proposals was ‘provincial autonomy’. If that was the case, Assam should be allowed to join a ‘Section’ of its choice. It could not be pushed into Section C against its willingness.

Now Assam’s refusal to fall into the trap and the central Congress leadership taking a firm stand supporting Assam infuriated Jinnah. In the confrontation between League and the Congress, the British regime intervened to support Jinnah’s stand. The acrimony became severe which led to the rejection of the Cabinet Mission Proposals and eventually led to the partition of India.

Many political analysts felt that Gandhi-led Congress had delivered Assam from an impending disaster and since then Assam bore a sense of gratitude to the Congress Party. This could possibly explain why the state returned Congress to power over and again right since independence. The Congress party ruled Assam for nearly 58 years out of a total of 69 years. To elaborate, barring a brief 21 months in 1978-1979 tenure of Janata Party and two spells of five years each (1985-90 and 1996-2001) of Asom Gana Parishad, Assam was always under Congress regime.

Ironically the Congress, on its part, however, could not retain its trust in the loyalty of the people of Assam. According to several political analysts the party, unsure of its hold over the masses whether due to lack of overall performance, corruption or other reasons, began to scout for alternate vote banks which could be tapped rather easily regardless of the performance of the government. This conceivably made the party allow steady infiltration from East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and use them as captive voters. Ironically, the party which had won the 1946 election with a roaring popular approval on this very plank of infiltration and demographic invasion, made such a somersault.

The steady increase of Bangladeshi infiltration over decades guaranteed political power to the ruling regimes. But it was hurting the people of Assam socially, culturally, economically and politically. The continued apathy of successive ruling regimes to address this concern of Assam’s people had frustrated them, angered them but they had no political alternative to look to.

In the mid 1980s when their dissatisfaction was at a peak and students took over the leadership of a state-wide agitation against infiltration, the pent up anger of people culminated in to electing Asom Gana Parishad, a non -Congress party to rule the State. But owing to lack of political far sight, vision and administrative inexperience, the new political formation went out of steam. The people gave AGP another term in 1995, but it did not prove equal to the task.

Unfortunately one of the key political questions which the people of Assam failed to sort out for decades and up till now has been their inability to distinguish between ‘refugees’ and ‘infiltrators’. The phenomenon of refugees was the outcome of the national sin of partition of India, accentuated by severe persecution of religious minority in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The issue of refugees is therefore essentially humanitarian while infiltration constitutes an act of deliberate encroachment into another country. The people of Assam seemingly failed to discern the differences between the two for last seven decades. They wanted to stave off both groups but ended up failing to do either. The successive ruling regimes seemed to have taken full advantage of this popular dilemma and used this as pretext not to take adequate action against the infiltrators.

Things would have gone probably the same way if the census data of 2011 did not serve the people of Assam with a stern reminder that they were into a fast forward mode to become a minority in their own land, thanks to the steady and continuous infiltration from Bangladesh. Their anxieties were compounded when the people who were so long considered as pliant vote banks by political parties began to claim a direct share in political powers. Such growing assertiveness on their part led to intermittent communal and politico-communal clashes in recent years.

BJP has entered into the fray at this juncture. It seemingly has assured the people of Assam that it has a framework of practical political solution to deal with the infiltration issue. Logically speaking, the hierarchy of action program of the new government should begin with plugging any future infiltration forthwith. The existing cases of infiltrations could be gone into thereafter and the government may do whatever is possible practically including updation of NRC, or any other.

People of Assam have relied on BJP’s promise and given them a clear mandate. BJP must deliver on all fronts including the key area of checking of infiltration. Incidentally, ‘infiltration’ happens to be a priority for the party on an all India basis too. Assam and West Bengal are the only two states which are acting as gateways for continuous infiltration. Now being in seat of power both in the centre and Assam, BJP must show that it can really act.

Sonowal will take oath on 24 May. Eyes of Assam and the rest of India will be fixed on his government on that day and thereafter to watch whether the BJP government, can resolve this complex problem with understanding and dexterity or wither away like the AGP government did earlier.

Sudip Kar Purkayastha is an author. His latest book ‘On the Road to Freedom: Footprints on Indian History’ is a two volume work. A former banker and consultant Purkayastha was also the founding editor of ‘Indian Journal of Bank Marketing’. He had written articles in several national dailies & journals.

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