The Fierce Battle Over Modi In Muslim-Majority Dhubri

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Apr 23, 2019 12:23 PM +05:30 IST
The Fierce Battle Over Modi In Muslim-Majority DhubriMaulana Badruddin Ajmal - AIUDF candidate/Photo Courtesy Raja Sharma
  • In Dhubri, Assam, three primary candidates, all Muslims, are engaged in a fierce battle over Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

    While two of them - from AIUDF and Congress - ask for votes on communal lines, the third - from AGP - focuses on the ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ mantra of Modi.

The battle for the Muslim-majority Dhubri Lok Sabha seat is quite a unique one. The three primary candidates, all Muslims, are engaged in a fierce battle over Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While two of them attack and abuse Modi and project the BJP as a hardcore Hindutva party, the third passionately defends Modi and tries to debunk the propaganda that Muslims will not be safe under Modi. While the first two ask for votes on communal lines, the third focuses on the ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ mantra of Modi.

The Candidates In The Fray

Dhubri is now the citadel of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) formed by atar king Maulana Badruddin Ajmal who has been winning from here for the past two terms. Before 2009, Dhubri was a Congress stronghold. Ajmal is a trenchant critic of the BJP and has gone to the extent of not fielding any candidate from eleven of the fourteen Lok Sabha seats of Assam in order to prevent a division of Muslim votes that would help the BJP. He has appealed to Muslims in these eleven seats to support the Congress.

Zaved Islam AGP’s candidate from Dhubri, Assam
Zaved Islam AGP’s candidate from Dhubri, Assam
Photo courtesy Raja Sharma

Zahirul Islam is widely-respected and is an indigenous Muslim of the state (known as Ujani Muslim or Khilonjia Muslim). Badruddin Ajmal, on the other hand, is a Bhatia Muslim (as those of Bangladeshi-origin are called). While Ajmal, with his Islamic beard, long kurtas and short pyjamas, represents the conservative face of Islam, Zaved Islam is seen as a liberal, like his father.

Zaved Islam was also previously with the Congress but he left that party after he was denied a ticket from his late father’s constituency and joined the AGP. A cricketer who represented the state in many tournaments, Islam is well-liked and respected by Hindus and Muslims alike.

Dhubri’s History And Changing Demography

Dhubri, the western-most district of Assam that borders Bangladesh to its south-west, is an overwhelmingly Muslim-majority district. At the turn of the last century, Dhubri was a Hindu-majority area. In fact, the name of Dhubri is derived from netai-dhubuni, a washerwoman who used to wash clothes of the devas on the banks of the Brahmaputra at the place where the Dhubri town is now located. Netai-dhubuni is one of the main characters in the Hindu legend Chand Sadagar.

Dhubri was a major and flourishing river port from the pre-British days. The vast, fertile and uninhabited chars (islands formed by alluvial deposits) of the Brahmaputra - the river takes a sharp turn south in present-day Dhubri district and flows into Bangladesh - caught the attention of the British. With an eye on increasing food production, the British started settling tens of thousands of landless Muslim peasants from East Bengal in the chars of Dhubri (and elsewhere in Assam as well).

Thus, the region’s demography started changing. According to old records, 80 per cent of the population in Dhubri town were Hindus in the early 1920s. By 1951, 40 per cent of the town’s population were Muslims and 60 per cent of the population of the area that forms the present-day Dhubri district were Muslims. As per the 2011 census, Muslims form 80 per cent of the population of the district.

Dhubri was, since the pre-British days, a prosperous jute-growing area and the Dhubri river port used to trade mainly in jute. Jute grown in Dhubri used to feed jute mills in Bengal. Dhubri was, in fact, the territory of the Koch-Rajbongshi kings of Cooch Behar till the British created the Assam province and included Goalpara, of which Dhubri was a part, in the new province. The British policy of settling landless Muslim peasants from East Bengal (mainly from Rangpur and Mymensingh) in Dhubri triggered mass exodus of more land-hungry and impoverished Muslims into Assam, especially the lower Assam districts bordering Bangladesh. And thus, the demography of Dhubri changed permanently.

This entry of Muslims into Assam continued even after Independence with successive Congress regimes in the state encouraging this illegal influx for the purpose of creating vote banks. These infiltrators were provided political patronage and given citizenship documents and land pattas. In return, they voted for the Congress and kept that party in power for a long time.

Dhubri has a 134.5 kilometre-long border with Bangladesh and large parts of it is riverine, with the Brahmaputra, Jingiram and Gangadhar rivers flowing through the district into Bangladesh. The international border is, thus, very porous and that has facilitated this influx.

Profile Of The Electorate

Of the 18,40,044 voters of Dhubri Lok Sabha constituency, 77 per cent are Muslims. Of them, nearly 70 per cent are Bhatias (of relatively recent Bangladeshi origin) and the rest are Ujanis or Khilonjias (indigenous Muslims). The Khilonjias speak Assamese and Goalparia (the dialect of Goalpara which is a mix of Bengali, Rajbongshi and Assamese) while the Bhatias speak the Bengali dialect of the provinces in East Bengal (present-day Bangladesh) where they hailed from.

While the Khilonjias are generally liberal and maintain close social and cultural ties with the Hindus, the Bhatias are exclusivists, religious conservatives, and under the influence of hardline mullahs. The Bhatias send their children to madrassas, most of which are manned by Wahhabi teachers who preach a hardline and regressive version of Islam. Thus, the Bhatias are a radicalised lot.

The Hindus form just 23 per cent of the electorate, of which the Rajbongshis account for about 11 per cent, Bengali Hindus about 9 per cent and Assamese Hindus about 3 per cent. The supreme irony is that while Dhubri was once part of the Koch-Rajbanshi kingdom (of Cooch Behar, now in Bengal) where a majority of the subjects (70 per cent) were Rajbongshis, this community is a minority in its own land now.

Dhubri had prosperous Rajbongshi zamindars like those of Golakganj and Gauripur principalities. Renowned actor-director of the original Devdas fame, Pramathesh Barua and famous folk artist and Padma Shri awardee Pratima Baria Pandey belonged to the Gauripur principality. Music director Bappi Lahiri hails from the family of zamindars of Patamari which adjoins present-day Dhubri town.

The Khilonjias are primarily Rajbongshis who were converted, often by force, during the invasion of the Koch-Rajbongshi and Kamrup kingdoms by Mughal forces, led by Mir Jumla, during 1662-63. Though the Mughals were ultimately defeated by the Ahom king of Kamrup, they had forcibly converted many in the areas they had temporarily overrun to Islam. These converts are the Khilonjias or the indigenous Muslims of Assam. The Khilonjias made for 80 per cent of the Muslim community of Dhubri during Independence but are now a minority forming 30 per cent of the Muslims of Dhubri.

The Bhatia Assertion

In the first general elections held in 1951, Amjad Ali (a Khilonjia) won on a Praja Socialist Party (PSP) ticket. He was re-elected in 1956. The Congress won the seat in 1962 and the PSP wrested it back in 1967. However, since 1971, the seat has been won for nine consecutive terms by the Congress. All the MPs till 2004 were Khilonjias, and Badruddin Ajmal was the first Bhatia to win the seat in 2009.

Ajmal’s victory from Dhubri marked the end of the political dominance of the Khilonjias and the assertion of the Bhatias. Significantly, while none of his predecessors flaunted their Islamic identity and even had beards, Ajmal keeps a beard as prescribed under Islam, wears short pyjamas and long kurtas (again, as prescribed by the mullahs) and often carries prayer beads.

“Ajmal is unabashedly Islamic and is very assertive of his Muslim identity. He speaks in Urdu and the East Bengal dialect of Bengali, and the little Assamese he speaks is heavily accented. He identifies himself closely with the Bhatias and they look up to him as their own. He is huzoor to them. Ajmal has initiated many welfare schemes on his own from his personal fortune. He is a Maulana himself and commands the respect of the clerics, many of whom are conservative and proponents of the hard-line and regressive Wahhabi school of Islam,” says Bedabrata Biswas, a trader in Dhubri town.

The Bhatias, say the others (including the Khilonjias) have got radicalised over the past couple of decades. “Many Wahhabi preachers came here and set up mosques and madrassas with money from Saudi Arabia. Since they (Bhatias) are poor, they have come under the influence of these hard-line mullahs, who help them financially and materially, very easily. But the hard-liners give our entire community a bad name. They preach exclusion and conservatism. Earlier, there was complete harmony amongst all communities but now communal tension is palpable. We Muslims used to actively participate in all Hindu festivals and they also used to participate in ours. But the Bhatias keep themselves aloof and the social harmony of the past is history now,” said Moshabir Hossain, a retired government school teacher.

Sad Plight Of Hindus

Earlier this week (on 16 April), a ,homeopathy practitioner Roben Roy, a resident of Chapor (in Dhubri district) was shot dead by some bike-borne young men. Not satisfied with shooting him dead, the killers also hacked his lifeless body with a dao (chopper). Roy was an amiable, low-profile and well-liked person without any enmity with anyone and without any overt political leanings. Thus, people were initially at a loss over the possible motive to his murder. However, it soon transpired that Roy was objecting to the sale of a house in his hamlet (populated mostly by Hindus) to a Bhatia family!

Roy had reason to oppose the sale. “The Bhatias have a sinister and subtle modus operandi of driving out Hindus. Once they establish a toe-hold in an area, they ensure that more and more Muslim families settle down there. Once they become a sizeable number, they start asserting themselves. They object to pujas and rituals, the blowing of conch shells and beating of drums. They start harassing Hindu womenfolk and Muslim youth target young Hindu girls, woo them and lure them into marriage, before converting them to Islam. They start harassing their Hindu neighbours in countless ways and, ultimately, the Hindus get fed up, sell their lands and houses and move away. That is how innumerable villages and areas that were once Hindu-majority have become Muslim-majority ones,” explains Sunil Prodhani, a contractor who belongs to an old Rajbongshi family.

A large number of Muslims who had been driven away from the ‘Bodoland’ areas of adjoining Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon and Chirang districts (of Assam) also settled down in Dhubri. They fled those districts during the periodic Bodo-Muslim clashes that occurred since the early 1990s. These Muslim refugees from other districts clashed with Hindus in Dhubri and drove many of them away to neighbouring Bengal.

However, Dhubri has been spared any outbreak of communal violence. That, say locals, is because of the heavy presence of security forces in the district. There are six battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF), including an amphibious battalion, stationed at Dhubri. A battalion each of the Army and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and one Assam Armed Police battalion, are also stationed in the district. “Trouble-makers are scared and know they will not go scot-free in the event of any mischief. Hence, they don’t create any large-scale trouble and keep it low key and under the radar,” said Jiten Baruah, a doctor.

Campaign Issues

Dhubri’s economy has been on the decline since transportation of goods through Bangladesh stopped during the 1965 Indo-Pak war. And though Dhubri was Assam’s first railway station, it went off the rail map of the country till the Vajpayee government re-started rail projects. Not only is Dhubri now connected by rail to Guwahati and Bengal, a new rail line linking Alipurduar in Bengal to Guwahati through Dhubri will be ready in a few months’ time.

Dhubri had regular flights to Guwahati and Kolkata from its own Rupsi airport built by the British during World War II. But flights stopped sometime in the early 1980s and it is only now during the Modi government that the revival of the airport has started. It will become functional soon. The waterways link through Bangladesh to Kolkata is also being revived now.

Yet another aspect is that a huge number of poor people, especially the Muslims, have benefited from various central and state welfare schemes over the last few years. Thousands of houses have been constructed under the Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana and thousands have got gas and electricity connections. Farmers have benefited from the schemes designed for them. The BJP government in Assam has constructed roads and rolled out a separate set of welfare schemes.

However, welfare schemes and development projects are not even peripheral campaign issues here. Modi is the one and only issue. “If Modi returns to power, Muslims will be driven out of Assam. You will lose your lands and your citizenship. Muslims can never be safe under Modi,” Ajmal tells the electorate at the meetings he addresses. He showers abuses on Modi and vows to protect Muslims.

The Congress’ Abu Taher Byapari also speaks in the same vein but takes care to point out that it is only the Congress, and not the AIUDF, which can protect the interests of Muslims. And it is then left to the AGP’s Zaved Islam to defend Modi. Islam contends that the AGP would never have allied with the BJP if the latter had been a communal party. He points out that the BJP-AGP alliance stands for development and welfare for all, irrespective of religion.

The Electoral Arithmetic

Thanks to the RSS, which has had a long presence in Dhubri, the BJP has a committed support base among Hindus. In the 2014 elections, the BJP candidate came third and polled 2.97 lakh votes. That was 59,000 votes less than the Congress candidate. The BJP’s vote share has been steadily rising in Dhubri. All these BJP votes will get transferred to the AGP this time.

Ajmal, who trounced his Congress rival by 2.36 lakh votes in 2014, is facing strong anti-incumbency this time. Many say he has not been able to bring development to Dhubri and apart from the charities and institutions run by his foundation, he hasn’t done anything for this constituency.

Many Muslims are taken in by the Congress’ argument that Ajmal will be powerless to counter the BJP at the national level. Also, a sizeable section of the Khilonjias who are resentful of Ajmal will veer towards Abu Taher Byapari, the Congress candidate. The Congress did very well in the last panchayat polls three months ago and won at the cost of the AIUDF. This shows a distinct trend of Muslims shifting their allegiance to the Congress.

Also, one section of the Muslims, especially those who have benefited from various central and state welfare schemes and projects, are expected to vote for the AGP. Ajmal got his biggest lead of one lakh votes from the Mankachar Assembly segment and 84,000 votes from Golakganj. But this time, he will get much lesser votes from these two Assembly segments because Zaved has been the legislator from Mankachar and is popular there, and Byapari is from Golakganj.

A complex combination of development benefits, religion and fear over the outcome of the Citizenship Bill will, thus, determine the outcome of the elections in the Dhubri Lok Sabha constituency.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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