Himanta Biswa Sarma took advantage of xenophobic Assamese nationalism to peddle a Hindutva agenda in the struggling northeast Indian state.
Government-authorized deportations in India’s northeastern Indian state of Assam turned deadly last week, as videos circulated of police shooting at villagers during an anti -expulsion which left two dead and more than 20 injured.
At least 800 families, almost all Bengali-speaking Muslims, have been evicted since last Monday in Darrang district, while four religious structures have been demolished in Sipajhar.
The drive itself is tinged with political nuances and plays with fire in a state of troubled past. Over the years, citizenship in Assam has been deliberately militarized to make Muslims “the enemy within”.
The Assamese authorities justified the recent evictions by removing “illegal encroachments” that would return land belonging to the native Assamese, whose identity and existence have been threatened by former foreign infiltrators.
“The representation linking Muslim immigration from neighboring countries to Assam and population growth is not based on any data. It’s a narrative that has been politicized to create social tensions, ”said AR Dutta, a researcher specializing in Assamese politics. TRT World.
As the ongoing displacement and institutionalized assaults on Muslims continue at a steady pace, this is the strongest warning yet against Assam heading towards a toxic communalism that continues to take hold. of India under the ruling BJP Hindu nationalist government.
And the head of state is a man who some claim has taken advantage of his societal flaws to serve his lofty political ambitions: Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
In a state long known for its policy of jatiotabad (ethnonationalism), Sarma skillfully exploited deep-rooted Nativist anxieties to peddle a Hindutva agenda, as Assamese politics entered a new phase of Safranization after his election in May.
Yogi from the northeast?
Since the BJP came to power in 2014, it has felt the opportunity to consolidate a Hindu vote bank in a state where more than a third of its 35 million inhabitants are Muslim, and where a policy of otherness has been simmering for over forty years.
In a regime dominated by many tribal and ethnic groups, Sarbananda Sonowal became the very first chief minister of Assam’s BJP in 2016. Sonowal – a former president of the ethnonationalist All Assam Students Union (AASU) – was the figure figurehead that the BJP needed to make inroads with voters against “illegal Bangladeshis” to neutralize veteran Congress, then incumbent President Tarun Gogoi.
“When it first captured the state under Sonowal, the BJP’s strategy was to expand its footprint by expanding into the heart of Assamese by sprinkling Hindutva politics with jatiotabadi“said Dutta.
Dutta noted how effective the strategy has proven to be, with a large chunk of voters swayed through a powerful mix between the BJP slogan on the Indian mainland, Jai Shri Ram (Hail Lord Ram), with the Assamese nationalist Joi Aai Axom (Hail Mother Assam).
“At first, the BJP did not openly push its political ideology into a state that until now has been based on sub-nationalist sentiments more than any sympathy for a Hindutva project,” he added.
That would all change once incumbent President Sonowal is dumped in favor of Sarma as chief minister after the BJP won the 2021 parliamentary election.
Former AASU member and leader of the Congress party that once fiercely criticized Modi – branding then-Gujarat chief minister a “terrorist” ahead of the 2014 election – Sarma has changed allegiance politician in 2016, openly bending to the RSS and making his allegiance to the Hindu right known on social networks.
BJP’s decision to select Sarma was “no less an important development by the national party after the selection of saffron clad [Yogi] Adityanath in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh, ”wrote Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty of The Wire.
Much like the vitriolic Chief Minister of the nation’s most populous state, Sarma reaped electoral rewards by employing a “belligerent strategy that exposed the fault lines prevalent in the Assamese regime through communal rhetoric.” , said Dutta.
Safranize the Assamese diet
Sarma’s rapid rise to the post of chief minister is testament to his meteoric rise within the party, now the poster for the BJP’s agenda in the northeast.
Concerns over citizenship status have plagued displaced people in Assam since the implementation of the Assam Accord in the 1980s. These fears have only worsened after the passage of the controversial law on citizenship (CAA) and the National Citizens Register (NRC) by the Modi government in 2019.
Most Assamese were fiercely opposed to the AAC – which offers a fast-track path to Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The public believed the law would trigger a new wave of migration from Bangladesh and demographically overwhelm the state.
As Assam was rocked by anti-CAA protests in 2019, a large chunk of BJP executives and leaders, including Sonowal, stepped out of the spotlight. Sarma, on the other hand, insisted that the CAA would not threaten the Assamese people but would free them from the “invaders” – an unsubtle blow directed at Bengali Muslims.
Politically, the CAA’s defense of Sarma rested on the premise that Hindus in Assam should unite to preserve its indigenous culture. He would raise the rhetorical stakes ahead of the Assembly elections, describing it as a “war of civilization” in which only the BJP could “save Assam” from undocumented Bengalis.
Unsurprisingly, insidious statements about population control were also adopted. “If their population explosion continues, one day even the lands of the Kamakhya temple will be invaded,” Sarma said, appealing to the fears of Assamese Hindus about a revered pilgrimage site.
Helping his stockpile after the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic was a perception that seeped into public discourse that Sarma had ‘saved’ the state from crisis due to his image as an effective administrator.
In addition, since his assumption of responsibility, the critics have tempered considerably. Mahesh Muktiar, an Assamese journalist from Guwahati, said TRT World much of the local media “amplified” his government’s messages.
In the early days of his tenure, Sarma began ticking off items on Hindutva’s wishlist, from plans to introduce livestock protection to the implementation of the “jihad of love” laws. Madrassas and Sanskrit schools were closed under the pretext of restricting religious education.
He also went to the Supreme Court for rechecking of the state’s contested NRC legislation.
Shortly thereafter, despite a court order, his government carried out a series of eviction campaigns to displace hundreds of predominantly Bengali Muslim families at the height of the second wave of the pandemic, announcing the extension of a temple on one of the plots of land that has been cleared.
The idea of Assamese exceptionalism, which postulated that the tolerant social fabric of the state was immune to the majority impulses of the Indian mainland, is no longer a feasible position with Sarma at the helm.
By merging Assamese nativism with a Hindu nationalist agenda, political and electoral lines have become increasingly blurred, Muktiar said.
Perhaps it was an inevitable development. MS Prabhakara, former Assam correspondent for The Hindu, declared that, in essence, “these movements of ethno-nationalism are not different from the Hindustva movements which are also animated by fear and hatred of the Other”, he wrote in 2009.
“In many ways it was an easy transition. What is more surprising is that it took longer than it was, ”added Muktiar.
Source: TRT World