Updated: Nov 8
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A charismatic leader not only wins a battle but sets the terms and defines the nature of the battle itself. They determine the language as well as the substance of the discourse. Northeast India's politics has always been revolving around the idea of identity and its crisis. The questions of indigenous identity and threats to it have been buzz words in the political discourse of the region in general and Assam in particular. Since the Assam movement of the 80s, it has been even more vigorous. But with the last assembly election in Assam, we see a paradigmatic shift in the discourse which can be redefined in the words of Prof Sanjib Baruah as a "strategic shift". New fault lines have been identified by the BJP to polarise the voters who were at the same time packed in an illusory cover of 'civilizationism' (there has been a politically crafted discourse on 'civilizational conflict' in Assam with the rise of the BJP, which also finds a global resonance. Prof. Sanjib Baruah terms it "civilizationalism") legitimised with the claims of 'developmentalism'. But behind all these was the most significant figure of the region's politics today: Dr. Himanta Biswa Sharma, presently known nationally for his political acumen, swift strategies and his quite 'magical' skills of manipulation. Many find in him a competitor for the position of Prime Minister Modi's successor as well. But he constitutes a subject of study in himself. For, in the final judgement, as Dr. Sharma is ultimately a product of history, an observation of his journey is, therefore, crucial to comprehend the region's historical contradictions and the socio-political psyche that they have given birth to.
Post-Independence Trends -
Assam is a conglomeration of numerous ethnic groups with distinct claims of identity. 61.47 per cent of the total population in Assam is Hindu and 34.2 percent Muslims while Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) represent 7.15 per cent and 12.4 per cent, respectively (Census of India, 2011). Major linguistic groups in the state are Assamese (48.38 per cent) and Bengalis (28.91 per cent) (Census of India [Language], 2011). The national consciousness among the Assamese middle class primarily began with their resistance to the imposition of Bengali as the official language all over the state by the British administration in the 19th century. With the first generation of Assamese middle class, beginning with Anandaram Dhekial Phukan asserting the linguistic rights and producing a huge literature in the language, there grew a sense of Assamese nationalism based on linguistic lines. Assamese nationalism, therefore, from the beginning, has revolved around the primacy of the Assamese language, although there are other dimensions like the economic ones to it. The memorandum presented by Anandaram Dhekial Phukan to Sir Mofat Mills spoke of ways to improve agriculture, while the one presented by Maniram Baruah Dewan articulated the plight of the Assamese tea plantation owners after the advent of the British. The middle class leadership in the post independence era, continued with a brand of Assamese - speaking nationalism. With Sylhet being a part of erstwhile East Pakistan, Assamese speaking population became a majority in the state with 56.7% in 1951. The policies of that Assamese speaking middle class leadership often reflected linguistic chauvinism in such a multi -linguistic, multi - ethnic state as Assam. The Official Language Act of 1960 whereby it was decided to make Assamese the official language of the whole state came as an alienating step not only for the Bengali speaking immigrants but also for the numerous tribal groups who had already attained a sharp and rigid distinction of identity through mobilisation. Riots broke out in the state as a result of linguistic identity differences. By the 60s and 70s, cleavages in the state on linguistic lines became clear.
But by the late 1970s, politics in the state started to take a new turn with the issue of immigration occupying the central stage in the political discourse. It had caused deep political apprehension in the state even before independence. But two factors, as Sanjib Baruah points out, kept it out of the political agenda. Firstly, "the centrality of language issues defining the contours of ethnic conflicts in the state", and secondly, "the aggregation of interests within political parties, primarily the Congress, but in other parties as well, which in effect produced a tacit agreement among political leaders not to raise this explosive issue." In this connection, it is noteworthy that the Congress, particularly under Sarat Chandra Singha, had an apparently catch-all character which helped it dominate the electoral domain for the first three decades after independence, as Smitana Saikia notes. These ensured an ethnic coalition in the state ensuring political stability.
But by the late 1970s, particularly after the by-election to the Mangaldoi parliamentary constituency which had a huge concentration of immigrants from East Bengal, the question of immigration acquired a politically volatile form. The shocking rise in the number of voters since the previous election drew public ire. Soon under the leadership of All Assam Students' Union, a series of protests started throughout the state demanding 'detection, disenfranchisement and deportation ' of the foreigners. Assam Gana Sangram Parishad was formed to give a coherent platform to sustain the movement in an organised way.
Although the movement initially captured the collective imagination of all the ethnic Assamese communities, rifts began to appear in the ethnic coalition. The internal contradictions and limitations of the movement, coupled with the political manoeuvres of those in power, subsequently resulted in the emergence of new social cleavages. The Bengali immigrants were the directly threatened ethnic subgroup which went on to form the All Assam Minorities Students Union in 1980 which was in many grounds opposed to the AASU. There arose a sense of insecurity among immigrant groups from other parts of the country as well, including the Marwaris and the tea plantation tribes. The ascendancy of Anwara Taimur, who was popularly seen as a representative of immigrant interests to the position of the Chief Minister and the coercive measures she adopted to diminish the momentum of the movement, came as catalyst to the apprehensions about “de-Assamisization”. It widened the divide between indigenous Assamese (referred to the tribal groups, Assamese as well as Bengali speaking groups, except the immigrants who came after 1971)and also gave rise to some new communal fissures including on the Hindu-Muslim lines. These got even sharper with the Assembly elections of 1983. AASU called for the boycott of the elections. But the East Bengali immigrants were in favour of the elections, given their alienation created by the movement. This led to violent conflicts across the state between the pro-election and the anti-election groups. The most horrible instance of this was the Nellie massacre of 1983. Rifts started appearing between the tribal and non-tribal populations of the state as well. The subsequent emergence of sub-regional parties and organisations like Autonomous State Demand Committee, United Minority Front and All Bodo Students’ Union indicate the same. The Assam movement, therefore, reinforced already existing cleavages and created new ones. Hiteshwar Saikia cleverly utilised these cleavages to weaken the movement, in the process re-asserting them again. His patronage towards the Bodo Sahitya Sabha, for instance, pertains to this.
The movement ended with the signing of the Assam accord between the union government and the AASU leadership. “Keeping all aspects of the problem including constitutional and legal provisions, international agreements, national commitments and humanitarian considerations”, it was decided to regularise all persons who came to Assam prior to 1.1.1966. Those who came after 1.1.1966 and upto 24th March 1971 shall be detected and their names deleted from the electoral roll, which shall be restored only after the expiry of a period of ten years. For those who came after 24th March, 1971, they would be detected, de-enfranchised and deported.
Capitalising on the anti-immigrant sentiment, AASU gave birth to a new regional party called Asom Gana Parishad. It came as a challenge to the Congress. But soon “AGP had to soften its anti-immigrants stand due to electoral compulsions. Its aggressive posture often alienated other communities, and support from its core constituency of Assamese Hindus alone was not enough to come to power.”, as Smitana Saikia observes in her paper “Saffronizing the periphery: Explaining the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in contemporary Assam”. Subsequently, factionalism, corruption, lack of leadership and its ambiguity towards dealing with the extremist group– the United Liberation Front of Asom ultimately resulted in its diminishing importance in the state’s politics.
Consequently the Congress once again established its hold in the state, marking the transition of the political discourse from the aggressive Assamese nationalism to one of secular civic nationalism. It ruled for fifteen continuous years in the state from 2001 to 2015. During this period it has considerably succeeded in ending the insurgency problems in the state and bringing in stability to the state’s politics. But regarding the issue of immigration, its posture remained ambiguous. Its apathy in updating the NRC was such an instance. Moreover, as is the case with the whole of the country, the party appeared to be appeasing the minorities under its secular credo. In addition to these, the rise of the AIUDF in the politics of the state came to be seen as the growing political power of the immigrant Bengali Muslims in the state. The rapid demographic transformation in the state augmented popular apprehensions about the minoritisation of the ethnic Assamese, providing BJP a fertile ground to reinvent the issue of immigration in its own terms and start a renewed discourse of identity crisis. The Assamese speaking population in the state in 1971 was 60.89% which stands at 48.37% in 2011, according to the census. Muslim population in the state has also steadily increased from 24% in 1971 to 34% in 2011Capitalizing on the threats to “jaati, maati, bheti” (people, land and home) and projecting an image of indigeneity by allying with the AGP, BPF and many other tribal political parties, it came to power in 2016. Since then it has strengthened its base, adapting its Hindutva agenda to local circumstances and spreading its sway all over the state. It was evident with its historic performance in the 2021 elections.
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Political Trajectory of Dr. Himanta Biswa Sharma -
Parallel to this eventful and turbulent political journey of this peripheral state runs the political evolution of the man who occupies the centre-stage of its politics today: Dr. Himanta Biswa Sharma. He began his political journey during the volatile days of the Assam movement, when he was at his sixth standard. Acquiring commendable oratory skills, he came close to the AASU leadership who opened for this teenager the stage to acquaint himself with the perplexing reality of politics.
Starting as the General Secretary of the students' union of his school, he went on to be the General Secretary of the prestigious Cotton College Students' Union. He was also given the charge of the secretary to the ASSU's Guwahati Unit. Being in proximity of Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, Bhrigu Phukan and other prominent leaders of the Asom Gana Parishad, he could not only be a passive observer but also an active actor in this phase of regionalism characterised by Assamese ethno-nationalism. The political journey of Dr. Shamra, therefore, begins with an allegiance to the cause of Assamese nationalism. In fact, there was also an alleged closeness of Dr. Sharma with the extremist group ULFA. Therefore, he has seen it all: how the anti-immigration movement emerged, took a chauvinist character at times, its limitations, the signing of the accord and it's ambiguities, the rise of the AGP and where it faltered, the phase of extremism and socio-political instability. The speech he delivered in the Assam Legislative Assembly in the aftermath of the anti- CAA protest is perhaps the most remarkable instance in which he gives expression to his long-term observations about the ambiguities of the Assam Accord in particular and Assamese nationalism in general.
Disillusioned with the AGP's aggressive nationalist rhetoric and exhausted by the prevalent socio-political instability, people brought Congress back to power. It is in this context that Himanta Biswa Sharma too changed his political allegiance and joined Congress under the leadership of Hiteshwar Saikia in the 90s. This marks his transition from an aggressive Assamese nationalist to one committed to the ideals of civic Indian nationalism. Beginning as a member secretary of the Advisory Committee for Students and Youth Welfare in 1994, he contested the Assembly election of 1996 against Bhrigu Phukan, one of his former political mentors from Jalukbari constituency at the age of 25. Although he faced defeat in 1996, he ensured a victory in the 2001 election from the same constituency defeating the political stalwart, Bhrigu Phukan. Since then he has continuously been the Member of Legislative Assembly from Jalukbari constituency in North Guwahati. Soon enough, he became the blue- eyed son of Tarun Gogoi, who was the chief minister of the state for three consecutive terms from 2001 to 2015. During the latter's tenure as the Chief Minister, he occupied multiple portfolios and virtually became the action man of Tarun Gogoi government. He was the most trusted man of Gogoi in eradicating the extremist movement led by ULFA, implementing the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Mission, developing the health sector and many other developmental activities of the Congress. It is during this time that he could prove himself to be an adept administrator, the image that still gives him immense legitimacy across all sections in the state. However, simultaneously he was also mired in controversies and alleged with many corruption cases.
By the last term of Gogoi's government, there grew personal differences between him and Himanta Biswa Sharma because of the former's efforts to promote his son Gaurav Gogoi as his successor at the cost of Sharma's political ambitions. Citing rampant nepotism and Rahul Gandhi's neglect towards young potential leaders he left Congress and joined the BJP. It was a clear act of political opportunism but at the same time it was more than that. He had to adapt to the Hindutva nationalism of the BJP and craft a suitable narrative of the same in the state, which signified his ideological dexterity. Being acquainted with the prevalent social cleavages in the state, he helped the BJP design a narrative of cultural nationalism that suits the northeastern region which is characterised by huge ethnic diversity.
Reinventing the threats to identity by identifying the immigrant Muslims as the significant "other", he assisted the BJP and RSS in changing "Assam's political fault line from anti-outsider to anti-migrant to anti-Muslim infiltrator”, as Shekhar Gupta observed. The journalist even went on to say that it was not only the political opportunism of leaders like Dr. Sharma or Sarbananda Sonowal but it was the political deftness of the RSS and BJP that they "conjured up a local leadership is the stuff of political folklore" to promote their agenda. His management of the election of 2016 that brought BJP to power in the state for the first time, his foremost role in dealing with the CAA protests and the administrative maturity that he showed in handling the COVID pandemic in the state ensured a huge political clout inside and outside the party. Bringing together many tribal groups into an alliance with the BJP, he along with Sarbananda Sonowal helped attain the party an image of a promoter of indigenous interests. His growing political clout ultimately compelled the BJP to break its convention of appointing only those with a Hindutva background as Chief Ministers of states. He was appointed as the Chief Minister of Assam in 2021. His growing influence in the party and his swift transition in his conviction to Congress’ civic nationalism to BJP’s Hindutva nationalism, besides everything else, represents the dramatic change in Assam’s political discourse.
Today, he is perhaps the most popular leader in the state with considerable influence throughout the northeastern region. Breaking out of the elitism that often characterised Indian politics, thereby being more accessible to the people, he enjoys a celebrity-type admiration among the masses. As the convenor of Northeast Democratic Alliance (NEDA), he helped BJP establish its foothold in erstwhile Congress strongholds of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Meghalaya.
Many political commentators speculate even brighter prospects for him in national politics in terms of his rise to higher national positions within the BJP. Although his future trajectory remains to be seen, Dr. Sharma’s political evolution overlaps the transitions in the politics of the state since the 70s, that began with the anti-immigration movement taking on an aggressive form of Assamese nationalism that transitioned into civic nationalism of the Congress before entering into the phase of Hindutva nationalism of the BJP. One may term Dr. Sharma's trajectory either as a classic case of political opportunism or the enviable political maturity of an accomplished politician. But neither can deny the fact that he is the child of history's unforeseen contradictions and he represents an unprecedented change in the socio- political landscape of the state, the judgement of which again lies in the hands of history.
By Mondeep Borah (Intern)
The writer is a third-semester Political Science student from SGTB Khalsa College, University of Delhi. He holds an interest in the politics of the subcontinent in general and Northeast India in particular.
S.Smitana 2020 Saffronizing the periphery: Explaining the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in contemporary Assam Sage Publications https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2321023020918064
Baruah, S 1986 Asian Survey in Immigration, Ethnic Conflict, and Political Turmoil--Assam, 1979-1985 Vol. 26. Page 1184-1206 University of California Press
Sharma, S 2021Himanta Biswa Sarma — Hindutva ambassador or ace administrator? Assam watching closely The Print
Gupta, S 2016 Assam's 35-year saffronisation Business Standard https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/shekhar-gupta-assam-s-35-year-saffronisation-116040800961_1.html