Assam: Political history
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
Child marriage, crackdown on
Guwahati : The Assam government’s crackdown on child marriage that led to the arrest of thousands of people drew tough questions from the Gauhati high court, which granted anticipatory bail to nine people while observing that the drive had created “havoc in the private lives of people”. It said “these are not matters for custodial interrogation”.
Justice Suman Shyam observed, orally, that the charges under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 and rape charges against child marriage accused are “absolutely weird” allegations.
“…There are children, family members, old people… obviously it is a bad idea,” the judge said.
What do you get by custodial interrogation, HC tells Assam
You proceed as per law, we have nothing to say. If you find somebody guilty, file a chargesheet. Let him or her face trial and if they are convicted, they are convicted,” the judge said.
Granting immediate bail to the nine people who had moved court, Justice Shyam observed, “If marriage is taking place in violation of law, the law will take its own course... We will only consider if immediate custodial interrogation is required or not. At this moment, this court thinks that these are not matters for custodial interrogation. We will ask them to appear and record their statements. These are not NDPS, smuggling, stolen property cases.”
Justice Shyam asked the government advocate, “What do you get by custodial interrogation? Either he has abetted or he has not. Either it’s a case of child marriage or it is not. For that, is it necessary to have custodial interrogation? What is the idea behind this?”
Till February 14, a total of 3,031 people have been apprehended against the registration of 4,225 child marriage cases. The crackdown had started on February 3 with 4,004 FIRs. When the government advocate pointed out that cases were registered under nonbailable charges under the Pocso Act and rape under IPC Sec 376, Justice Shyam said, “What is the Pocso here? Merely because Pocso is added, does it mean the judges will not see what is there? We are not acquitting anyone here. No one is preventing you to probe (sic).” “Why Section 376 (of IPC)? Is there any allegation of rape here? These are all weird allegations,” the judge observed.
The judge also sought the opinion of Angshuman Bora, a well-known criminal lawyer, on the large-scale arrests. Bora said, “They are not dreaded criminals. At this stage, they (state) can file the chargesheet and subsequently, when the matter comes up in court, it will be decided as per the law.” Bora also said the message against child marriage can also otherwise be given by filing the chargesheet and sensitising people instead of “arresting everyone”.
Guwahati: Assam’s first delimitation exercise since 1976 culminated with the Election Commission notifying the redrawn geographical boundaries of 14 Lok Sabha and 126 assembly constituencies along with paired or new identities for some of them, including a Lok Sabha seat (Kaziranga) and an assembly segment (Manas) each named after the state’s two tiger-rich Unesco World Heritage sites.
Five assembly constituencies that have always elected legislators from the minority community have now been reserved for SCs and STs. This takes the total number of seats for STs from 16 to 19, and those for SCs from six to eight. Chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had been maintaining all along that the delimitation exercise would ensure that the political rights of indigenous communities were protected. Delimitation on the basis of the 2001 census had been one of BJP’s poll promises before the 2021 vote that gave the saffron party a second consecutive mandate.
Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi tweeted, “EC publishes delimitation of Assam in 2023, based on 22-year-old census. Hence, no benefit to Assam in terms of increase in Lok Sabha seats. The result is a reorganisation of existing seats to suit BJP voting trends. No wonder BJP doesn’t want the CJI to select ECs. ”
The EC’s seal on the draft came after exhaustive consul- tations with stakeholders, including three days of public hearings in Guwahati last month. The EC said it received conflicting representations from the public, political parties and organisations on the proposed changes in the nomenclature of some parliamentary and assembly constituencies to highlight their historical, cultural, political and ethnic significance.
Appreciating the fact that different groups presented these conflicting views “in a respectful and friendly man- ner, without creating confrontations or hostility”, the poll panel said a decision was taken to revise the names of 19 assembly constituencies and one Lok Sabha seat.
A second Lok Sabha seat and a few assembly constituencies were given paired names such as Darrang-Udalgiri, Hajo-Sualkuchi, BokoChaygaon, Nagaon-Batadraba, Bhowanipur-Sorbhog and Algapur-Katlichera in keeping with public sentiments, the poll panel said.
The idea was to keep all constituencies as geographically compact as possible, taking into account physical features, density of population, existing boundaries of administrative units, communication infrastructure, and public convenience.
The poll panel said that while some districts had shown significant population growth since the last delimitation, there were also those with less increase in numbers than expected.
Four districts merged with others
Guwahati : The Assam government merged on Saturday four districts — Biswanath, Hojai, Bajali and Tamulpur — with four others that were carved out in recent years, reports Kangkan Kalita. CM Himanta Biswa Sarma said the decision was taken at a state cabinet meeting in New Delhi before the Election Commission’s ban on redrawing administrative units takes effect from January 1 in view of the delimitation exercise in the state.
Anotification has been issued, but the CM said this is a “temporary” measure and the government may reconsider the decision after the delimitation process is completed.
“For the greater interest of Assam and for strengthening Jati-Mati-Bheti as well as the administrative strength, we have decided to remerge the four districts,” Sarma told reporters at Assam House in Delhi. “Biswanath district will be merged with Sonitpur, Hojai with Nagaon, Bajali with Barpeta and Tamulpur with Baksa,” he said. Assam had 35 districts until the merger.
Police districts will continue to exist in the four areas and the judicial set-up will also continue to function unhindered. “All other district offices, which have been created during the period, will continue to function as usual,” Sarma said. “I am personally not happy, but the decision was not taken for personal or party gains. Such a harsh decision was unavoidable for the interest of the country, society and administration,” he said.
Members of the All Assam Students’ Union (Aasu) burnt copies of the cabinet decisions. State Congress chief Bhupen Borah said if the party forms government in Assam in 2026, one of the first cabinet decisions will be to revoke the decision to merge the four districts.
As in 2021
Over 49 lakh bighas, or 6,652 sq km, of land was under encroachment across Assam, a reply from then junior revenue minister Pallab Lochan Das in the assembly in 2017 said. The area would roughly be twice the total area of Goa and just a little less than that of Sikkim.
The total area encroached upon includes 3,172 sq km of forest land. There are also large tracts of land belonging to Vaishnavite satras and ancient temples that have been encroached upon.
Thursday’s clash in Darrang district, which led to police firing in which two civilians were killed, took place when cops were trying to free from encroachers over 7,000 bighas (just a little over 9 sq km) of government land. On Monday, the police had cleared about 4,000 bighas of land nearby without any untoward incident. The numbers presented in the assembly formed the basis of BJP’s 2021 poll promise to remove encroachers. The previous BJP government carried out drives to evict squatters from Kaziranga National Park and from land belonging to Batadraba Than, the birthplace of Srimanta Sankardeva, a 15th-16th century CE polymath.
Encroachment of land belonging to government and religious places, mostly by Bangladesh-origin Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants, is seen as a threat to the identity of Assam’s indigenous people. In 2016, the government had set up a panel headed by former Chief Election Commissioner HS Brahma to suggest modifications in laws and policy “for ensuring protection of land rights of indigenous people.”
The panel’s report said, “...day in and day out, new areas are encroached upon by thousands of illegal Bangladeshis. Organised swarms of land-grabbing suspected Bangladeshis... equipped with construction materials and arms descend on vacant char areas (riverine islands) to establish illegal villages overnight and efforts of indigenous people to resist such organised invasions are meet with counter-resistance and armed attacks.”
Madrassas renamed Middle English schools if government- aided, 2023
Guwahati : The Assam government has converted and renamed 1,281 madrassas across Assam to “Middle English (ME) schools”. These madrassas, which were functioning with government funds, are converted into general schools, officials said.
These schools are located across 21 districts of the state, mostly in lower Assam region and Barak Valley districts. “Consequent to conversion of all government and provincialised madrassas into general schools under SEBA, @SchoolEdnAssam has changed the names of 1281 ME madrassas into ME School by a notification today ,” state education minister Ranoj Pegu wrote on “X” on Wednesday. The government order issued by the directorate of elementary education stated that the nomenclature of the upper primary schools, which were previously known as “ME madrassas” will now be known as “Middle English schools”.
The highest number — 269 ME madrassas — have been renamed in Dhubri district, followed by 165 in Nagaon and 158 in Barpeta district. A total of 99 such madrassas in Goalpara and 87 in Hailakandi have also been renamed “ME schools”.
The Muslim vote
As in 2021
As the election enters the last leg in Assam, various political parties in the state have upped the ante, with the AIUDF chief and Lok Sabha MP Badruddin Ajmal proclaiming himself at par with the Almighty.
“Upar Allah, dharti upare Ajmal, inshallah” (Allah is up there, and on the Earth it will be Ajmal, Inshallah), Ajmal bellowed at his campaign rallies at Dalgaon, Sarukhetri and Baghbar, which are among the 30 constituencies out of the 79 seats going to polls on April 1 and 6 where Bengali-speaking migrant Muslim voters will decide several electoral fortunes.
According to the 2011 census, Assam has the highest population of Muslims after Jammu and Kashmir. Close to 34% is Muslim, but only over 1% comprises of indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims. The majority, who speak Bengali, have their roots in Bangladesh.
The major chunk of these migrants moved from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in waves until the problem erupted in 1979. Assam locals feared that this large-scale migration would impact their livelihood and culture, and began a six-year long anti-foreigners movement spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union. Their agitation culminated in the, Assam Accord signed in 1985. Among the terms of this accord, Assam would accept as citizens those migrants who entered the state before, March 25, 1971. Those who came in after this date were to be identified as illegal migrants and deported.
Successive governments did little to take this ahead, and there had been no attempt made to identify how many “illegal migrants” lived in Assam. A National Register of Citizens (NRC) had been started in 1951, well before the influx of migrants from Bangladesh. However, it has not been updated since then. It took a Supreme Court mandate for the NRC to be updated, and the results of that have been far from satisfactory. The question of illegal migrants surfaces every election. This election may be significant, as it is the first one since the NRC was updated.
Most of Assam’s indigenous Muslims or Assamese speaking Muslims are mainly concentrated in upper Assam. They have traditionally voted Congress or AGP, and more recently, BJP. The AIUDF was formed in 2005, but this segment has stayed away from that party and Ajmal.
Bengali-speaking ‘migrant’ Muslims have a different voting history. Earlier, they voted en masse for the Congress. Then, in 1985, the United Minority Front came into being and their loyalty was split. Later, the party merged with AIUDF and since then the migrant Muslim voters have shuttled between Congress and AIUDF. The BJP and its ally AGP have won in the past from a few Muslim majority constituencies, but that is only after fielding Muslim candidates. In 2016, the BJP had won eight seats in Barak Valley out of which one was a Muslim.
This time though, things are different, Ajmal’s AIUDF, after a decade of courtship has decided for the first time to come together with the Congress and pull the rug from under the BJP’s feet. To counter the coalition, the BJP has been forced to field eight Muslim candidates, all Bengali-speaking migrants, one in the first phase, two in the second phase and five in the third phase.
Polling in the first phase covering 47 seats in the heartland of native communities in upper and northern Assam was conducted on March 27. Among these seats, migrant Muslims play a decisive role in four constituencies –Naoboicha, Dhing, Rupohihat and Samaguri.
In the last two phases, two ethnic tribal groups, can swing electoral fortunes in 12 seats: the Bodos in Bodoland Territorial Region and the Rabha-Hasong community in one seat, and the Dudhnoi, which goes to polls in phase 3.
The configuration in the Bodo heartland has changed after the BJP dumped its partner BPF and embraced the new ally United Peoples Party Liberal. As a result BPF has jumped over to the Congress-led mahajot. The lone seat inhabited dominantly by Rabha-Hasong has a candidate from the community who will be contesting under BJP symbol.
The BJP has a lot to lose, so is fighting even harder. In 2016, after 15 years of Congress rule in the state, the BJP-BPF-AGP combine won a thumping majority with 86 seats of the 126, leaving the Congress and AIUDF with 24 and 13 seats, respectively.
During the campaign, the BJP has been sharp to criticise the Congress- AIUDF coalition. The ruling party’s star campaigner Himanta Biswa Sarma recently announced that: “Congress and AIUDF will lose in both phases.”
He also took a dig at Ajmal’s “divine” status. “We all know that Prophet Muhammad is Allah’s last prophet. By his remark, Ajmal has challenged Assamese identity and if he comes to power, Assamese people will be dominated.”
Bangladesh helps India
Early this year, New Delhi decided to withdraw the Indian Army from Assam, the neighbouring state in the northeast of India. The conducting of a conflict assessment in the wake of a reduction in militancy in the region was the primary reason for the withdrawal of troops from Assam.
The top brasses in Indian defense were in the view that as the situation was improving in Assam, the state police should deal with it with the help of the Central Paramilitary Forces, according to The Assam Tribune. Nearly two decades ago, the Indian army was deployed for counter-insurgency operations in Assam, in November 1990.
The dreaded militant groups National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), and other separatist armed groups were at the behest of Pakistan spy agency ISI, with their cohorts in Dhaka.
Bangladeshi territory was used by the militant leaders of ULFA, NDFB, and other insurgent groups in Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur for their separatist movement. The second-generation separatist leaders got renewed impetus in their illegal activities during the regime of Begum Khaleda Zia from 1991-1996 and again in 2001-2006. Pakistan was literally fighting a proxy war in the northeast through ISI covert operations in Dhaka.
The so-called headquarters of ULFA, NDFB, and others were dismantled, the leaders were pushed back from Bangladesh, months after Sheikh Hasina took oath in 2009. Since then, the entire gamut of militancy was physically immobilized in Bangladesh.
Thus, the cross-border terror came to a halt. The militant outfit’s bank accounts and other businesses were frozen by Bangladesh authorities. Several rogue elements in the Bangladesh government who were involved with aiding and abetting the militancy were punished and others reprimanded.
Recently, the NDFB(S) signed suspension of operations -- the ULFA remains the only major militant outfit active and the situation does not warrant deployment of the army all over the state -- the defense brass concludes.
On November 29, the Global Terrorism Index 2019 noted that Bangladesh had been the most successful South Asian country in countering terrorism. S Binodkumar Singh, Research Associate of Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi wrote: “Bangladesh had the largest improvement of any country in South Asia.”
Most of the militant leaders pushed back are presently active in negotiation for sustainable peace in the region. After being evicted from Bangladesh, the camps of the separatists moved to Myanmar. Myanmar military caused havoc on their camps recently.
The casualty from two decades of conflicts in northeast India has significantly reduced after Bangladesh had been able to neutralize the militancy and keep cross-border terror in check. According to data from the Institute for Conflict Management, in 2000 the civilian casualty was 267, security forces 37, and extremists killed 223; while in 2019 civilian deaths dropped to one, security forces casualty to zero, and only two militants were killed.
The total deaths in 20 years comes to: 2,208 civilians, 340 security forces, and the number of separatists killed was 2,331 in 2,562 incidents of conflicts. The tripartite agreement was signed between NDFB President B Saoraigwra, the Assam government’s Ashutosh Agnihotri, and Union Home Joint Secretary (northeast) Satyendra Garg in New Delhi on January 17. Bangladesh security forces were on high alert, and last June a team from the Bangladesh army and RAB, in a joint operation, recovered 12,000 weapons, including rocket launchers and machine guns, from the Satchari National Park.
Earlier in the year 2004, in a sensational recovery, 10 truckloads of arms and ammunition -- apparently smuggled in by ULFA’s military commander Paresh Barua from China -- were seized by the Bangladesh Army near Chittagong port.
The fugitive Paresh Barua, once a popular Assamese soccer player, was handed the death sentence by a Bangladesh court after he stood convicted in the 10-truck arms smuggling case.
Last November, a three-member pro-talk ULFA delegation -- Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, General Secretary Anup Chetia, and Foreign Secretary Sasadhar Choudhury -- attended a formal discussion with interlocutor AB Mathur, a former special secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) at an undisclosed location in New Delhi.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and is a recipient of the Ashoka Fellow and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be followed on Twitter @saleemsamad.
Recall the Nellie massacre of February 1983, which preceded the farcical Assembly election that Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, resolutely went through, despite all warnings? Nellie in Marigaon district is just 67 km from Dispur, Assam’s capital. Days before the indigenous Lalung tribes, armed with guns and machetes, swooped down on the villages in and around Nellie, and officially killed over 2,000 Bengali-speaking Muslims — most of whom were women, children and the elderly — Atal Bihari Vajpayee had visited the place and addressed the locals there.
The state was gripped by a xenophobic “movement” that had been fuelled by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU)’s paranoia over being swamped by “Bangladeshi infiltrators”. Vajpayee was better known than his three-year-old BJP, but it says something about the party’s forward planning that it had decided then itself to clamber on to the AASU’s juggernaut and move ahead.
At Nellie, where the Lalungs were almost waiting for a dog-whistle to unleash hell, Vajpayee went and said: “Foreigners have come here and the government [Congress] does nothing. What if they had come into Punjab? People would have chopped them into pieces and thrown them away.” This quote of Vajpayee’s was later repeated by Indrajit Gupta, the late CPI leader and MP, during a trust vote debate in the lower house of Parliament on May 26, 1996. Nobody in the BJP even contested it. And then things took a turn for the worst in Nellie.
On September 23, when Maynal Hoque and Shakh Farid were shot dead in cold blood by cops during an eviction foray in the Darrang district, coincidentally inhabited by the Bodo-Kachari tribes and Bengalis, the killing was not seen as an aberration. The Bengali-speaking inhabitants who lived in the villages that fell under the jurisdiction of the Sipajhar police station, some reportedly from the late 1980s, were served ouster notices, with no information of where they would be relocated. The state government’s explanation was that the land they cultivated was “underused” and needed to be expropriated for commercial viability. The threatened families maintained that in good weather, they harvested three crops a year of corn, jute and vegetables, enough for their sustenance.
According to some eyewitnesses, Hoque resisted, but was obviously overpowered and gunned down. The dance macabre enacted over his body, when it oscillated between life and death, was the zeitgeist of the Darrang tragedy. The police photographer, Bijay Baniya, who performed the closing rituals of sprinting across and pounding Hoque’s corpse, as if to vent the hatred that raged within him for all these years, became the fall guy for those who were enraged by the scenes.
Let's go back in time and reflect on the catalysts. Of course, in Assam, such public outpourings of hate hark back to 1979, when the AASU raised the banner against Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims. It did not recognise the religious divide, unlike the BJP, which classified the Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh as “refugees”, who deserved a home and hearth in their adopted country, and the Muslims as “infiltrators”, to be detected, detained and deported. In one of his Assam election speeches in 2021, Amit Shah, the home minister, described the infiltrators as “termites” and warned their names will be struck off the electoral rolls if the BJP was re-elected.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, the present chief minister and a favourite of this government, branded every immigrant as Muslim, and said he was mandated to expel them wholesale because they did not vote the BJP. One cannot get a more contemptuous but candid assertion of the action-reaction correlation. Sarma’s statement was made in the context of the violent Assam-Mizoram border row after Mizoram accused him of wilfully engineering an exodus of “immigrants” from Assam to its neighbour to change its demographics. Following the border conflict and the controversy that embroiled him, Sarma began the eviction drive in the Muslim populated parts of Assam. Doubtless, he garnered popular support from the Axomiya Hindus.
There was a reason why the BJP opted for Sarma as the CM over Sarbananda Sonowal. Sarma did a short stint in the AASU and a far longer one in the Congress that was tarred as “pro-Bangladeshis” by the R S S-BJP. Sonowal headed the AASU that later morphed into its political form, the Asom Gana Parishad and was logically indoctrinated to its anti-immigrant ideology. Yet, the BJP was unsure if the mild-mannered Sonowal would execute its ideology in the way it wanted. Sarma had a more clinical approach, which he demonstrated while fulfilling the BJP’s expansionist ambitions in the Northeast.
Before the last assembly elections earlier this year, he was certain of how he would reinterpret the divisive ideology to suit Assam’s ethno-linguistic identity. The answer lay in Sarma’s coinage, “Miya culture”. When he figured out that the Centre’s citizenship package could alienate the Bengali Hindus as well as the Assamese Hindus and the tribes, his chronicle changed. He kicked off a campaign of how Bengali Muslims will propagate their “Miya language”, demand “Miya” schools and “Miya” museums, and “destruct” Assam’s “composite” culture, founded by the revered Srimanta Sankaradeva, a 15th-16th century polymath, saint and social reformer. In Sarma’s words, an “alien” civilising stream was about to inundate Assam. “Miya”, which originally meant a Muslim gentleman, in Assam, began to be used derisively for all Muslims.
The “Miya” became an object of dread and abhorrence to every Hindu. The end result marked the culmination of a project assiduously pursued by the R S S since the 1970s to segregate immigrants on religious lines. To the AASU and the AGP, every non-Assamese was a “Baharigata” (an alien) and Delhi was the enemy. Hence, the blockades of crude supplies and the “bandhs” that marked a certain period in Assam’s history and limited the AGP’s acceptability. The R S S and BJP shifted the emphasis from anti-immigrant to anti-Muslim immigrant, obliterating the distinction between a Hindu non-Assamese and an ethnic Hindu Assamese, and turning the BJP-ruled Centre into a saviour, a friend.
The All India United Democratic Front or AIUDF, led by Badruddin Ajmal, has been the party most Muslims would turn to. Ajmal has not yet spoken on the Darrang evictions. Sushmita Dev, a former Congress MP from lower Assam who recently joined the Trinamool Congress, was expressly disgusted with the Congress for failing to combat the BJP and leaving the minorities in the lurch. Where do Assam’s Muslims go?
Radhika Ramaseshan keeps an eagle eye on all that's hot in the corridors of power.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's own)
NDFB chief, 13 others guilty of blasts that killed 90
A special fast-track court has found the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) chief and 13 others guilty of carrying out serial blasts in four Assam towns in 2008. More than 90 people were killed and around 400 others were wounded in the attack. The court will pronounce the quantum of punishment.
Two of those convicted are women. Mridul Goyari — one of the 22 accused — was acquitted. NDBF chief Ranjan Daimary, who was out on bail, was re-arrested and sent to jail soon after the verdict was announced.
CBI had sought capital punishment for the convicts, according to investigator NS Yadav. “We recorded statements of about 650 witnesses and examined 687 exhibits or documentary evidence,” he said. The CBI had taken charge of the investigation from Assam police.
In 2010, Daimary was arrested near Bangladesh and the trial for the case was initiated in 2011. It ended eight years later on January 22. The special court was set up in 2017, after families of the blast casualties demanded a fasttrack trial in the case.
George Boro, Ajoy Basumatary, Rajendra Goyari, Onsai Boro, Rahul Brahma, Lakra Basumatary, Baishagi Basumatary, Indra Brahma, Raju Sarkar, Jayanti Brahma, Mathuram Brahma, Nilim Daimary and Prabhat Boro were among those convicted along with Ranjan Daimary.
Families and friends of Daimary and other convicts, who had come to the court for the hearing, sought their release. They said they were planning to move the high court against the verdict. “Conviction and peace talks can’t go together,” said Anjali Daimary, the NDFB chief ’s sister, and a social activist.
Tensions are running high in Assam after the March 6 ransacking of an All Assam Students Union (AASU) office in Silapathar, a town in the state's Dhemaji district. Three people were reported injured in the attack, perpetrated by an obscure group, the Nikhil Bharat Bangali Udbastu Samanvay Samiti (NBBUS), seeking citizenship for Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. AASU led a six-year movement against illegal immigration into the state, resulting in the 1985 Assam Accord, which, broadly, granted citizenship rights only to those who had moved to the state before 1971.
AASU is deeply influential, with key players in the Assam government, including the chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, being former members or leaders. But, as a critic of all immigration to Assam from Bangladesh, whether Hindu or Muslim, it found itself in the crosshairs of NBBUS, allegedly associated with the R.S.S and virulently opposed to the idea of citizenship as outlined in the Accord. It is the association with the R.S.S that makes it so uncomfortable for the BJP-led NDA government. The BJP won 60 of the 89 assembly seats it contested last year, a commanding performance in a state in which 35 per cent of the population is Muslim.
Since the Sonowal government took oath on May 24 last year, it has been brazen about its 'Hindu first' agenda. State finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma argued that the Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016), which seeks to naturalise (non-Muslim) minorities persecuted in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, was necessary because Assamese people needed the support of their Hindu Bengali brothers to ward off the Muslim threat. In December, R.S.S volunteers sparked anger by shouting "Hindu-Hindu, bhai-bhai" and "Bharat mata ki jai" from the top of the 18th century Kareng Ghar, an Ahom palace and protected monument.
Earlier, Sarma, as education minister, ordered state-recognised madrassas to remain open on Fridays. "Madrassas are closed on Fridays in Pakistan and Bangladesh, not in India," he said. In February, CM Sonowal tweeted the government's decision to make Sanskrit compulsory up to the 8th standard. Even ministers in his own cabinet sided with the Opposition in opposing the decision. Sarma now says "practical difficulties" mean the order will not be implemented. Sonowal, when contacted, insisted that "the decision [had] not yet been discarded".
The mixed message is typical of a confused government, caught between its commitment to Hindutva and the priorities of the Assamese people.
January: Bandh over ST status to 6 groups
The Centre’s move to grant schedule tribe status to six communities — Tai Ahoms, Koch Rajbongshis, Chutiyas, Tea Tribes, Morans and Mataks — has had a ripple effect in Assam with the Coordination Committee of Tribal Organisations of Assam giving a call for a 12-hour statewide bandh. The CCTOA has alleged that the Centre’s move will severely impact the development and reservations currently given to Assam’s existing tribal groups.
AGP quits govt., BJP still has 61 MLAs in House of 126
While BJP argues that India is the natural saviour for minorities, especially Hindus, subject to discriminatory laws and violence in neighbouring countries, in the case of “economic migrants”, mainly Muslims, it points to the “threat” of demographic invasion that changes the religious and social balance and says such persons are illegals who must not enjoy state benefits.
While BJP is under fire in Assam for “violating” the Assam Accord, its leaders like Himanta Biswa Sarma have warned that rejecting the citizenship bill will mean making Assamese Hindus a minority in the next five years. BJP is hoping to drive home the argument that giving Bengali-speaking Hindus’ citizenship will be worth it as it will help counter unwelcome demographic change, hoping its support to the national register of citizens embellishes its credentials.
Like most Assam and northeast-based organisations, AGP has been opposing the proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act tooth and nail. On many occasions in the past, it issued warnings to BJP. AGP’s exit will not pose any threat to BJP, which has 61 MLAs of its own in the 126-member assembly and still has the support of the Bodoland People’s Front (12 seats) and one Independent.
AGP, born out of almost a decade of anti-foreigners agitation in the 1970s and ’80s, quit the ruling alliance immediately after its representatives led by its president, Atul Bora, met Union home minister Rajnath Singh in New Delhi.
Two AGP ministers, Phani Bhushan Choudhury and Keshab Mahanta, are likely to resign from the ministry along with Bora soon. Many AGP leaders serving as chairpersons and managing directors of state-run PSUs are likely to quit their posts
Assam erupts in protest, BJP office attacked in Meghalaya
Assam erupted in protest on Monday against the Centre’s decision to approve the JPC report on the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, with some of the demonstrators even stripping naked. In Dibrugarh, members of All Assam Students’ Union (Aasu) staged a protest in front of CM Sarbananda Sonowal’s house, raising slogans against BJP. Aasu activists also burned copies of the bill in Jorhat, Golaghat, Sonitpur, Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts. In Guwahati, Aasu activists burned copies of the bill at 70 locations. Keeping political rivalry aside, former CMs Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and Tarun Gogoi joined ‘Dhikkar Divas’ (condemnation day) against the Bill in Guwahati.
In neighbouring Meghalaya, BJP’s Shillong office was attacked by unidentified miscreants. The attack is believed to be a fallout of resentment over the Bill. Police sources said three Molotov cocktails were found around the office and two to three miscreants are believed to have been involved. No arrest has been made yet.
Assam students’ body ‘bans’ BJP leaders in colleges
The student body of Gauhati University, one of the most prominent universities of the northeast, on Sunday decided to stop BJP legislators and members from entering the campuses of the university and colleges affiliated to it until the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is withdrawn. The decision comes as the protests against the Bill grew stronger.
BJP suspends Bengali leader for anti-Assamese talk
‘His Remark Over Bill Could Fuel Tension’
Assam BJP suspended its leader from the Bengali-majority Barak Valley, Pradip Dutta Roy, for making “communal” remarks at a time when the state is in the grip of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
“Pradip Dutta Roy has been suspended from the party with immediate effect ... for going against party discipline and taking a stand that goes against the party’s principles,” Assam BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Dass said.
On Wednesday, a section of students at the Assam University in Silchar had staged a protest rally against the bill. A day later, another section staged a rally in support of the bill. The same day, Dutta had said, “I will write to the vice-chancellor to take action against students who are indulging in politics by staging protests against the bill ... Otherwise, Assamese students will be stopped from studying at the university.”
The Cotton University Students’ Union and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad lodged FIRs against him while the All Assam Students’ Union demanded arrest.
“Dutta’s remarks could fuel tension between the people of the Barak Valley and the Brahmaputra Valley,” a BJP leader said. Coming under fire, Dutta retracted his statement.
Cash incentive for Bengali Hindus marrying Assamese
Bengali Hindu brides and grooms in Assam choosing Assamese Hindu partners could receive around Rs 40,000 each as financial assistance under a scheme proposed by the state Linguistic Minority Development Board “to strengthen the bond between the two communities”.
“Couples in inter-community marriages are often deprived of property rights, besides facing a social boycott. We intend to assist such couples in setting up shops, beauty salons and also in farming,” Board chairman Alok Kumar Ghose said. “The proposal was submitted to the state government two days ago.” A website is already being designed for Bengali-Assamese Hindu couples to register their details online.
While Ghose claimed the initiative would foster amity, the All Assam Minority Students’ Union termed the proposal “divisive” and accused the board of attempting religious polarisation. “The government has been taking steps to create divisions between Hindus and Muslims. The board’s proposal is just another example of this. Rather than providing assistance along religious lines, the board could have extended help to any financially unstable Bengali person marrying into any religion or community,” said Rejaul Karim Sarkar, president of the student union.
All Assam Bengali Youth Students’ Federation president Samrat Bhowal said his organisation would back any initiative to remove “mistrust” between the Bengalis and Assamese. “There have been some incidents of late that have created mistrust between the two communities. This (the offer of financial assistance to inter-community Hindu couples) is a timely approach and we welcome it.”
Govt shuts down all aided madrassas, Sanskrit centres
GUWAHATI: As many as 614 government-aided madrassas and 101 Sanskrit tols (institutes) in Assam will shut down over the next couple of months and reinvent themselves as high and higher secondary schools as part of a policy decision by the BJP-led government not to spend public money on "religious education", finance and education minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on Wednesday.
"Teaching Arabic and religious texts is not the government's job. In a secular country, religious teachings cannot be funded by the government," Sarma said. "If religious texts are allowed to be taught in state-run madrassas, the Gita, or for that matter the Bible, should also be taught with government funding."
The government spends Rs 3-4 crore annually on madrassas and about Rs 1 crore on Sanskrit tols.
"Teachers employed in these madrassas can stay home without having to worry about finding employment elsewhere. The government will pay their salaries till their day of retirement," he said.
Pointing to the decision to simultaneously stop funding Sanskrit tols, Sarma said this should put at rest speculation that madrassas were being targeted on religious grounds. Privately-run madrassas - Assam has around 900 of them, all run by the Jamiat Ulama - and Sanskrit tols can continue to function as usual, he said.
The website of the erstwhile state madrassa education board defines "madrassa" as an Arabic word for "an educational institution or school imparting education to all, irrespective of religion, caste, creed and gender". "The idea that it imparts religious and theology based education to a particular religion is not true," it states.
Jamiat Ulama's legal cell convenor Masud Akhtar Zaman said the closure of state-aided madrassas would not affect the private madrassa education system in any way. "Our madrassas do not depend on the government for a single rupee. Almost all our students are from BPL families, and we take care of their boarding, food and clothing."
Zaman also clarified that there was more to madrassas than religious education. "We follow a normal syllabus same as other schools under the state board," he said.
Two years ago, the government disbanded the madrassa education and Sanskrit boards to bring all madrassas under Secondary Board of Education, Assam, and the Sanskrit tols under the Kumar Bhaskar Varma Sanskrit and Ancient Studies University in Nalbari. This was apparently done to bring modern education and teaching methods to these traditional institutions.
Language requirement for govt employment
Assam to put language clause in govt job offers
GUWAHATI: The Sarbananda Sonowal-led NDA government is set to make the ability to speak and write in Assamese mandatory for people seeking state government jobs.
“The ability to speak Assamese is not enough. If one does not know how to write in Assamese, one will not be able to apply for a state government job. We will bring a law in this regard within this year. The move is aimed at protecting the Assamese language,” state finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said here on Saturday. “An Assamese who does not know how to write in his language will not get (a government) job. My son studies outside the state and he can speak in Assamese but he can’t write in Assamese. This means, he will not be eligible to get a job here,” he added.
In next month’s assembly session, the state government will introduce two bills — one prohibiting the indigenous people from transferring their land rights to non-indigenous people, and the other making the teaching of Assamese compulsory in schools up to Class X.
Museum for ‘Char-Chapori’ areas
‘Muslim museum’ proposal triggers slugfest in election-bound Assam
A controversy over an Assam assembly proposal to set up a museum for ‘Char-Chapori’ areas has become the latest political flashpoint in the state with the opposition calling it the polarisation tactics of the ruling BJP before the state polls due early next year. The Char-Chapori area denotes the riverine area and the museum was slated be set up inside the Srimanta Shankardeva Kalakshetra complex.
The controversy broke out when Congress MLA Sherman Ali Ahmed used the word ‘Miya Museum’ in a Facebook post while referring to the museum.
The word ‘Miya’ in Assam is a slang which usually refers to the Bengali speaking Muslim population. The non- Bengali population in the state generally identify them as Bangladeshi immigrants.
BJP was quick to jump into the controversy with a number of its leaders saying no ‘Miya Museum’ will ever be allowed in Assam as the people living in such places are “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh”.
NEDA convenor and Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said, “In my understanding, there is no separate identity and culture in Char Anchal of Assam as most of the people had migrated from Bangladesh.” “Obviously, in Srimanta Sankardeva Kalakhetra, which is the epitome of Assamese culture, we will not allow any distortion. Sorry MLA Sahab,” he tweeted.
Congress MP Prayut Bordoloi alleged on Wednesday that BJP has been trying to polarise the voters on the issue as it is afraid that it will taste defeat in the hands of the Congress-led Grand Alliance in the Assam assembly polls due early next year. “The museum is a recommendation by a standing committee of the assembly and majority of its members are from the BJP-led alliance. They unanimously suggested it,” he told.
RS MP Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, who heads the regional party Anchalik Gana Morcha(AGM) said the Char-Chapori museum was recommended by the DRSC, whose majority members are from the BJP and its ruling coalition. AGENCIES
Himanta replaces Sonowal as Assam CM
Five-time MLA and NDA’s northeast troubleshooter Himanta Biswa Sarma was named Assam's 15th chief minister on Sunday, a day after he and incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal were called to Delhi ahead of the BJP legislature party meeting in Guwahati that put its seal on the high command's choice.
Sarma, who quit Congress in 2015 to join BJP after a much-publicised succession rift with his mentor and then CM Tarun Gogoi, made the cut after almost a week of speculation over whether the 52-yearold former Supreme Court advocate would pip his predecessor Sonowal at the post. His elevation, seen as an acknowledgement of his contribution towards BJP's growth in Assam and the northeast as well as a recognition of his support among MLAs and his fierce ambition to take the helm, came at Sonowal’s cost.
Unlike in 2016, when PM Modi had declared Sonowal as BJP’s CM candidate, the party did not commit itself to either retaining him or naming an alternative before the polls — a significant switch which, given that the party ran on the record of the outgoing government, raised speculation about a possible leadership change.
If Sonowal was unhappy, he did not show it. The former CM, who is widely regarded for his sober and clean image, was dignified in acquiescing to the turn of events. BJP circles, both in Assam and New Delhi, have been rife with speculation about him landing a berth in the Union cabinet.
Dept for ‘indigenous faith & culture
The Assam cabinet has cleared the decks for a “department of indigenous faith and culture” whose immediate priority would be areas of the state swamped by illegal Muslim immigrants, state government officials said.
The decision is in line with the BJP-led government’s repeated assertions that the state’s demography and indigenous cultures need protection from the onslaught of immigrants. Chief minister Hi-manta Biswa Sarma said that people of “all indigenous faiths” in the state would reap the benefits of the schemes that will be rolled out by the new department. “Our tribal people have their own language and culture. They have their own faiths. But financial assistance from successive governments to protect their traditions had been lacking so far,” he said.
“Since they don’t have the resources or the ability to mobilise donations to celebrate and preserve their traditions, the government has decided to preserve and protect their traditions with necessary support,” Sarma said.
The communities identified by the government for such schemes include the Bodos, tea tribes, Morans, Mottocks, Rabhas and Mishings.
“Our cabinet has requested the finance minister to make a substantial budget allocation for the new department since it is a noble initiative,” the chief minister said.
In another major decision, Sarma said the cabinet had decided that departmental committees could henceforth approve schemes with allocations up to Rs 2 crore. This will eliminate red tape and help officials take faster decisions on new projects, he said. The panels will be headed by the commissioner of the department concerned. For Rs 2-5 crore projects, a meeting of the standing finance committee, chaired by the chief secretary, will be held every Friday. Projects in the Rs 5-100 crore band will go through a special standing finance committee headed by the finance minister.
Assam: Political history