Upper Assam saw the most violent CAA protests. Why is BJP still leading the fray?

The Hindutva party has won over key communities by focusing on clean governance and concerns over cultural and ethnic identity.

ByAyan Sharma
Upper Assam saw the most violent CAA protests. Why is BJP still leading the fray?
Shambhavi Thakur
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At the height of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Assam in December 2019, Narayan Sarma resigned from his post as vice-chairman of the Chabua Municipal Board in Dibrugarh district. Dibrugarh is one of the seven districts that make up Upper Assam, an administrative division tracing its roots to colonial days and covering the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra valley.

Narayan, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, ostensibly resigned in solidarity with the protesters and quit the party. In reality, however, Narayan perhaps lay low thanks to the public fury rippling across the state. His apprehensions were understandable: Chabua had seen possibly the worst violence in Assam, with protesters vandalising almost every government office in the town. On December 24, more than 75,000 protesters gathered at the Chowkidingee playground in neighbouring Dibrugarh town.

At the time, Narayan told Newslaundry: “What’s the point of clinging on to positions when the people are not with you?”

Fifteen months later, however, all is well in Narayan’s world. He is back in party affairs and his fear has been replaced by confidence. Chabua goes to the polls on March 27 in the first phase of Assam’s three-phase assembly election. Narayan is busy campaigning for his party here, holding meetings with his team across the constituency.

“The CAA has faded from the poll narrative,” Narayan said. “In none of the election meetings I have attended has anyone asked me or my colleagues about the CAA.” Instead, he said, conversations focused on the “development work” spearheaded by the BJP government in the state in the last five years.

The BJP’s message this election is “Paakgharar pora potharoloi”, from kitchen to field, Sarma said, where it has highlighted various schemes: affordable housing and LPG connections for the poor, building of roads, cash transfers to farmers, and more.

Narayan Sarma is confident that the BJP alliance will retain the Chabua seat.

Narayan Sarma is confident that the BJP alliance will retain the Chabua seat.

“With such a range of schemes,” Narayan declared, “we are confident of retaining the seat.”

The BJP and the Asom Gana Parishad are in alliance this election, and will field the AGP’s Punakon Barua from Chabua. BJP’s sitting legislator, Binod Hazarika, has been accommodated in neighbouring Lahowal constituency.

Traveling through Upper Assam, the violence of December seems like a distant memory. Here, though the Congress alliance would like voters to believe otherwise, the CAA has little currency with voters. Gaurav Gogoi, the party's Lok Sabha member, told Newslaundry in an interview that CAA would be the top issue at the emotional level this election. But, as Narayan said, discussions on the BJP’s schemes were front and centre.

Development is all that matters

Rani Gogoi, 32, is a homemaker from Joypur Faltutula gaon which falls under Naharkatia constituency in Dibrugarh district. Rani, like many others in and around her village, had participated in several protests against the CAA, driven by the fear of her home being inundated by Hindu Bangladeshis.

But a year later, she said, her priorities have changed.

“I haven’t seen any Bangladeshi come to Assam yet,” she said. “So, I am not really worried about the CAA.”

Rani and 10 other women from her village have just returned from attending a rally by Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal on the outskirts of Naharkatia town. All the women told Newslaundry that they will support the BJP candidate in the upcoming election.

What’s impressed them is the plethora of schemes launched by the state government in the past year. The Orunodoi scheme, which provides money to buy medicines and staples, and the Swami Vivekananda Assam Youth Empowerment Yojana, or Svayem, which provides seed money to youth, have been particularly effective for young women like her, Rani said.

Rani and her friends also commended the government on its infrastructural development. She said: “In Naharkatia, the BJP has done more work in the last five years than what the Congress did in 15 years.”

Prasanta Phukan, a member of the BJP in Naharkatia, told Newslaundry that in February, the BJP government had laid the foundation for a 3-km bridge over the Burhi Dihing river, thereby fulfilling a demand of voters since 1977. The bridge will shorten the distance from Naharkatia to Dibrugarh town by 40 km.

Prasanta Phukan (left) with a party colleague at the BJP office in Naharkatia.

Prasanta Phukan (left) with a party colleague at the BJP office in Naharkatia.

Apart from big-ticket projects, the BJP government claimed to have commissioned roads spanning 10,000 km by 2018 as against the 17,000 km of roads built during the 15 years of Congress in the state earlier.

“Our government also provincialised a two-decade-old Middle English school and junior college in Naharkatia,” Prasanta said. “With so much development work, why will we not win?”

From protester to BJP voter

Also working in the BJP’s favour is how it managed to change the narrative in places like Sasoni mouza, which comprises 87 villages in Naharkatia constituency.

During the CAA protests, villagers from Sasoni mauza had collected Rs 80,000 in cash and 450 quintals of paddy to sell in order to fund the legal fight against the Act. This was handed over to Lurinjyoti Gogoi, then the general secretary of the influential All Assam Students’ Union. Lurinjyoti is now the president of the newly-floated Assam Jatiya Parishad and will contest from Naharkatiya.

It should have been a foregone conclusion that Lurinjyoti would get widespread electoral support. Yet, the electoral wind seems to be in the BJP’s favour.

“Seeing the anger in people at the time, it was thought that the BJP would be easily overthrown from power,” said Trailokya Changmai, a vegetable seller from Santipur which is part of the Sasoni mouza. “But the government has been successful in changing the narrative through welfare schemes and infrastructural push.”

As a result, Changmai said, many villagers who had once demonstrated against the CAA have now switched sides. “For instance, a lot of people from my village today went to Sonowal’s rally at nearby Tengakhat,” he said.

Tirtha Saikia, 23, who runs a mobile recharge shop in Harabari Konwar gaon in Dibrugarh’s Lahowal constituency, told Newslaundry he would rather vote for development instead of an issue like the CAA.

“Ten new roads have been built in our village in the last five years,” Tirtha said. “Moreover, there are over 40 Orunodoi beneficiaries here. Six or seven self-help groups have been approved for Svayem funding as well.” Additionally, he said, about 25 new houses have been built under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and several college-going women received Scooties from the state government under the Pragyan Bharati scheme.

Tirtha Saikia (left) with his father in Harabari Konwar gaon.

Tirtha Saikia (left) with his father in Harabari Konwar gaon.

Trailokya Changmai, a vegetable seller from Santipur.

Trailokya Changmai, a vegetable seller from Santipur.

“I haven’t seen any Hindu Bangladeshis come, as the [CAA] protesters had said,” Tirtha added. “But I have seen development and progress under this government.”

Support for the BJP also stems from its “clean governance” in the last five years.

“Unlike in the Congress regime, the role of the middleman [under the BJP] has almost disappeared while extending welfare schemes to beneficiaries through the Direct Benefit Transfer,” said RK Chetia, a businessman from Kakapothar in Tinsukia’s Sadiya constituency. “Competitive examinations have been conducted fairly too.”

Chetia’s point – about the conduct of free and fair exams in Assam – is in stark contrast to what happened during the Congress regime. During the final years of its last term, former chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s government had been rocked by allegations of foul play in the Assam Public Service Commission exam. Chetia told Newslaundry that in his area, seven youths were selected in the sub-inspector exam and several others under the APSC exam without any “illegalities”.

In the context of 2019’s CAA protests, he argued that people had been “swayed” by news reports and visuals on TV and social media. “But people have now realised that you can’t take a decision based on emotions alone,” he said. “You have to listen to your mind while voting.”

Lack of unity among CAA protest leaders is to blame

Among a small section of the populace, however, the CAA fervent runs strong. These voters told Newslaundry that they are disappointed that it won’t dent the BJP’s prospects, and pointed fingers at, among other things, a lack of unity and credibility among leaders of the CAA protests.

Phula Barua, a resident of Jerai gaon in Chabua constituency, was among the thousands of protesters who had attended a rally at Panitola in January 2019. The rally had been organised by Akhil Gogoi, head of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, before the citizenship bill was passed in the parliament.

Akhil, who has been in jail since mid-December 2019, now heads the Raijor Dal, one of two regional parties that emerged from the CAA protests. The other is the Assam Jatiya Parishad, which has allied with the Raijor Dal for the assembly election. However, Phula said, they have failed to inspire confidence among voters with jatiyotabadi, sub-nationalist sentiments.

“People like us expected the All Assam Students’ Union and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti to come together and form a party,” said Phula, while sitting with a group of women in front of the Asom Gana Parishad office in Mudoi gaon. “But they went their separate ways, which showed a lack of unity among them.”

Even the Raijor Dal-Assam Jatiya Parishad alliance has failed to convince her. “What kind of alliance is this, where they are fighting against each other in nearly a dozen constituencies?” she asked, referring to the “friendly competition” between the two parties in some seats.

In the absence of a credible alternative, she said, she would support the BJP alliance for its development work.

Supporters of the BJP alliance outside the Asom Gana Parishad office in Mudoi gaon.

Supporters of the BJP alliance outside the Asom Gana Parishad office in Mudoi gaon.

But why did the anti-CAA sentiments fail to translate into an electoral reality?

Kaustubh Deka, who teaches political science at Dibrugarh University, said the CAA’s potential impact on the 2021 election had been overestimated. Unlike the Assam movement of the 1980s, he said, the CAA protests were much shorter.

“Even back in 1985, the Asom Gana Parishad, which emerged from the six-year-long movement, had a narrow victory,” he said. “This proves that emotive social movement issues do not necessarily translate into electoral issues.” Voters are more easily swayed by tangible development rather than ideological questions, he said. A voter might oppose the CAA and yet not vote for the Raijor Dal or the Assam Jatiya Parishad.

“Something as basic as roads can fetch you votes,” he said. “The BJP understood it well and has successfully highlighted this in its campaign.”

However, supporters of the Assam Jatiya Parishad and the Raijor Dal insist that the CAA remains a vital issue.

"If it wasn't, why would the government keep Akhil Gogoi in jail?" said Kalyan Chetia, a member of the Raijor Dal from Chabua's Panitola. "If Gogoi was out of jail, he would have brought a wave among the voters. The government knows it, and that's what it is afraid of." To buttress his point, Kalyan pointed out the BJP's silence on the CAA during election rallies in Upper Assam.

Healing the wounds of communities

In Upper Assam, the BJP has also successfully wooed communities that stood against it during the CAA protests.

Constituencies across Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Sibsagar, Jorhat and Golaghat comprise, to a large extent, communities like Ahoms, Mottocks, Morans and Chutias, as well as tea tribes. Among the caste Hindus, Assamese, Hindi, Bengali and Nepali speakers play a key role in voting too. While these were traditionally seen as the Congress’s vote banks, most of the communities have shifted loyalties to the BJP in the last five years.

During the CAA protests, tension emerged among Assamese speakers – the Ahoms, Mottocks, Morans, Chutias and caste Hindus – who revolted against the BJP. Yet, the BJP seems to have healed these wounds.

For example, on December 19, 2019, the state government announced the formation of three autonomous councils for the Moran, Mottock and Koch-Rajbongshi communities. It also said Rs 125 crore would be provided to each of the Ahom, Chutia, Moran and Mottock communities to generate “self-employment opportunities, infrastructure development, preservation of monuments and archaeological heritage”.

Similarly, for decades the Morans, Mottocks, Chutias, Tai-Ahoms, Koch-Rajbongshis, and tea tribes have been agitating for Scheduled Tribe status. During its December 19 announcement, the government said it would submit to the central government its recommendations to provide this status by January 2020. (Sidenote: it didn’t.)

The result of this move was clear: apart from the Koch-Rajbongshis, five of these communities are centred in eastern Assam, and the announcement slowly stymied the public anger.

It also dented the fight against the CAA by co-opting prominent leaders who belong to these communities. For instance, Arunjyoti Moran, who had mobilised protests against the CAA in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh, eventually joined the BJP in January this year.

“The BJP has given sanmaan, respect, to small communities like ours,” Arunjyoti told Newslaundry at his home in Digboi. “Besides the autonomous council, this government has shown true commitment to grant us ST status.”

His switch isn’t surprising. The Morans and Mottocks have been demanding ST status since 1939. Both communities have an estimated population of over five lakhs each, spread across seven districts in eastern Assam, and play a key role in determining the outcome in several constituencies especially in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia.

According to Arunjyoti, the Congress government had, in the past, complicated their struggle in 2004 by clubbing the Morans and Mottocks with four other communities for possible ST status. Even then, he claimed, it was a poll issue and no "genuine" interest was shown in getting it done.

“But within the last five years, we have held multiple rounds of formal talks with the Centre,” he said. “This led to the formation of the Singla committee in 2016 and a bill in the Rajya Sabha in early 2019.”

Moreover, he added, the state government honoured their icon, Raghav Moran, by naming institutions after him. “In contrast, the Congress would name everything after Indira and Rajiv!”

In the same spirit, the state government last year paid homage to Sati Sadhani, the last queen of the medieval Chutia kingdom, by announcing a state university in her name at Golaghat. It also introduced a government holiday in her memory.

Devarikhi Chetia, who led the CAA protests in 2019 as the head of the Sadou Asom Mottock Yuba Chatra Sanmilan, also joined the BJP last month. He is now the deputy chairman of the recently constituted Mottock autonomous council.

Devarikhi Chetia, who joined the BJP last month.

Devarikhi Chetia, who joined the BJP last month.

The campaign of Suren Phukan, the sitting BJP MLA from Digboi, at Samdang tea estate.

The campaign of Suren Phukan, the sitting BJP MLA from Digboi, at Samdang tea estate.

“The CAA issue is separate from the development-related concerns of my community,” he told Newslaundry. “For [repealing the CAA], my previous organisation filed a petition in the Supreme Court last January. The law will take its own course.”

Devarikhi said the government’s outreach towards his community included a civil services coaching programme started two months ago, aimed to increase their presence in the bureaucracy. Under the scheme, eight Mottock youths have been sent to Delhi and 40 others to Guwahati to attend UPSC and APSC coaching, respectively. On the economic front too, many schemes are being designed for the community, he added.

“We want to stay with the government as it has worked for our betterment,” he said. Both Devarikhi and Arunjyoti confirmed to Newslaundry that 50 percent of the government’s Rs 125 crore packages have already been sanctioned to the respective nodal district headquarters of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia.

No electoral equation in Upper Assam is complete without accommodating the tea garden workers who constitute nearly 20 percent of the state’s population and are mostly scattered in these districts. The state government’s failure to execute the promised hike of workers’ wages to Rs 351 has created discontentment in the community. To neutralise the damage, the BJP-led government has launched targeted cash doles and infrastructural projects.

For example, spanning over three phases between 2017 and 2021, nearly 21 lakh beneficiaries have been provided one-time financial assistance. Last October, the government launched a road connectivity programme, whereby a sum of Rs 1 crore each was granted to more than 800 tea estates to build new roads. In November, the government began the construction of 119 model high schools covering estates across the state to arrest the dropout rate among the students of the community.

‘They are able to share power now’

Tapping into ethnic pride, the BJP has also been able to retain a good percentage of the Ahom votes in the run-up to the assembly election. For example, Nazira, a constituency with nearly 40 percent Ahom votes in Sibsagar district, saw massive protests against the CAA. Now, the issue has taken a backseat among voters.

Himanshu Gogoi, secretary of the Nazira unit of the All Tai Ahom Students’ Union, said the government’s community-centric approach has been successful.

“Apart from the Rs 125 crore development package, Modi’s recent announcement to make Sibsagar district one of India’s top five iconic archaeological sites has impressed the Ahom community,” Himanshu said. Sibsagar has several monuments from the medieval Ahom kingdom and is seen as the epitome of Ahom cultural legacy. The Ahom population is estimated to be around 20 lakh in the state.

Nazira is currently a Congress seat. The BJP has fielded Mayur Borgohain, an alumnus of the All Tai Ahom Students’ Union, yet another indication of its strategy to co-opt communities on ethnic lines – a strategy that was once mastered by the Congress during the Assam Movement.

“It’s possible because there has always been an undercurrent among smaller ethnic groups, which see themselves as distinct from the larger hegemonic Assamese nationalism,” said Deka of Dibrugarh University. “They feel let down by it and, therefore, focus on their own community-specific upliftment.”

While CAA provided all the communities with a common rallying point, it was temporary as the BJP found the old cracks and broke their unity. The difference between the Congress and BJP’s approach, he added, was that the communities feel more welcomed and respected by the saffron party.

“They don’t feel like they are being used in an absolutely instrumental way,” he said. “Rather, they feel that they are able to share power now.” As a result, he said, these communities are likely to stick with the BJP for some time to come.

Update: This piece has been updated with a quote from RD member Kalyan Chetia.

***

This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.

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