Assam ministers return to hate politics

Assam minister Pijush Hazarika’s misleading video remains on his timeline despite a police clarification.

WrittenBy:Pratyush Deep
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In sharp contrast to the BJP’s Lok Sabha poll campaign, communal remarks have returned to the state’s politics with ministers trying to portray the Congress’s victory in three seats as a boost to criminal elements within the minority community.

Assam cabinet minister Pijush Hazarika last week shared a video to claim that individuals from a “certain community” were attacking police officers on duty in Assam’s Dhing. As the video was widely circulated by right-wing accounts, Assam DGP GP Singh stepped in to point out that it was an old incident and responded to some accounts with a warning that it “would attract provision of law”.

But no word of caution was directed at Hazarika’s original post, which was still on his timeline at the time of writing this report. And this sparked criticism, even from right-wing accounts.

Voice of Assam, a right-wing Twitter page which posted the video, noted that it was sourced from Hazarika’s tweet. “Why no warning message to Hon’ble Minister Sir? Then why only common Twitter handles are issued the warning message?” it wrote.

Opposition leaders such as independent MLA Akhil Gogoi accused minister Hazarika of attempts to polarise. “Law as you know is equal for all. Would you now dare to apply the same yardstick in the case of Pijush Hazarika also,” Gogoi asked DGP Singh. “Resorting to such acts by the govt is indicative of the fact that the fascist BJP government after losing many important LS seats in the recently concluded elections in Assam is hell bent on polarising society by raking up communal issues.”

Newslaundry contacted an Assam police spokesperson for comments on the video and the DGP’s response, but the spokesperson refused to comment citing lack of information. Text messages to DGP GP Singh remained unanswered. 

Newslaundry also reached out to Hazarika for his comments and will update the copy once a response is received.

An ongoing campaign

Days before sharing the controversial video on X, Hazarika took to Facebook to claim a rise in criminal incidents involving individuals from a “particular” community after the Lok Sabha election results. 

Hazarika cited five incidents, naming the accused, all Muslims, to suggest that the Congress’s victory in upper Assam’s Jorhat constituency had emboldened miscreants from the community. “The point is, what do these incidents reflect when individuals from a particular community are suddenly implicated? In the recent elections, our BJP candidate lost in the Jorhat constituency in upper Assam. But the question is, why are individuals from this specific community, who have not caused any major incidents for almost three years, suddenly becoming active?” Hazarika wrote.

Days later, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma echoed Hazarika’s sentiments during a press conference following a cabinet meeting on June 27.

“After the Lok Sabha elections, we have seen that Assam, which has been peaceful for the last three years, is slowly moving towards unrest by some people. For example, there are five-six incidents after the Lok Sabha elections. There has been a rape case in Majbat, a rape case in Dhekiajuli, during elections in Dudhnoi, a tribal girl was tortured in a similar way, there has been a gang attack on a village in Barpeta, and a similar gang attack incident also happened in Kokrajhar,” Sarma told the media.

Stating that no one had dared to do this in the last three years, Sarma  said a pattern has emerged in the past one month involving people from a “particular” community. “There could be many more incidents happening which are not even in my knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Hazarika’s campaign on Facebook targeting a “particular community” continues with new posts. One of these is a video purportedly depicting a Muslim man, allegedly issuing a warning over hurdles to the Eid-ul-Adha animal sacrifice in Assam’s Lakhimpur district.

A victory like a defeat?

Out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Assam, the BJP and its allies won 11, while the opposition Congress could win just three. 

But why is the BJP decrying the “dangerous” outcome of the Lok Sabha polls, in sharp contrast to its Lok Sabha poll campaign, which saw the party focus on welfare schemes and achievements of the Narendra Modi government? 

During the Lok Sabha campaign, Sarma had even claimed that more than half of the Muslim population in the state voted for BJP.  “Our government has worked maximum for the religious minorities. They understood that whatever I have been saying is for their good.”

There may be two reasons. 

One, polarisation has yielded the party better electoral results in the past. According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey data, polarisation had helped the BJP win the state assembly polls in 2016 and 2021. In 2021, BJP was able to hold two-thirds of the Hindu vote, winning 23 of the 34 assembly seats in upper Assam. 

The second is the message from the mandate. The three seats won by Congress include Dhubri and Nagaon, both of which are minority-dominated constituencies, and Jorhat, a seat which has triggered an “old vs new” debate within the state BJP.

Jorhat, primarily dominated by Ahoms and other tribal communities, was won by Congress’s Gaurav Gogoi after a prestige battle with Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, with almost all BJP ministers camping and campaigning for their incumbent candidate Tapan Gogoi. Hazarika had been stationed in the constituency during the whole period of the campaign.

The BJP’s defeat in Jorhat proved costly for the Sarma-led government, with at least three BJP leaders openly endorsing Gogoi’s victory and criticising the current state leadership for its “ego”. It also sparked an “old vs new” debate within the party, with many long-time BJP leaders openly expressing displeasure over the roles of some current ministers.

The “old vs new” refrain within the party’s state cadre centres around leaders who joined it along with Himanta Biswa Sarma in 2015. Since Sarma became CM in 2021, many of these leaders have been appointed to key positions in the cabinet and elsewhere.

Gogoi’s victory in Jorhat has also provided the Congress an opportunity to strengthen its diminishing presence in upper Assam, which is crucial for winning the state. Since most key leaders of the BJP, including the chief minister, belong to lower Assam, the revival of the Congress in upper Assam could pose a major threat to the saffron party in the upcoming assembly polls.

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