Assam: As Citizenship Bill polarises Barak Valley, BJP, Modi make strides

Tora Agarwala
Shipra Das, whose husband's name was not on NRC list, says "Modi will help Hindus"

The road leading to Anil Das's shop in Silchar's Tapoban Nagar is marked by potholes so deep that on summer evenings one can find children playing inside. In monsoons, the road disappears altogether.

Yet, his vote, Das says, lies with the BJP because "PM Modi has built so many new roads". "Not this road yes, but we have heard he has built bigger roads elsewhere in Silchar," says the 32-year-old shopkeeper, whose parents came to India seeking refuge from religious persecution in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1965. His uncle Sukhlal Das, 59, agrees. "Modi does work. In fact, he is not even married, neither does he have children. It is because he has given his entire life to the country," he says.

This mass support for the BJP echoes through Tapoban Nagar, a fisherman colony that came up in the 1990s in suburban Silchar to house Hindu migrants. The Centre's proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, that seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim migrants, may have faced opposition elsewhere in Assam, but here in Barak Valley, with its Hindu migrants, it has only boosted support for the BJP.

So has the National Register of Citizens (NRC) drive. While it has support across Assam for weeding out illegal migrants, the belief here is that the BJP will stand by the Hindu names that fall foul of the NRC list.

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Up against all this, as Silchar votes on April 18, is incumbent MP Sushmita Dev of the Congress. In 2014, the daughter of seven-time parliamentarian Santosh Mohan Dev had defeated BJP's Kabindra Purkayastha by just over 35,000 votes, becoming one of only three Congress MPs to win from the state.

Sixteen kilometres from Silchar, in Silcoorie - an extension of a former Hindu refugee camp - Shipra Rani Das lives in a tin sheet home, with her husband and son, without electricity or water.

In July, when the final NRC draft was published, Das’s husband’s name was not there. "But he has a voter card," says Shipra, who herself is on the NRC list but has no voter card. Brajendra Chandra Das, 60, a former resident of Silcoorie who now lives in Tapoban Nagar, says neither his son nor he have made it to the NRC.

Across the Silcoorie camp, filled with daily wage labourers struggling to get two square meals a day, the NRC spectre hangs in the air.

But lately, both Shipra and Brajendra feel only one person can save them: Modi. "I have heard Modi will help Hindus," says Shipra, adding that she has only heard of Modi, never even seen him in pictures. Brajendra says he has heard that a Bill is coming — "and it is going to help us".

Removed from these uncertainties, the Hindu Bengali middle class in the urban parts of Barak Valley is also moving towards the BJP, which formed its first government in the state in 2016. The BJP's Silchar candidate is Rajdeep Roy, an orthopaedic surgeon.

"The town folk in Silchar are swayed by the BJP's promises," says Tapodhir Bhattacharjee, president of the Citizens Rights Protection Co-ordination Committee in Silchar.


A Bill payoff

In Silchar, a constituency in Barak Valley already pided on religious lines, the Citizenship Bill, which has big support among Hindu Bengalis, has polarised the electorate further. In Muslim-dominated Karimganj, the other seat in Barak Valley, a three-cornered contest is likely between BJP, AIUDF, Congress

A 53-year-old salaried professional of Silchar, S K Deb, says those who call the citizenship Bill "communal" for distinguishing between migrants on the basis of religion are wrong. "Protecting Kashmiri Pandits is insaaf (justice) but protecting Hindu Bengalis is communal?… Muslims already have Bangladesh and Pakistan to go to. Hindus do not," he says.

While the Bill lapsed with the outgoing Parliament, the BJP has promised to bring it again if returned to power.

As a BJP van passes through the congested Silchar's Shillongpatty, exhorting voters to vote for "desh (BJP)" and not "against their desh (Congress)", a shopkeeper, Sandeep Goala, 30, says, "I wasn't a big deshbhakt. But when I see and hear Modi on TV, I feel very patriotic." He also lists the broad guage railway line and Sadarghat Bridge in Silchar as the BJP government’s achievements. "What did Sushmita Dev do? Modi worked despite not having an MP here."

Joydeep Biswas of Silchar’s Cachar College says the BJP has succeeded in making it a fight between Modi vs the others - as in other parts of the country. "The BJP campaign is pitching this election as a war between deshpremis and deshdrohis. The fight is not between Roy and Dev. It is between Modi and Dev."

Joynal Abedin, a professor at Nabinchandra College in Karimganj district’s Badarpur, says the support for the BJP is not surprising, but the polarisation is. "It is in Barak Valley that the BJP first made inroads in Assam in 1991. Since then it's the norm for Hindus to vote the BJP, and Muslims the Congress. But it was not as polarised. My village is next to a Hindu Bengali village. Sometimes my young son asks me questions now like ‘Who is a Hindu?’, 'Why are you going to a Sushmita Dev rally if she's a Hindu?' That is disturbing."

Abedin adds that the Muslims of Barak Valley did not really have a problem with the Citizenship Bill, except, "Why did it have to be such a Hindu Bill?"

Karimganj, the other Lok Sabha seat in Barak Valley, is a reserved constituency for SCs, though Muslims dominate in numbers. "The Muslim youth is frustrated as they can never have a Muslim leader in this seat," admits B R Khan, a professor from Karimganj.

Sitting AIUDF MP Radheshyam Biswas of is seeking re-election. While the AIUDF is considered a "Muslim party", Khan laments their limited choice. "There is only one electoral attitude in this seat: how to defeat the BJP," says Abedin.

Over at Banskandi village in Cachar district, 62-year-old Alimuddin Choudhry emerged from Congress vice-president Priyanka Gandhi's Sunday roadshow for Sushmita Dev beaming, excited that he had managed to shake her hands. Pointing out that he was a part of the IPKF's peacekeeping operations in Sri Lanka, he says, "The BJP keeps implying that Muslims belong in Pakistan."

Talking about an incident last week where a Muslim man was allegedly force-fed pork, he adds, "Tell me, in a garden, if there are flowers of only one colour, will it truly bloom?"

Apart from the Congress base in the area, many feel Dev's popularity gives her an edge over the BJP's Roy, a new entrant. "Dev is a very visible politician. She is relevant on the national scenario, she is the president of the All India Mahila Congress and is hugely popular in Silchar," says Bhatacharjee. "The fact that Priyanka Gandhi chose to campaign for her is telling."

But the Citizenship Bill is chipping away that support. A Congress worker says many people tell him they like the MP but her party is "anti-Bill".

Dev accuses the BJP of itself "backtracking" on the matter. She is also confident the BJP's "polarisation" won't work. "In a trading economy like Silchar, the anxiety of hunger and unemployment supersedes religion," she says.

Dev has said that "personally", she supports citizenship for all religious persecuted communities, as long as they are on the 2014 electoral rolls.

Roy accuses her of just trying to fudge the issue. "Being a representative of a national party, you can’t have a personal opinion. The Bill can’t be a personal matter. You are either against it or not. There is no middle path," says Roy.

Retorts Dev, "Barak Valley, Brahmaputra Valley have always taken different stands on the Bill. This has to be seen in the backdrop of regional politics. Also, the BJP has allied with the AGP… You support the Bill but you ally with someone who opposes it?"