A discussion was held in the Lok Sabha on Assam on August 8. More than 70 people had died in clashes between Bodos and Muslims and barely had fragile peace been restored that clashes broke out again. There was the usual handwringing and intimations of doom from the opposition and cringing defensiveness by Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde (whose performance proved definitively that under his tutelage, Home is headed the Power way: down the tubes).
But there were also moments of truth. Asaduddin Owaisi of the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen warned of a third wave of radicalisation of Muslim youth if camps where (largely) Muslims settlers were living in Bodo areas were not rehabilitated. He followed this with one line: “Let the state chief minister and the health minister sit together in one room and sort out their internal differences. Let the people of Assam not pay the price of their internal power struggle. That is one of the reasons for the current trouble,” he said.
In many ways, this is the crux of the problem. Remember the rash of communal riots in the 1980s? Many said at the time that these were actually incited by clashing groups in the same party. Something like that is happening in Assam.
But first the cast of characters: Tarun Gogoi, chief minister, traditional Congressman but now getting old and tired. He took the Congress to victory for the third consecutive time in 2011 and became chief minister winning 78 out of 126 seats in the Vidhan Sabha, surprising everyone.
The health minister? Himanta Biswa Sarma, half Gogoi’s age and a man in a hurry. Reports in April this year emanated from Delhi after a visit to the capital by Sarma who supposedly met Congress President Sonia Gandhi to press Gogoi’s name as vice-president of India.
It didn’t help matters that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should have called Sarma at the end of June to find out how much floods had damaged the state — while Gogoi was in the US on a 10-day visit. Gogoi didn’t like this and let it be known publicly. When reporters asked him about the PM’s call he said: “There may be some super CM in the state but I don’t care.”
Then came the denouement. In Assam, apparently women are worshipped, if breathless TV anchors are to be believed. So, it was Gogoi’s government that was blamed for an attack on a young teenaged girl by four inebriated youths in the centre of Guwahati. What made it worse was that a TV channel filmed it. The ownership of the channel was traced to the wife of a minister in Gogoi’s Cabinet: Himanta Biswa Sarma.
Now the fat was properly in the fire. Gogoi believes every move made by Sarma is calculated to defame the chief minister and his government — so that the party can ease him out and install a younger, more ambitious, more efficient leader in the state.
Gogoi’s supporters say they will not rule out Sarma’s hand in the current round of bloodletting. But obviously there is no proof. Sarma’s supporters simply say Gogoi is no longer equal to the complexities of ruling Assam
This may or may not be true. In 2001, when Gogoi took charge as chief minister of Assam, the outgoing Asom Gana Parishad government had left the state’s finances in a mess. Neighbouring militant groups were claiming that Assam was actually part of Greater Nagaland. And incessant migration from Bangladesh had prompted then Governor Lt General S K Sinha to warn President K R Narayanan in a report that 57 of Assam’s 126 Assembly constituencies had shown more than a 20 per cent increase in the number of voters between 1994 and 1997 whereas the all-India average was just 7.4 per cent; and that the Muslim population in Assam had shown a rise of 77.42 per cent over what it had been in 1971 (there was no census in Assam in 1981).
In 2006, Gogoi became chief minister again largely by dint of putting the finances of the state in order and taking control of law and order. But the Congress got 55 seats. This time he made a pact with the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) that wields power in the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District Council. By now, the Muslims in Assam (about whom Gen Sinha had warned the government) were beginning to look for their own leadership. This had emerged in the form of perfume king and MP Badruddin Ajmal, who had launched the Assam United Democratic Front. As Muslims had always been the backbone of the Congress, the party realised that it needed to balance the loss of the Muslims by another ethnic group. Gogoi identified this as the Bodos.
In 2011, although the Congress did not need the support of anyone else to form the government, it announced it would still keep the Bodos with it, describing the BPF as a “valuable ally”.
Gogoi supporters say: work it out. If someone were to poison the Bodos’ minds against the Muslims causing riots, who would look bad? The answer is: the chief minister.
This is the tragedy of Assam. When Muslim settlers first began coming to the state, they were Assamese first and Muslims later. The same went for the Bodos and other tribal groups. But when the politics of identity became necessary, identity became awareness. And that now defines politics.