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Why Is the BJP Courting Muslims in Assam?

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Why Is the BJP Courting Muslims in Assam?

Only a year ago, Chief Minister Sarma proclaimed that the party would not seek the votes of minorities.

Why Is the BJP Courting Muslims in Assam?

Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam, India.

Credit: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking the votes of Muslims in India’s northeastern state of Assam ahead of the general elections. This is a drastic reversal of its position; only a year ago, BJP leaders had exuberantly announced that they do not require votes from the community.

The courting of Muslim voters is particularly visible in Nagaon, which is one of the three Muslim-majority parliamentary constituencies in Assam. The state accounts for 14 of the 543 contested seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament.

In 2019, the BJP won nine seats in Assam. It has now set a target of winning 11 seats.

Its chances of winning in the other two Muslim-majority constituencies – Dhubri and Karimganj – are slim as the electoral contest there is primarily between the Congress and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).

Last year, Assam’s BJP Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had proclaimed that the party would never seek votes from the “Miya,” or the Bengal-origin Muslims residing in riverine islands. The Miya community is one of three Muslim groups in the state, the other two being the indigenous Assamese Muslims and the Hindi-speaking Muslims. Together, Muslims make up more than 34 percent of the state’s population, with the Bengal-origin community constituting the largest chunk.

Sarma’s statement came in the backdrop of the BJP’s fervent efforts to drive a wedge between the Bengal-origin Muslims and the rest of the populace in the state.

Last year, the Assam government also resolved to carry out a census of the Assamese Muslims to unveil specific social and economic policies for the community. This coupled with the BJP’s commitment to implement the identification and deportation of foreign nationals from Assam contributed to the rapid expansion of the party’s support base in the state. Assam’s indigenous communities are extremely concerned over the increasing numbers of Bengal-origin Muslims in the state.

Nagaon has a history of returning candidates from both the BJP and the Congress. In 2019, Congress’ Pradyut Bordoloi won the seat, defeating the BJP’s Rupak Sarmah by a margin of about 17,000 votes.

Similar to other constituencies in the state, Nagaon’s electoral equations have changed after the delimitation of assembly and parliamentary seats completed last year that had been pending for over two decades. Some assembly seats in Nagaon such as Hojai and Lumding, which had a large number of Bengal-origin Hindu voters and were bastions of the BJP, have been attached to the contiguous Kaziranga parliamentary constituency. And some seats from the former Kaliabor seat with an overwhelming majority of Bengal-origin Muslim voters have now been tagged with Nagaon.

Currently, there are about 1.1 million Muslim voters in Nagaon, including 20,000 Assamese Muslims. Hindus comprise only about 650,000 voters.

In the context of the BJP’s weakened position in Nagaon, the party accelerated efforts to woo the support of all communities there. Its efforts paid off; thousands of Muslims joined the Hindu nationalist party.

A BJP functionary estimated that more than 40,000 Muslims have joined the BJP from Dhing, Lahorighat, and Samaguri in Nagaon, which are inhabited mostly by Bengal-origin Muslims. On April 3, some local news portals published a story claiming that Mufti Rashidul Haque Qasimi, the Nagaon president of the Ulema Council, had also joined the BJP.

Duina Barbaruah, spokesperson of the BJP in Assam, confirmed that Muslims have joined the party in “large numbers” in the state. “The reason is the BJP’s emphasis on development and national progress,” she told The Diplomat.

So why are Bengal-origin Muslims joining the BJP in droves? They are apprehensive of being tagged as illegal immigrants, and are hoping that they will get help from BJP functionaries if the need arises.

The trend began soon after the BJP swept to power in the state assembly elections of 2016. There were reports quoting senior BJP leaders that 400,000 Muslims in Assam expressed interest in primary membership in the party in 2017.

The trend seems to have intensified with the approaching general elections and reports that the BJP will win a third term in power.

There is a widespread belief among large sections of the indigenous communities that a sizeable number of Bengal-origin Muslims had managed to enroll their names in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) through fraudulent means and fake documents, while many among them avoided the process altogether, fearing that they would be deported to Bangladesh. The BJP shrewdly capitalized on these anxieties, promising to plug the loopholes in the identification of illegal immigrants in Assam where other parties had failed.

The Congress faces a tough challenge in Nagaon this time around, with the AIDUF fielding its legislator, Aminul Islam. The AIDUF has a strong support base among Bengal-origin Muslims. The BJP’s prospects would brighten only if there is a split in the Muslim votes and if a section of the community votes for the party.

The general elections have changed the BJP’s stance since the target is to win 11 seats in Assam. Sarma will also have to demonstrate to the high command that the party has made rapid progress in the state under his leadership.