Assam: Politics after the Riots

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The Kokrajhar riots have brought death and destruction to Assam. They have also created political fissures in the state politics, reports Ratnadip Choudhury

Rescue act UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi with Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Assam CM Tarun Gogoi at a relief camp in Kokrajhar
Rescue act UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi with Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Assam CM Tarun Gogoi at a relief camp in Kokrajhar
Photo: Ujjal Deb

EVEN BEFORE the Assam violence has subsided fully, it has had a spill over effect in other parts of the country. On 11 August, a rally organised by Muslim organisations in Mumbai, against the Assam riots, spiralled out of control, leaving two dead and several injured. Similar violent incidents have been reported from other parts of the country.

On her visit to Muslim relief camps in Dhubri district, Congress president Sonia Gandhi admitted that the “victims can only return after the situation calms down”. The Congress chief has reasons to be worried. On 13 August, one Muslim labourer was gunned down and two more seriously injured near the Indo-Bhutan border in Chirang district when suspected Bodo militants opened fire. The fact that those killed were migrant labourers from West Bengal has put a question mark on security in the region.

Besides the death and despair, the riots have created deep fissures in the state politics like never before. In the thick of it all is Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi.

The sudden outbreak of violence in lower Assam and the initial lackadaisical attitude that the chief minister and his administration showed in handling the situation did not only result in lakhs of people becoming homeless, it has also created a political instability of sorts in the state. While Gogoi’s arch rival, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) chief Maulana Badruddin Ajmal is leaving no stone unturned to make a case against the chief minister, Congress insiders hint at the involvement of state Heath Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma in fuelling an “Oust Gogoi” call in political circles.

The Kokrajhar riots have hit the Congress badly both in Assam and elsewhere. As “Justice for Muslims” slogans fill the air, it is in danger of losing Muslim votes in other parts of the country. “If the Congress is serious about making inroads into Uttar Pradesh, it cannot be seen as being unable to protect Muslims in Assam,” says Guwahati-based political analyst and professor of Political Science at Gauhati University, Nani Gopal Mahanta.

Gogoi’s rivalry with Ajmal dates back to the 2001 Assembly elections, when, despite pressure from the central leadership, the CM refused to team up with the AIUDF. Ajmal, who is also the MP from Dhubri, maintains a strange relationship with the Congress. While the AIUDF is the principal Opposition in Assam, it is an ally of the UPA in Parliament.

ALTHOUGH AJMAL claims Gogoi is his “best friend”, he has always been vocal in his criticism of the CM. He even took some Muslim MPs to Sonia Gandhi to make a case of the security risks Muslims face in Assam and asked for Gogoi’s removal. A key member of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind, Ajmal has been able to canvass the support of Muslim organisations across the nation.

Ajmal’s call for the dissolution of the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC), where Congress allies, the Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF) is in power, has left Bodo leaders fuming. “Fundamentalist political leaders like Ajmal are trying to give the violence a communal colour,” says deputy chief of BTC, Kampha Borgoyary. “All communities have lived in harmony here. We will not allow Ajmal to play his politics here and the BTC will remain.” And then he adds: “The government should arrest Ajmal for fuelling violence.”

Adding to the complications, Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh, who was on a tour of the relief camps in Kokrajhar, reportedly declared that the “victims would be rehabilitated as per the 2011 voters’ list… land records, electricity bills and ration cards could also be used for ascertaining the nationality of the violence-affected persons for rehabilitation”. This added fuel to fire, as the issue of illegal migrants is one of the main causes of the riots. “Only those who have land documents will be rehabilitated,” reacted Borgoyary. “Otherwise, many illegals who have made it to the voters’ list with forged documents will manage to settle down.” Many Bodo organisations are asking for mandatory citizenship checks.

‘Ajmal probably wants to make his new friend the CM. I wish him luck,’ says Gogoi, hinting at Himanta Biswa Sharma

Even before the 2011 Assembly polls, Digvijaya, the AICC General Secretary in-charge of Assam, reportedly had serious differences with the chief minister. Though state Congress chief Bhubaneswar Kalita has played down the issue of “bad blood”, the current rhetoric throws it open to interpretation once again.

“Many people in the party see the hand of Himanta Biswa Sharma in all this,” says a Congress MLA on condition of anonymity. “For the past six months or so, the CM has been upset with Sharma after the media reported that the health minister had tried to convince the high command to pitch Gogoi for the post of Vice President. Sharma is close to Digvijaya Singh. The shrewd and ambitious politician that he is, he might have teamed up with Ajmal to see the ouster of Gogoi, as he considers himself a contender for the CM’s post. But most MLAs are with Gogoi.”

Over the years, Sharma has managed to earn the trust of the Central leadership and has been entrusted important assignments elsewhere in the Northeast.

That the CM is not happy with his onetime trusted aide was made increasingly clear after Gogoi kept Sharma out of almost all ministerial delegations supervising riot relief. Sharma’s statement to the media that disease and epidemic was a huge challenge in the relief camps also came right after the announcement of the 15 August deadline for the victims to return home.

The usually unruffled Gogoi is beginning to show signs of impatience. “Badruddin Ajmal has been trying hard to remove me from the CM’s post,” said Gogoi in a press conference. “He perhaps wants to make his new friend the CM. I wish him luck in his efforts.” Asked who the “friend” was, the CM’s reply left no doubts who he was alluding to. “How can he be from a party other than the Congress? Even if Ajmal can get me removed, the next person has to be from the Congress, because we have an absolute majority,” he said.

For now though, the central leadership seems to be backing the CM. On 11 August, the health minister tweeted: “There is no vacancy for the CM’S post. Everyone has full faith in Tarun Gogoi’s leadership. There was no role for Ajmal in the past, present and future.”

Digvijaya Singh followed Sharma’s lead. In an interview to an English daily, he said: “The stature of the chief minister in Assam is much higher than any other minister here. All the other ministers are much junior in age and stature.”

Congress insiders believe that Gogoi was let off because the high command does not want any more goof-ups in Assam. But, it will not have escaped notice that it took Sonia Gandhi’s intervention to bail out the three-time chief minister.

Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
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