Himanta Biswa Sarma has leveraged xenophobic Assamese nationalism to peddle a Hindutva agenda in the troubled north-eastern Indian state.
Government-sanctioned eviction drives in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam turned deadly last week, as videos circulated of police firing at villagers during an anti-eviction protest which killed two and left over 20 injured.
At least 800 families, nearly all of them Bengali-speaking Muslims, have been evicted since last Monday in the Darrang district, while four religious structures were demolished at Sipajhar.
The drive itself is laced with political undertones and plays with fire in a state with a troubled past. Over the years, citizenship in Assam has been deliberately weaponised to manufacture Muslims as the “enemy within”.
Assamese authorities have justified the recent evictions as removal of “illegal encroachments” that would return land belonging to the indigenous Assamese, whose identity and existence has been threatened by erstwhile foreign infiltrators.
“The portrayal linking Muslim immigration from neighbouring countries to Assam and population growth is not based on any data. It’s a narrative that has been politicised to create social tensions,” A R Dutta, a researcher specialising in Assamese politics, told TRT World.
As the ongoing displacement and institutionalised assault of Muslims continues apace, it is the loudest warning yet of Assam lurching towards a toxic communalism that continues to grip India under the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP government.
And shepherding the state is a man who some believe has taken advantage of its societal fault-lines to serve his lofty political ambitions: chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
In a state long known for its politics of jatiotabad (ethnonationalism), Sarma has shrewdly leveraged deep rooted nativist anxieties to peddle a Hindutva agenda, as Assamese politics entered a new phase of saffronisation after his election in May.
Yogi of the north-east?
Since the BJP swept into power in 2014, it sensed an opportunity to consolidate a Hindu vote bank in a state where over a third of its 35 million population is Muslim, and where a politics of othering has simmered for over forty years.
In a polity dominated by numerous tribal and ethnic groups, Sarbananda Sonowal became Assam’s first-ever BJP chief minister in 2016. Sonowal – a former president of the ethnonationalist All Assam Students Union (AASU) – was the figurehead the BJP needed to make inroads with voters against “illegal Bangladeshis” to neutralise the then-incumbent veteran Congress leader Tarun Gogoi.
“When it captured the state for the first time under Sonowal, the BJP’s strategy was to extend its footprint by reaching out to the Assamese heartland by sprinkling Hindutva politics with jatiotabadi,” said Dutta.
Dutta noted how the strategy proved effective, with a large portion of voters swayed thanks to a potent blend between the BJP’s slogan in the Indian mainland, Jai Shri Ram (Hail Lord Ram), with the Assamese nationalist Joi Aai Axom (Hail Mother Assam).
“At first, the BJP did not openly thrust its political ideology in a state that has hitherto hinged on sub-nationalist sentiments more than any sympathy to a Hindutva project,” he added.
That would all change once the incumbent Sonowal was jettisoned in favour of Sarma as chief minister after the BJP won the 2021 legislative assembly elections.
A former AASU member and leader in the Congress party who was once stingingly critical of Modi – branding the then-chief minister of Gujarat a “terrorist” in the run-up to the 2014 elections – Sarma switched political allegiances by 2016, openly pandering to the RSS and publicising his allegiance to the Hindu right on social media.
The BJP’s decision to select Sarma was “no less a significant development by the national party after the selection of saffron clad [Yogi] Adityanath in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh,” wrote The Wire’s Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty.
Much like the vitriolic chief minister in the country’s most populous state, Sarma has reaped electoral fruits by employing a “belligerent strategy that nakedly exploited fault-lines rife in the Assamese polity through communal rhetoric,” said Dutta.
Saffronising the Assamese polity
The swift elevation of Sarma to chief minister was a testament to his meteoric rise within the party, now the poster boy for the BJP’s agenda in the north-east.
Anxieties around citizenship status have plagued displaced peoples in Assam since the implementation of the Assam Accord in the 1980s. Those fears only worsened following the passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) by the Modi government in 2019.
Most Assamese were staunchly against the CAA – which provides an expedited pathway to Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The public believed the law would trigger a fresh wave of migration from Bangladesh and demographically swamp the state.
While Assam was rocked by anti-CAA protests in 2019, much of the BJP’s cadre and leaders, including Sonowal, retreated from the spotlight. Sarma on the other hand, insisted the CAA would not threaten the Assamese people but liberate them from “invaders” – an unsubtle jab directed at Bengali Muslims.
Politically, Sarma’s defence of the CAA hinged on the premise that Assam’s Hindus had to coalesce to preserve its indigenous culture. He would raise the rhetorical stakes in the run up to the Assembly elections, describing it as a “civilisational war” in which only the BJP could “save Assam” from undocumented Bengalis.
Unsurprisingly, insidious statements on population control have been espoused too. “If their population explosion continues, one day even the Kamakhya temple land will be encroached upon,” Sarma said, appealing to the fears of Assamese Hindus over a revered pilgrimage site.
Helping his stock following the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic was a perception which filtered into public discourse that Sarma had “saved” the state from crisis due to his image of an efficient administrator.
Additionally, since taking charge, criticism has dramatically tempered. Mahesh Muktiar, an Assamese journalist from Guwahati, told TRT World much of the local media has been “amplifying” his government’s messaging.
In the earliest days of his tenure, Sarma began to check off items from the Hindutva wish list, from plans to introduce cattle protection to implementing “love jihad” laws. Madrassas and Sanskrit schools were shut down under the premise of curbing religious education.
He also approached the Supreme Court for the reverification of the state’s contested NRC legislation.
Shortly after, in spite of a court order, his government proceeded with a series of eviction drives to displace hundreds of mainly Bengali Muslim families during the peak of the pandemic’s second wave, announcing the extension of a temple on one of the patches of land that was cleared.
The idea of Assamese exceptionalism, which posited that the state’s tolerant social fabric was immune from the majoritarian impulses of the Indian mainland, is no longer a feasible position with Sarma at the helm.
By fusing Assamese nativism with a Hindu nationalist agenda, political and electoral lines have become increasingly blurred, said Muktiar.
Perhaps, it was an inevitable development. MS Prabhakara, a former Assam correspondent for The Hindu, said that, in essence, “these movements of ethno-nationalism are no different from Hindutva movements that too are animated by fear and hatred of the ‘Other’,” he wrote back in 2009.
“In many ways, it was an easy transition. What’s more surprising is that it took longer than it did,” Muktiar added.