Election time in democracies throws light on many political puzzles. In Assam, however, electoral logic of numbers has cast the society in communal architecture. Politics outside of this frame is becoming increasingly impossible. In the break up of electoral constituencies, communal collectives with a minority status in the overall scenario might actually turn out to be the more powerful political majority in connivance with sections of the majority community. This majority blurs the traditional majority/minority divide by creating overlapping spaces and a complementary web of relationships. However, the existence of such political coalitions does not diminish the danger of communalism. In Assam today, there obtains a complex situation in which the political goal against illegal immigration is lost in rhetoric, which in turn, has led to the communalisation of society.
On 12 May, a hitherto unknown group, Chiring Chapori Yuba Mancha, launched a campaign against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by transmitting SMS messages - "Save the nation, save identity. Let's take an oath ... no food, no job, no shelter to Bangladeshis". Starting from Dibrugarh, it soon spread to other upper districts. It resulted in the exodus of about an unofficial estimate of 4000 suspected Bangladeshis from Dibrugarh alone.
The religious identity of the Bangladeshis, read Muslims, started shaping the course of the campaign. Whereas a large section of the Assamese society was appreciative of the move, a majority of minority organisations criticised it. The All Assam Minority Students' Union (AAMSU), the All Assam Madrassa Students' Association (AAMSA), and the United Minorities Front (UMF) called bandhs against what they saw as persecution of genuine Indians. A leader of the AAMSU, Kamal Passa, reportedly called the Assamese 'baiman' (betrayers), provoking demands from the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and others for his apologies and arrest. In the meanwhile, all political parties were busy pointing fingers at one another while not condemning the campaign. Tarun Gogoi, the Assam Chief Minister declared before any enquiry that all those who fled as "genuine Indians". Bangladesh joined in the mess with reported threats to move the UNHCR against "infiltration of Indians" in its territory. The campaign then took on a different turn to convince the local Muslims that they were not the targets.
What has emerged from the episode is the difficulty of carrying out a legitimate political movement without communally dividing the society, or rather the impossibility of secular politics. A movement against illegal immigration that is threatening the livelihood of citizens and the identity of indigenous peoples cannot be termed a communalist project so long as the paradigm of nation-state continues to differentiate between citizens and aliens. But the competition among political parties for the status of the truest representative of minorities has consistently communalised even the issue of illegal immigration. The paradox here is that the goal of politics has not become communal; it argues for a diverse and inclusive society. Yet, their strategies of avoiding the real issue have communalised the society through blames and counter blames. No major political party has become an exclusive party for advocating the causes of one particular community. Rather, they comprise all sections of the identity landscape. Yet, the society has already seen itself in communal cocoons as seen in the mirror of political problems confronting it.
Here then, is the architect of violence in Assamese politics. Silence and political correctness give more edge to this architecture. If the ghosts of the Nellie Riots of 1980s are to be exorcised, it cannot remain 'the unmentionable' of Assamese politics. Talking about it will involve addressing the issue of illegal immigrants with all seriousness. The present Governor of the state, Lt Gen (retd) Ajai Singh in a 'secret' report leaked to the media was reported as saying that nearly 6,000 Bangladeshis enter India everyday and join the already existing 20 million illegal immigrants. The Governor claimed to be quoting border officials. Notwithstanding controversies surrounding the report, it is impossible to convince any Assamese that illegal immigrants do not exist in the state. Analysing the census reports, D N Bezboruah, a former editor of the Assamese daily, The Sentinel, wrote that, "In the 70 years between 1901 and 1971, Assam's population increased from 3.29 million to 14.6 million - a 343.77 per cent increase over a period when the population of India had gone up by only about 150 per cent. Obviously, this did not happen because the people of Assam had become twice as fertile as their compatriots elsewhere. In fact, the general fertility rate for rural Assam for 1978 was 126.5 (all-India rural rate: 137.3) and the rate for urban Assam was 94.3 as opposed to the national urban figure of 102."
Of the two politics in Assam on this issue, one, of political parties and second, of civil society, the former has tried constantly to render the other impossible. This impossibility carries within it the potential of translating into a spectre of violence. Avoiding that will be a test for politics itself.