Southern Assam’s Barak Valley has attracted the special attention of poll watchers: it's a state assembly poll and yet, India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Bangladesh takes predominance over all other issues. The two major players – the ruling Congress and the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have made the issue of providing shelter and citizenship to 'Hindu Bangladeshi' migrants from the neighbouring country their major poll plank in an area where Bengali speakers form the majority and Bengali is used for all administrative and other official purposes.
The valley, comprising the three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi and sharing borders with Bangladesh, has 15 seats in the 126-member Assam Assembly. In 2011, the Congress won 13 seats while the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) failed to win a single seat. The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won one seat each. Voting for these 15 seats will be held on 4 April.
In 2014, the ‘Modi-wave’ swept the Brahmaputra Valley but did not have any impact on the Barak Valley. In this election, the BJP is banking on the two notifications issued by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, which give official assurance of providing shelter to ‘Bangladeshi Hindus’ fleeing to India due to alleged persecution in the neighbouring country.
“The Central Government has decided, on humanitarian considerations, to exempt Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals belonging to minority communities who have entered into India on or before 31st December, 2014 from the relevant provisions of rules and order made under the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 and the Foreigners Act, 1946, in respect of their entry and stay in India without such documents or after the expiry of those documents, as the case may be, ” states an official release issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs on the two notifications issued on 7 September, 2015.
However, BJP national president Amit Shah, in one of his election rallies, said Assam should not have to shoulder the burden of Hindu Bangladeshis alone and other states should share it as well. This has triggered speculation that the ‘Bangladeshi Hindu migrants' in Assam may be resettled outside the state, causing their unwarranted displacement. Shah in his election speech also promised that his party would table a bill in the parliament for granting citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi refugees once the BJP has majority in the Rajya Sabha.
The Congress too has made the issue of shelter to Hindu Bangladeshis one of its major poll planks. It accused the BJP of “playing the same old record of providing citizenship to Hindu-Bangladeshi refugees and luring them for votes,” and alleged that the Modi government has taken no step towards solving the issue in two years of its rule. To woo the Bengali Hindu voters, the Congress has also claimed that it was the first to raise the demand for providing refuge to Bangladeshi Hindus.
The valley has two Lok Sabha seats – Silchar and Karimganj. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress wrested the Silchar seat from BJP but lost the Karimganj seat to AIUDF. The Congress polled the highest votes in seven assembly segments, the AIUDF in five and the BJP in three segments in 2014.
Of the total seven assembly segments under Silchar Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress polled highest votes in six (Sonai, Dholai, Udharbond, Lakhipur, Barkhola and Katigora ) while the BJP led only in Silchar assembly segment. The AIUDF finished third in all these seven segments. In Karimganj Lok Sabha constituency, the AIUDF polled highest votes in five assembly segments (Karimganj South, Badarpur, Hailakandi, Katlichera and Algapur), the BJP in two (Ratabari, Karimganj North) while the Congress polled highest votes in only Patharkandi assembly segment. In 2009, the BJP won the Silchar seat and the Congress won the Karimganj seat.
The Congress claims that the AIUDF’s popularity has declined across the state and the latter’s support base among the Muslim voters of erstwhile East Bengal origin would shift towards the ruling party in this election as these voters perceive that only the Congress and not the AIUDF would be able to check the growth of the BJP and the Sangh parivar in the state. The ruling party is counting on this factor to win majority of the seats in the Barak Valley.
AIUDF chief Badruddin Ajmal, on the other hand, has made as his major poll plank the 2012 violent clashes between Bodes and Muslims of erstwhile East Bengal origin in western Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Area District (comprising four districts of Karajan, Chirag, Bask and Udalguri) and neighbouring areas. He is using this plank to attack the Congress for failing to protect the Muslims there. The AIUDF also hopes to gain from the polarisation of votes that can happen due to the BJP’s promise to grant shelter and citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis while maintaining that Muslim Bangladeshis would be treated as infiltrators and deported.
No doubt, poll watchers and foreign policy strategists not only in India but also in Bangladesh will be keen to know the poll outcome in Barak Valley.