The last time Majuli — the world's largest inhabited river island — was in the national news was in 1997 when social worker Sanjoy Ghose was kidnapped and killed under mysterious circumstances (his body was never found) by the banned militant outfit, United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Ghose was in Majuli working with an NGO to save the island from being wiped out by the waters of the Brahmaputra. The shrinking island, however, makes local headlines every monsoon as a raging Brahmaputra washes away huge chunks of its land mass, ripping apart homes and hopes.
But ahead of the Assam elections this year, the island has once again found its way into the national political discourse, especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a campaign rally for BJP's CM candidate and Union Minister Sarbananda Sonowal at Majuli on 26 March, the first visit by any prime minister of the country.
The smallest assembly constituency, area-wise, in the state became the biggest playground for the BJP in Assam after the party decided to field Sonowal from here. This is again the first time any CM candidate is contesting from Majuli. As a curtain-raiser, the BJP in February laid down the foundation of the Jorhat-Lakhimpur (via Majuli) bridge over the Brahmaputra to connect it with the mainland. The bridge has been a long-standing demand of the local people whose only connection with the outside world is an hour-long ferry boat service that links the island to Jorhat town.
The BJP has also dangled the carrot of a Unesco World Heritage Site status for Majuli. "The Centre will take steps to declare Majuli a Unesco World Heritage Site," Sonowal has promised. Incidentally, the island has been vying for the World Heritage tag since 2004 but lost out every time due to poorly prepared proposals (which lack technical details and fail to comply with Unesco rules) by ASI-hired consultants, something that was pointed out by the comptroller and auditor-general (CAG) in its 2013 report.
But is that all the BJP is pinning its hopes on to win the elections?
In a state where over 30 percent of the electorate comprises Muslim population, the party seems to be trying hard to gain votes by consolidating the Hindu (including the ST) votes in its favour. And this is where Majuli and its satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) hold the key.
Satras across the state have been facing land encroachment by suspected Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. A reserved (ST) constituency, Majuli happens to be the main centre of Vaishnavite culture, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism that doesn't believe in idol worship and is opposed to the caste system. Of the 800-odd satras across the state, there were around 60 in Majuli which have come down to almost half. In an election centered around the "Assamese identity" issue, the BJP, according to a few party insiders, is hoping to make major gains by polarising the votes.
The saffron party seems to be confident that the satras fit the bill for its Hindutva brand of politics. Just like the RSS and the VHP, the Hindu flag-bearers in the Hindi heartland, the influential socio-cultural institution of Assam commands not just tremendous respect among Assamese Hindus but also wields a great deal of political influence. However, the satras so far have maintained political neutrality and never indulged in communal politics. For the first time in the recent past, satras got embroiled in a political controversy when Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi kicked up a storm by saying that RSS workers stopped him from entering the Barpeta Satra in December 2015. The head priest of the satra, Bakhista Deba Sarma, though debunked Gandhi's claim saying, "There is no RSS agent in the satra. It is a religious place and only religious activities are undertaken here." But many in the Congress pointed out the incident as an instance of the satras' growing proximity to the saffron brigade.
The Congress is trying its best to avoid a repeat of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in which the BJP recorded a stellar performance by winning seven of the 14 seats (Congress won just three seats). If the BJP has made it a war to "protect the Assamese identity", the Congress too has its arsenal ready.
Accusing the saffron party of trying to divide the voters on religious lines, Tarun Gogoi, while releasing the Congress manifesto, made a headline-grabbing claim that he is a “real” Hindu and that those in the BJP were “fake”.
"Our real Hinduism does not teach us to hate other faiths. The Assamese brand of Hinduism has taught us to be secular and tolerant,” the chief minister said.
This is exactly why the shrewd politician in Gogoi decided to make Dalit Phd scholar from Hyderabad University, Rohith Vemula, and JNU student leader Kanhaiya Kumar the faces of the Congress campaign. When the Congress put up posters with images of Kanhaiya and Rohith, many dismissed it as a poll tactic far removed from the reality of Assam. But Gogoi and the Congress saw in the duo their best bet to project the BJP as anti-backward and-minority populations.
Assam has a mixed population that includes a number of ethnic and linguistic groups belonging to various religions. A number of those ethnic and backward groups have been demanding ST status (Morans, Muttucks, Chutias, Koch-Rajbongshis, Tea Tribes and Tai Ahoms). In such a scenario, trying to overshadow the ethnic identity with religious affinity will only further divide the population.
"The BJP is hoping that in a polarised scenario the Hindu votes would come to it. The party has always depended on the Hindu card but in Assam there is no such thing as a Hindu vote bank. So it is trying to exploit the sentiments of the tea community and people attached to the satras," says Bhagirath Karan, chairman of the Congress tea cell.
The voters' view
When Modi was addressing a gathering in Tinsukia on 26 March, around 200 km away in Majuli, 21-year-old Gunomoni Mahanta was listening intently to the PM, his eyes glued to the TV screen. Modi's below-average attempt to emotionally connect with the Assamese people with an "I-sold-Assam-tea-as-a tea-seller" didn't seem to impress the second-year-old BSc student much. He was still hopeful that the PM will say something "more meaningful and less pretentious" in his next stop at Majuli (later in the day).
"It's nice of him (Modi) to come all the way to visit us. No other PM bothered to do that but I've a small complaint: where was he when Assam was inundated by floods? Why didn't he come even once when so many people lost their lives and land?" wonders Mahanta, who is equally disillusioned with Congress MLA Rajib Lochan Pegu for failing to bring any respite to Majuli despite serving three full terms.
For an island that stands eroded more than half (to just 520 sq km at present from an area of almost 1,200 sq km), the ground reality doesn't seem to have changed much even two decades after Sanjay Ghose's murder. The island and its people continue to face threats to their survival.
Interestingly, the anti-talk faction of the ULFA has accused Sonowal, along with BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, of conspiring Sanjoy Ghose’s murder. In a recent emailed statement, the Paresh Barua-led faction accused the two leaders, who were once members of the powerful All Assam Students' Union (AASU), of using ULFA cadres to kill Ghosh and a student leader Saurav Bora, who was shot dead in 1986. Sonowal and five others were the prime accused in the murder, but were later discharged by the Gauhati High Court due to lack of material evidence to prove the charges.
Even though BJP has dismissed the statement and questioned its timing (just ahead of the elections), the fact remains that while parties and politicians will continue to raise and kill issues to stay afloat, the onus lies on the voters to separate the wheat from the chaff.