Assam delimitation proposal: an erosion of representation

The proposed exercise is allegedly based on communal lines of segregation, rather than on logical geographic boundaries of the State. The plan, which also involves reservations, may reduce the possibility of Muslims being elected, diminishing the existing political power of the minority community

Updated - August 11, 2023 09:00 am IST

Published - August 11, 2023 01:13 am IST

The Beki river often has a devastating course, washing away parts of villages in Barpeta district of Assam, but the proposed plan for delimitation has been a double whammy for the villagers. 

The Beki river often has a devastating course, washing away parts of villages in Barpeta district of Assam, but the proposed plan for delimitation has been a double whammy for the villagers.  | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The Beki river is as ‘bent’ as its name conveys. Snaking down from the hills of Bhutan to the north of Assam in India, it has been the source of both joy and sorrow for the people of Kalgachia town in Barpeta district by changing course and ‘bending’ more almost every monsoon season.

The river has left its most contrasting imprint on a 500-metre stretch of the 18-km road connecting Kalgachia with Barpeta town. Here, a lush green paddy field is juxtaposed with a few houses hanging precariously over an expanding bend of the river that has devoured more than half the asphalt road, forcing a gravelled realignment.

The people living here, mostly Bengali-origin Muslims, pejoratively referred to as ‘Miya’, have over the decades learnt to adjust their lives to the Beki’s moods, at times dictated by the India-built 60MW Kurichhu hydropower project in Bhutan upstream. But even the toughest of seasons did not prepare them for a constituency-eroding ‘political river’ undammed by the Election Commission of India (ECI).

Based on the 2001 Census, the ECI released the draft delimitation proposal for Assam on June 20 this year. The number of Assembly and parliamentary seats remains unchanged at 126 and 14, respectively, but many constituencies may be reshaped. The number of reserved seats has been proposed to be increased from 24 to 28.

Assam and four other States were left out of the last such exercise in 2008 due to “security risks”. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other political entities also did not want delimitation in Assam until the National Register of Citizens (NRC) was updated to weed out “illegal immigrants”, aka Bangladeshis, mostly Muslim.

Changing shapes

Kalgachia is the business and education hub of the western part of Barpeta district, whose headquarters of the same name is about 95 km west of Assam’s principal city, Guwahati. It is also the headquarters of a subdivision in the district. More emotionally for the locals, the town is the nerve centre of the Jania Assembly constituency. Named after a historic Vaishnav monastery located midway on the road to Barpeta, it was represented for the first time in 1957 by the former President of India, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed.

The Jania seat will become history if the ECI’s delimitation draft for Assam is finalised. Large swathes of this constituency, represented by Rafiqul Islam of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), and of the adjoining Baghbar Assembly constituency, represented by Sherman Ali Ahmed of the Congress, are proposed to be merged to form the new Mandia Assembly seat.

The names of a few constituencies have been changed. For instance, central Assam’s Kaliabor Lok Sabha constituency, a Congress bastion, has been renamed Kaziranga in the draft, with three existing Muslim-dominated Assembly segments — Batadraba, Dhing, and Rupohihat — shifted to the Nagaon (Nowgong) Lok Sabha constituency, allegedly in ‘exchange’ for Hojai and Lumding, two Assembly seats where Bengali Hindus usually hold sway. The Congress won Batadraba, the AIUDF Dhing and Rupohihat, and the BJP Hojai and Lumding in 2021.

Once largely aligned with the Congress, Bengali Hindus, who dominate seven Assembly seats and have a sizeable presence in at least 15 others, have gravitated towards the BJP over the past two decades, helping it to come to power in Assam in 2016. During this period, Bengal-origin Muslims, who hold sway over 37 Assembly seats, have been divided between the Congress and the AIUDF, which is led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, a perfume baron. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has gone on record saying the BJP does not need ‘Miya’ votes.

“The delimitation plan is an assertion of the theory that Muslim votes don’t matter in a new India. Muslim-inhabited areas have been sliced off from some constituencies and added to others where Muslims are in the majority. It is as if Muhammad Ali Jinnah has returned in another form to segregate Assam into Muslim and non-Muslim constituencies,” says Babul Hassan Khan, former president of Kalgachia gram panchayat.

The office of the Foreigners’ Tribunal in Barpeta district of Assam that declares whether a person is an Indian citizen or not. 

The office of the Foreigners’ Tribunal in Barpeta district of Assam that declares whether a person is an Indian citizen or not.  | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

Seats of suspicion

For the BJP and other ‘nationalist’ political parties in Assam such as its ally, the Asom Gana Parishad, the westernmost Dhubri and Barpeta districts have exemplified the ‘demographic invasion’ by Bangladeshis, a term that today means more ‘Miya’ than Bengali Hindus, who migrated between 1947 and the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. According to the 2011 Census, Dhubri and Barpeta have a Muslim population of 79.67% and 70.74%, respectively.

At a microscopic level, the Muslim-majority Jania and Baghbar Assembly constituencies in Barpeta district have been symbolic of the perceived demographic threat — that people of suspected nationality would one day take over Assam.

Sarma and other BJP leaders invariably mention these two seats to convey a scenario where the indigenous people would cease to matter politically.

“If the ECI approves the draft, 102 constituencies can be saved for the people of Assam,” the Chief Minister said at an official programme in June. The Axom Nagarik Samaj, led by Rajya Sabha member Ajit Kumar Bhuyan, slammed the statement as an “insult” to the people of the other 24 Assembly constituencies and gave a signal that they are aliens. It also said the delimitation draft was designed to promote religion-based majoritarianism in some constituencies and ghettoisation in others. That did not stop Sarma from saying, “The reshaping of the constituencies can accomplish in the next 30 years what the Assam Accord and the NRC could not.”

Barpeta, the district as well as the Lok Sabha constituency, is associated with the genesis of all three events or exercises — the anti-foreigners’ Assam Agitation of 1979-1985 that ended with the signing of the Assam Accord, the updated NRC of August 2019 that put a question mark on the citizenship of 19.06 lakh people out of the 3.3 crore applicants, and the delimitation.

On December 10, 1979, Khargeswar Talukdar of Bhowanipur became the first ‘martyr’ of the Assam Agitation following a widespread protest by the Assamese people against the nomination of Begum Abida, the widow of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, for the Barpeta Lok Sabha seat. Organisations spearheading the agitation, then at a nascent stage, had boycotted the election, and her nomination proved to be the trigger for the movement to spread.

In July 2010, five Muslim men from different parts of Barpeta district died in police firing in Barpeta town following clashes over the launch of the pilot project for the NRC.

Bhowanipur is one of the 10 Assembly constituencies proposed to be under the Barpeta parliamentary seat. The proposed Mandia and Muslim-dominated Chenga Assembly seats have been sliced off from Barpeta and added to the Muslim-majority Dhubri parliamentary seat. “All educational institutions in our area, some more than a century old, are in the Assamese medium. We discarded the language of our forefathers and adopted the cultural traits of this land, but we still carry the Bangladeshi tag on our foreheads. The delimitation plan is embossing this label for a dangerous game of polarisation,” Sorman Ali, a Kalgachia-based retired professor of history, says.

Izazul Hoque Rahim, the president of Haldhia gram panchayat, about 3 km from Kalgachia, explains the geographical dissection of the constituencies that threatens to put up an invisible wall between villages on religious lines. “Haldhia, currently under the Jania Assembly constituency, is the biggest example of how this government is trying to break the backbone of the Muslims. This panchayat comprises villages inhabited by Bengali Muslims, who migrated from four regions of present-day Bangladesh, the Assamese Garia Muslims, Assamese and Bengali Hindus of different castes, Bodo tribals, and Hindi speakers. There are also Christians and Jains here apart from Muslims and Hindus. If the delimitation formula is applied, most of these villages will be partitioned among constituencies into those of Muslims and non-Muslims,” he says.

According to the delimitation draft, the Muslim-majority villages under Haldhia gram panchayat have been divided between the proposed Rupshi and Mandia Assembly constituencies, while Hindu-dominated villages have been attached to the Hindu-majority Bhowanipur Assembly seat. The mixed-population villages such as Haldiapathar, Dharmapur, and Ghugubari do not find mention on the list of areas under any of the reshaped Assembly constituencies, locals say.

“Our area was unaffected even during the worst of communal fires in Assam or elsewhere in the country. But the Assam Chief Minister and the ECI are together bent on creating a division among us,” Rahim says.

Non-Muslims share his concern. Upen Kalita of Ghugubari has a premonition about the reshaping of the constituencies. He finds his village, yet to be tagged with any Assembly constituency, in limbo, while his farmland in the adjoining Raha village inhabited by people of the community he belongs to — Assamese Hindus — has been moved to the Bhowanipur Assembly seat. “Our leaders must have made some calculations, but they do not make any geographical sense,” he says.

“Had this exercise been secular, Ghugubari village with 2,000 Muslim voters and 300 Hindu voters, and the Muslim-dominated Jamer Kur village should have gone to the Bhowanipur seat. Besides, Raha is geographically detached from the areas that the constituency is proposed to cover,” Mominul Hoque Bhuyan, a social worker based in Kharballi village near Kalgachia, says.

‘Reservation justified’

The BJP came to power in Assam in 2016 with the promise of protecting ‘jaati’ (race), ‘maati’ (land), and ‘bheti’ (hearth). Among its 60 MLAs elected that year was Aminul Haque Laskar, who represented the Bengali-speaking southern Assam’s Sonai Assembly constituency. None of the BJP’s 63 MLAs today is a Muslim although the party fielded several candidates from the community.

The BJP’s better electoral show in 2021 coincided with Muslim candidates — 16 of the Congress and 15 of the AIUDF — winning 31 seats, the second-highest after the 33 elected in the controversial 1983 election held midway through the Assam Agitation.

“The delimitation plan seeks to reduce the possibility of Muslims being elected from at least eight Assembly seats in the State. Muslims have been winning up to six of the eight seats under the Barpeta Lok Sabha seat. If the ECI draft is finalised despite being challenged in the Supreme Court, no Muslim candidate can win more than three of these Assembly seats,” Mazibar Rahman, a retired teacher in Kalgachia, says.

The reshaping of the Assembly constituencies has been done in such a manner that the seats where Muslims are likely to win have 50,000-75,000 more people than those in seats where non-Muslims would hold sway, he says.

“The motive behind choosing 2001 as the Census year and not increasing the number of constituencies is clear. Otherwise, the exercise could have been done along with the rest of the country in 2026 based on the latest Census,” he says.

The two Assembly seats where the doors for Muslim candidates will be shut are Barpeta and Goalpara West. The former is reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the latter for Scheduled Tribes (STs). Muslims constitute more than 70% of the population in both constituencies. Some seats have been de-reserved while a few others have been shifted from the general to the reserved category. Nine are proposed to be reserved for the SCs; 19 for the STs.

According to the Barpeta Zila Anushuchita Jati Parishad, the district forum for the SCs, reserving the Barpeta Assembly seat would be setting right a historical wrong. “Two candidates, Mahadev Das of the Congress and Srihari Das of the Praja Socialist Party, were declared joint winners when the Barpeta seat was reserved for the SCs in 1957. For some reason, the constituency was de-reserved for the 1962 election,” Sanjit Medhi, the district forum’s secretary, says.

Anil Das, BJP president of Barpeta district, justifies the delimitation plan, specifically in Lower (western) Assam, where “Bangladeshis are edging out the indigenous people” numerically. “I belong to the general category, but I am happy that the political future of our SC brethren is being secured. Reservation is perhaps one of the very few options to save Assam before it is too late,” he says, underscoring the need to also save the scores of satras (Vaishnav monasteries), whose lands the BJP claims have been encroached on by “illegal immigrants”. Barpeta town has grown around the 500-year-old Barpeta Satra. The monastery and a stretch around it occupied by Hindus is like an island in a sea of villages dominated by Bengali-origin Muslims, Das says.

Abdur Rahim Ahmed, the Congress MLA from Barpeta, says reserving any constituency is the prerogative of the ECI. “But the delimitation plan defies the geography of the land. Some Assembly seats are now shaped like an octopus. Some others have within them islands of people belonging to one faith added to other constituencies without any contiguity. It is sad that the exercise is putting Hindus on one side and Muslims on the other,” he says.

“The delimitation draft needs to be scrapped as it has been done with an ulterior motive to marginalise certain sections of society,” Abdul Khaleque, the Congress MP from Barpeta, says. Among the villages shifted to the AIUDF stronghold of Dhubri is his native Bartary in Kalgachia subdivision.

“The AIUDF seem to be benefiting from the reshaping of constituencies, which makes us wonder if the CM and [AIUDF chief] Ajmal colluded for the delimitation in the name of batting for Hindus and Muslims, respectively,” Gias Uddin, a Kalgachia-based Congress leader, says.

Ajmal has denied the charge, insisting his party has been a stronger critic of the plan than other parties.

While a section of the Assamese people is appreciative of the draft, another is worried about the consequences of adding Hindu villages to the Barpeta Assembly seat from adjoining Muslim-dominated constituencies to increase the SC population by at least 20%. “Many of the SCs are Bengali Hindus, who may wield political clout like the ‘Miyas’ are doing now,” Satya Das, the Barpeta SC forum’s president, says.

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