Soon after switching over to the BJP in 2015, Himanta Biswa Sarma started reading books on Sangh ideologues and even claimed he had gone to RSS shakhas when he was a child. That was one of the very early signals of what was cooking in the mind of the former blue-eyed boy of late Congress stalwart Tarun Gogoi. Before joining the saffron camp, Sarma had started practicing to be more Hindu than those who were already in the BJP. In the 2011 state elections, the BJP only managed to win five seats in the 126-member Assam assembly. The party’s stronghold in the state then was only the Barak Valley, which has a major chunk of Hindu Bengali voters.
The seats came from that region only. The saffron party never enjoyed support among the Assamese people in the state and that may be the reason that in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Assamese icon Bhupen Hazarika lost the Guwahati seat. He was at that time welcomed in the city with black flags. The Assamese people were seeing BJP as a party of mainly Bengalis and Hindi-speaking communities.
Things started to change in late 2013 after the mammoth rise of Narendra Modi in national politics. In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Modi at a huge gathering in Guwahati challenged Tarun Gogoi with his Gujarat model of development. He said that Gogoi could drive a Maruti car through the water pipes in Gujarat whereas despite having the Brahmaputra river, Assam was facing a scarcity of drinking water.
Sarma reacted to Modi’s statement with reference to the 2002 riots by saying: “Muslim blood and not water was flowing through pipes in Gujarat.” In response, the BJP came down heavily on Sarma, and Election Commission also barred him from campaigning for a few days. When he joined the BJP, Sarma was asked about his earlier statement; he said that it was the Congress party’s view. When in Congress, Sarma was known for his liberal image. He enjoyed good support from Muslim voters. Though he started his career with the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), Sarma was never seen as an Assamese hardliner. Rather, he was known to be soft towards the Bengali-speaking community in Assam which constitutes nearly one-third population of the state.
Interestingly, in the run-up to the 2016 Assembly elections in the state, Sarma garnered his image as a hardcore Assamese leader. He openly advocated for 1951 to be the base year for updating the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) in Assam which was a long pending demand from AASU and other organizations. His statement created a stir as according to the Assam Accord, NRC updation process started by considering March 25, 1971, as the cut-off date. Congress criticised Sarma for his remarks, but the statement gained votes for the BJP as the party did remarkably well in the Upper Assam area. He further changed his position after the BJP swept to power in Assam. He started to portray himself as a Hindu hardliner and took charge of the education department along with various other portfolios in the Sarbananda Sonowal-led government.
At that time, in the governmentrun madrasas of Assam, Friday was considered a holiday. But, Sarma said this must be changed as we live in India, not in Pakistan or Bangladesh. The statement attracted wide criticism from the Muslim community but Sarma was firm on his position and ultimately the holiday was shifted to Sunday. The first draft of the NRC was first published on 30 July 2018. There were 40 lakh people who were missing from the list and the majority were Bengalis. There was furore among the people and Assam saw protests in many parts. Sarma, however, used to say that the mainly immigrant Muslim population was out of the first draft though it was not true as a major chunk of Hindu Bengalis were also missing. When the final draft of NRC was out on 31 August 2019, it left out over 19 lakh people out of the 3.3 crore applicants in the state.
The ones, who could not find a place in the updated list, have since been trying to figure out how to get their names enlisted, as uncertainty looms over their future. Hindu Bengalis constitute a good number in this 19-lakh number. When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in Parliament by the BJP, Assam was rocked by unprecedented protests. Most Assamese were staunchly against the CAA, as it would provide Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Assamese people believed that the law would pave the way for a fresh wave of migration from Bangladesh and swamp Assam.
During the anti-CAA protests in the state, many of the BJP’s leaders, including then Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal were missing from the spotlight. It was Sarma, however, who constantly insisted that the CAA would not threaten the Assamese people but liberate them from ‘invaders’, a jibe directed towards Bengali Muslims. He extended it in the run-up of the previous year’s Assembly election, describing it as a “civilisational war” in which only the BJP could “save Assam” from immigrant Bangladeshis. Before the elections, Sarma also termed the NRC as faulty and advocated for a fresh one.
The Assam government has already demanded 20 per cent re-verification in the bordering districts and 10 per cent in the other districts of the included names in the final NRC list. Shortly after assuming the office of Chief Minister, in spite of a court order, Sarma’s government proceeded with a series of eviction drives to displace hundreds of mainly Bengali Muslim families during the peak of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Darang district’s Sipajhar area, when people lost their lives during an eviction drive last year, criticism heaped on Sarma from every corner. However, the Chief Minister claimed that there was a deep conspiracy of the Popular Front of India (PFI) and some other groups behind the entire incident.
Ever since Sarma became the Chief Minister, the police have been conducting operations against people occupying government land in various places like Mayang, Kaziranga, Bardoa and Amsai. Incidentally, much like Sipajhar, the Bengali Muslim population is in majority in those places. After the alteration of the holiday in Assam Madrasas, Sarma pitched for closing down all government-run madrasas in the state.
His government came up with a bill to shut down the madrasas and convert them to normal schools. Though it was criticized by the Muslim population, all government-run madrasas in the state now have already transformed into normal schools. The Chief Minister defended his action by saying that Muslim youth preferred to be doctors and engineers which was not possible by studying in Madrasas. But critics say that Sarma’s government is also eyeing private-run madrasas. Last month, three madrasas were demolished by the administration in the wake of the arrest of 40 people since March over their alleged terror links.
Sarma claimed that Assam has become a hotbed of ‘jihadi activities’ as the links to Al Qaida in India Subcontinent (AQIS) and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) terror outfits were busted in the past four months. He said: “Interestingly, the hub of all these activities, appeared to be madrasas. I am not generalizing, but whoever has been arrested till date have had some connection with madrasas or were acting as preachers in some mosques.”
Sarma has also announced that police verification and online registration will soon become mandatory for imams and madrasa teachers coming from outside the state. Moreover, he has hinted that all private-run madrasas in Assam are on the government radar for looking into any jihaditype activities.
Assam has implemented the cow protection act, however, in the name of cow protection, this law was being enacted in the state to actually stop beef consumption. The rules of the new law were made in such a way that it is almost impossible to eat beef while complying with it. But after Kashmir, Assam is the state with the largest Muslim population in the country. In Assam, the sale, consumption of beef, etc. is prohibited within 5 km of religious places such as temples and namghars. Eating beef is not allowed even in the residential areas of Hindu-Sikh-Buddhist-Jain people.
People of multiple religions live together in both rural and urban districts. As a result, many fear communal harmony will be disturbed at some point over the cow protection act. In the run-up to last year’s Assembly polls, the BJP played the card of radical Hindutva, with Sarma at the forefront. He set up things to consolidate Hindu votes by making harsh comments against Muslims and he was completely successful in that plan.
Apart from the cow protection law, population control, shutting down of madrasas, financial aid to temples, namghars etc. leaving out mosques, eviction drive, demolition of madrasas — the long list has made the Sarma’s intentions clear, he wants Assam to be a highly polarised state.