Mind Migration

Assam’s easy transition from ethnonationalism to Hindutva

Ahead of the Assam election, Himanta Biswa Samra started making Islamophobic statements as if from a Hindutva playbook. The BJP appointed Sarma, a Brahmin, as the state’s new chief minister at the expense of an incumbent from a small Assamese ethnic group. David Talukdar / NurPhoto / Getty Images
Elections 2024
31 May, 2021

It took a week after the results of the Assam assembly election last month for the Bharatiya Janata Party to name the state’s chief minister. In a polity dominated by numerous tribal and ethnic groups, the party chose Himanta Biswa Sarma, a Brahmin, over the incumbent Sarbananda Sonowal, from a small ethnic Assamese community. Having returned to power at the head of a victorious alliance, the BJP called the result what it was: a resounding consolidation of pro-Hindutva forces in a state long known for its politics of jatiyotabad—ethnonationalism.

Assamese exceptionalism, based on a self-image of an inherently tolerant and secular people unaffected by the majoritarian impulses of the mainland, seems to have run its course. Once the BJP came to national power in 2014, it sensed an easy opportunity to consolidate Hindus behind it in a state where about a third of the electorate is Muslim and the politics of othering and majority anxiety have been playing out for over four decades. These same conditions allowed Sonowal, formerly with the regional Asom Gana Parishad, and Sarma, a long-time Congress leader—both with roots in the ethnonationalist All Assam Students’ Union—to casually metamorphose into BJP politicians.

MS Prabhakara, a former Assam correspondent for The Hindu, wrote back in 2009 that, in essence, “these movements of ethno-nationalism are no different from Hindutva movements that too are animated by fear and hatred of the ‘Other’”—of bahiragata, primarily understood as “outsiders” of Bengali origin, in the case of the former, and of Muslims in the case of the latter. “Hence, too, the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing that is as much an integral part of such ethno-nationalist assertion as of the Hindutva movements.” The election results show that these two ideologies have finally coalesced, with the Bengali-origin Muslim, or Miya, as the chosen other. “Considering the longstanding othering of Muslims in Assam it is in some ways surprising that the state only turned saffron in recent years,” Thomas Blom Hansen, a leading scholar of Hindutva and communal violence, told me over email last month. “I think it has a lot to do with the relatively thin networks of RSS activists in both Assam and Bengal, historically speaking. That is changing now, and fast.”

Ahead of the polls, Sarma, as if out of a Hindutva manual, started making Islamophobic statements. In February, he declared that the BJP does not need votes from Bengali-origin Muslims in Assam to win the election. “They have started identifying themself as Miya,” he said. “These so-called Miya people are very very communal, very very fundamental and they are involved in various activities to distort Assamese culture, Assamese language. So I don’t want to be MLA with their vote.”