The Spectre

Politicians play on the fear of immigrants in Assam

The All Assam Students’ Union has been at the forefront of chauvinistic protests against allegedly illegal immigrants since the 1970s. BIJU BORO / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 April, 2016

ON THE AFTERNOON OF 22 FEBRUARY 2014, Gujarat’s then chief minister, Narendra Modi, strode up to a lectern at a political rally in Silchar, in southern Assam, around 40 kilometres east of the Bangladesh border. Dressed in a peach kurta, a patterned beige stole and a white, gold-bordered turban, Modi resembled an elderly groom more than a prime-ministerial candidate. As he spoke, the crowd of tens of thousands regularly erupted in chants of his name.

“Brothers-sisters,” Modi said, in Hindi. “The kind of governments elected here, all of Assam is troubled because of Bangladeshis.” He continued: “And because of me, all of Pakistan is troubled”—referring to speculation that the neighbouring country was wary of him. “Now you have to make the choice whether you want to tolerate the problems of these Bangladeshis or decide the future of Assam,” Modi said.

He then drew a distinction between two kinds of Bangladeshis in Assam. “The first kind come as part of a political conspiracy,” he said. “And the other kind are those whose lives have been made difficult in Bangladesh.” The reference to Muslims and Hindus was unmistakable. The Hindu in Bangladesh was being persecuted, he went on to say. “Where will that Hindu go?” “India!” the audience roared. But the other “ghuspethiye,” or intruders, Modi continued, who had come as part of a “conspiracy,” needed to be sent back. These intruders, he said, were taking away the livelihoods of young people in Assam. If he was elected, he said, he would ensure justice for the state.

Two months later, at another rally, in West Bengal, Modi sharpened his attack. “You can write it down,” he said. “After 16 May, these Bangladeshis should pack their belongings and be ready”—to leave India.

His promise resonated powerfully with the Assamese people, for many of whom the Bangladeshi is a hated and feared figure. Antagonism towards these perceived intruders has played a vital role in shaping the state’s politics, especially since the 1970s, when activists launched a movement demanding the expulsion of illegal immigrants. According to official figures, 855 Assamese lost their lives in these agitations—that number rises to thousands if those who were killed in related violence are also counted. Though the Indian government has attempted at different times to try and resolve the issue, deep-seated tensions persist even today.

Since its inception in 2005, Badruddin Ajmal’s party, now called the AIUDF, has gained ground steadily with each successive election. SUBHAMOY BHATTACHARJEE / DEMOTIX / CORBIS

Through his campaign speeches, Modi stoked these fears. But by differentiating between Hindu immigrants and “intruders,” he also introduced a starkly communal angle to the issue. Until then, protesting groups did not officially target any particular community, only differentiating between the Assamese and the outsider. Modi stirred religion into an already volatile mix.

His rhetoric impressed voters. On 16 May, when the party swept to a national majority, it also won seven of Assam’s 14 Lok Sabha seats, up from four seats in the 2009 election.

But Modi may have erred in committing to such a precise deadline to fulfil his promise, since it ratcheted up expectations. “Modi wanted to mean everything to everybody,” said Prodyut Bora, a former member of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive committee, who told me he had prepared background notes for some arguments Modi used in speeches in the Northeast. (Bora quit the BJP in February 2015 and formed the Liberal Democratic Party the next month.) When Modi promised that “come 16 May, Bangladeshis will have to pack their bags, the fine print was, at least in the minds of the people, that what the blood of the 855 martyrs failed to achieve, this man is going to do it. So you can imagine the weight of expectations,” Bora said. “He struck a psychological chord in the minds of the voter.”

But defining, identifying and then deporting illegal immigrants is a task of staggering complexity, and Modi, predictably, did not deliver the quick results he promised. As the state heads into an assembly election in April, this failure has given his rivals a weapon with which to attack him. The Congress, which has been in power in the state since 2001, has drummed up the issue in speeches and posters. According to Bora, Modi’s claim that he would make Bangladeshi immigrants pack their bags “turned out to be a pack of lies.”

THE SENIOR BJP LEADER Himanta Biswa Sarma insisted that the criticism against Modi’s speech was unfounded. The Congress, he said, was unfairly projecting an election speech as an election promise. “Even Indira Gandhi had promised ‘gareebi hatao’” (eradicate poverty), Sarma told me. When “Modi-ji said after 16 May, Bangladeshis will have to leave, it means the patronage of the Bangladeshis will stop,” Sarma said—it did not mean that Modi would physically ensure the removal of Bangladeshi immigrants. He claimed that the Congress was treating the prime minister “very cruelly” by holding him accountable to every word he had spoken during his campaign.

A year ago, Sarma would not have been defending the BJP against the Congress’s offensives. Sarma, an astute and ambitious politician, had, since 2001, been one of the Congress’s most prominent faces in the state.

But in August last year, Sarma switched loyalties to the BJP and, today, he insists that the Congress is irrelevant in the state. The “mainstream Assamese” would be represented in this election by the BJP, he said, while the “immigrant Bangladeshis” would support the All India United Democratic Front, or the AIUDF, a decade-old regional party founded and headed by Badruddin Ajmal, a 66-year-old Muslim preacher and businessman, who has come to represent Muslims of Bengali origin, living in the western region of Assam.

Protestors often target these Muslims, branding them illegal immigrants, though many have lived in the region for generations. The population of Assam is a rich weave that includes tribes, such as the Ahom, Chutiya, Koch Rajbongshi, Bodo and Mising; and other ethnicities, such as Naga, Mizo and Dimasa people; as well as Nepali, Punjabi, Marwari migrants, and Adivasis from the Jharkhand region, who were brought to the area in the late nineteenth century to work on tea plantations. All these communities are accepted within the state. But Bengalis, particularly Bengali Muslims, are often “accused” of being illegal Bangladeshi immigrants.

The movement to expel illegal immigrants, called the Assam Agitation, was launched in 1979, primarily by the All Assam Students Union, or AASU. After six years of protests, the agitators won a victory in 1985, when the central government signed the Assam Accord, in which it agreed to lay down guidelines for expelling illegal immigrants and vowed to ensure the state’s economic development. The same year, many of the movement’s leaders formed a new party, the Asom Gana Parishad, or AGP, which pushed for the implementation of the terms of the accord.

The accord was the first of two crucial developments, separated by 20 years, which sharply exacerbated the worries of Assam’s Muslims. The other pertained to the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, or the IMDT Act, passed by the state assembly in 1983, widely believed to have made it easier for immigrants to remain in the state. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down the act, declaring it unconstitutional. Both the accord and the Supreme Court’s order antagonised Muslims of Bengali origin, and both resulted in political moves to capitalise on the community’s fears. The accord’s signing was followed by the formation of a political party called the United Minorities Front; and the Supreme Court order was followed by the formation of Ajmal’s Assam United Democratic Front, later called the AIUDF.

Throughout, violent clashes between different communities and Muslims of Bengali origin continued, driving lakhs to refugee camps. In December 2014, the Supreme Court stepped in once again to try and address the problem. In response to three petitions filed by different civil society groups, the court instructed the Indian government to update the National Register of Citizens, or NRC, in Assam. The NRC, conceived more than 60 years ago, was aimed at collating a list of all Indian citizens. The project picked up steam in Assam after the court’s order. The NRC data, which will again rake up the issue of citizenship for Muslims of Bengali origin, will probably be at the centre of political skirmishes once they are released. But they are likely to be made public only after the elections, and so will not feature in campaigning.

The academic Monirul Hussain said that Ajmal’s “symbols, idioms are absolutely religious.” ARVIND YADAV / HINDUSTAN TIMES

Meanwhile, parties have launched aggressive election campaigns to capture power. For the BJP, Assam is the only state out of the four states and one union territory—the others are Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry—going to polls this year where the party stands a chance of winning, and not merely increasing its vote share. Either it or the Congress is likely to emerge as the single-largest party in this election. The contest for chief-ministership, then, will be between Tarun Gogoi, who presently holds the post, and Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP’s declared candidate.

But Sarma and Ajmal, two leaders who have little chance of becoming chief minister, will play crucial roles in the election and any negotiations that follow—Sarma as a formidable political strategist and Ajmal as the leader of a political party that is growing in strength, and whose support might be essential for either party to form the government in the state. “Is election ka ek alag mahattva hai” (This election has a unique significance), Sarma told me. If the BJP is not able to address the “core issue of identity” in the state, “then Ajmal is Assam’s future.”

IN 2006, Tarun Gogoi is said to have asked dismissively: who is Badruddin Ajmal?

Gogoi’s apparent derision of the new entrant into Assam’s politics proved to be ill-considered, after Ajmal’s outfit went on to make an impressive debut, winning ten assembly seats out of 126 in its first electoral contest, the 2006 assembly election. Its clout grew with each election it contested. Today, it has 18 seats in the assembly, making it the second-largest party. It also has three of the state’s 14 Lok Sabha seats—the same number as the Congress; it wrested two of those seats from the party in 2014.

In 2015, the AIUDF won more seats than the Congress in a local election. Soon after, at a public event, Ajmal asked, “Who is Tarun Gogoi?”

Ajmal’s party and his politics had taken on a more definite shape by this time. According to Monirul Hussain, a professor of politics and sociology at Gauhati University, Ajmal practices a politics that is deeply infused with religion. His “symbols, idioms are absolutely religious,” Hussain said. Ajmal had eroded the Congress’s Muslim support base, he added. But Hussain rued the fact that those Muslims were “not going for a very progressive, liberal kind of politics. I don’t think Badruddin Ajmal is the solution for Muslim politics.” The politician, he said, was “not trying to solve their problems institutionally.”

Muslims of Bengali origin—most of whom live in Lower Assam, the western region of the state, and in the Barak Valley, the southern districts—are quite poor, Hussain said. Barpeta and Dhubri, Lower Assam Lok Sabha constituencies represented by Ajmal and his brother, have among the lowest literacy rates in the state. These Muslims, Hussain said, are “absolutely under-represented,” not just in politics, but even in education. Instead of helping them, he added, Ajmal would say, “OK, I will give you one lakh for a madrasa.”

In late February, I travelled from Guwahati, Assam’s capital, to the town of Hojai, in central Assam, where Ajmal’s family has a palatial home. It is a little over 400 kilometres east of Dhubri. Assam is shaped like a Y that has tipped on its left side, and Hojai, located near the centre of the three arms, is a convenient town from which to access every part of the state.

Inhabitants of Assam’s river-islands lose substantial portions of their lands each year to erosion by the torrential Brahmaputra. BIJU BORO / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

The Ajmal House, as the family home is known, is one of Hojai’s best-known landmarks—along with the college and hospital run by the family—a ride of about five minutes in an autorickshaw from the town’s bus stand. Though the road to the house was poorly tarred, the gates, and the building and the compound within, all made for a picture of opulence. The beige three-storey house faced a lush, manicured garden with flowers, fountains and two blue-domed gazebos. Some 25 cars were parked next to the driveway. Another visitor at the house, a professor at a local college, pointed out a room on the first floor, and said it was known as the chief minister’s room, and that Tarun Gogoi had stayed there while visiting the town.

A guard directed me to a room where around ten others were waiting to meet Ajmal. One of his sons—two of them are members of the Assam legislative assembly—sat behind a desk, signing official letters. Though dressed modestly, in a white kurta-pyjama and skull cap, the Mont Blanc pen he was writing with and the Rolex watch on his wrist gave away his wealth.

Ajmal, who is now in his mid sixties, entered politics only about a decade ago. He gained his wealth from a family business in perfumes, started by his father, who moved from Hojai to Mumbai to build a fortune. The business proved successful, expanding across India and the Persian gulf. Ajmal primarily grew up in Mumbai before moving to study theology and Arabic at the Darul Uloom in Deoband, one of India’s most important centres of Islamic studies. These studies qualified him as a priest. He then returned to Mumbai to work in the family business. Today, Ajmal and his brothers run an empire that has expanded to include handicrafts, and real estate in India and abroad. Some of this wealth is channelled into three charitable institutions in the region, which have founded and funded hospitals, schools and scholarships.

As of 2014, Ajmal had declared assets worth Rs 43 crore. Juggling his roles as a businessman and politician, he constantly shuttles between Hojai, Dhubri, Guwahati, Delhi, Mumbai and the Persian Gulf. He is also the Assam chief of the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, or the Organisation of Indian Islamic Scholars. As a religious leader he is often asked to pray for his audience at political meetings, and sometimes to bless bowls of water that people bring to him, by blowing on them.

As Ajmal prepared to leave his house to attend a rally, his secretary directed me into one of his cavalcade’s four cars. We drove to a field on the outskirts of the town, where a few thousand people had gathered. Ajmal, dressed in a white kurta and pyjama, with a long, white beard, sat on stage on a red velvet-lined chair, as local leaders of his party addressed the crowd. After about two-and-a-half hours, he got up to speak. For around 30 minutes, he attacked both the Congress and BJP for their politics, without ever raising his tired, rusty voice. Speaking primarily in Assamese, interspersed with some Hindi, he promised to lock the Congress’s corruption and the BJP’s communalism in a godown and give people the key—a nod to his party’s election symbol, a padlock and a key.

After his speech, he thanked the audience and walked off the stage, accompanied by local leaders, his security officer and his assistant. As he headed towards his car, several people from the audience gathered around him. Most seemed to just want to touch him, while some asked for money. Ajmal’s assistant handed out either one or two 500-rupee notes to some of those who asked.

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta (second from left) led the AASU through the six-year Assam Agitation, and went on to form the AGP, and serve twice as Assam’s chief minister. PRAMOD PUSHKARNA / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

His assistant directed me into Ajmal’s car as he set off for another rally, in Jamunamukh, the assembly constituency of one of his sons. Seated next to the driver, he waved at villagers that we passed, some of whom waved back. As the crowd from the previous rally thinned around us, we spoke about his political career, and his prospects for the upcoming election.

Ajmal told me that his entry into politics was not particularly planned. Rather, it had followed naturally from his move, after his education in Deoband, to Assam, where his family sent him to handle its business and charitable work. “Whatever my father used to earn, he would religiously put aside 10 percent for the poor,” he said. He travelled around the state during that period. “Then I saw a lot of our tea-garden people, Nepali brothers, Adivasi brothers, Manipuri brothers, Karbi, Dimasa, were even worse off than Muslims,” he said. “There was nobody to look after them.” He realised, he told me, that even “a thousand Ajmal families” doing charitable work would have limited effect without political power. “Majbooran, public demand se,” he said, he was forced to enter politics, in 2005.

I asked him about the more common account of the party’s origins: that it had been created to capitalise on the anxieties of Muslims after the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT Act in July 2005. The law had permitted those who had entered the state up to 25 March 1971 to be considered Indian citizens, and made the process of identifying supposedly illegal immigrants more complex; it was thus seen as protecting them. “No, there is nothing like that,” Ajmal insisted, adding that his move was not related to the IMDT Act. “Even a single Bangladeshi, even a single foreigner who has come here after 25 March 1971, he should leave, he needs to leave, and we won’t allow him to stay.”

This was at odds with a detailed account I was given a few weeks earlier by Hafiz Rashid Ahmed Choudhury, a senior lawyer in the Gauhati High Court and one of the founders, and a former working president, of the AIUDF’s initial avatar. Choudhury told me that a day after the Supreme Court struck down the IMDT, he called leaders of 13 Muslim religious organisations, including the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Ahle Sunnat. They discussed a course of action to protect the “minority” from being harassed.

Over the next few weeks, Choudhury said, there were a total of 39 meetings across Assam, after which they decided to create a political party. At the time, Choudhury was the head of the United Minority Front, the party formed after the Assam Accord in 1985, which never became a major force. He said they decided to create a new party and merge the UMF with it. “We decided to drop M from UMF,” he said, and replace it with D, for democratic. “As others won’t come otherwise, because it said ‘minority,’” he said. He claimed that the party was named in his residence. It was formed to deal with the “foreigners’ issue,” “minority issues” and other matters.

In the car from Hojai, I asked Ajmal if the AIUDF would be kingmaker in this election, something many people I had spoken to had predicted, including politicians from the BJP and the AGP. “Dua kare Allah kare kingmaker ho jaye” (Let’s pray, God willing, we will become a kingmaker), he said. The Congress and the BJP tell journalists that the AIUDF is the kingmaker, he added, “but both parties want to destroy us. And if the Congress and BJP come together to do it in the end, it won’t be surprising.”

The Congress and BJP spend hundreds of crores in state elections, he said, unlike smaller parties. I asked him what his own party’s budget was for the upcoming election. There was silence. I peered over the seat to find that he had fallen asleep in the few seconds before I had finished my question. His assistant, seated behind me, told me that Ajmal had reached Hojai late last night and had been up since three in the morning. I decided not to disturb him—the long hours, with another rally to go, were bound to be a strain on him. I asked the assistant to drop me off anywhere on the highway. He pulled out a few 500-rupee notes and held them out to me, saying they were for “chai-paani.” I refused, thanked him and stepped out onto the highway to find a vehicle that could take me back to Hojai.

AJMAL'S LOK SABHA CONSTITUENCY, Dhubri, is the second most populated district of Assam. Nearly 80 percent of its population of approximately 20 lakh is Muslim, according to the 2011 census data. Dhubri town, the district headquarters, is larger than most other district headquarters in the state, but remains poorly developed, its streets narrow and crowded, and lined with old buildings.

The stories surrounding some of the town’s religious sites suggest that it has been influenced by a variety of cultural currents. Important figures from Hindu, Sikh and Islamic lore have all travelled through the town. The Panch Peer, a shrine on the banks of the Brahmaputra, which flows through the district, was built in 1666, to commemorate five Sufi saints who passed through Dhubri. They accompanied a Mughal army travelling to battle an Ahom king. The ninth Sikh Guru, Teg Bahadur, also travelled with the Mughal soldiers, and established a gurdwara in Dhubri. The Sikh leader chose the site because it was where the first Sikh Guru, Nanak, had met Srimanta Sankardeva, a sixteenth-century Hindu reformist who still has millions of followers in Assam.

Travelling along the Brahmaputra, the Bangladesh border is around 15 kilometres from the shrine. The surface of the river is dotted with islands, called chars, which many people in Assam allege are inhabited by illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

In mid February, I travelled to one of these chars from Dhubri, riding for several kilometres on a motorcycle over cool, white sand—the dry riverbed of the Brahmaputra. Every year, around April, the water level starts rising, first covering these vast stretches of sand, and then, during the wettest months, from June to August, submerging villages on the chars—and sometimes entire chars. Villagers are habituated to the river’s rhythms, and, during the months of flood, usually move to elevated cemented platforms on the chars, built by the government.

Those living on the approximately 2,000 river islands lose pieces of their homes every year, as the powerful current erodes the land. Even as I travelled along the river, I could see pieces of land crumble from the edges of chars, and get swept away by the water. Faiz Ali, who spoke to me while working in his paddy field on Bashani char, said that he had lost ten bigha of land, or three acres, in the last year alone. Another man, Mohammad Ali Hussain, whom I met in a village on Majitbhita char, in Barpeta district, also said that his father had lost three acres to erosion, and that his family was now living on a neighbour’s land. Like most young men of the chars, Hussain—who told me he was 21, but looked like a teenager—worked regularly as a daily wage labourer in different cities across India: Lucknow, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai.

The residents of the two chars—neither of which are electrified—told me that the government had given them no help in fighting poverty. Even during their annual floods, the most they received as relief from the administration was a few kilograms of ration, mostly rice and pulses. Hussain, along with three of his brothers, worked in cities for many months through the year to fund the education of their youngest brother, in the hope that he would be able to pull the family out of poverty.

A friend of Hussain’s, who sat nearby as we spoke, and who migrates to Guwahati for most of the year to work as a rickshaw-puller, told me that he was often targeted by locals there, including by policemen, who harassed him and called him a Bangladeshi. But he, and everyone else I met on the chars in Dhubri and Barpeta, denied that they were Bangladeshi nationals. They told me that they had submitted the proof of their citizenship to the National Register of Citizens.

None of these people I met in these river islands said they would vote for the AIUDF in the election, since, they said, the party had done nothing to alleviate their plight. Faiz Ali told me that he would vote for the Congress because, since the last election, the sitting AIUDF MLA had not been seen in the village. The women of his family, standing inside the house’s boundary wall, said something in Bengali, which I couldn’t understand. When I asked Ali, he said they had liked Ajmal, and had voted for him. What did he promise? I asked them. “Nothing,” one of the women replied. “Just his blessings.”

IN A 1931 REPORT, a British census superintendent described the migration of Muslims from East Bengal to the Assam region as a “movement of a large body of ants.” This “invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry immigrants, mostly Muslims,” he wrote, was likely “to alter permanently the whole feature of Assam and to destroy the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilization.” He compared the migrants to scavengers, writing, “wheresoever the carcass, there the vultures will be gathered together.”

It was an early expression of the kind of anxiety that would roil the state for decades. At the heart of these fears was the question of who was Assamese and who an outsider. This has been among the most intractable problems in Indian history, with multiple government bodies trying to arrive at a precise definition. But the endeavour remains a deeply fraught one.

Even the question of what territory should constitute Assam has been a contentious one. The British government’s first proposal for India’s partition, the cabinet mission plan of 1946, marked Assam as one of the regions, like Bengal, that would be divided between India and Pakistan. At first, the proposal to divide the region was accepted by both the Congress and the Muslim League. But later, Mohandas Gandhi and the Assamese leader Gopinath Bordoloi, who would become the first chief minister of the state, opposed it. “It would be wrong that Kashmir is the only dispute that divides India and Pakistan, though undoubtedly the most significant,” the Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto wrote in his 1969 book, The Myth of Independence. “One at least is nearly as important as the Kashmir dispute, that of Assam and some districts of India adjacent to East Pakistan. To these Pakistan has very good claims.”

After the region came to India, tensions simmered between those who saw themselves as pure Assamese, and those who were of Bengali origin—even if the latter had lived in Assam for generations. The situation came to a boil in March 1979, when the member of the Lok Sabha from the Lower Assam constituency of Mangaldoi died unexpectedly. As the election commission updated the rolls of the constituency in preparation for a by-election to fill the seat, it received complaints that thousands of names were of “suspect nationality,” according to a 2012 white paper by the Assam government.

On 8 June 1979, the state’s most prominent student organisation, AASU, called for a 12-hour general strike, demanding the “detection, disenfranchisement and deportation” of foreigners across the state. It was the first step of an aggressive six-year movement, the Assam Agitation, led by the AASU, aimed at safeguarding the interests of the Assamese population against a perceived threat of outsiders.

Muslims of Bengali origin in Lower Assam and the Barak Valley, are often assumed to be illegal immigrants, and perceived as a threat to the Assamese identity BCCL

The next year, 1980, the AASU called for a boycott of the general election, scheduled for January. The boycott prevented polling in all but two of the state’s 14 constituencies, both in the Bengali-dominated districts of the Barak Valley, and effectively demonstrated to the Indian government that it could not ignore the agitation.

After the election, the AASU president, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, wrote a letter to the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, drawing her attention to the “alarming situation created by unabated infiltration from the neighbouring countries.” He wrote that the problem had existed since Independence, and had now “assumed such magnitude that the very existence of the indigenous population is threatened.”

To stress the gravity of the problem, Mahanta presented a comparison of Assam’s population growth rate to that of India’s. Between 1951 and 1961, when India’s population had grown by 21.64 percent, Assam saw a 34.98 percent rise in its population, the letter pointed out. Over the next decade, the Indian population rose by 24.8 percent—“one of the highest in the world”—while Assam witnessed a 34.95 percent spurt.

“There is absolutely no other explanation for this extremely high increase of population other than that of influx of foreigners,” Mahanta wrote.

The protestors and the government then began a phase of tense, protracted negotiations. These discussions circled interminably around one point: the cut-off date by which people needed to have been within Assam to be considered Assamese, and thus, Indian citizens. Everywhere else in India, this date was 19 July 1948, as laid down by Article 6 of the Indian constitution. In Assam, however, for a variety of reasons, this deadline has shifted over the years, and been a constant source of conflict.

In April 1951, the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, taking into account the humanitarian crisis created by Partition, had signed an agreement to extend the date to 31 December 1951 for border regions. Despite this agreement, migration to Assam from East Pakistan continued. In 1972, the Indian government made another attempt to draw a firm line in time, coming to an understanding with Bangladesh that any person who had crossed over from the country since it was created, on 26 March 1971, would be sent back—in effect, implying that those who had come before could stay.

When the AASU began their negotiations with Indira Gandhi, this latter date became a point of fierce dispute. Gandhi insisted that the 1971 date be adhered to. The AASU fought hard against this, pushing for a much earlier cut-off.

But the Indian government did not yield, and, in 1983, passed the IMDT Act, which laid down the 1971 date as a deadline. The enactment of the law was particularly controversial because Assam was poorly represented in the parliament at the time. The AASU’s boycott of the 1980 general election had ensured that only two out of 14 Lok Sabha seats from the state were filled then; five more seats were filled in 1983.

When the Indian government organised a state election in 1983, the AASU again announced a boycott. (In some regions, Bengali-speakers defied the boycott, and were attacked. The most horrific of these incidents was the Nellie massacre, in which thousands of Muslims of Bengali origin were butchered. No perpetrators were ever prosecuted for the killings.) MS Prabhakara, a special correspondent for The Hindu wrote, in July 2005, that “the majority of the constituencies in the Brahmaputra Valley, remained unrepresented throughout the life of the Seventh Lok Sabha. It was this Lok Sabha that passed the IMDT Act.”

The law remained in force till 12 July 2005, when the Supreme Court struck it down, declaring it unconstitutional. The petitioner in the case was Sarbananda Sonowal, then a leader with the AGP, now the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate.

Political circumstances have forced Assam’s two senior-most leaders, Sarbananda Sonowal (left) and Himanta Biswa Sarma (right) to set aside their fierce rivalry and work together ahead of the 2016 election. ANUWAR HAZARIKA / DEMOTIX / CORBIS

IN 2014, THE SUPREME COURT, responding to multiple petitions that had come up before it, intervened once again on the question of illegal immigrants in Assam. A bench comprising Rohinton Nariman and Ranjan Gogoi ordered the government of India to take certain steps to “prevent illegal access to the country from Bangladesh” and to “detect and deport all illegal migrants.” Among the measures the court prescribed was the updating of the National Register for Citizens in Assam by January 2016.

This project was first undertaken in 1951. After the first census of independent India, the government decided to create a database of everyone who had been enumerated. This database, the NRC, was stored with district authorities, but was never updated, and was rarely used.

The effort to update the NRC in Assam, however, is a high-profile, high-stakes project. The office was revived and injected with fresh funding after the Supreme Court order, allowing it to acquire a swanky multi-storey building in Guwahati, off the trunk road that connects the city to undivided Assam’s capital, Shillong.

I visited the office one afternoon towards the end of February to meet Prateek Hajela, the NRC’s coordinator in Assam. Inside, the walls of the reception were lined with television screens that displayed information for visitors about the project’s progress, with colourful charts and data for each district. Hajela sat at a broad desk in his room, with five active screens arrayed before him: an iPhone, an iPad Pro, a laptop, a desktop and a television tuned to a news channel. His fingers flitted between screens as he told me about the mammoth task before him, and the vast amounts of data the office was processing.

To determine whether people are legal residents of India, Hajela’s office works with a mind-boggling range of data sources: the original NRC, Assam’s electoral rolls, school records, birth certificates, licences and passports, among others. For each person who submits a form to the office to be registered as an Indian citizen, Hajela’s office matches information in the form to available data from these multiple sources, to confirm that the individual did not enter India after 25 March 1971.

The office also asks people to submit details of their family trees with their forms, which the representatives verify, to ensure that people do not fake relationships to claim citizenship. Submitted documents are also sent for authentication to the source from which they were issued, whether a school, hospital or other government authorities. As an additional layer of verification, NRC representatives also visit each house to cross-check that the information provided to the office is accurate.

Hajela said that according to the 2011 census, there were 64 lakh families in Assam, but that he had received forms from 68 lakh families, along with a total of 6.6 crore supporting documents. He told me that 95 percent of the door-to-door verification had been completed; and that, overall, the verification process, including checking documents at their sources, was around 34 percent complete, as of late February. He hoped to finish the document-verification process by March or April, and then bring out a first draft of the NRC. Based on this draft, people whose documents were found to be fake—and he had found many already, he said—would be given a second opportunity to either furnish fresh documents or prove that their documents were original.

The exact number of illegal immigrants in the state is a matter of much speculation, but is, for now, not known with any degree of precision. Nevertheless, some numbers have been thrown around. Perhaps the best-known claim dates back to July 2004, when India’s minister of state for home affairs, Sriprakash Jaiswal, told the parliament that, as of 31 December 2001, there were 1.2 crore illegal Bangladeshis in India, of whom 50 lakh were in Assam. (The home ministry later withdrew this figure, saying it was based on “hearsay.”)

When I asked Hajela how many illegal immigrants he had been able to identify so far, he hesitated to answer, aware of the political ramifications of releasing any such data around the election. But he said they were “in thousands” and “not in lakhs.” Extrapolating from this range, and considering that the office has covered a third of the population, it seems unlikely that the number of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam will be anywhere close to the number Jaiswal claimed.

It isn’t only Hajela’s assertion that suggests that fears of outsiders overrunning the state may be exaggerated. In 1980, the AASU had cited population data to Indira Gandhi to argue that there was uncontrolled immigration into the state. But population figures from 1991 onwards suggest that the discrepancy between Assam and India has reduced. Between 1991 and 2001, Assam’s population grew by 18.9 percent, compared to a 21.5 percent growth for India. Between 2001 and 2011, Assam’s population growth of 17.07 percent was marginally less than India’s 17.64 percent.

Prodyut Bora, the former BJP leader, rejected the theories of large-scale migration to Assam. He argued that Bangladeshis would have “very little, if any” motivation to migrate to Assam, since all indicators of development “in Bangladesh are better than Assam.” Indeed, Assam’s Human Development Index value of 0.341, in 2011, was well below Bangladesh’s value of 0.559 that year. “What incentive today does a Bangladeshi have to come to Assam?” Bora asked. If anything, he claimed, the state might function as a transit point for any Bangladeshis entering India. “Assam might be a staging field, to get their paperwork” done here and then “move to other parts” of India, he said.

Despite this uncertainty over the numbers, influential government figures have in the past brazenly held forth on the grave danger to the local population. Some of these statements have entered the particularly ominous territory of conflating religion with nationality. No less than the governor of Assam, SK Sinha, voiced this kind of paranoia, in November 1998, in a report he submitted to the president of India, on illegal migration into the state. He wrote:

The dangerous consequences of large scale illegal migration from Bangladesh, both for the people of Assam and more for the Nation as a whole, need to be empathetically stressed. No misconceived and mistaken notions of secularism should be allowed to come in the way of doing so.

As a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home state. Their cultural survival will be in jeopardy, their political control will be weakened and their employment opportunities will be undermined.

The silent and invidious demographic invasion of Assam may result in the loss of the geo-strategically vital districts of lower Assam. The influx of illegal migrants is turning these districts into a Muslim majority region. It will then only be a matter of time when a demand for their merger with Bangladesh may be made. The rapid growth of international Islamic fundamentalism may provide the driving force for this demand. In this context, it is pertinent that Bangladesh has long discarded secularism and has chosen to become an Islamic State. Loss of lower Assam will severe [sic] the entire land mass of the North East, from the rest of India and the rich natural resources of that region will be lost to the Nation.

More recently, in October 2015, a one-man commission of the senior advocate Upamanyu Hazarika submitted a report to the Supreme Court on the “India-Bangladesh international boundary.” In the report, Hazarika cited a representation made to the commission by an “eminent civil engineer” named Indrajit Barua. According to Hazarika, Barua had undertaken a “statistical analysis of the change in demographic pattern.” Barua claimed to have used population growth figures to arrive at the finding that Assam’s indigenous population would become a minority by 2047.

PARTIES IN ASSAM have used the anxieties that such claims generate to stake out political territory. Ajmal’s AIUDF has made major gains among Muslims who fear persecution. The BJP’s recent posturing suggests it is seeking to usurp the role of an anti-outsider party from the group that first claimed it—Mahanta’s AGP.

Mahanta made a strong debut, coming to power in the 1985 election. But his party’s position among voters has slipped steadily over the years, notwithstanding a second win in the 1996 assembly election. It lost to the Congress in 2001, winning 20 out of 126 seats. In 2011, it won just ten seats, eight less than the AIUDF. And in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it won no seats, while the BJP made a dramatic gain. The party, then, is fighting this election to stay relevant.

In mid February, I met Mahanta in a hospital in Guwahati, where he was recovering from a car accident he had been in around a week earlier. The AGP’s return to power “is not possible in 2016,” Mahanta told me, blaming “division within the leadership” and the fact that “many leaders have left the party.” He also blamed two external factors for the party’s weakened position: “insurgent groups” that had threatened voters against the AGP; and a “change in population pattern”—an allusion to the rising Muslim population.

An alliance, then, could be key to helping the AGP remain an important player. By the time I met Mahanta, the AGP had been in talks with the BJP for months about a possible partnership. The same day that I met him, the AGP’s executive council was convening to decide whether or not to proceed with the tie-up. Mahanta told me that he felt an alliance would “hurt” the AGP because the two parties shared the same vote bank in the state. “Personally, I feel AGP should stand up on its own feet,” he said.

The BJP wasn’t uniformly in favour of an alliance, either. A day before I met Mahanta, some BJP members from Lower Assam constituencies protested outside the party’s state headquarters in Guwahati. A senior AGP leader told me that the protest was organised by Sonowal, who had quit the AGP in 2011 to join the BJP. The leader said Ram Madhav, the BJP’s general secretary, who was in charge of the Assam election, had admitted in a meeting with the AGP’s leaders that Sonowal was against the tie-up.

But, in a sign of divisions between the two top BJP leaders in the state, Himanta Biswa Sarma, like Madhav, supported the alliance. When I met Sarma, on the same morning that I met Mahanta, he told me that the BJP was ready for the alliance, and the “ball was entirely in AGP’s court.”

But the parties’ negotiations had snagged on the question of seat-sharing, specifically on the number of seats that the BJP would allow AGP candidates to contest without fielding its own contender. The AGP had demanded 48 seats, I was told by various AGP and BJP leaders, but the BJP had offered it only around 20. “Ultimately, alliance discussions are about seat-sharing,” Mahanta said to me. “You can put a nice sentence about ideology, but it is seat-sharing” that creates alliances. At the AGP’s executive council meeting in mid February, the body decided against the alliance.

But the BJP did not give up. Durga Das Boro, the vice-president of the AGP till 1 March, when he quit to join the Congress, told me that soon after the general body meeting, Madhav got in touch with the acting president of the AGP, Keshab Mahanta. Boro said Madhav invited AGP leaders to Delhi to hold further discussions. At the end of February, Keshab and the AGP president, Atul Bora, along with a few other senior leaders, travelled to Delhi to meet the BJP president, Amit Shah, along with Madhav, Sarma, Sonowal and others. On 2 March, they announced the alliance.

The details of the negotiations are revealing of the delicate balancing act that politicians perform while forming alliances. On 1 March, before the alliance was announced, Boro told me that the BJP had enhanced its offer to the AGP to a combination of around 20 seats where they had a strong chance of winning, and around 10 seats where their chances were weak. This was a common approach to crafting alliances, Boro explained. But when the seat-sharing arrangement was declared, on 3 March, the BJP seemed to have whittled down its offer, giving the AGP only 24 seats.

The announcement of the alliance caused turbulence within the AGP’s and BJP’s ranks. This is not uncommon, since seat-sharing inevitably upsets the party candidates who are denied tickets that go to alliance partners. Around the time the seat-sharing formula was announced, I met Rupam Goswami, a state spokesperson for the BJP, in his office in Guwahati. Reports of BJP and AGP members ransacking their own party offices in different parts of the state were doing the rounds.

When I asked Goswami if the party’s electoral performance would be dented by the cadre’s unruly behaviour, I received a bizarre response. He insisted that I had misinterpreted the violence entirely. “In 2011, Congress ka itna offices tod-phod hua hai, sabse Congress ka offices toda gaya tha” (In 2011, so many Congress offices were attacked), he said. “Because of popularity.” So if a party is popular, the cadre ransacks its offices? I asked him. Yes, he said confidently. It’s only when the cadre feels that there is “confirmation”—that the party is certain to win a particular constituency—that disappointed hopefuls of that ticket attack the offices.

ITS ALLIANCE WITH THE AGP SEALED, the BJP now poses a significant challenge to the Congress. But its careful planning could be weakened by the rivalry between its two senior-most leaders in the state: Sarma and Sonowal.

The two politicians are a study in contrasts. This was evident at a rally I attended in Guwahati on 31 January that both were at, three days after Sonowal was declared the party’s chief ministerial candidate. He flew into the city, and was received at the airport by party functionaries, including Sarma and Mahendra Singh, the BJP’s prabhari for Assam, in charge of the party’s functioning in the state. The group drove to the BJP headquarters in central Guwahati. A few hundred metres from the office, a temporary stage had been constructed on a vacant plot, to felicitate Sonowal. When the cavalcade reached the office, Sonowal emerged and walked to the stage, greeted by drumbeats and chants: Long live the BJP! Long live Narendra Modi! Long live Amit Shah! Long live Sarbananda Sonowal!

Sarma, Singh and Sonowal sat on stage, before a crowd of around two thousand, the chief ministerial candidate flanked by the others. Taking the mic, Singh looked at Sarma and Sonowal. The two together, he told the audience, were “treta yug ke Ram-Lakshman jaisi jodi”—a pair like Ram and Lakshman. Then, mixing his epics, he described the political battle ahead of them as “Mahabharat ka yudhh.

From the two rallies at which I heard them, it was apparent that Sarma was the far more charismatic public speaker. He knew how to charm a crowd, interact with it and play off responses. Sonowal, on the other hand, treated his listeners as obedient spectators. In both rallies, Sonowal, as the senior figure, spoke later, but couldn’t keep up the crackling energy that Sarma had left the audience with.

Sarma’s arrival has, indeed, considerably charged up the BJP’s campaign in Assam, and given it firmer hold on the state’s politics. Though it was widely assumed that he had first approached the party, I discovered that the BJP had, in fact, mounted a persistent campaign to win him over from the Congress, which he had been with for more than two decades. Sonowal, I learnt, had attempted to thwart the plan.

The BJP’s state president between August 2014 and November 2015, Siddhartha Bhattacharya, whom I met in his Guwahati office, told me that when he took over as state president, Sarma was already in talks with Ram Madhav and others. “They made out the blueprint,” he told me, referring to Madhav and his associates. “It was me who carried out that blueprint.”

Bhattacharya said that Sarma had been feeling suffocated in the Congress, but was equally apprehensive about his future in the BJP. “So that needed lots of negotiations,” Bhattacharya told me. Sarma, he said, is an “intelligent man. And very ambitious as well. It is almost like playing with fire.” Sarma also has “substantial influence” and “lots of money,” he said, adding that he controlled two of the largest news brands in the state: News Live, “the topmost” regional news channel; and the Niyomiya Barta newspaper, which is “also picking up.” “So all these things were in his favour,” Bhattacharya said.

The BJP needed to break its rival to rise in the state’s politics, Bhattacharya said, “and, obviously, we were looking for a lateral fault line in Congress.” His job, he said, was “to go for a surgical strike and I did that with him.” He described the process of poaching Sarma as “almost like a cloak-and-dagger operation. Very hush-hush and lots of persuasion and lots of hard work.”

The plan was to come to fruition in July 2015, when Bhattacharya travelled with Sarma to Delhi, “and he was supposed to join the next day.” Though the plan was a secret, Bhattacharya told me that, somehow, the news leaked, “from his”—Sarma’s—“side maybe.”

According to Bhattacharya, Sonowal, “in desperation,” attempted to block the move. He and the junior union home minister, Kiren Rijiju, held a press conference in Delhi, alleging that Sarma had emerged as a “key suspect” in the Louis Berger scam. The American firm had admitted in a court in the United States earlier that month that it had bribed officials and politicians across the world to win projects. It said it had bribed Indian officials in Goa and Assam for water development projects in 2010, when Sarma was the heading the relevant ministry in the state. “That was actually Sarbananda Sonowal who brought along Rijiju also,” Bhattacharya said of the press conference. Just 24 hours ahead of the press conference to induct Sarma, “this huge news breaks.” Of course, what looked like a BJP offensive against a Congress politician was, in fact, an internal BJP attack. Sarma’s inductionwas stalled.

Bhattacharya and Sarma went to meet Amit Shah, to prove that the allegations were unsubstantiated. Shah was persuaded, and apparently told Bhattacharya, “Yeh toh galti hua. Phir toh galti hua toh uska sudhaarna hai” (We have committed a mistake, it should be rectified). Sarma formally joined the BJP on 21 August, exactly a month after Sonowal and Rijiju’s press conference. Bhattacharya’s satisfaction with his orchestration of the plan was evident from the way he described it. A framed photograph hung on the wall behind him, of Sarma, Mahendra Singh and himself, all with beaming smiles, from the felicitation ceremony in Guwahati where Sarma was welcomed into the BJP.

Bhattacharya said Sarma and Sonowal were working together now. “Well, sometimes necessities makes very strange bedfellows,” he said. “The necessity is on both of them.” According to him, Sonowal is neither “a very firm administrator” nor “a very good organisational man.” So, he explained, Sonowal is dependent on Sarma, who has these qualities. Sarma, meanwhile, is “compelled” to work with Sonowal because if he “raises the dissenting voice within BJP,” like he did against Tarun Gogoi in the Congress, then people will mark him out as a permanent dissenter, Bhattacharya said. “So he has no option but to fall in line.”

A key reason Sarma was able to overcome internal opposition from the BJP was that he had the support of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Prodyut Bora, who cited Sarma’s entry as one of his reasons for leaving the BJP, told me that before he left, one top functionary each from the BJP and the RSS had approached him, and asked him not to block Sarma’s entry.

Indeed, the RSS generally appears to be taking a significant interest in Assam. Bhattacharya told me that the BJP’s “remote-control” had a say in the party’s affairs in the state. Ram Madhav and Ram Lal, both former senior RSS functionaries who have been on deputation to the BJP, are heading the Assam campaign. Senior state leaders of the BJP told me that while they directly report to Amit Shah, they also regularly brief Krishna Gopal, RSS’s sah-sarakaryavah, or joint general secretary, who coordinates between the BJP and its parent organisation.

The anti-immigrant shades of the state’s politics comfortably match the RSS’s ideology. At the RSS national executive council meeting in November 2012, Gopal had demanded the expulsion of all Bangladeshi immigrants, stating that their “unabated influx” was a “serious threat” to national integration. The organisation also passed a resolution on Muslim-Bodo riots that occurred in July 2012, around the Dhubri and Kokrajhar districts in Assam. In the resolution the RSS “strongly” condemned “the violence perpetrated by Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators.”

THE CONGRESS IN ASSAM generally eschews firm positions on the state’s most prominent issue. According to a veteran BJP national leader, the party has traditionally had a strong base among the “Ali, coolie, Bengali” populations—Muslims, tea-garden workers and Bengalis. Congress practically doesn’t do anything and still takes people along,” Joydeep Biswas, an economics professor at Assam University, told me. Often, this extends to maintaining double standards, he argued. He cited the example of the Congress politicians Rajiv Gandhi and Hiteshwar Saikia, a former chief minister. Both signed the Assam Accord with the AASU, Biswas said, thereby “giving legitimacy” to what he described as a “xenophobic agitation.” But “they also kept the border porous” allowing people to register, “for votes.”

Gogoi has successfully practiced this noncommittal politics for three terms. His hold on power has been particularly firm because of the Gandhi family’s trust in him. One Congress legislator told me about a comment that Rahul Gandhi made that indicated how deep this trust ran. Rahul, according to the legislator, said that his father, Rajiv, had told him that Tarun Gogoi was the only politician who, after elections, or other party expenses, would return the money that had been given to him. Gogoi does not enjoy that kind of reputation any more, but, according to the legislator, “Rahul Gandhi really likes him.” The legislator said, “He is the tallest leader we have and the biggest liability we have. What will work for us, let’s see.”

It was under Gogoi that Himanta Biswa Sarma built his political career. From 2001 onwards, he headed many key portfolios, including health, finance, education and public works. As Gogoi entered his late seventies, Sarma, in his early forties, took on more responsibilities in running the government. It was he, and not Gogoi, who interacted with MLAs regularly, various senior Congress leaders told me, making him a de-facto chief minister to them. “He was practically running the government,” the Congress legislator told me. “Gogoi was the father, Himanta was the mother.”

Sarma was in charge of the 2011 state election, where he steered the party to victory. He hoped to take over from Gogoi after this, but was stymied. By 2012, his ambition to replace Gogoi was public. According to one senior Congress leader in the state, he “was actively prodded” by high-level leaders, including Ahmed Patel and Digvijaya Singh.

But Sarma tells a different story. On a February morning, I met him at his six-month-old bungalow. The house was the combined width of four houses across the road, and as deep as at least two houses along its side. Sarma wore shorts, a casual T-shirt and running shoes, ready for a jog on his treadmill. Sarma told me that after he “informally led the campaign” for the 2011 assembly elections, the Congress won a resounding 78 out of the 126 seats. But Gogoi, he told me, took this to be “his personal victory.” The success “went to his head” and he “started promoting his brother and his son.”

Unhappy with Gogoi’s performance and behaviour, Sarma said he went to meet Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, who gave him a patient hearing. “But Rahul Gandhi put his foot down, that ‘I will decide the chief minister.’” Rahul, Sarma told me, “only sees blue blood”—that is, he has “more respect for people whose parents were in the party.” Sarma felt that Rahul Gandhi was arrogant and did not understand politics. “If his dog comes” in the middle of a meeting, “he loses interest,” in the conversation, Sarma said. He clarified that “it is not about the dog, but it shows disrespect.”

“Mrs Gandhi had the opinion that Gogoi needs to be changed, but Rahul bulldozed” that idea, Sarma continued. Between 2013 and 2014, Sarma told me, he had multiple meetings with Rahul and Sonia, even organising a signature campaign of Congress MLAs to prove that the numbers were against Gogoi. The Congress high command sent the senior leader Mallikarjun Kharge to Assam as an observer on the matter, after Sarma had gathered signatures from 53 MLAs. But Rahul stuck with Gogoi. Sarma insisted that there was nothing wrong with being ambitious, but said he wasn’t eyeing the chief-ministership for himself—he just wanted Gogoi replaced.

Sarma said that after a meeting with Rahul and other senior functionaries in July 2015, he decided that he would leave the party. He claimed that it was only after this decision that he approached the BJP and met Ram Madhav—a claim that appears to be a lie, going by Bhattacharya’s account of the long-drawn negotiating process that had started before August 2014.

Sarma attributed his decision to switch parties to “two or three personal issues,” including the peculiar justifications that he “deeply believed in Indian culture.” One reason he gave was more recognisably political, and a possible sign of the direction the BJP will take in the state. He said the issue of Assamese identity was very important for him, and that he believed that the Congress “doesn’t sympathise with the Assam cause.”

The “Hazarika report has confirmed the worst fear” of the mainstream Assamese people, he said. In the “next 20 years,” Assam’s population “will lose its identity.” Even the 2011 census report “comes as an evidence,” he said. “Congress has not addressed these issues.”

THE RESULTS OF THE ASSAM ELECTION will be announced on 19 May, along with those of the other, concurrent, elections. Neither the BJP nor the Congress has a strong chance to win any of the other contests. Assam is the only state where the two national parties are the main contenders. If the BJP and its allies win, it would be the party’s first electoral victory in the Northeast. If the Congress wins, it would mark its first major electoral victory since 2014, providing much needed motivation to its cadre across the nation.

The BJP’s momentum has been significantly slowed by losses in assembly elections, most recently in Bihar at the end of 2015. That result drastically altered the political scenario across the country. Six or seven months ago, the Assam election “would have had been a disaster for Congress,” Nani Gopal Mahanta, the head of the political-science department at Gauhati University, said. “Modi’s honeymoon period is over.” He said that the “anti-establishment” sentiment, “which was against Congress, is slightly getting transferred to BJP too.” Like many other people I met, he, too, predicted an unstable political future for the state.

After the BJP’s defeat in Bihar, some of Assam’s key players scrambled to devise strategies to take on the party. Tarun Gogoi, Badruddin Ajmal and Prafulla Kumar Mahanta were all involved in meetings to discuss potential alliances. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these discussions was the repeated appearance of one person: the campaign strategist Prashant Kishor, who had overseen the win in Bihar for the Nitish Kumar-led alliance. “Immediately after the Bihar elections, Prashant Kishor was sent to Assam,” and he filed a report to Nitish Kumar, Nani Gopal Mahanta said. “Nitish Kumar wanted a non-BJP government” in Assam, which would be “comfortable for him as well,” Prafulla Kumar Mahanta told me.

Several people—who were either part of these discussion or were aware of them—told me of multiple meetings, in different combinations, between Kishor and these politicians. These included gatherings in Bihar in November, around the time of Nitish Kumar’s swearing-in, and in the lawyer Ram Jethmalani’s house in Delhi, in December. Mahanta told me that Kishor said there were two possible alliance formulas that could win Assam in 2016: either an AGP, BJP and Bodoland People’s Front alliance; or an AGP, Congress and Bodoland People’s Front alliance. But Mahanta told Jethmalani and Kishor that the AGP “on principle” could not align with the Congress because it was during the Congress’s rule in the state that the Assam Agitation erupted, leading to the oft-cited death toll of 855.

Ajmal told me that he had at least three meetings with Kishor and Nitish Kumar, to try and engineer a Bihar-style Mahagathbandhan, or super alliance, with the Congress and the AGP. According to him, he was rebuffed by both parties, and even his suggestion of a tacit alliance with the Congress—where parties secretly reach agreements between themselves on allotting constituencies, so as to help each other gain vote share—was rejected. It is perhaps a sign of how polarised this campaign is that both the BJP and the Congress have traded accusations of being in a secret alliance with the AIUDF, each trying to use the suggestion of an association with a Muslim party as a way to taint the rival. When I spoke to him in early March, Ajmal denied that he had allied with either of the two parties.

Kishor, meanwhile, continues to be associated with multiple parties, even those that are in competition with each other. Ajmal said Kishor was advising the AIUDF “on a personal level.” Meanwhile, the strategist has been given charge of the Congress’s campaigns for the 2017 elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, as part of which he is in continuous contact with Rahul Gandhi.

The BJP managed to create one of the two winning formulas Kishor had spelled out, joining hands first with the BPF, and then the AGP. Its power to bargain with its partners was dented after its Bihar loss. According to Durga Das Boro, a former vice-president of AGP, before the Bihar results, the AGP “ro raha tha, humein le lo” (was crying, take us). But after Bihar, the party also opened a line of negotiation with the Congress. And though it had earlier been willing to ally with the BJP for an allocation of 12 seats, it now raised its demand.

According to a Congress legislator, Tarun Gogoi (right), who has been the chief minister of Assam since 2001, is the party’s “tallest leader” and “biggest liability.” SANJEEV VERMA / HINDUSTAN TIMES

But Bihar’s impact went beyond the alliances, Nani Gopal Mahanta said. According to him, Tarun Gogoi was “trying to replicate Nitish Kumar” by saying “Main Ahom, BJP leadership bahaari hai” (I am indigenous, the BJP leadership is from outside), imitating Kumar’s strategy against Narendra Modi.

Travelling around the state for about a month over January and February and speaking to people, it was evident that the BJP had lost some of the advantage it gained in the state in the general election. People I met in towns across the state tended to support the BJP, but as I moved through villages, it was still the Congress or the AGP that people discussed.

Even though the Congress has been in power in the state for 15 years, people had already begun to question the performance of Modi’s government at the centre. Modi has sought to deflect this creeping anti-incumbency sentiment by declaring in speeches that the Congress should be made to answer for its 15 years of governance in the state, and ten years in the centre (during which the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, was sent to the Rajya Sabha from Assam) before he was asked about his own 15 months as prime minister. Nevertheless, even if the BJP loses ground from its 2014 general election performance, it is poised to substantially improve its 2011 assembly election tally of five seats.

The Congress campaign in January and February focused entirely on Modi’s failed promises, dubbing him a “dream merchant.” The party promised to continue governing under Gogoi, who still had a favourable image on the ground. Even though the party lost eastern Assam seats to the BJP in the 2014 elections, it still has a strong organisational presence across the state, and Gogoi still enjoys the support of the mainstream Assamese, who are a majority in that region.

Of the five assembly elections in 2016, Assam’s is the only one where both the Congress and BJP have a chance of becoming the largest party. RUPAK DE CHOWDHURI/ REUTERS

The AGP, for this election at least, is a spent force. The AIUDF, meanwhile, which has risen on the anxieties of Muslim voters of Bengali origin, will need to move beyond identity politics if it is to expand its presence. Though it wins votes from Muslims of Bengali origin, who dislike the Hindu nationalist BJP, or the Assamese chauvinist AGP, it needs to widen its appeal beyond religious symbolism and inculcate a more modern outlook.

But the issue of immigration will stay alive. Regardless of what figure the NRC arrives at, for the number of illegal immigrants living in Assam today, the threat of changing demographics has been reiterated in the Upamanyu Hazarika report, and is prominent in the public psyche. The NRC might prove that lakhs of people who were called Bangladeshis might, in fact, be Indians—but that won’t necessarily ensure their acceptance in Assam.

During my travels, I heard of a man in Nagaon district whose life perfectly symbolised the manner in which the common citizen in Assam has been endlessly buffeted by political currents. An octogenarian, he was born in undivided India, and migrated to Assam in 1951 from what was by then Pakistan. I was told he feared that if his documents were found unsatisfactory, he would be sent back to what is now Bangladesh. The man, it seemed, has too many nationalities, but no nation that will call him its own.

Correction: Sarbananda Sonowal joined the BJP in 2011, and not 2006, as the story previously stated. The Caravan regrets the error.