This Bellwether State Will Reveal Whether India Votes for Identity Politics

Why you should care

How the state of Assam votes on nationalist, religious and ethnic identities could point to how India will vote.  

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Forty miles away from Guwahati, the most populous city in northeastern India, lies a lake formed by an earthquake more than a century ago. To get there, you need to pass through a quiet tunnel of wide leaves of tall sal trees, followed by a bed of tea shrubs. There, on the banks of Chandubi Lake, a merry crowd of the Rabha, an indigenous Indo-Mongoloid community, celebrates a three-day festival in the soft January sun. But all it takes is a simple question to lay bare the underlying tensions over identity that are boiling here in the state of Assam.

The Rabha men and women wear narrow scarves — some with a white base, others with a green base, all with geometrical floral motifs. Which of the two, I ask — with the white or the green base — is the Rabha gamosa, the Assamese piece of cloth that is used both as a towel and as an item of cultural significance? Hiteswar Rabha, a district president of the All Rabha Students’ Union, responds sharply: The Assamese call the white scarf the gamosa while the Rabha honor people by additionally gifting them the green one, called the pajar, he says. “We are Assamese, and are Rabha,” Hiteswar says. “It’s a wrong question to ask which I identify with first.”

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Rabha women perform a dance to music played with instruments made of bamboo.

Source Priyanka Borpujari

Battles over identity — of caste, religion, ethnicity, statehood and nationalism — are bubbling up in different parts of India, as the world’s largest democracy prepares to vote for its next government. But in Assam, those multiple tussles are all converging this election season, turning the state of 31 million people into a unique laboratory that could demonstrate just how much identity politics will determine how Indians across the country vote in 2019.

Assam is a border state, and an updated database of Indian citizens there — called the National Register of Citizens — announced in mid-2018 has sparked a divide over national identity. The database leaves out 4 million residents who have lived in Assam for decades, effectively declaring them illegal immigrants — mostly from Bangladesh — because they arrived without proper documentation after a pre-decided date in 1971.

We support whichever political party supports our demand.

Hiteswar Rabha, a leader of the Rabha indigenous group 

The Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also trying to pass in Parliament amendments to the country’s citizenship law to specifically allow Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians — but not Muslims — from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh expedited citizenship in India. That religion test is facing criticism both from those who think it’s discriminatory and from allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who think it will allow foreigners to flood Assam.

And the Rabhas, who constitute more than 8 percent of Assam’s population, are demanding the special status that’s available to other tribal communities under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. Tribal areas from northeastern India that are included in the schedule can elect regional councils that can govern these regions while ensuring greater autonomy for these communities over their land, laws and customs.

 

“We support whichever political party supports our demand for [the] Sixth Schedule,” Hiteswar says.

To understand the power of identity politics in India, look no further than 2014 when Modi swept to power. The BJP has traditionally held the reputation of an upper-caste party. But in 2014, Modi, the son of a railway platform tea seller, successfully pitched himself as a leader of India’s backward castes to win key votes in several states. In other states, such as Uttar Pradesh — India’s largest state — religious riots targeting Muslims polarized voters, a phenomenon widely believed to have helped the BJP win 72 out of the 80 parliamentary seats from the state. And for the northeast, Modi banked on optics his predecessors had ignored. He traveled there repeatedly, and spoke the language of the region’s hunger: development, escape from economic lethargy and acknowledgment of distinct identities.

(A performance of the Indian epic Ramayana at the Rabha festival. Credit: Priyanka Borpujari) 

In 2019, those multiple frenetic debates around identity — over the citizenship law amendments, the NRC list or indigenous community rights — are all coalescing in one state, Assam, turning it into a battlefield unlike any other. “Assam is on a boil now,” says Rupa Chinai, author of a recently released book, Understanding India’s Northeast: A Reporter’s Journal. “[The] BJP is using Assam as a laboratory for its politics.”

Leaders of the BJP — ruling both at the center and in Assam — have demanded that residents whose names aren’t on the NRC leave the country. But multiple errors in the register have emerged. Families have come forward to show how some among them are on the list while others aren’t when they all came to India at the same time. That’s forced a review of the database.

Through the proposed amendments to the citizenship law, the BJP hopes to consolidate its core anti-Muslim vote. But the move has cost it an ally in Assam. The Asom Gana Parishad, a party that thrives on the Assamese identity, quit the BJP-led federal government in December over the amendments — it doesn’t want anyone from outside India in the state, regardless of their religion.

“The BJP probably did not anticipate such a response from Assam,” says Walter Fernandes, a sociologist who has worked in Northeast India for close to two decades. “And even if this is what they wanted, as part of their strategy, then at what price?” 

But cynicism about promises related to identity is also building up. In 2016, ahead of the Assam state elections, the BJP promised Sixth Schedule status to the Rabha, who bit the bait. They fielded a candidate on a BJP ticket, who won and entered the state assembly. More than two years later, that commitment remains unfulfilled.

And time is running out for the community, Rabha leaders feel. Without the legal support of the Sixth Schedule, the community is losing its identity, they fear. The dialects of the community are dying slowly, taught only in 70 schools. “Many from the Rabha community have changed their surnames,” to ones that no longer carry the community identity, says Ramen Singh Rabha, the overall president of the ARSU, the Rabha student union that wields significant political clout.

For sure, religious and tribal identities meet too. Rajkumar Rabha, the president of the Rabha Sahitya Sabha — a community literary body — points to men standing in knee-deep water in paddy fields. “Those are all Muslims, who have encroached and are now cultivating rice,” he says. “Our people have lost land systematically over the years.” But he doesn’t want non-Muslims from neighboring nations in Assam either. “Only [the] Sixth Schedule can save us.”

And the way to accomplish that goal, says Hiteswar, is no longer through Modi. When Modi was campaigning for power in Assam, he used the slogan of “jaati, maati, bheti” [identity, land, infrastructure], recalls Hiteswar. “But we Rabhas need to stop being mesmerized by Modi and realize that only maati, bheti, jaati can save us,” he says now. “Only if we protect our land will we be able to save our tribal identity.” Just how broadly that sentiment is shared across Assam could determine how the BJP performs in the national elections here — and whether the web of identity politics at play across India in 2019 will work for it, or against it.

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