"We all know what has happened to the Rohingya Muslims. It could happen to us too. There is a conspiracy to disenfranchise four million of us. We will become stateless if we don't come together," Aminul Islam, General Secretary of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), stated during a rally earlier this month in Assam's Goalpara district, while speaking of Muslims living in the state.
Islam's statement came following BJP's intensified campaign against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam. Last month, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who joined BJP from Congress in 2015, said in an interview to the Indian Express, "The fight in Assam is about those 34 seats where Bangladeshi immigrants, who are now Indian citizens, are in a majority.
"Out of the 126 seats, we have to work hard in the remaining 92 seats to save our identity. This is our last chance. We don't want Bangladeshi people to encroach on not just our land but also our political space. In this election, Bangladeshi immigrants want their own chief minister, too."
Sarma also accused Badruddin Ajmal, who heads the AIUDF, of being 'originally a Bangladeshi Muslim'. The BJP has, in recent months, directed its guns at Congress and AIUDF on the issue of illegal immigrants ahead of the Assembly elections in the state.
As Assam prepares to vote on 4 and 11 April, the stands of the different parties on the issue of illegal immigration are likely to have major repercussions on the eventual results.
Who are illegal immigrants?
As per the Assam Accord, people who migrated from Bangladesh to India prior to 1971, have the right to Indian citizenship. However, many ethnic groups and political parties, including BJP and Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), dispute this clause. They want the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to be updated on the basis of the electoral rolls of 1952.
The BJP has also promised to detect and deport illegal Bangladeshi immigrants if they come to power, and the NRC is updated, although critics point out that identification and deportation may be close to impossible. The party, however, does not have a problem with Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, many of whom moved to India after 1971.
During its 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, BJP promised to provide Hindus from Bangladesh asylum and possible citizenship to escape religious persecution in the country, something that irked AGP and influential student body, All Assam Students' Union (AASU).
The Congress, on the other hand, want 1971 voter lists as the basis of the NRC update. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi recently called for voter lists from 1985 to 2004 to be included as additional documents as well.
While the actual figures relating to illegal immigrants in the state post-1971 is not known, estimates range from three to 20 lakh.
The Upamanyu Hazarika Commission
Last year, the Supreme Court-appointed one-man Upamanyu Hazarika Commission criticised both the State and Central governments for the unabated influx of illegal immigrants into India.
It noted that most illegal immigrants moved for 'hunger of land' and acquired land 'through all means, the favourite mode being to pose as flood and erosion affected persons from other districts with the aid and assistance of a complicit and corrupt administration'.
"In spite of all these facts being within the knowledge of the Central and State governments, the influx into Assam and into new areas of Assam continues unabated and in spite of being patently illegal, the governments have gone out of their way to support foreigners in direct contravention of rights of citizens and indigenous inhabitants," it further added.
The committee has recommended a high-level inquiry into the issue and has called for the creation of a 'sterile zone' along the most porous stretch of the international border.
The reports also quote Indrajit Baruah, who has been studying the issue of illegal immigration since the Assam Agitation, as saying that the indigenous population of the state would become a minority by 2047 if the same rate of influx continued.
Plight of Bengali Muslims in Assam
A majority of the Bengali Muslims residing in the state suffer from poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and widespread discrimination. In 1983, over 2,000 Bengali Muslims were massacred in Nellie, in Central Assam, during the Assam Movement.
Over the years, they have come under attack in the sensitive Bodoland region. In 2012, over 4,00,000 were displaced, a majority of them Bengali Muslims, during riots in the various districts.
The banned NDFB (Songbijit) group, a Bodo insurgent outfit, has repeatedly targeted Bengali Muslims in Bodoland in recent years. In 2014, the rebels gunned down 33 Muslims for allegedly not voting for the candidate backed by NDFB.
While BJP and AGP both accuse the Congress of facilitating the settlement of the illegal immigrants in India, the latter accuse BJP of spreading fear among the indigenous groups.
Will Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF benefit?
On the other hand, AIUDF, which has mostly Muslim representation in its leadership, has emerged as a key player in the local electoral scene during the last decade. The party has 18 seats in the State Assembly and three in the Lok Sabha. Its numbers are expected to rise in the upcoming elections.
In the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) elections last year, where AIUDF made its debut, the party sprung a surprise and won four seats in the 40-member body. BTC being a stronghold of the Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland People's Front (BPF), an ally of the BJP, AIUDF's performance was said to be fuelled by rising insecurity among the local Muslim population following the 2012 riots.
The party's rise has also affected the Congress, with most Bengali Muslims in the state, who had earlier been an important support base of Congress, said to have voted in large numbers in favour of AIUDF in the last two elections.
Some experts have hinted at a post-poll alliance between AIUDF and Congress in May, although Badruddin Ajmal, on Thursday, 17 March, issued an appeal to the latter to jointly fight the elections.
Perfume baron Ajmal had earlier predicted that the party would get around 30-35 seats in the Assembly. While it remains to be seen if this actually happens, AIUDF and Ajmal could play a vital role in the next government formation.
-Edited by Aishwarya Yerra