Assam polls: Muslims may look beyond Ajmal even in his bastion Dhubri
In Dhubri, the Muslim majority district on the India-Bangladesh border, underdevelopment, apathy and poverty are the only constant. On its many ghaats, where people from the remote Chars come for work in the morning, towns like Chapar, Golakganj, Bilasipara and so on, one can see how the effects of the one of the fastest growing economy are yet to trickle down.
This area where most people speak Bengali, is looked down upon by the mainstream Assamese population, as a region where 'Bangladeshi' infiltrators enter the state and settle, changing the demographics.
"We keep hearing that the population of Muslims is increasing," says Pradeep Kumar, who sells Patanjali products in Golakganj.
"Look at the roads, nothing much has changed," Sharafat Ali, a paramedic points out as we walked on a unpaved road which leads to the new ghaat, from where a sizeable number of ferries take people to river islands or Chars as they are called locally located on the river. "They built a portion of it, and left the other half," he adds.
Even the power situation is no better. "The cuts increase in the summers. Sometimes, there is no power for 14 hours in a day. Even in winters, there is a 10 hour power cut," he says. The situation in other parts is better. Ali points out the case of Upper Assam. "The people are more educated, and the government, too, has invested a lot in infrastructure there," he explains. Dhubri is not even a shade of it. Rakibul says the highways have become better, perhaps the government has realised the strategic importance of the border area and invested in them.
Amir Ali, who runs a small business says that it is perhaps because the city has always voted for the opposition party. "When the AGP was in power, we had a Congress MLA. Now that the Congress is in power, the city had voted for AIUDF," Ali says. "Perhaps, this is the reason why they don't bother about this area."
The district has been a stronghold of Badruddin Ajmal's AIUDF, since the party first contested elections in 2006. The perfume baron is the Member of Parliament from the district and also a candidate for the Assembly elections from South Salmara, a constituency on the South Bank of the mighty Brahmaputra, which till recently was part of Dhubri. It has now be declared as a new district much to the anguish of the local businessmen. To travel to these places on the South Bank, the only way is a three hour boat ride or a four hour journey, through a road which barely exists.
"We got a lot of business from places like Mankachar and South Salmara, the big settlements on the south bank," says Dolar Khan, who deals in motorbikes.
Khan says that while the government may not have invested a lot of funds for the development of Dhubri, the economy of the area was not in bad shape largely owing to its presence on the border.
"Areas on the border have their own economy, which is partly legitimate and partly through activities like smuggling," he explains.
Khan points out the case of cattle smuggling. "A lot of people used to be involved in cattle smuggling at one point," he says. "While the ones in the city would invest money to buy those cattle from other states, the people on the Chars would act as couriers, and earn a handsome sum in the process," he explains.
Cattle smuggling has since gone down partly because of the rise of the BJP and its impetus on protecting cows which has made transportation of cattle from other states a dangerous business, and partly because the BSF just inducted another battalion on this part of the border. “It has come down drastically,” says Ashok Yadav, second in Command at the 71 Battalion of the BSF in Dhubri.
The new money which came through cattle smuggling has had its effects. “The land rates in Dhubri are not very different from Guwahati. Now people from the Chars, who were involved in smuggling want to come to the city to settle since they have money,” he complains. “One cannot blame them for carrying out illegal activities. What other source of income do they have?” asks a senior police official posted in the district.
Where the vote may go
"We were with the AIUDF. This time we will vote the Congress," a group of rickshaw pullers told this reporter in Bilasipara town, which is part of the Bilasipara West constituency. They spoke in broken Hindi and flashed their hands, perhaps to make it obvious what their voting choice is going to be. The polling will take place on 11 April.
"The AIUDF has not done anything for us," says Nazir Ahmed, one of the rickshaw pullers as he pointed out that he voted for Ajmal's party in the last two elections. "This time, their candidate is also not good,” Rahmat Alam, another rickshaw puller butted in. However, there are many others who are yet to decide. Fazlur Ahmad an octogenarian, says that he will vote after assessing the candidate who has the most chances to win the elections.
In the neighbouring Bilasipara East constituency, the AIUDF was forced to change its candidate. It's sitting MLA Gulakhtara Begum, recently joined the Congress after she was denied a ticket. While many blame it on the internal politics of the party, locals say that she had not done any work in the area and that is why the party took a wise decision by not giving her a ticket.
"She became an MLA and then forgot that she also has to work in the area," says Mahfuz, who works at a local Madrassa in Chapar.
Even in Dhubri constituency, the AIUDF replaced sitting MLA Jahanuddin with Nazrul Haque. Jahanuddin has recently switched over to the Congress.
In South Salmara, where Ajmal's son is the sitting MLA, the AIUDF chief has decided to contest the elections himself. "His son is very unpopular. And it is going to be a very close contest. The Congress's Wajid Chaudhary, has a big support base," says Shaukat Khan, a local who keeps traveling to the south bank constituency for business.
"People are introspecting after voting for AIUDF for two consecutive times. They are asking whether AIUDF been able to provide a good alternative to the Congress," says an Assistant Professor at a local college who requested anonymity. According to AIUDF insiders, the party is really nervous.
"Since they have not been part of the government, they have not been able to do anything tangible for the people. Their popularity was at its peak in the last elections. Now it is waning," a police official says.
Will division of Muslim votes help BJP?
"We should have had an alliance with the Congress. I was willing, they did not agree Ajmal told me recently," one of his aides confided to this reporter. The aide added that division of Muslim votes certain pockets may help the BJP.
There are also rumours that AIUDF gave precedence to money and not the credentials while selecting candidates. "There is a lot of anger among workers who were vying for a ticket which may affect us," says an office bearer of the AIUDF. He also says that the Congress has been rather successful in spreading the rumour that the AIUDF is secretly aligned with the BJP. "Moreover, in our party there are more aspirants than workers," he adds.
In Golakganj, a constituency on the border with Bangladesh, the BJP has a fair chance of winning. This constituency, which is not dominated by the minority community, saw some attempts to instigate communal tensions. "There were 5 incidents where beef was thrown in temples. In neighbouring West Bengal, there were simaltaneous incidents where pork was thrown in mosques," says Diganta Barah, SP, Dhubri. "While we could not find the miscreants, it did not lead to any violence," he points out.
“Aswini Roy Sarkar is a good candidate. I hear that BJP is ahead in the race,” says Pradeep Kumar. “Even some Muslims will vote for the BJP,” he says. Golakganj, also has a sizeable number of Koch Rajbongshis who are supporting the BJP.
In other constituencies, like Dhubri, where ex-Congress candidate Najibul Umar has decided to contest as an independent, the people fear that the BJP may win. "There are chances that the Muslim vote will be divided between the Congress, the AIUDF and the independent candidate. This may result in the BJP winning," says Khan. Even in Bilasipara East, Anwar Hussain, a former Congress party worker with a sizeable support base, is now contesting as an independent.
Meanwhile, there are attempts on different fronts to ensure that the Muslim vote doesn't get divided. Recently, in the foundation day function of All Assam Minority Students Union, held in Golakganj, the message was loud and clear that the minorities must stay united and not allow the communal forces to grow. "We are trying hard to send this message across. We know that the division may help the BJP," says Azizur Rahman, the president of AAMSU. The student outfit has extended support to the Congress.
For now, with the elections still more than a week away, the silent voters who are yet to make up their mind may hold the key to who wins in this important lower Assam pocket.