BJP is finding communal card to be a double-edged sword in Assam

Grappling with the embarrassment of having a case slapped against Himanta Biswa Sarma for making 'false statements' prejudicial to communal harmony on social media, the party looks to be in a bind ahead of the Assam polls.

Himanta Biswa Sarma Assam BJP Health Minister
In July, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had told the assembly that the six centres had 181 detainees | File Photo: PTI

Playing the communal card can be a double-edged sword as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is realising. Grappling with the embarrassment of having a case slapped against Himanta Biswa Sarma — its star political leader from the Northeast — for making “false statements” prejudicial to communal harmony on social media, the party looks to be in a bind ahead of the April 2021 Assam Assembly elections.

Besides the fact that Sarma holds significant portfolios such as finance, education, and health in the Assam government, he is also the all-powerful convenor of the BJP-led North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) — with a political visibility that is second to none in a region that has, of late, come into governance focus, courtesy India’s Look East Policy.

This is possibly why the police case, anchored in global tech giant Facebook’s flagging of Sarma’s post as “false information”, has become a cause for chagrin for the party —something which the social media conglomerate’s later turnabout, saying that the flagging was erroneous, has not been able to erase.

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This “sufferance of embarrassment” could also be a ploy to put the lid on the anti-BJP sentiments that had surfaced during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that were raging in Assam prior to the lockdown and which reared its head again in August, with the All Assam Students Union (AASU) taking out a massive motorcycle rally in Dibrugarh, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s hometown, to protest against the Centre’s violations of Assam Accord when including Assam within the ambit of the Act.

Post and tweet

The narrative began on November 5 when a bunch of BJP leaders, including Sarma, slammed All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) supporters for welcoming party supremo Badruddin Ajmal at Silchar airport in Assam’s Barak Valley with ‘Pakistan zindabad’ slogans. The AIDUF, a national party active in Assam, is set for an alliance with the Congress in the poll-bound state.

Social media savvy Sarma followed it up with a 44-second video “proof” that he posted on his Facebook page and Twitter handle on November 6, with the caption: “Look at the brazenness of these fundamentalists anti-national people who are shouting PAKISTAN ZINDABAD while they welcome MP@BadruddinAjmal. This thoroughly exposes @INCIndia which is encouraging such forces by forging an alliance. We shall fight them tooth & nail. Jai Hind.”

The post hit home, since the AIUDF-Congress alliance is still in the pipeline awaiting Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s approval. Also, rumours are rife that a battery of Congress leaders could revolt if such an alliance was formalised. In the last Assembly elections, the minority-based AIUDF’s overtures towards the Congress had received a blow when then Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi expressed fears that the alliance could harm the party’s interests in upper Assam. The region is largely perceived as the seat of Assamese nationalism — where Badruddin Ajmal-headed AIUDF is seen as an outfit that favours illegal Bangladeshi migrants and where even CAA protests had struck a greater chord.

No one knows this better than Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congressman and once Gogoi’s second-in-command, who found words in the noisy video ammunition for the BJP to paint the Congress as ‘pro-Muslim and not pro-Assamese’.

Facebook flipflop

Even as the AIUDF refuted the video content, saying that the saffron party was deliberately distorting the slogan “Aziz Khan Zindabad” to “Pakistan Zindabad” to break an alliance with the Congress and Left Front that was in the pipeline, it received unexpected reinforcement from Facebook — which flagged the video as “false information” on November 7. The world’s #5 tech brand claimed that independent fact-checker Boom Live had checked the audio but could not identify the alleged slogan. Later, even non-profit fact-checking portal Alt News concurred.

Surprisingly, however, on November 9, Facebook did a volte-face and restored Sarma’s post. No reasons were given. A spokesperson was to later tell a national newspaper that it exempts politicians from third party fact-checks and that the tag had been erroneously put on Sarma’s post. The explanation is, however, difficult to digest — given the stature of Facebook and the organisations that had fact-checked the video earlier and also that advanced algorithms could have left no room for such an amateurish error.

While this gave the Assam health minister much to crow about — “video is genuine and not doctored”, “good that the video is restored once again” — the victory statements steered clear of any mention of whether he still believes that the sloganeering was “Pakistan Zindabad”.

Case and reaction

While the first information report (FIR) against Sarma — registered under relevant Indian Penal Code sections, including 153A read with section 67 of the IT Act — has been filed by rival party Congress and can be explained away as a political witch hunt, the common sentiment is that the BJP could have gone too far with playing the communal card this time.

A political analyst on condition of anonymity said that BJP alleging anti-national sloganeering at rallies it does not favour is old hat — citing the 2016 Jawaharlal Nehru University sedition case in which students were arrested for raising what was claimed to be pro-Pakistan slogans on the basis of a video; the charges were quashed when it was found that the video was doctored. In fact, in the instant case, the FIR stated that Sarma is in the “habit” of making communally sensitive statements which in the run-up to Assembly elections can create communal tension.

Indigenous versus immigrants

The narrative is an indication of the issue that will dominate the 2021 Assembly polls. In mid-September BJP Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal distributed land deeds to one lakh indigenous families, fulfilling his party’s promise of protecting the land, community, culture, and rights of the indigenous people of Assam made during its 2016 poll campaign. Earlier, land deeds had been distributed among 46,000 indigenous families.

“Ensuring the land rights of indigenous people of the state is our prime objective. The government is also committed to removing encroachment from lands held by satras (religious institutions),” Sonowal had said during the deeds distribution ceremony — an oblique reference to much of Assam land being occupied by Bangladeshi immigrants.

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The common perception is that the AIUDF, known earlier as the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF), protects the interests of Bangladeshi immigrants. Some months ago, with an eye on the upcoming polls, the Congress had proposed a grand alliance, similar to the one in Bihar, to oust the BJP — comprising itself, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and any other regional party. Badruddin Ajmal had then said his party would also be a part of the formation.

Indicating the variety of political scenarios and alignments that could emerge ahead of the Assembly polls, a couple of days ago, Biswajit Ray, state Congress party general secretary resigned from the party for being showcaused for sharing a dais with BJP leaders. Saying that he has reservations against a Congress-AIDUF alliance, Ray remarked that while the BJP-led Assam government was taking steps for the benefit of indigenous communities, the Congress cared little for them.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Guwahati)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)