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Maulana Badruddin Ajmal’s political journey started much before the formation of the AIUDF in October 2005, when he was the Assam unit president of the politically assertive socio-religious organisation Jamiyat Ulema-E-Hind since 2002.
At a state convention of the organisation in Guwahati, the then All India president of the Jamiyat, Syed Asad Madani, sitting next to Tarun Gogoi on dais, reminded him of his poll promises to minorities. Madani set a 6-month deadline for Gogoi to solve the ong-standing problems of the minorities failing which he threatened to oust him from power! Exactly after 6 months, Ajmal formed the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF).
Within the next 6 months, the party bagged 10 seats in the 126-member Assam Assembly. The tally increased to 18 in 2011 when the AIUDF emerged the principal opposition party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the party shocked the political pundits by winning 3 seats, equal to the Congress tally in Assam.
In Assam, there are more than 2,200 “char villages” or river islands. Socio-economic surveys conducted by the state government revealed a downward spiral of crucial development indicators like poverty, literacy etc. Average literacy rate was recorded as low as 19%. Moreover, 68% of char dwellers lived below the poverty line.
The percentage of BPL families skyrocketed from 49% to 68% and literacy rate went down compared to the previous survey in 4 districts. It has been over a decade since the last socio-economic survey was conducted, in 2002-03. The government couldn’t gather courage to conduct the third round of survey, fearing more uncomfortable findings.
As per the 2011 census data, Uttar Godhani, a char village in Barpeta district, has the lowest literacy rate in the state with only 2.15% female and 5.13% male literates. People who live the subhuman life in the char areas, without basic services like health, education, water, housing and proper means of livelihood, became the strongest political capital of perfume baron Maulana Badruddin Ajmal, whose political arena is widening with every passing election.
He is emerging as the undisputed leader of over 34% Muslims in Assam. Majority of them are branded as illegal migrants from Bangladesh despite the facts that migration of Muslim peasants from undivided Bengal (and later on East Bengal) happened under the patronage of British colonial administrators and the community officially adopted Assamese as their mother tongue in 1951.
Ajmal’s political trajectory has been largely dependent on fear psychosis and growing demand for civil, political and human rights by the Muslims. In 2006, Ajmal offered the most-needed political platform to the Muslims who were scared after the Supreme Court scrapped the IMDT Act, which protected them from being persecuted and harassed on char-ges that they were Bangladeshi migrants.
Tarun Gogoi’s famous question, “Who is Badruddin Ajmal?” made him a celebrated politician among mainstream Assamese after the epic failure of student leader-turned-politician Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. Ajmal, meanwhile, slowly started eroding the traditional Muslim vote bank of the Congress in Assam. The AIUDF won 10 Assembly seats in the very first election it fought. However, Gogoi continued to ignore Ajmal and remained a pro-Assamese nationalist.
During his second term, Gogoi initiated the process to update the National Register of Citizens to identify illegal foreigners. The All Assam Minority Students’ Union (AAMSU) and other minority organisations, along with the AIUDF, opposed the pilot project in Barpeta and Chaygaon and demanded changes in the application form, which they called as “insulting” to Muslims of Bengali origin.
On July 21, 2010, a large number of Bengali-origin Muslims, under the banner of AAMSU, protested against the project in Barpeta. The protest turned violent and 4 people were killed in police firing. Though Tarun Gogoi was forced to suspend the project due to unprecedented public outrage, the momentum gave an extraordinary political mileage to both the Congress and AIUDF in 2011 Assembly election.
The Congress achieved an absolute majority in the Assembly whereas the AIUDF won 5 segments in Barpeta district, where it hadn’t won a single seat in 2006. The AIUDF’s tally in 2011 reached 18. The party’s surprising performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was again linked to large-scale violence and displacement of Muslims in lower Assam.
The 2016 Assam Assembly election has a different dynamics but Ajmal will continue to benefit from fear psychosis and religious polarisation. The Congress is trying to get closer to Muslim voters of lower Assam, but the BJP’s poll campaign, which has focused on “illegal migrants,” will create ground for the AIUDF.
Himanta Biswa Sarma, once a powerful minister in Tarun Gogoi’s cabinet who joined the BJP recently, is threatening to disenfranchise Muslims who fail to provide papers proving their residence in India since before 1951.
Ajmal, on the other hand is waving the flag of equality, civil rights and inclusive development, besides giving a clarion call to all Muslims to unite against the BJP. He has given the much-needed ‘Jamaat and Jhanda’ to one of the most marginalised and persecuted communities in Assam.
The Muslims of Bengali-origin, who are perceived as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and blamed for every misfortune of Assam, are now gaining confidence to assert their identity, demand their rights and entitlements.
The community’s backing may as well make Ajmal the kingmaker of Assam. However, the ‘Jamaat and Jhanda’ approach has miserably failed to address the core issues of poverty, illiteracy, lack of health services, etc.
Most importantly, the AIUDF is yet to attract a large chunk of educated and liberal Muslims of Assam. In the meanwhile, charges of corruption and nepotism are engulfing the party.
The article first appeared on http://www.deccanherald.com/content/539501/bjp-campaign-may-buttress-ajmals.html