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Terror-Free Assam Eyes A New Script

For the first time in decades, development rather than extremist violence or rhetoric takes centre stage

NALBARI/NAGAON/BARPETA (Assam): Nankarbhaira village in Assam’s Nalbari district saw a lavish wedding last year after many decades.

Free from the fear of insurgency, this village is now leading a normal life, including looking forward to voting on Monday, the second and final phase of polling in the state.

Nalbari in lower Assam has long been a hotbed of insurgency, inspired largely by the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa).

“Now we have freedom to move around, even at night. Earlier, girls in our villages wouldn’t get married because people were too scared to come here. But now there is peace and we are free from any threats. Next, we want development,” said Debojit Barman of Nankarbhaira.

Interestingly, Debojit’s father Dibakar claims to have been an Ulfa “sympathizer” and a “close associate” of Ulfa chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa. Both father and son say they were arrested and tortured for weeks after the army claimed they were Ulfa militants.

However, Dibakar now says everyone realizes the value of peace, setting the tone for the 2011 assembly election.

Wages of peace

With the aim of ending nearly three decades of insurgency in the state, the peace talks with Ulfa initiated by the chief minister Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government in the state along with the Centre have resulted in the outfit not involving itself directly in the elections by either calling for a boycott or obstructing the electoral process.

This is a rather unique election for Assam. To begin with, it is the first one in decades that has not been dominated and overshadowed by extremist violence and rhetoric, and where fundamental issues such as development and transparency in governance have taken centre stage.

“In this election, people are not being mobilized around the Ulfa’s rhetoric. They are being able to vote independently, with concerns of development, corruption in their minds. The Ulfa has now become a more diluted factor and with this, Tarun Gogoi has managed to reduce one opposition for himself,” said a government official, who did not want to be identified.

If the Congress does retain power, it would be the first instance in the post-emergency era that an incumbent party managed a mandate to rule for a third consecutive term.

As there is no apparent wave, there is a chance that smaller parties such as the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) and the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF) could emerge as key players in government formation.

The Badruddin Ajmal-led All India United Democratic Front was formed only in 2005, but managed to win 11 of the 126 seats in the 2006 assembly election. With Muslims accounting for nearly 30% of the population, their vote is the key in more than 40 of the 126 constituencies. Hence, the AUDF is hoping to make serious political inroads.

Meanwhile, the BPF, the Congress’s coalition partner since 2006, will make a significant difference if it wins all the 11 assembly constituencies in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas.

Chief Minister Gogoi on Saturday said the poll pact with the BPF would continue.

“These smaller parties will hope to play the role of king-maker once the results are out and help in government formation. They have significant electoral bases in the state,” said Deben Dutta, a former vice-principal of Cotton College in Guwahati and a columnist.

Alternative agenda

The fact that development and governance have emerged as the two key electoral issues is an acknowledgment of the fading threat of terrorism.

“Earlier people wouldn’t go and vote. They were scared of the Ulfa. But now all of us plan to vote, and all we want is our village to see some development—better roads, houses, jobs,” said Sameer Ali of Samaguri assembly constituency in Nagaon district.

The voters now aspire for a better life, similar to experiences in other states. Citing the example of Bihar, which has been transformed by Nitish Kumar, people in Assam want better roads, greater connectivity, more employment opportunities, and better penetration of health and education.

However, while development and the peace talks with insurgents are likely to give the Congress a boost, corruption charges plaguing the party at the state and national level as well as inflation can play spoiler.

Says former editor of The Sentinel, Dhirendra Nath Bezbaruah: “Corruption is the main issue. The 10 years of Congress rule has actually led to corruption increasing by leaps and bounds here… However, the Ulfa threat is no longer as potent, and in fact, they have now been marginalized.”

In Lungchung tea estate in Nagaon district, the tea tribes seem unhappy with the incumbent. “This government has done nothing for us. It hasn’t even given us the ST (scheduled tribe) status. They are very corrupt; they finish all the funds among themselves,” said Umeshwari Devi.

“Everything is so expensive now. We can’t buy any food. This government has left us poor,” said Kamona Mondol of Sonapur in Dispur assembly constituency, even while she conceded that the last few years had been the “most peaceful since she could remember”.

This shift in sentiment is also observed by the administration.

“There is no threat of insurgency. This is going to be a completely free election and people feel relieved,” said an administration official, who did not want to be identified.

While candidates are expressing their sense of calm by campaigning openly and till late at night even in the most Ulfa-dominated areas, the voters are coming out in huge numbers to cast their ballot. The voter turnout in the first phase on 4 April, when 62 constituencies went to poll, was a healthy 75%.

The opposition

While the Congress is fighting on the plank of development and peace process it claims to have initiated, the opposition Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are focusing on corruption and illegal migration. The BJP, going it alone, is seeking to cash in on the issue of illegal migration with predictable consequences.

“We will never vote for the BJP or AGP. It is because of them that some of our names are on the D-voter (doubtful voter) list and we can’t vote,” said Mohammad Safzal Ali of Sapra village in the migrant-dominated Jonia assembly constituency of Barpeta district. “All we want is the right to vote and land titles. The Congress or AUDF will help us,” said Malia Khatoon of the same village.

Says Dutta: “The issue of illegal immigrants has unfortunately been sidelined in this election, but it is a critical factor because it threatens the existence of the native Assamese. This is a vote bank created by the Congress for its electoral gains and even the AGP has betrayed the people and failed to address the issue.”

But for the state, otherwise used to extremist-led violence, this assembly election could prove to be a landmark in the state’s democratic history. There is an overpowering disillusionment with violence and the desire to feel integrated into the rapidly growing Indian economy.

“The bottom line is that politics of violence cannot work beyond a point. Everyone has to become a stakeholder in the democratic process in a legitimate way and even the Ulfa now realizes that. I used to be a vehement Ulfa sympathizer, but soon realized the importance of the ballot. This is exactly what this election is about—a democratic state aimed at development,” says Dekkhya Barman of Nalbari.

*The article is written by Ruhi Tewari

*The writer can be reached at ruhi.t@livemint.com

(Courtesy: Livemint)

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