While speaking at the Assembly’s Budget Session two days after the Centre notified the Supreme Court that states have the ability to designate minority status, Assam CM Sarma went a step further and advocated for a more granular split.
Moreover, he believes that religious minorities should be decided at the district level.
“Hindus can also be a minority in a particular state depending on the geographical situation, population pattern and threat perception,” Sarma added, citing the example of South Salmara-Mankachar in western Assam, where Muslims make up about 95 per cent of the population.
Meanwhile, CM Sarma mentioned the danger to Hindus in Assam for the second time in March.
The CM stated at the start of the Budget Session, amidst heated debates over the film The Kashmir Files, that Muslims made up 35 per cent of Assam’s population and that as a “majority” rather than a “minority,” they had the responsibility of protecting minorities.
In addition, he said, “It is their duty to ensure that the rights of tribal people are protected and their lands are not encroached upon,”. “If a Bora, Kalita or a Das does not have the courage to settle on those (protected tribal) lands, an Islam or Rahman must also refrain from doing so.”
CM Sarma never refrains from controversial remarks
However, CM Sarma, who was never one to shy away from contentious remarks or wading into Assam’s thorny linguistic and religious waters, had pulled off some smart callisthenics.
According to the 2011 Census, Muslims made up 34.22 per cent of Assam’s population, while Hindus made up 61.47 per cent.
CM Sarma, on the other hand, plainly seeks to persuade his audience through the lens of tribes and districts (9 of Assam’s 27 are Muslim-majority).
It also plays into Assamese nationalism’s anxieties, with a substantial section of Muslims in Assam being of Bengali descent and being referred to as “outsiders.”
Further, Dhubri, Goalpara, Barpeta, Morigaon, and Bongaigaon in lower Assam, Nagaon and Darrang in central Assam, and Hailakandi and Karimganj in south Assam’s Barak Valley are among the Muslim-majority districts in Assam.
Earlier, in the 2021 elections, out of the 49 Assembly seats in these districts, 29 had been won by the Congress-AIUDF Mahajot alliance, and 12 by the BJP.
According to the sources, “This is the latest among the current regime’s many communal agendas,” says Akhil Gogoi, the Sivasagar MLA and founder of the Raijor Dal that claims to represent “progressive sub-nationalism”. “The fact that it is not legally viable is not important to him [Sarma], but that it is sensational and will lead to communal polarization is enough… In fact, that is the aim.”
Meanwhile, Rakibul Hussain, a Congress MLA, likewise condemns the action as little more than political bluster. He cites the National Commission for Minorities Act of 1992, which designated Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians (Parsis), and Jains as minority groups.
In addition, Hussain inquires, “Minorities are defined under Section 2(c) of the Act. If the Assam government wants to define minorities district-wise, they have every power to write to the Centre… what is stopping them?”.
He goes on to say that the fact that they haven’t done so far indicates that the government hasn’t made any firm preparations on the subject.
Following CM Sarma’s statement, Hussain proposed in the Assembly that the Assam government join the Supreme Court lawsuit requesting that minorities be recognised at the state level.
CM Sarma agreed to the proposal but clarified that he was only referring to “religious minorities,” not linguistic minorities.
“First he said he would submit an affidavit, then he said that he would not submit anything related to linguistic minorities. So CM Sarma himself is not clear,” Hussain explains.
A senior BJP leader concedes they haven’t sorted out the details, but maintains Sarma’s claims have a sound foundation.
“If a community is a majority in a state, but not in a district, they lose out on benefits. So we want to give everybody an equal opportunity and equal rights, and make it a level playing field,” the leader added.