GUWAHATI, India, 29 April 2019
Once a land of separatist insurgents, their supporter-sympathizers and many journalist-intellectuals promoting anti-India propaganda, the northeastern region of India (commonly termed as the Northeast) this time has marked a rare achievement of peaceful polling with over 80% turnout for the national elections of India.
The region, comprising eight States and surrounded by many foreign countries like Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet (China), Myanmar, and Bangladesh, witnessed three phases of polling on 11, 18 and 23 April 2019 where a hundred thousand electorates exercised their franchise to send 25 representatives to the 17th Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament.
The largest democracy on Earth went for seven-phase general elections starting on 11 April, where over 900 million voters would participate in the electoral exercise through electronic voting machines (EVMs), supported by a voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) mechanism, till 19 May to elect 543 representatives to Lok Sabha. Conducted by the world’s most powerful electoral institution, the Election Commission of India (ECI), the unique experience for the human race will unveil winners on the counting day (23 May), paving ways to rule the one billion-plus nation for next five years.
After completion of its term in office, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate. The NDA nominees in the polls are primarily facing candidates belonged to the opposition Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The third front, a loose coalition of some regional political parties across the country (termed as Maha Gatbandhan), is also expected to challenge both NDA and UPA candidates in selective Parliamentary constituencies.
In the last general elections, projected Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi did almost a magic that helped the nationalist party to win an absolute majority with 282 seats in the Lok Sabha. NDA’s total tally increased up to 336 (out of the 545, where two are nominated members) in the 2014 national polls. However, the oldest party that ruled the populous south Asian country for over five decades since 1947 shrank to 44 seats in the house of people’s representatives. For the Congress party understanding there is no Modi wave this time, but the saffron party claims it exists as undercurrents.
BJP’s aggression to the once disturbed Northeast that supported over 30 active separatist armed outfits routed the Congress party from any government in all eight States (provinces). Till 2014, Congress used to rule States like Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. Now all the States including Tripura and Nagaland are ruled by ether BJP or its allies. Sikkim continues to be ruled by regional party Sikkim Democratic Front, which is an ally to NDA.
BJP president Amit Shah claims that his party along with allies will win over 20 seats from the region, even though Congress has not made any such claim out of the national polls. The Congress party is expecting electoral benefits from the most-debated citizenship amendment bill (CAB), which was brought by the BJP leadership and witnessed sharp reactions from most of the Northeastern ethnic groups.
Successfully passed in the Lok Sabha on 8 January, the CAB was scheduled for Rajya Sabha, the upper house of Indian Parliament, so that it could be sent to the President for necessary endorsements. But it was not pushed forward by the BJP leadership as they had no majority in the Council of States. Thus the initiative to amend the citizenship law, even after repeated declarations, was lapsed with an embarrassment to the Hindu-centric party.
Other political parties, namely All-India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC), Communist Party of India (Marxist), etc, also opposed the saffron plan to pave ways for granting citizenship to persecuted religious asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, who had entered in the country on or before 31 December 2014. Everyone now expects electoral benefits out of the CAB row.
Even when the Brahmaputra valley was rocked by numerous anti-CAB protest demonstrations, various separatist elements tried their best to instigate the people against the government. Shockingly, a section of media personalities along with intellectuals in Guwahati went on capitalizing the atmosphere in favour of banned separatist militants. Joining of few Assamese youths in the United Liberation Front of Assam (Independent) during the period was reported as an instant implication of anti-CAB sentiments.
For the record, over 25 Guwahati-based editors signed a memorandum opposing the CAB and submitted to Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal to pursue with the BJP’s central leadership to withdraw the bill, which was criticized as anti-Assamese (Jaati-Dhangshi) in nature. BJP’s moderate face Sonowal assured that he would not do anything to harm the people of Assam, and finally Sonowal urged everyone to repose faith on his authority.
The anti-CAB row emerged as a difficult task to the media fraternity of Assam, as a Maharashtra-based voluntary organization lodged official complaints against five Guwahati-based media outlets alleging that they exploited the turmoil over CAB to help the banned armed outfits in fresh recruitment drives. Following the accusation of the Legal Rights Observatory (LRO), the Union home ministry had asked the State government in Dispur to take necessary action.
Vinay Joshi, convener of LRO in his public grievance petition signed on 14 February, accused four editors, namely Ajit Kumar Bhuyan (chief editor of Prag News channel), Nitumoni Saikia (editor of Pratidin Time news channel), Manjit Mahanta (former executive editor of Asomiya Pratidin newspaper), and Afrida Hussain (editor of InsideNE news portal) of propagating militant’s ideology to give them a fresh boost in the midst of anti-CAB movements.
The LRO letter also urged the ministry to “investigate the role of suspicious Assam media outlets and their owners, their financial transactions, source of income, possible flow of funds from foreign intelligence agencies and banned terrorist groups to media owners and all other possible aspects related to it.” The letter also added that on various occasions, these media outlets had openly professed the need to take up arms against the Union (federal) government in New Delhi and broadcast propaganda videos of militant cadres.
Not to mention that any major elections in the Northeast were synonymous to violence perpetrated by the insurgents, who had been fighting for decades with demands ranging from self-rule to sovereignty. Those separatist militants earlier even dictated the people to avoid the electoral process as they asserted it as being a symbol of suppression by the colonial Indian forces. But the Northeastern electorate valiantly defied their diktats, and in a sustained manner they reposed their faith on the Parliamentary democracy of India.
Until a few years ago, dreaded armed groups like Ulfa (I) made it a habit to issue press statements threatening the electorate of dire consequences if they would prefer to cast their votes. However, lately both factions of Ulfa showed reluctance in influencing the polls. When the pro-talk faction led by Arabindra Rajkhowa made it clear that they would not be a part of the electoral process, the Paresh Barua led Ulfa (I) illustrated unwillingness over the issue.
An amazing achievement for the nation after decades of insurgency in Northeast, thanks to the conviction of over 60 million Northeasterners indeed!
About the author
Nava Thakuria is a journalist and media commentator based in Guwahati, Northeast India. He has been covering socio-political developments of Northeast India, along with its neighbours Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, for various media outlets for more than two decades.