In Assam, redrawn district maps may tilt electoral contests in Bengali Muslim strongholds ( Scroll )

Critics say that the BJP government’s move ensures Muslim votes get distributed and Hindu votes consolidated.

A voter in Nagaon, Assam, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections | PTI

In the 2021 Assam assembly election, the Congress’s Khalil Uddin Mazumder pipped the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Gautam Roy by 6,939 votes to win the Katigorah constituency in a contest that went down to the wire.

Katigorah is in Cachar, one of the three districts that make up the Barak valley in the southern tip of the state. It is also one of several districts whose boundaries were changed by the Himanta Biswa Sarma government last month. The contentious decision, ahead of a delimitation exercise, has led to fears that it might tilt electoral contests in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s favour in areas where Bengali Muslims are in the majority.

The Cachar region, bordering Bangladesh, still bears deep imprints of the Partition, which means politics here largely revolves around a Hindu-Muslim binary. Numerically, both communities are almost neck-and-neck.

It is here that the BJP first tasted electoral success in Assam, with the constituency of Katigorah being the crown jewel of sorts for the party. It won the seat three times in a row starting in 1991 – the only place in the state where the BJP enjoyed such enduring success in that period. At the time, the party had only a marginal political presence in the state.

After two successive defeats in 2006 and 2011 to the Bengali-origin Muslim-centric All India United Democratic Front, the party wrested the seat back in 2016 – the year it stormed to power in Assam.

However, it lost the seat again in 2021.

An expansion problem

According to observers, the loss was the result of a consolidation of Muslim votes – the All India United Democratic Front and the Congress had fought the election together.

Although the political dynamic in the Bengali-majority Barak valley differs substantially from the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra valley – the two main regions that make up the state of Assam, in addition to a small track of hills in the middle – the results of Muslim-majory Katigorah reflected a largely state-wide pattern. The BJP and its allies swept to a victory banking on Hindu votes while the Congress-AIUDF combine finished a distant second, its tally buoyed almost entirely by a unification of Muslim votes in its favour.

Even as the BJP consolidates its position in Assam, a significant Bengali-origin Muslim population has meant that its presence has had certain geographical limitations. In areas such as parts of Barak valley and western Assam where the community holds sway, the party has struggled to expand its footprint.

It is to break the stronghold of the community in around three dozen such seats that many allege the BJP has so enthusiastically batted for a delimitation exercise in the state.

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