Fanning Communal Flames? Analysing Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma’s Post-election Rhetoric Against Minorities

Arshad Ahmed,

Guwahati: In a recent speech at a felicitation program, celebrating the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma repeatedly labelled Bengal-origin Muslims in the state as “communal”.

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Clearly implicating the Bengal-origin Muslim community without naming them explicitly, he stated, “I say it with pride that the Hindu community in Assam did not resort to appeasement politics; they voted based on merit. However, a particular community engaged in tactical voting such that despite the development in their area, the entire community gave 100% of their votes to the Congress party.”

“If there is one community that engages in communalism, it is only one community and one religion that does so. No other religion participates in communalism. This election proves it,” he further said.

This followed the saffron party’s main opponent in the state, the Congress, winning three out of the 14 Lok Sabha seats with a 37.48% vote share — an increase of 1.69% from the previous 35.79%.

According to Sarma, the Congress’s sweep of the three Lok Sabha seats — Nagaon, Jorhat and Dhubri — resulted from “Bangladesh-origin minorities overwhelmingly voting for the Congress”.

He elaborated, stating, “The Congress and its allies garnered 80 lakh votes…with a vote share exceeding 39%. Our (BJP-led alliance) received 47%, but the 39% does not accurately represent the true data.”

Sarma further noted that half of the votes for the Congress and its allies came from 21 assembly constituencies where Bengal-origin Muslims, often referred to disparagingly as “Miyas” in the state, constitute the majority population. However, the chief minister did not specify the names of these 21 constituencies.

He also remarked that marginalised Bangla-speaking Muslims “bravely voted for the Congress” despite benefiting from government schemes provided by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“This level of blatant communalism has never been seen before,” he emphasised.

Political observers and leaders from the state, speaking to, remarked that the chief minister’s recent criticism of Bangala-speaking Muslims is viewed as “Himanta Biswa Sarma’s continued strategy of communal and anti-Muslim politics aimed at garnering support from the majority voters”.

“With the AIUDF (All India United Democratic Front led by Maulana Badruddin Ajmal) losing its prominent position in the electoral landscape, the BJP is intensifying its polarising tactics to solidify its position,” said a journalist, who covers the Northeast for a Delhi-based publication, requesting anonymity.

The AIUDF, known for championing the cause of Bengali-speaking Muslims, lost all three seats it contested, including Dhubri where its leader Ajmal was defeated by Congress candidate Rakibul Hussain by a margin exceeding 10 lakh votes.

Sarma’s assertion that the Congress has transformed into a “completely” Muslim party resonates, given that “Muslims, constituting 40% of the state’s electorate, have rallied behind the Congress in Assam”.

A political science professor at Pramathesh Barua College in Dhubri, Assam, observes that Sarma’s post-election remarks targeting Bengali-speaking Muslims reveal his frustration over failing to secure Hindu votes, even in constituencies where Hindus form the majority.

“Sarma is not concerned about the Muslim votes,” the professor remarked, preferring anonymity. “His worry lies in the erosion of his consolidation of Hindu votes.”

Interrogations and Church Surveys

Recently, Bengali-speaking Muslims have not been the sole minority community targeted by the BJP-led government in Assam.

In May, shortly before the second phase of the elections, the Karbi Anglong district police made a sudden appearance at the Diphu Baptist Church, Rev. Solomon Rongpi of the Baptist Church told

He stated that 10-15 churches across the district were simultaneously surveyed by Village Defense Party (VDP) cadres, grassroots police volunteers described as the “eyes and ears of the Assam police”.

The surveys were conducted to ensure the security and safety of Christian institutions following a complaint by a Christian organisation about threats from a Hindutva group, according to the Karbi Anglong police.

Previously, two lesser-known Hindutva outfits from the state — the Kutumba Surakshya Parishad and the Sanmilita Sanatan Samaj — had issued ultimatums to remove Christian symbols and statues from missionary schools and to cease “anti-Bharat” activities.

However, the police’s explanation for surveying the churches has been met with scepticism. “If it was merely a survey, why were the police asking irrelevant questions to church members? Why were they taking photographs?” questioned Rev. Primingson Mallick, general secretary of the Karbi Anglong Christian Forum.

The Karbi Anglong police, nevertheless, maintained that the visits were intended to assess the safety and security of churches following a directive from the director general of police, as reported by The Times of India.

These “surveys” on churches in the state have increased notably since early 2023. Previously, a letter from Assam’s Special Branch in 2022 instructed police officers to gather information on churches allegedly involved in religious conversions. When this directive from the Assam police faced strong criticism from Christian groups and political leaders, Sarma distanced himself from the letter.

Allen Brooks, spokesperson for the Assam Christian Forum and the United Christian Forum, expressed concern over the actions of the Assam police. “The perpetrators,” he remarked, referring to the Hindutva groups, “are moving freely. What actions have the Assam police taken?”

‘Passing an Anti-Christian Bill’

Adding to the unease within the Christian community is a recent bill enacted by the Assam government: the Assam Healing (Prevention of Evil) Practices Bill, 2024.

This legislation aims to “prohibit and eliminate practices of magical healing under the guise of treatment”.

Brooks believes that such a law targeting Christians, who constitute 3.74% of the state’s population of over 3.6 crore, appears to have communal undertones.

“What is alarming is that the chief minister publicly stated, ‘We are introducing a bill to curb evangelism’,” he remarked.

The bill has not only stirred apprehension among Christians but has also prompted the community to question its rationale.

“In our context, healing is not synonymous with proselytization. It is a compassionate response to human suffering, regardless of religious affiliations,” explained a pastor from the Assam Christian Forum.

“What this government is doing is pushing through an anti-Christian bill.”

The legislation has drawn criticism not only from politicians but also from religious groups in Assam’s two neighbouring states with Christian majorities — Meghalaya and Nagaland.

The Nagaland Baptist Church Council, one of the largest church councils in Northeast India, condemned the bill as “one of the most insensitive acts of religious bigotry”. They questioned, “If serving humanity is seen as a threat, how can we peacefully coexist?”

Sarma’s political counterparts in Assam share similar concerns. “Sarma is engaging in communal politics. He is pandering to impress the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — the parent organisation of all Hindu right-wing groups, including the BJP — and will continue targeting minorities,” a Congress leader from Assam remarked.

Did Sarma’s Hindutva Agenda Cost the NDA in Northeast?

The NDA, led by the BJP, faced a significant setback in the 2024 general elections by failing to secure any seats in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Manipur. The alliance lost all six seats it contested across these states.

Sarma, who also serves as the convenor of a coalition of BJP-led political parties from the Northeast, was quick to attribute NDA’s poor performance in these states to the Christian community.

“A particular religion openly opposed the NDA in those regions,” he remarked. “This religion has a substantial following, and that made a decisive impact.”

Leaders from the Northeast region swiftly criticised Sarma’s remarks. Many, including his counterparts from other states, blamed his aggressive Hindutva stance and his party’s policies for contributing to the NDA’s dismal showing in these states.

The journalist previously quoted concurs with this view. According to them, Sarma’s actions such as church surveys, the passage of the anti-healing bill and the perceived threats from Hindutva groups targeting Christian institutions may have played a role in the NDA’s electoral defeat.

“Other contributing factors include policies like the scrapping of the Free Movement regime along the Indo-Myanmar border, the Uniform Civil Code, new forest laws and statements perceived as against minorities,” they noted, highlighting that the handling of ethnic tensions in Manipur also impacted the NDA’s overall performance in these four states.