Fulchan Ali and his wife Momina board a crowded ‘bhutbhuti’ (motorboat) at the ‘ferryghat’ (boat jetty) in Dhubri.
The boat will take about an-hour-and-a-half to ferry the couple across the Brahmaputra to Boyzer Alga – one of the ‘chars’ or sandbars that dot the mighty river in Assam.
Fulchan is a mason. His wife too is a construction worker. The couple’s pursuit of livelihood takes them to towns across Assam.
They are, however, on a break now and going back to their village at Boyzer Alga, where Fulchan’s parents, Fakirchan and Rahima Khatun, live.
They will cast votes on Thursday, when Dhubri will go to polls along with five other parliamentary constituencies of the State.
Whom will they vote for? “All in our family, except my mother, will vote for Moulana Sahab. My mother cannot vote,” says the 31-year-old mason. Rahima Khatun’s name on the electoral roll has been appended with a ‘D’ – denoting ‘doubtful elector’, a tag put on her out of suspicion that she might be one of the countless persons who illegally migrated to Assam from Bangladesh. Assam has approximately 1.43 lakh “D voters” like Rahima Khatun and none of them can take part in the carnival of democracy.
Not only the “D voters”, but all Bengali-speaking Muslims face this crisis of identity in Assam and are often indiscriminately branded as Bangladeshi, ever since the large scale influx from the neighbouring country triggered a mass movement against illegal migration in the early 1980s. Muslims in Assam remained loyal to the Congress till Badruddin Ajmal – the ‘Moulana Sahab’ Fulchan and his family would vote for on Thursday – gave them an alternative.
Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front made its debut in the 2006 Assembly polls and made a huge dent in the Muslim vote-bank of the Congress, winning 10 seats in the 126 member Assembly and securing 9.03 per cent votes.
In 2011, the AIUDF won 12.57 per cent votes to bag 18 seats and emerged as the second largest party in the assembly after the Congress.
Apart from Ajmal, who won from Dhubri in 2009 and is now seeking re-election, the AIUDF has fielded candidates in nine of the remaining 13 parliamentary constituencies of Assam this time.
Half of its candidates are non-Muslims, either from linguistic minority communities or from the tribes.
“I am a Muslim, but I came to politics, not only to stand by the Muslims, but also to speak for people of all communities, particularly for the poor and the marginalized,” says Ajmal, who – apart from being a cleric – also runs an international perfume business.
He recently said, “We will be guilty before Allah, if the BJP wins a single seat for our fault.” This displeased the Election Commission which found the statement “communal and inflammatory”. He has since been playing safe.
He slams the BJP for divisive politics and accuses the Congress, which has been power in the State since 2001, of treating people of the minority community as vote-banks without caring for their welfare.
He talks about Assam’s 2.5 million chars-dwellers (mostly Muslims), who live in abject poverty, without even bare minimum educational or healthcare facilities and amidst constant fear of losing their homesteads to the mighty Brahmaputra.
The Congress, however, hopes that the “Narendra Modi factor” would help it recover the support base it has lost to the AIUDF in Assam. “People know it is only the Congress that can fight communalism across the country and keep divisive forces at bay,” says Wajed Ali Choudhury, the Congress’ bet against Ajmal, who also attacked the perfume baron for making false promises and doing very little for the welfare of the people of Dhubri.