GROWING CLOUT: Badruddin Ajmal; and (below) the AIUDF leader at a relief camp
Is he a messiah or a troublemaker? A marginal politician or a would-be chief minister? The debate continues, but what’s clear is that Badruddin Ajmal — the leader of a political front in the troubled state and a rich businessman — is a force to reckon with.
To many in his hometown Hojai in Nagaon district, Ajmal, the head of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), is indeed a saviour of minority Muslims in the state. Others accuse him of inciting violence in the wake of clashes between Bodos and Muslims in Kokrajhar in mid-July. Several local organisations, including the All Assam Students’ Union (Aasu), have insinuated that he masterminded the Azad Maidan violence in Mumbai ostensibly organised to protest against atrocities on Muslims in Assam.
The AIUDF scoffs at these charges. The controversy over Ajmal is building up because his party is a threat to the two mainstream parties, his supporters stress.
Indeed, seven years after it was founded, the AIUDF has made stunning gains in Assam’s electoral politics. In the 2011 Assembly elections, it contested 74 seats and won 18. It has now emerged as the second largest party in Assam after the Congress, which has 78 seats.
The AIUDF’s popularity among the Muslims in the state is growing. Muslims, who traditionally voted for the Congress, are looking at the AIUDF as an alternative, points out Ravindra Narayan Ravi, a former Intelligence Bureau special director who’s been intimately associated with the Northeast for over two decades. “Muslims are no longer the captive vote of the Congress. The AIUDF offers a credible alternative platform,” says Ravi.
Indeed, some observers believe his party could well overtake the Congress over the years. “By 2030, the party may well be in control of the state government,” argues Nani Gopal Mahanta, a political analyst and psephologist in Guwahati. “In the last Assembly polls, out of a total of 1.85 crore eligible voters in Assam, about 56 lakh voters were Muslims,” he says. A school of thought holds that as the Muslim population grows, so will AIUDF. Others, however, debunk the theory.
Till some years ago, Ajmal was little known outside his state. Today, the 60-something member of Parliament from Dhubri — the scion of a family that runs the multinational Ajmal Group which makes perfumes and has diversified into real estate and research and development — is making his presence felt.
His admirers point out that he is philanthropist and has set up educational and medical institutes and welfare trusts in Hojai and elsewhere. A deeply religious man, he is anything but communal, assert his followers. “When floods hit Assam this year, Ajmal saab personally went to the affected areas and provided relief to the victims, irrespective of their caste, creed or religion,” says Shamsul Haq Chaudhuri, a local teacher and president in charge of Markazul Ma’arif, a voluntary organisation Ajmal set up in Hojai in 1982.
The seeds of the Ajmal family’s fortunes were sown by Badruddin’s father, Ajmal Ali. He was a farmer in Hojai, but later became a successful businessman by selling attar to West Asia. The family left for Mumbai in 1950 and, as the business grew, moved to Dubai in the 1980s. Today, Badruddin Ajmal divides his time between Delhi, Mumbai, Dubai and Assam.
Ajmal’s foray into mainstream politics began in late 2005, when 13 organisations representing backward communities such as the tea tribes joined hands to launch the Assam United Democratic Front. Ajmal, who headed the state unit of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (a Muslim religious outfit), the “strongest” of the 13, was elected its leader.
Within six months of its formation, the party faced Assembly elections in Assam in 2006. Out of a total of 126 Assembly constituencies, it put up candidates in 71 seats and won 11 seats, including Dhubri, Barpeta, Hojai, Dhing, Bilasipara (West) and Jamunamukh, says Aminul Islam, the party’s general secretary.
The party did well in the 2008 panchayat polls too, when its vote share went up to 13 per cent from 9.7 per cent in 2006. Then came the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 when the party rebranded itself as the All India United Democratic Front — because it wanted to spread its wings elsewhere in India. “In Assam, we put up nine candidates in 14 seats. Ajmal won by a record 3 lakh margin from Dhubri,” says Islam. The vote share was now 16 per cent. Then in last year’s Assembly elections, it emerged as the second largest party.
The AIUDF’s political rivals allege that its success rides on communal politics. “Some parties are projecting themselves as the ‘saviour’ of minority communities in Assam,” says Pankaj Bora, spokesperson of the Congress in Assam and press advisor to chief minister Tarun Gogoi. Adds Samujjal Bhattacharjee, advisor, Aasu: “Parties which are rising because of the illegal immigrant votebank are proving to be kingmakers.”
But senior AIUDF leaders believe the climbing political graph of the party has sent shivers down the spines of other political groups in Assam. “We have been dubbed ISI and Bangladeshi agents,” says Dr Aditya Langthasa, former AIUDF MLA and party spokesperson. Adds Akbar Ali, AIUDF secretary, who is writing a book on Muslim migration to Assam since the 8th century, “The Congress feels we are eating into their territory.”
Naturally, the Congress pooh-poohs that charge, saying that the party does not consider “new” outfits such as the AIUDF a threat. “In 2006, we won 53 seats and in the last Assembly polls we won 78. That’s a rising graph. It shows the Congress finds acceptance among all people in Assam, cutting across communities," says Bora.
Some in AIUDF hold that the Congress, rattled by its eroding support among the Muslims, is now wooing the Bodos as an alternative votebank. But Ravi dismisses the theory. “The Congress cannot afford to alienate the Muslims in favour of the Bodos,” he says. “Muslims constitute 32 per cent of the electorate in Assam as against 6.5 per cent in the case of Bodos. Such rhetoric on the part of the AIUDF is merely to polarise the Muslims against the Congress.”
The AIUDF makes no bones about the fact that it is committed to protecting the interests of the minority community. It maintains that many Muslims dwelling in the riverine areas of Assam lose land every year to erosion by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries.
“They lose their land documents as well and cannot prove they are Indians even if they are sons of the soil,” says Langthasa. “These displaced people are often dubbed illegal immigrants.”
The AIUDF also insists the party is entirely secular. “Let people say what they will — we are deeply secular,” stresses Langthasa, who belongs to the local Dimasa community. “Our leader cares for people from all communities.”
The debate carries on.