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EXISTENCE IN PERIL

Majuli should have been famous for its attributes for centuries but it was infamy that catapulted it onto the international consciousness one day in July 1997 when Ulfa militants abducted development worker Sanjoy Ghose and killed him.

As it goes to the polls on April 7, the river island and the seat of Vaishnavite culture in Assam is faced with the question of its very existence as the Brahmaputra relentlessly nibbles away large chunks of its land mass. Between the turn of the last century and this, the island in eastern Assam has lost 600 square kilometres, to measure 650 square kilometres in 2001.

Assam and Majuli have for years now tried to get World Heritage status for the river island but without success.

Convincing the electorate here of the benefits of elections also means convincing the high priests of the xatras (Vaishnavite monasteries) of the benefits of supporting the state’s political groups.

The xatras were established way back in the 15th century by the fountainhead of Assamese culture, Sankardev. Ironically though most of these xatras are still not connected by all-weather roads and during the monsoon it becomes very difficult to access them.

Ranee Narah, sitting Congress MP from Lakhimpur, under which Majuli falls, faces a tough challenge from the state BJP president Sarbananda Sonowal.

Sonowal had contested the last election from Dibrugarh parliamentary seat. AGP candidate Hariprasad Dihingia, who is also considered a strong candidate, has ensured that the fight will be three-cornered. Public anger is directed at Narah, who is also the Union minister of state for tribal affairs, and they allege that she has done little to solve the problems of the island.

For the electorate, the election once again provides them with an opportunity to highlight the development issues of the island. They would hope the next MP would take steps to address issues of erosion and the world heritage site status for the island.

The residents of Halmora on the island have already issued a notice to political parties not to enter the area, as they are angry at the government’s failure to stem the massive erosion in the area during the past few years. A number of people had to be rehabilitated elsewhere.

The xatras of Majuli have been demanding that the government undertake steps for permanent protection of the island, even resorting to demonstration to make themselves heard.

Most candidates visit the xatras just before the elections to seek the blessings of the xatradhikars (the priests).

Janardan Deva Goswami, the xatradhikar of Uttar Kamalabari Xatra, said the xatras stay neutral in the elections. Founded in 1673, the xatra has played a major role in spreading and enriching the Xattriya culture.

Appealing to the voters to cast their votes, Deva Goswami said the true picture of the polls would emerge only if everyone votes. He said there could be a change in the political equation as the mood is for change in almost every corner of the island.

On the World Heritage site status for the island, Deva Goswami said the issue appeared to have been put on the backburner. But he hoped that the island would be able to get the status.

He alleged that the xatradhikars have not been informed about the recent developments that have taken place in according the coveted status to the island.

Deva Goswami admits though that the government has already taken some steps for erosion control. “We have to wait for the next rainy season to see if the measures yield the desired result,” he said. Saying that the present Congress government has done much more than the previous AGP government for the xatras, he added that mere construction of buildings for the xatras was not enough. He said the government must take measures to develop Xattriya culture.

“There are approximately 35 xatras in Majuli and the largescale erosion has been posing a serious threat to our very existence. If our elected representatives had used their local area development fund sensibly then most of our problems, including erosion, would have been solved by now,” said a disciple at Dakhin Pat Xatra.

AASU leader Dipak Neog, the president of the Kamalabari regional unit, said one should vote for the best candidate irrespective of the party affiliation.

Rajen Bora, a grocery shop owner of Doria Tiniali on the island, said he does not expect their representative to provide a direct benefit.

“But he or she should be able to meet the expectations of the residents of the island. The MP must be able to raise the problems of the island in Parliament,” he added.