A flex-printed colour banner of Badruddin Ajmal promising communal harmony fluttered as the road took left from National Highway 31 towards Dhubri town.
A few metres away, a poster of Assam Muslim League leader Rasul Haque called for an autonomous council for Muslims — giving an impression that Lok Sabha election in Dhubri, in the westernmost part of Assam, will be over the issue of communal harmony and identity.
After about 3km, many in the town on the bank of the Brahmaputra said it’s development and not the “communal politics” that matters most for the voters, mostly Muslims in the constituency.
“Dhubri has always sent a Muslim to the Lok Sabha but the condition of the Muslims here has remained the same. There is no industry although we share borders with Bangladesh and Bengal. Issues of the farmers or youths have been neglected as politicians here have concentrated on the citizenship issue only for votes,” said Irshad Ullah Khondker, a resident of Bidyapara in Dhubri. “If Tripura can do business with Bangladesh, why can’t we?” asked Khondker, who had taken voluntary retirement from the SBI in 2007.
From Ali Amjad of Praja Socialist Party in 1957 to perfume baron Badruddin Ajmal of the AIUDF in 2009 — voters in Dhubri, sharing a 137km border with Bangladesh — have elected a Muslim leader to Lok Sabha hoping that “identity crisis” resulting from migration from the neighbouring country will be solved and the development issues will get more focus.
The voters here, this time, too, will push the EVM buttons with the same hope.
Ajmal and Wazed Ali Chouhdury of the Congress — the two most prominent candidates — are mostly banking on the citizenship issue for votes.
The BJP has fielded Debomoy Sanyal, a medical practitioner, who is likely to get Hindu votes only.
“The name of Dhubri has become synonymous with Bangladeshis. From panchayats to Assembly elections and the general elections, politicians here have harped on the citizenship issue but none has been serious enough to resolve it. No one has bothered to set up a good higher educational institute even as sons and daughters of the poor farmers here want better education. The literacy rate here is low in Dhubri (58.34 per cent against 72.17 per cent of the state), sex ratio is high (952 in Dhubri against 958 in the state) while children living in sars (sandbars) have to cross rivers to go to schools. Things are no different in the neighbouring Goalpara district,” said Bashir Ahmed, the head of the political science department of Bholanath College.
“Those contesting elections have always played politics along communal lines although, Dhubri historically has remained a centre of communal harmony. We have a 17th century mosque, the gurudwara set up by Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur, the ancient Mahamaya temple at Bogoribari, the Surya Pahar in Goalpara and the old Naamghar at Chatrasaal. These monuments can be promoted as centres of communal harmony for tourism instead of dividing people on religious lines,” said Ahmed.
Set up in 1946, Bholanath College is the only prominent higher educational institute in the district.
“The problem of floods and erosion has not been addressed. We need a medical college and steps to reopen the waterways, which were vastly used by the British. The only industry we had, a match factory, is shut since 1997,” said Ahmed’s colleague Sudarshan Roy, an assistant professor of the department.
More than 1,300 employees became jobless after Winco, the Mumbai-based company that owns the match factory, shut its doors in 1997 and only 11 securitymen are now keeping watch on its properties on about 135 bighas in the heart of Dhubri.
“We want our leaders to take steps to reopen it,” one of the employees told The Telegraph.
Sultan Ali, living in Kuntirchar, a sandbar on the other side of Godadhar river separating it from Dhubri town, was furious when asked what problems they were facing. “See, what do we have here? There is no road, no electricity, no school and hospital. We have been voting every election but we are only called Bangladeshis,” said Ali, 48.
The atmosphere in Mankachar, about 100km away on the other side of the Brahmaputra, is the same.
“The Bangladeshi issue should be solved once and for all as our government is neglecting development issues here because of it. We have a hospital building but service here is very poor because of shortage of doctors,” said Golab Rabbani Molla, running a pharmacy at Mankachar, about 1km from the India-Bangladesh border fence.
l Dhubri votes on April 24