The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Immigrants all, legal or illegal
- Ethnic mix to voting machine on bullock cart, Assam is unique
Sumitra Das: Independence, when'

Without garrulous convivial G.L. Agarwal, munching peanuts by the maund all through the night and leaving the floor as thickly carpeted with shells as the Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, Guwahati doesn’t seem the same. Agarwal, owner of the North-East Times, is stomping the field in Tezpur as the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate.

Tezpur and five other constituencies will vote on April 20, the rest six days later. But the guess is that my friend won’t make it to the Lok Sabha. A few saffron pennants hanging limply in the rain and candidates who have been ordered not to venture out after sunset do not suggest the BJP will storm the Congress citadel of 10 seats out of 14. That includes Koliabar, the Gogoi family’s Amethi. The chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, represented it for three terms. His younger brother, Dip, the sitting MP, is contesting again.

Agarwal being Marwari in a region that everyone thinks of as fiercely parochial is neither here nor there. Assam swarms with Marwaris. Leaving aside the old Banga kheda issue, one reason, I think, why they arouse no resentment is that almost everyone here is an immigrant. I am reminded of a British cartoon when the late Enoch Powell warned that rivers of blood would flow if all immigrants were not sent packing. It showed the Queen bound, packaged and labelled “To Germany”.

Even those with names like Mahanta, whom one thinks of as dyed-in-the-wool Assamese, fall in that category. “We are Brahmins from Kanauj!” a Mahanta boasts, harking back to the early 16th century. Some would have to be dispatched to China, others to Burma.

As chief minister, the late Hiteshwar Saikia (commander of a hundred just as Hazarika commands a thousand) imported a Laotian to teach his fellow Ahoms their forgotten ancestral Tai language.

“Rome conquered Greece, Greece conquered Rome,” murmured the erudite chief secretary, meaning Ahoms had been completely assimilated in exile. Instead, therefore, of representing only Muslims of suspiciously Bangladeshi origin, the United Minorities Front should speak for the whole of Assam.

If that sounds incongruous, what about electronic voting machines carried by bullock cart and elephant back to booths in the remote interior' Or yesterday’s triumphant Asom Gana Parishad, divorced from its erstwhile partner, the BJP, wandering in the wilderness' Or the Shiv Sena’s Sumitra Das apparently blissfully unaware of the year of Independence!

Guwahati was bone dry on my first visit 40 years ago. “Sura tonic wine is very popular!” they advised. Now, there are probably more whisky ads — Bagpiper, Directors Special, Royal Challenge but mainly Bagpiper — per square kilometre than anywhere else. The Stadium guesthouse, the only place to stay then, has blossomed into the Landmark hotel.

The Assamese might forgive Ms Das her ignorance of Independence but never her ignorance of the magic letters IMDTA — the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act which sets 1971 as the cut-off date for illegals.

It is a topic of debate in so far as anything concerned with a lacklustre election is discussed beyond the rarefied world of newspaper columns where we must keep the news going. Saikia once claimed that three million Bangladeshis had infiltrated in a single year. Mr Gogoi denied in the Barak Valley that there was even a single infiltrator, then reneged on the claim in Jorhat.

Seeing the IMDT Act as an instrument to legalise illegals, many Assamese regret that the BJP’s bill to repeal it lapsed last December.

When he was here recently, Atal Bihari Vajpayee stoked the fires of communalism by playing on that fear.

“Mr Vajpayee ought to be made to do prayaschitta with a gamocha round his neck,” thundered a Congress supporter. If so, it will be a stylish penance.

Guwahati shops are overflowing with the finest gamochas in India, elaborately embroidered in red on purest white. Even Sonia Gandhi had one draped round her neck.

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