Assam, India – Human rights activist, journalist, poet: Shajahan Ali Ahmed has worn many hats. And now he has plunged into an electoral race with the aim of bridging the gulf between Bengali-origin Muslims and the Bodo tribal group in India’s northeastern state of Assam.
As a leader of the All Assam Minority Students Union (AAMSU) – an influential grassroots organisation – Shajahan, as he is popularly known as, has worked for victims of organised violence, told stories of Bengali Muslims excluded from the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and expressed the community’s pain through poetry in a local dialect known as Miya.
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The Bodo group is believed to be behind several deadly attacks on Muslims and other Indigenous groups during their decades-long armed rebellion, which ended after the group was granted a measure of autonomy in 2003.
Shajahan, a Bengali-origin Muslim who has faced discrimination and ethnoreligious profiling, wants the people in the region to turn the page on its bloody past.
The 32-year-old activist has come a long way from helping impoverished Muslims living in the “chars” (islands) of Brahmaputra river to moving with an entourage of party workers and a security detail in Bodo-dominated villages.
For the past month, he’s been driving up and down for hours a day, hoping to claim a piece of the political pie in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) – an autonomous body sanctioned by India’s constitution – election.
On Monday, voting kicked off in the first phase of the elections for the Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) comprising four districts: Kokrajhar, Baksa, Chirang and Udalguri. A second round will be held on December 10 to conclude the elections for the 40-seat BTC.
While campaigning in the interior pockets of the Mathanguri constituency in the Baksa district, Shajahan connects candidly with audiences, men and women, the youth or the elderly.
“Do you still fear going to Muslim villages?” he asked, addressing a crowd of fewer than 100 people, mostly women, gathered in another Bodo village near Khagrabari in Baksa.
He is met with silence, to be expected given that alleged fighters from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) had shot 42 Muslims in nearby Khagrabari in 2014. Two years earlier, nearly 100 people were killed, most of them Muslims, in ethnic violence between the Bodos and Muslims in neighbouring Kokrajhar district.
After a bit of prodding, the crowd feels enough at ease to nod, some responded out loud: Yes.
Not mincing his words, Shajahan addressed the insecurities on both sides and the need for peace and amity between the two communities – a refreshing change in Assam politics where ethnic groups have been pitted against each other.
The Bodos have been accused of targeting Muslims and adivasis Indigenous groups, displacing tens of thousands from the area which now forms part of the BTAD.
They fought for a separate state but settled for the autonomous BTC that the tribal group believes will address their cultural, political and economic marginalisation.
The Bodoland territory is protected under the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution, which grants them special privileges, such as reserving 70 percent of the seats in the BTC for them.
Although a minority in the BTAD, the Miyas (a pejorative term used for Bengali-origin Muslims who arrived in Assam over as early as the colonial period in early 20th century) form one-third of state’s 30 million population.
Muslims, most of whom settled in the Brahmaputra river valley, have largely adopted the Assamese language and culture, yet continue to be viewed as so-called “illegal” Bangladeshis by the Indigenous plain tribes and Hindu Assamese communities.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric reached its crescendo in the 1980s, with mass agitation calling for expulsion of Bengali-origin people – both Muslims and Hindus – who arrived in Assam following the bloody civil war in neighbouring Bangladesh in 1971.
In 1983, more than 2,000 Muslims were massacred in a matter of hours in Nellie village (in the erstwhile Nowgong district) – about 122 km (75 miles) north of the state capital Guwahati.
Shajahan would know just how deep and dangerous prejudice runs since his own family was displaced from Baksa to neighbouring Barpeta during the 1994 violence, a year after the first Bodo peace accord was signed. Only six years old then, he lost his uncle to the violence.
Years later, when the NRC exercise, aimed at identifying undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh – kicked off in Assam, he was out every single day helping poor and illiterate families fill out forms and arrange necessary papers.
“By 6am [local time], he would be out of the house and return only by 3am [local time] the next day,” said Arifa Parbin, his wife with whom he has a four-year-old daughter. “But I don’t mind since he’s doing good work, helping people.”
In the NRC, published last year, Shajahan and 29 members of his family were excluded – along with 1.9 million applicants in Assam – despite submitting the requisite documents. He suspects his political opponents had a hand in the exclusion. However, he remains eligible to contest the elections until a local quasi-judicial specialised court known as the Foreign Tribunals decides his fate.
In this election, the Bodoland Peoples Front (BPF), which has been ruling the autonomous region since 2005, is on the back foot as rival Bodo armed groups have also joined the poll fray after signing a peace treaty in January this year.
Meanwhile, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which runs both Assam and the central government, has launched an aggressive campaign to wrest power in the region.
Shahjahan is fighting on a ticket from a newly formed United People’s Progressive Liberal party (UPPL), which has given tickets to five Muslim candidates – a first in the history of BTC elections.
Formed by Pramod Boro, the former President of the All Bodo Students Union (ABSU), the UPPL is fighting against the 15-year incumbency of Hagrama Mohilary-led BPF on a “secular” politics platform.
ABSU was a key stakeholder in the peace talks responsible for bringing the Bodo armed factions together.
Shajahan said the January accord, which also talks about the welfare of minorities, ushered in new hope for peace and development for Bodos and non-Bodos alike in the region.
“For the first time, minority Muslims feel like there’s someone else looking out for their welfare and development,” he told Al Jazeera.
State failure in bringing those behind violence to justice remains a major thorn in any process to bring hostilities between two marginalised communities to an end. Several activists have expressed disappointment over the amnesty to Bodo fighters booked under non-heinous crimes.
Abdul Kalam Azad, a researcher who has researched the families displaced by violence, said many survivors were forced to withdraw their police complaints. “Till today, most of the victims are awaiting justice,” he told Al Jazeera.
Shajahan said he favoured the “more urgent” need for proper compensation and resettlement for the families who have not been able to go back to their villages yet – a direction more in line with his party manifesto than his days of organising massacre memorials and demanding justice.
Boro, of the newly-formed UPPL party, said they would start a reconciliation movement in the region for those who have been affected by the violence. “In our region, the conflict took place because of an unruly situation and ignorant government agents, who did not take smaller incidents seriously enough before it grew into full blown violence,” he said.
If his party wins the election, Boro said, his government would set up a committee under the social welfare department, where the grievances of all the communities would be heard.
Even as scepticism may abound on the peace accord or a new government being a new dawn for development and peaceful resolution, Shajahan believes that UPPL’s diversity and inclusion of minorities in its manifesto is worth a lot.
“Pramod Boro gave me a ticket, knowing well that I’m a social activist and my name is out of the NRC,” he said.
“If nothing else, this is a message [of inclusion] to everyone in BTR, Assam and the rest of India.”