“Development issues need to be above political issues”: Ashraful Hussain, Assam’s youngest MLA

Courtesy Ashraful Hussain
12 May, 2021

A 27-year-old social activist from Assam, Ashraful Hussain, successfully contested the 2021 assembly elections from the Chenga constituency to become the youngest legislator in the state. Hussain was born in Haripur village in the riverine area of Assam’s Barpeta district. He grew up in a community of Bengal-origin Muslims—or Miya Muslims—and witnessed first-hand the struggle for citizenship faced by his people, especially while the government updated of the National Register of Citizens in the state. The process, which requires residents to prove their citizenship, stripped lakhs of Assamese residents of their rights.

Hussain has been part of a literary movement of Miya poetry in the state, in which poets highlight the discrimination and existential fears of the Miya Muslim community. The poets’ assertion of their Miya identity and language prompted backlash, including police complaints accusing them of defaming the Assamese people, and prominent intellectuals claiming that the poems insulted the Assamese language. At the time of his election to the state assembly, Hussain had three cases pending against him for his poetry.

Hussain won the Chenga constituency on a ticket from the All India United Democratic Front, and secured 58.3 percent of the votes, defeating Rabiul Hussain and Sukur Ali Ahmed from the Asom Gana Parishad and the Congress, respectively. After the results, Kimi Colney, a reporting fellow with The Caravan, spoke to him about his entry into politics, his poetry and what he seeks to achieve as a member of Assam’s new legislative assembly.

Kimi Colney: You are a poet and an activist. Why did you enter politics?
Ashraful Hussain: From my early years I tried to do something for the society. Because of my love for people and the need of people, I went into politics. If I don’t enter into politics, from the outside, there are many things that we are powerless to do. This time, the time had come for me to enter into politics. Everyone, people from my community, people from the party, they all told me it will be right for me to join politics. And the party took a great measure by giving me a ticket at such a young age. I am the youngest MLA this time. Party gave me the ticket, I fought and I won by a 52,000-vote margin.

KC: You had a job in the corporate sector, in Pune. What motivated you to return to Assam?
AH: From 2014–16, I was in Pune. And later I went to Guwahati and I began roaming around Assam and working for people, like on the citizenship crisis, the NRC, the eviction movement. I was very concerned about the citizenship rights and I volunteered for the people in my native place. Most of my community people, all of them face this problem. They are facing deportation problems. Many people are already dropped from the NRC.

I read various articles in the newspapers and magazines about how the government machinery is misusing their power to curtail citizenship rights, and I felt that I should work for the people and I should work for the relief from this problem. So, when the NRC process started in Assam, I actively worked for people in filling NRC forms, assisting them at the time of hearing. One problem was short-time long-distance hearings—some people got the notice very late and they had 24 hours to travel 500–600 kilometres. I assisted those people to go there and face the hearing.

KC: Why did you choose the AIUDF? The BJP leader and now chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, calls the AIUDF and its chief, Badruddin Ajmal, an “enemy of Assam.”
AH: I don't know why people think like this, that AIUDF is an enemy of the Assamese people. AIUDF is very much pro Assamese [people]. The party has proved that during the CAA protest, the party regularly stands against the CAA and no one can prove a single time that the party stood against the society and the culture of the Assamese people. The community I belong to, the society I represent—this society needs a voice for their development and solving their problems, and the AIUDF party scoped me to talk for these people.

KC: What factors helped you win this election?
AH: There are many factors. One is that the people wanted somebody to represent them in the assembly. They had this hope in me because in the previous years, I have raised the voice for the people. They had trust in me that I will speak on behalf of them. The other factor is that I spoke to the people about what I have done and what I plan to do, and gave them a clear picture on what problems we have and what we can do to solve them. Because this constituency is suffering and no one is standing up for them.

Another factor is that I was always with the people, and I will continue to be there for them, I had given them this promise. They had the assurance that I will be in contact with them, there will be transparency, there will be no corruption, I will focus on education and development. Apart from this, there was the citizenship issue—the people needed someone to speak up for them on this issue and I have worked to help the people on this issue from before, and that is why the people preferred me.  

KC: Why did the Mahajot alliance—of ten opposition parties including the Congress and the AIUDF—fail, even though the AIUDF did very well?
AH: This is an internal matter of the Congress and only they will be able to clarify why they could not win these seats. Our alliance is also with the Bodoland People’s Front but even they were not able to secure much seats.

KC: You are currently on bail after an FIR was lodged against you. Did this create any trouble for your entry into politics? How would your status as an MLA change this predicament?
AH: There are four cases against my name, but I was released on bail. But the people are not bothered whether there is a case against me or not. There were some problems—as per a judgment of the Election Commission, [the cases] had to be advertised on national media and vernacular media. We had to advertise it 18 times. So, this was a little problem. Then the opposition raised questions whether we had advertised or not, so there was some difficulty. But I don’t care because I did not do any wrong, I raised my voice for the people. I raised a voice on an issue that we were not able to speak up about for so many days. And that strength is in my heart. So let them put me in jail, or put in anywhere else. Whatever happens to me, I will always be there for the people. 

KC: The all-powerful Himanta Biswas Sharma has attacked Miya poets and poetry. Will you continue to write poetry?
AH: Yes, obviously, I will continue to write poetry. Why wouldn’t I write? The issues that I am able to speak about, issues that for so many years we couldn’t bring to light we are able to say it through poetry. So yes, I will continue to write poetry. And in this election, I saw that my poetry was very useful. The people listened to my poetry. Even before, when I attended any public meeting, I made the people listen to one or two of my poems. In any program, if they invite me as a distinguished speaker, whatever piece I am going to talk about, I recite a poem that is related to the piece. And I have observed that the people pay a lot of attention to the poetry when I recite it. And in this time of machines, when people don’t read news or magazines, in this time, people are listening to poetry. And I feel that it is a powerful medium through which we can spread important messages to the people.  

KC: Can you elaborate on your plans as an MLA and what are the most urgent issues you would take up?
AH: There are two–three issues right now. One is local issues and the other is regional issues. The local issues are such as soil erosion and education. And regional issues are citizenship. Apart from these, there are others such as land-registration issues. There are 17 gram panchayats, and in 4 panchayats, we are not getting registration till today.

Other than that, one important issue is national food security. Many people are not able to access Below Povery Line and Above Poverty Line cards and facilities that they were entitled to receive under various schemes. I will take up this issue. In the community where I am from, the percentage of literacy is very low. The low quality of education also needs to be taken up. There are very few educated pupils; there are many villages in the river area and there are very few schools; there are no teachers. There are no doctors in hospitals and the road communication is very bad. And till today, after 74 years, electricity has not reached many villages.

There is a need to raise up all these issues, and there is a lot of pending work. This constituency in Assam should live with equal rights—this is the work we have to do.

KC: What do you think helped the BJP to win a majority despite the huge popular anti-CAA protests against the government?
AH: During the anti-CAA protests, I observed that a group of people were involved in this movement, but now we can realise that the number of people was not so much. We can also see that the anti-CAA voters were divided in a few parties—one party is Raijor Dal, another party is Assam Jatiya Parishad, one headed by Lurinjyoti Gogoi and another headed by Akhil Gogoi. And so, a major portion of votes has been divided into three parties and that’s why around ten golden seats are lost. If we fought together, then we could have won more number of seats.

Then when you consider the religion as a deciding factor, people gave their mandate in favor of the religion and caste community. That’s why most people are polarised in the name of religion. I think the communal environment in Assam is going on right now, this has influenced many people. Another thing is that the people who are working class and belong to the Hindu community and are casteist, they were deprived very long. So if the BJP does something for them, and gives them some cash in the name of certain things, they can consider BJP as a good party. 

KC: You were associated with the peasant leader Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. Why did you leave?
AH: Yes, I was associated with the organisation’s student wing, but I was not given any special portfolio and responsibility, maybe because of my writings, poetry and politics. I was not even in the party which was formed just before the election. My colleagues, friends and people of my constituency considered that AIUDF party would be a better platform to continue the fight and hence I joined the party.

Another reason for keeping distance from Akhil Gogoi is his stand on citizenship issues. I tried to explain that I am pro-people, I am pro-marginalised [groups] and I am in favor of those who are victimised very long and I can understand their pain. But somewhere I feel that Akhil Gogoi lacks understanding regarding these issues and he has no depth of knowledge regarding this issue, so sometimes he has stated some baseless comments. When the Supreme Court judgment released an order that the detainee who completed three years in detention camp could come out on bail, Akhil Gogoi is the person who was against the judgment, who was against the decision of the government. But I was very much in favor of this decision and the judgement because I feel the pain of those people who were stuck in these detention camps for so long.

KC: What are the big problems related to NRC right now?
AH: Over 19.5 lakhs names are not included in the NRC. And the people who I have seen whose names are not included in the NRC, are genuine Indians according to me because the names of their brothers and sisters are included in the NRC. Their names were not included only because of political issues. They need citizenship certificates. And these citizenship issues have to be resolved for life, because these citizenship issues often create political unrest and there is no time to think of development issues. Development issues need to be above political issues.

And people are living in fear and anxiety. There should not be [any more] suicide. So many people have already committed suicide. I have maintained the list, I have talked to their families, and I don’t want to see any more tears. I don’t want to see any more fear in the people. I don’t want to see police harassment and I don’t want to see them going to a detention camp where the poor spend their lives. If this government has any humanity towards the people, they will solve this problem. I have very little hope that this government will solve this problem, but I will try. I will explain to them, and raise this issue politely telling them that they need to solve this issue on humanitarian grounds. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.