The report that Sushmita Dev, a former Congress member of Lok Sabha, daughter of Late Santosh Mohan Dev, former union Minister of Rajiv Gandhi cabinet and grand daughter of Sati Mohan Dev who was also a Minister of Assam Government has joined the Trinamool Congress didn’t come as a surprise, because for quite some time Dev wasn’t given her due role in the Congress even when she was heading the women’s cell of the party. A British trained lawyer, articulate and balanced in her views on various issues, Dev is a cut above the rest, and in the ordinary course – especially after her stint in the Parliament constituted after 2014 election she was destined to be a leader of the Barak valley of Assam even when she lost in 2019 Lok Sabha election. However by any reckoning Ms Dev represents a political culture of probity and decency that is rare in the Indian politics of today. Thus what is loss for the Congress party is a huge gain for the Mamata Banerjee led Trinamool Congress in Assam and North East for the following strong reasons and especially in the background that the spectre of Bengal continues to haunt politics of the North East.
Dev hails from Barak valley district of Cachar which was one of the three large, revenue yielding and populous districts – Sylhet and Goalpara were the other two ” transferred” to Assam when it was carved out of Bengal Presidency as a Chief Commissioner’s province in 1874. Sylhet , also a huge district with 5 subdivisions in Surma valley where plantation of Tea was equally successful as in Cachar. It is necessary for those reporting on the north east and interested in the” identity crisis of the indigenous people of the north east” to note that as per 1901 census Bengali was the language of the largest section of the people- 48% and the Assamese 22% , the rest being Hindi and tribal languages.(Ref. Gazetteer of Bengal and North East India by BC. Allen et al – Reprinted by Mittal Publishers Delhi 1993) The current Delhi media description of Barak valley as ” Bengali dominated” is thus misleading because the districts mentioned above were transferred to Assam to make it viable as the revenue potential of the sparsely populated Assam proper comprising 5 plains Districts of Brahmaputra valley was very limited. The Bengali people in these areas were there always and are not ” migrants”- a point ignored also by the media. As per 2011 Census about 29% of the population of Assam speak Bengali which is not the reality as there are many more ethnic Bengali and the “immigrant Muslims” in particular who continue to return Assamese as their own language in the census. The rise of AUDF under Badruddin Azmal as the political platform of Muslims of East Bengal origin has been a game changer in Assam politics as its inclusion in the Congress led front in the last Assembly election reduced congress to irrelevance in not only Assamese Hindu dominated districts but also in Barak valley.
It’s this reality that might have promoted Ms Dev to leave Congress and give up her family’s long link with Congress and Gandhi family. Of course the fact that she was not given her due by the Congress was also a sore point. However her decision is a huge gain for Trinamool Congress as Barak valley is the best entry point for the TMC in the NE as it shares land border and strong social cultural links with Tripura .
In this background the decision of Mamata Banerjee to nominate Ms Dev for a seat in the Rajya Sabha from West has great significance as this is the first time when a resident of Assam is given this honour which makes Trinamool Congress a stake holder in Assam and Tripura strengthening its claim to be a national party while raising the stature of Mamata Banerjee at the national level. And given her secular image and appeal to the ethnic Bengali, the possibility of a Trinamool- AUDF electoral understanding can’t be ruled out as Assam Congress leadership is increasingly finding the AUDF alliance an obstacle to regain support of its core constituency- the Assamese Hindu and other “indigenous” groups of Upper Assam and even the Tea labour Community.
Also with former heavy weight Union Minister Yashwant Sinha of the Vajpayee govt in Trinamool Congress now also as a Rajya Sabha member and its support base in north Bengal tea , the possibility of Trinamool Congress making inroads in the vast Tea labour community in Assam can’t be ruled out and even some ethnic Nepali settlers. Much however would depend on how Sushmita Dev steers the party in the complex ethnic mix of Assam and how well she could give expression of the feeling of insecurity that has gripped 19.06 lakhs of people which includes a large number of Bengali Hindus who were put in the Excluded category in the draft NRC notified two years ago not to speak of many who have been put in the” Detention camps” in Assam.
Even then , Sushmita Dev’s presence is bound to give a new direction to the Trinamool Congress in Assam and elsewhere in the region where a new voice will be heard. More significantly by nominating Sushmita Dev(Rajya Sabha election to six seats from five states- two in Tamil Nadu and one seat each in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Assam and Madhya Pradesh are scheduled on October 4 ), a resident of Assam Trinamool Supremo has sent a message to the centre that West Bengal will not remain a mute spectator to the NRC or any other steps affecting the Bengali, Nepali and other people residing in the North East who might have some links with Bengal. And this might as well open a new phase in the politics of north east.