Assam, Anti-Muslim Rhetoric And The Master Strategist

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma enjoys popularity both as an administrator and a politician despite his relentless anti-Muslim rhetoric

Photo; Getty Images
Wooing Voters: Himanta Biswa Sharma at a rally with Suresh Bora, the BJP’s candidate for the Nagaon Lok Sabha constituency Photo; Getty Images

“Himanta [Biswa Sarma] is right. All these lungi-clad Muslims should be kicked out of Assam,” says Shibananda Talukdar, who is in his 40s. His friend Biswajit Phukan chips in. “We, Assamese, don’t want to be run over by these Bangladeshis with whom we share no connection.” Talukdar calls himself a self-employed professional. Phukan introduces himself as a medical representative and an avid biker.

They are sharing a table over coffee and snacks at a café in the Kahilipara neighbourhood of Guwahati, Assam’s capital. Neither of them are from Guwahati. Work has brought them to the city from the suburbs. They insist that, to the best of their understanding, Guwahati and its suburbs overwhelmingly share the same sentiment–Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma “talks sense”.

Such pro-Biswa Sarma voices can be heard in all parts of Assam, from Dibrugarh in the east to Barpeta in the west and Silchar in the south. It is the Parliamentary election, in which re-electing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to India’s top job is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) priority. BJP leaders are talking about Modi’s development model. But in public discussions, the 55-year-old Biswa Sarma eclipses everyone else.

“In Assam, Biswa Sarma, not Modi, is the biggest polariser,” says a government schoolteacher, a Bengali-speaking Muslim living in Barpeta town of western Assam. He does not wish to be named.

Himanta Biswa Sarma at a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections at Assam’s Kamrup district
Himanta Biswa Sarma at a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections at Assam’s Kamrup district Photo: PTI

It has been nearly a decade since Biswa Sarma, the ‘‘Number 2’’ in Assam’s last Congress government led by Tarun Gogoi rebelled against his party, quit the cabinet in July 2014, and joined the BJP a year later. The buzz in the state Congress is that he hoped to be Gogoi’s successor. But the Congress’ decimation in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and Gogoi’s son Gaurav’s entry into state politics made him wary of his future. As his bargain with the Congress high command failed, he left for greener pastures.

The BJP national leadership saw his potential and high ambitions. They quickly made him the head of the North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), the BJP-led alliance for northeast India that includes most of the region’s important political parties. The party contested the 2016 assembly election with him as the convener of the election management committee.

After the formation of the BJP’s Sarbananda Sonowal government, Biswa Sarma emerged as the second-most important leader, only to overshadow Sonowal soon. The BJP effectively fought the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Assam under his leadership. He eventually bagged Assam’s top post in 2021.

By 2024, he has made a name for himself as Hindutva’s latest poster boy, known at places far away from Assam for his “hate speeches” targeting Muslims and derogatory remarks against Opposition leaders, especially those from the Congress.

Sentiments against Bengali-speaking Muslims, commonly referred to as “Miya” in Assam in a derogatory sense, have a long history in Assam. Changes in Assam’s religious and linguistic demography with the influx of Hindus and Muslims from Bangladesh have remained a central point of politics in Assam for over four decades.

However, the BJP differentiated between these migrants on the basis of religion and Biswa Sarma took the vilification of Bengali-speaking Muslims to a different level. He has accused Bengali Muslims of driving up vegetable prices and engaging in “fertiliser-jihad”, called their women “child-producing machines”, and described these Muslims as “very, very communal and fundamentalist” who were “distorting Assamese culture”.

Muslims compose 34% of Assam’s population according to the census of 2011. About nine-tenths of them speak Bengali.

Since 2021, Biswa Sarma’s government has shut down and even demolished madrasas. His crackdown against child marriage saw the Miya men bearing most of the brunt. His administration even closed down a small private museum highlighting Miya culture and slapped terror charges on the founder.

In a crude attack on Badruddin Ajmal of All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF)—which enjoys significant popularity among Assam’s Bengali-speaking Muslims—Biswa Sarma said in March this year that if Ajmal wishes to marry again, he should do it now, as Biswa Sarma’s government is going to enact the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) once the elections are over. Then, a second marriage without nullification of the first will land anyone in jail.

The 68-year-old Ajmal is married to only one woman and has never expressed a wish to marry again. Biswa Sarma dragged Ajmal into his campaign against polygamy perceptibly because his favourite generalisation of Muslims is that they have multiple wives.

“BISWA sarma has an unmatched understanding of how and what the voters in assam are thinking and the nuanced dynamics that prevail in every constituency.”

While underage marriage, teenage pregnancy, and polygamy are social evils that need to be eradicated and, indeed, have a higher prevalence in Assam than in many other parts of the country, Biswa Sarma’s political campaign targets only Bengali Muslims.

“Biswa Sarma has turned us into second-class citizens and he did it brazenly,” says a government schoolteacher in Barpeta town of western Assam, requesting anonymity.

Biswa Sarma’s vilification of the Miyas started even before he became the chief minister. Ahead of the 2021 assembly election, he proudly said that he did not need ‘‘Miya votes’’. “I will not be able to sit in the Assembly if they voted for me,” he had said in one of his rants against the community. He reiterated the position multiple times between October 2023 and February 2024. This turned him into a hero in the eyes of many.


“Smart” is one of the most widely-used words to describe Biswa Sarma. He is daring, say others. Some call him an able crisis-handler. He knows everything about Assam’s BJP and the Congress, people point out.

There are multiple corruption charges against him, some from the time he was in the Congress, some emerged during his chief ministership. But he manages to distract people from these.

According to political analyst Abhinav Borbora, a Lokniti-CSDS researcher, Biswa Sarma’s unique selling point (USP) is his exceptional grasp of the electoral pulse of the people of Assam. “He has an unmatched understanding of how and what the voters are thinking and the nuanced dynamics that prevail in every constituency. We have to credit him with the kind of meticulous planning that no other contemporary politician in Assam has shown,” Borbora says.


Borbora points out that one of the obstacles that Biswa Sarma faced towards his elevation as the chief minister was his caste Hindu identity. He is not an Ahom and does not belong to upper Assam, which has been the heartland of Assamese ethnic politics. Ahoms are Assam’s dominant tribe currently listed among Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

However, after becoming the CM, Sarma recast his image as a leader with a pan-Assam appeal by focusing on the upper Assam belt, capitalising on public emotions around Ahom icons like the 17th-century military general Lachit Borphukan, he says.

Such has been the maneuvering skills of Biswa Sarma that even after his relentless vilification campaign and his government’s actions, a section of Muslims may end up voting for the BJP. 


“He abuses but also delivers,” says Emran Hussain, a BJP supporter at Rupohihat, which is part of the Nagaon Lok Sabha constituency in central Assam where Bengali-speaking Muslims live in large numbers. He adds that under Biswa Sarma, Muslim-concentrated areas were not neglected or deprived.

A doctor at a block primary health centre in Nagaon agrees that some Muslims are likely to vote for the BJP. He says that he asked a group of young Muslim women why some of them lean towards the BJP despite Biswa Sarma’s series of abuses. “They told me that they were happy with the government’s women-centric schemes,” he shares.


Perhaps sensing such sentiments on the ground, Biswa Sarma has changed tactics in order to get the Miyas’ support. He has sensed that a portion of Miya votes could give the BJP a chance in Muslim-majority, close-contest seats such as Nagaon and Karimganj as well as Darang-Udalgiri, which has a sizeable Muslim population. The BJP expects Muslim votes in these seats to remain split between the Congress and the AIUDF.

During his repeated visits to Bengali Muslim-dominated constituencies in March and April, he declared that all his actions are aimed at bringing the community forward. “I believe that daughters, women and youths from the Miya community will vote for the BJP this time. I am fighting for Miya women so that there should not be talaq, child marriage, and women should get property rights as well,” he said at the end of March.


Only time will tell which section of Assam’s Bengali Muslims will take him to be their well-wisher.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya in Guwahati

(This appeared in the print as 'The Master Strategist')