by- : Europa Doley, Vaidehi Gautam, Sania Muzamil, Isheeta Sharma

The Indian Express’ e.Adda is defined as a series of “informal” interactions with different personalities. In it’s June 2, 2021 episode they engaged in a discussion with Assam’s Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. Although at the beginning of the interaction the audience is advised to put in their questions and comments in the chat box, by the end of the session not a single question from the audience is put forward to the CM.

In the popular understanding, the ‘adda’ has been known as a space where ideas can flow freely (albeit not outside their socio-political contexts) and where unmediated interactions can take place. However, it is our belief that Indian Express’ e.Adda harks back to the Hindi definition of adda as a ‘perch for tame birds’ for its tameness was displayed in the restrictive format and the limited narrative that the discussion created on Assam. This article focuses on the different ways in which the possibility of a democratic space and discussion was missed by this interaction turning it into an official press conference rather than an informal interaction. 

Indian Express’ post-session report carries the headline – PM told me to have ‘Zero Hour’ in Cabinet to hear negative feedback: Himanta Biswa Sarma. Praising Prime Minister Modi, Sarma talks about how the centre wants him to regularly bring negative feedback to the forefront so it can be rectified. As per Sarma, this is what PM Modi did in Gujarat. CM Sarma’s focus on the centre’s efforts at listening to negative feedback stands in direct contrast with the ongoing Farmers protest in the nation. The main point of contention for the farmer’s has been the fact that the centre consistently refuses to build dialogue with them on the farm bills. It also stands in contrast to multiple arrests of students, comedians, academics and activists under flimsy charge of being ‘anti-national’. The main point of debate in the Zero Hour should perhaps be on how to handle criticism from the citizens for whom the government has been made. 

During the QnA round, noted author and columnist Tavleen Singh contradicted CM Sarma’s claim of only non-Muslim minorities being persecuted in Pakistan by mentioning the persecution of Ahmediyas and Shias, in the context of Citizenship Amendment Act. CM Sarma replied that any persecuted minority irrespective of their religious affiliations are most welcome to seek shelter in India through the CAA but the question of exclusion of Muslim minorities is invalid because muslim persecution in Pakistan is “not a problem of Partition”. 

Compartmentalising a grave humanitarian concern by placing it in different historical contexts and comparing their relevance with respect to the Act which is meant to be humanitarian in nature, falls nothing short of blatant disregard to absolute no tolerance attitude towards persecution of a people of any kind. 

Later in the interview, when asked about his ideas on how he plans to achieve gender equality in the state of Assam during his 5 year term, Sarma responded with a very “women-centric” answer. He said his main goal is to focus on women’s health and education. Assam Government’s Pragyan Bharati Scooty Scheme 2020 is aimed to encourage young girls from the underprivileged sector to continue their higher education by providing free scooters to top performers of higher secondary level exams. This scheme was introduced to tackle the problem of public transport as the main issue in preventing women of rural Assam to pursue their education. Sarma mentioned that in his term as the Education Minister of the state, he introduced such schemes to promote gender equality. Although his contribution to the education and health sector over the years has been appreciated by everyone in the state, his response to this particular question was limited to only women’s education and health. This reflects how our leaders often perceive gender equality only as a woman’s issue and nevertheless fails to address the barriers that affect everyone in the gender spectrum. 

When CM Sarma was questioned about his lack of willingness to engage with 35 percent of Assam’s population on account of their religion, he clearly created a binary between the role of a politician (laying emphasis on being a BJP politician) and that of a Chief Minister. He remarked that during his campaigning he did not seek votes from the Muslim population because he knew he would not be able to garner votes from this (politically-marginalised) community. Sarma implicitly conveyed that he capitalized on the existing political arrangements that our country has because everything is fair for a politician and political motives can be achieved by hook or by crook, and humanization of outcast minorities is not needed. Moreover, a thorough reporting by the Indian Express could have avoided the glossing over of this very important issue that was raised.

He also added that as a CM he would help everyone equally by providing good infrastructure. However his commitment to development was devoid of any humanitarian streak, and reflects the harsh ideology that has been persistent for many years now. 

The biggest challenge that India has been facing with regard to communal harmony is the feeling of alienation that has been brought in due to the state’s lack of mindfulness in their attitude towards different religious communities. Sarma’s hesitation in campaigning for Muslim votes and his unflinching remark that doing so would not garner him any practical gains in the elections shows the brutal hypocrisy of the current political state of India.

This approach towards the minorities reflects not only the prejudice that our state harbours; directly leading to the ‘Othering’ of Muslims, but also incites the common masses to treat other communities in an unjust manner, as the Indian population due to their own inherent problems mostly follow their political leaders and adapt accordingly. He  added that he does not lag behind when it comes to helping ‘muslims’ by building roads for them and providing all forms of infrastructural development possible. This attitude de-humanizes a whole community and reduces their needs to mere economic issues, dismissing all the cultural biases and injustice they face on a daily basis in our country.

The whole session, although an attempt at democratizing the whole process of interaction between our political leaders and the common masses, lacked any inclusive fervour. It ended up mainstreaming the very issues it aimed to problematise.

The issues discussed held the scope to open up new entry points for understanding and questioning the fundamental problems India is grappling with at present, but because the whole discourse was layered with undertones of xenophobia and false patriotism, the essence was totally lost in the process.

Europa Doley, Vaidehi Gautam, Sania Muzamil, Isheeta Sharma are currently pursuing her master’s degree in Gender Studies from Ambedkar University Delhi. Presently are interning with They were ready with their questions and all excited never got the chance