Growing up in Guwahati, politics was of little interest to 22-year-old Mehzabin Sultana. However, as Assam goes to polls on 11 April, she says job creation is the most crucial among all the electoral promises made so far.
Torn between ethnic strife and years of armed insurgency by several violent extremist groups, including the United Liberation front of Assam ( ULFA), a large section of youngsters have over the years moved out of the state to build a career. However, as the frequency of violence on the streets of Assam recedes, many are now reconsidering career options and seeking opportunities at home.
“I want the government to create enough job opportunities in the state. Not everyone wants to go outside to pursue a career," Sultana says.
As in most parts of the North-East, student politics has always shaped public opinion in the state. In 1979, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, then a student leader of the All Assam Students Union (AASU), became a household name during the height of the Assam agitation and went on to become the chief minister twice. The movement ended in 1985 with the signing of the Assam Accord which recognized the citizenship of all those who had entered India prior to 1966.
“Those tumultuous days are over and young people in the state now aspire for stability and development. There should be an ideal yet practical balance between such aspirations and the Assamese identity," says Saurav Protim Gogoi, a 23-year old law student in Gauhati University, who decided to discontinue higher studies and leave a job in Bengaluru a year ago to return to Assam.
“Things are changing fast and the situation in the state is much better than before. This gives me and others confidence," he says. There’s a caveat though. “The government must ensure that the locals are given due preference in employment," he says.
Gunadeep Dutta, a second-year undergraduate student in Guwahati, who will be voting for the first time, says that successive governments in Assam have done a reasonably good job of ushering development in the state but feels there is room for more to be done.
“The state and its people have a lot of potential which is not being leveraged," he says. “The government should incentivize locals who set up industries or businesses in the region and create employment," says Dutta.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is expected to move again on the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which proposes to grant citizenship to Hindu immigrants who face persecution in other countries. As such, there are concerns about the effects the implementation of the bill will have.
“The bill is a sensitive issue for the people of Assam and I am equally concerned about it," says Sultana. “If more outsiders are allowed to come and settle in Assam, how will the local Assamese find jobs or have bright future here?" she asks.
Assam is open to outsiders, unlike the rest of North-East where migrants from other parts of the country need an inner line permit ( ILP) to buy land.
This has resulted in the perception, especially among residents of the state, that a large share of local resources has gone to people who migrate from other parts of the country. People of the region feel that if this continues, Assamese will have no voice of their own in their land.
“I agree that the citizenship bill is indeed a very sensitive issue for the people here and it will weigh heavily on the minds of voters," says Dutta. “If more people are allowed to come in, it will impact the livelihood of those who are already living here."
In an online opinion poll conducted by Northeast Now, a popular regional news portal, voters have ranked the issue of illegal migration in the North-East as their top concern followed by the development issue. For 44.8% of the polled individuals, illegal migration should be the key poll issue in North-East, while 34.67% of the respondents believe that development should get top priority in the Lok Sabha elections, the online poll indicates.