Congress leader Rahul Gandhi probably had a feeling of déjà vu when he was not allowed to enter Batadrava Than, the birthplace of Assam’s most revered spiritual icon, on January 22, around the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the ‘Pran Pratishtha’ ceremony for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. In December 2015, he was allegedly turned away from western Assam’s Barpeta Satra on a day he launched the Congress campaign for the 2016 Assembly elections. A few weeks later, former Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, now a Union Minister, launched his election campaign for the Bharatiya Janata Party from the Uttar Kamalabari Satra in Majuli, an island-like landmass in the Brahmaputra River about 430 km east of Barpeta Satra.
There are an estimated 900 satras — monasteries of the neo-Vaishnav order — across Assam and beyond. Barpeta and Uttar Kamalabari are two of the foremost among them but they are not on the same level of spirituality or reverence as the Batadrava Than located roughly at the midpoint in the Nagaon district. A ‘than’ is more than just a monastery that has a four-tier structure with a prayer hall at its centre. And Batadrava, also spelled Bordowa, has been more than just an exalted place of worship for the adherents of the Ekasarana Dharma, a neo-Vaishnav monolithic form of spiritualism propagated by 15th-16th Century saint-reformer Srimanta Sankaradeva. It is what Jerusalem is for the Christians, Mecca is for the Sunni Muslims, and Ayodhya has become for many Hindus, whether or not they subscribe to the right-wing Hindutva.
Patronised primarily by the Ahom and Koch rulers, Sankaradeva and his disciples established the satras, which lorded over swathes of land donated by the local kings, elites, and devotees. After India’s independence, specifically after the creation of Bangladesh, many satras in central and western Assam became central to the issue of “illegal immigrants”, a staple of electoral politics in Assam since a violent agitation of 1979-98 to eject non-citizens from the State. The alleged encroachment of satra land by Bengal-origin or migrant Muslims became a rallying point for the BJP, which started building up momentum by the turn of the millennium before coming to power in 2016 in alliance with two regional parties.
In 2021, the BJP-led government headed by Himanta Biswa Sarma constituted a three-member inquiry commission headed by Asom Gana Parishad MLA Pradip Hazarika with BJP legislators Mrinal Saikia and Rupak Sarma as its members. The interim report, prepared after visiting 62 satras and interacting with the inmates of 303 satras, was submitted to the Chief Minister on December 3, 2022. The report said about 1,900 hectares of land belonging to the 303 satras were under encroachment, mostly by the migrant Muslims. The “systematic” land-grabbing, the panel noted, began before independence when the Muslim League formed the government in undivided Assam in the late 1930s. It also said 250 satras disappeared over the past few decades because their abbots and inmates were forced to leave by the encroachers. The report further said 74% of the encroachment on satra lands was in the minority-dominated Barpeta district and flagged Batadrava for special attention.
The BJP-led government did not stop at evicting the encroachers from the satra lands. Assam’s Revenue Minister Jogen Mohan told the 126-member Assembly in March 2023 that the government freed 99% of the satra land within three months. These squatters were among 8.57 lakh people illegally occupying government, forest, wetland, railway, and satra land across Assam, he said. A year before the 2021 Assembly elections, the government declared an annual grant of ₹10 lakh per satra and ₹2.5 lakh per namghar, a community prayer hall used by the followers of Sankaradeva. An average of 70 households are associated with a namghar, and the patrons of the namghars are usually associated with one satra or the other. This translates into a sizeable share of voters in an increasingly polarised Assam.
It was, thus, not surprising for Home Minister Amit Shah in February 2021 to lay the foundation stone for a ₹188-crore project to develop Batadrava into a major religious and cultural tourism centre in India. Apart from the optics, it sent a message that the BJP means business as the “saviour of Hinduism” from the “ghuspethiye” aka Bangladeshi people. Weeks before his high-profile programme, the Assam unit of Congress launched a bus yatra as part of their Assam Boson Ahok (come, let us save Assam) campaign from Batadrava, underscoring its political importance.
Almost three years later, Rahul Gandhi’s yatra hit a rumble strip at Batadrava after its management committee rescheduled his preprogrammed visit to the ‘than’ on January 22 to after 3 p.m., given the Ram Temple consecration. The Congress leader waited outside as his party colleagues — local MP Gaurav Gogoi and local MLA Sibamoni Bora — were let in around the time the Ayodhya event was being held. Mr. Gandhi said the Batadrava authorities were pressured by people at the top, meaning the Chief Minister. But his inability to visit the religious site at his convenience conveyed that the BJP wants it known it holds the copyright on key places of worship that can swing Hindu sentiments in its favour.