On 8 January 2019, the day BJP pushed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) through the Lok Sabha in New Delhi, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) called for a state-wide shut-down, or bandh, for the first time in ten years. A day before that, the Asom Gana Parishad left the BJP-led coalition in the state.
While many have criticised the bill, which provides citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries, for violating the secular principles enshrined in the Indian constitution, groups such as AASU are opposed to the bill for reasons peculiar to Assam’s recent history. The Citizenship Amendment Bill, they say, goes against one of the principle tenets of the Assam Accord of 1985, which promised to detect and deport illegal migrants who arrived after the cut-off date of 24 March 1971, irrespective of religion. Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam’s current Chief Minister from the BJP, was also a former AASU president.
Five years ago, in 2014, Modi addressed poll rallies across the state—in one such, he accused the then Congress government of killing Assam’s prized rhinos to settle ‘Bangladeshis’. The message was clear—Modi’s government would take a serious view of solving Assam’s long standing grouse on illegal migration.
But now, as the election comes around again, some of his former supporters have turned into critics.
“Is it possible that a prime minister can lie so much?” said a businessman accompanying Medhi, upset that Modi was actually looking to grant citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants. It is hard to figure out what or who these ‘Bangladeshis’ are, exactly. Post the NRC draft, the numbers being bandied about correspond to those whose papers were not able to pass muster in the last round.
As an Assamese, and a member of the the AJYCP (Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad), Medhi wants the agitation to succeed, but he is also conscious that a prolonged shutdown could hurt business.
“Aami kiman din taani nibo paarim,” he asks. “How long will we be able to pull this along?”
The BJP has made two promises to offset the effects of the Citizenship Amendment Bill: a Commission to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which gives safeguards to Assamese indigenous people, and the promise to classify 6 Assamese communities as Scheduled Tribes, which may make them eligible for reservations.
Both promises are being seen as nothing short of a last-minute bribe. And very problematic promises at that, with the potential to create more distrust between communities.
“Is this the time to set up a Commission?” Medhi counters. “But if not anything, at least in the 2019 elections, the BJP will be taught a lesson.”
The AASU members who burnt tyres on the road intersperse slogans against the BJP with cries of ‘Himanta go back!’
But Sarma is unperturbed. With the Citizenship Amendment Bill, he says, 17 electoral seats will be retained by ‘Assamese’ people for 10 years. In an interview with Guwahati Plus, he cites the example of Sarbhog which, if you exclude the 10,000 Bengali Hindu votes, will go to the ’Bengali Muslim″ AIUDF.
This ‘concession’ will save Assam from the “Jinnahs”.
For other local-level BJP workers in Biswanath Chariali, it is more difficult. Dr. Ranjan Gogoi, the BJP incharge of Dhemaji district who is also the secretary of the Small Tea Growers’ Association of Sonitpur, tells me:
“The agitators are protesting for the sake of protesting…eku issue nai..there are no issues anymore. ’
People will realize that this bill will be beneficial in a few years’ time.
“And where are the protests? It is just some leaders here and there…
In fact, for large parts of Assam, the bill does not matter. What matters is the good work the BJP govt has done.”
Dr Rajen particularly insists on this point :
“Is there any talk of this bill in any one of the tea gardens around? No, nothing. It is only of the benefits this government has brought for them.”
The mobilisation is massive, despite drawing crowds from only two adjoining districts of Sonitpur and Biswanath. Thousands of people have arrived in buses and jeeps and autos from the many tea gardens around.
Land ownership is a big problem for the ‘sa shramik’ or ‘tea worker’—the many Adivasi communities who have worked in the tea plantations since the colonial period. And the leaders I meet here say they are opposed to the Citizenship Amendment Bill because, if foreigners are brought in, they will take what little land the adivasis currently hold.
But there is a complication here—the ‘tea tribes’ are among the communities that have been promised ST status as payback for this bill. These tribes consist of groups of people who were brought to Assam during British rule to work on the tea plantations, though they prefer the political identity of “Adivasi’’. Because ST status in India varies between states, these groups don’t come under this category in Assam, even though they do in states such as West Bengal and Jharkhand.
The AASA (All Adivasi Students’ Association Of Assam) and various other groups have been fighting for ST status for years (and indeed, this was yet another election promise the BJP had made in 2016). But for this to be brought back on the table just months before the election, and that too as a trade-off for this bill, is a concern. Especially when there has been no consultation with representatives from other ST communities who have been opposing this.
From the dias, it is announced that a new political party, the Adivasi National Party of Assam, will be formed.The speeches are high on rhetoric but on the sidelines, Amrit Munda tells me that the community hopes to win some leverage for their demands not through agitations, but from political power.
This is a particularly vulnerable, marginalised community. Many leaders invoke past incidences and
massacres of the Adivasi people, particularly the December 2014 killings by insurgent rebels in Sonitpur and Bodoland districts. The Bill and the promise of payoff threaten to set
off tensions between different communities.
Any violence arising out of such a precarious balance will be the government’s responsibility, warns AASA leader Pradip Nag.
What will happen after the last tyre is been burnt?
As it is, for many people here, including the student union members and others, the decisions that will determine the length and direction of this protest depends upon central committees and others based in the capital or elsewhere in Assam.
Design input from Joel Rodriguez.