In December 2019, when a movement against the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act erupted in Assam, Dipanka Kumar Nath was at its forefront.

Nath was then the president of the All Assam Students’ Union or AASU, an organisation with a history of leading the “anti-foreigners” Assam agitation in the 1980s.

In Assam, the law, which opens the door to Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, triggered old fears of being overrun by undocumented migrants – an anxiety that has driven the state’s politics since the 1970s.

The AASU, which is committed to the idea of Assamese nationalism and perceives the “influx” of people from Bangladesh – whether Hindu or Muslim – as an existential threat to the state, took to the streets. The protests brought the entire state, especially the state capital Guwahati, to a standstill. The law was put in cold storage after widespread protests across the country.

Over four years down the line, statements by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders from West Bengal, promising that the law will be implemented soon, have again stoked fears and protests in Assam.

But this time, Nath is not mobilising crowds against the law. Last month, the leader joined the BJP, the party whose government at the Centre pushed through the law.

The political U-turn has led to sharp reactions in the state, with AASU leaders pillorying Nath as a traitor to the cause of Assamese subnationalism. “He has not only betrayed AASU but also the lakhs of people who took to the streets following his appeal during the anti-CAA movement,” Utpal Sarma, the current president of AASU and once a close aide of Nath, told Scroll.

Lurinjyoti Gogoi, former AASU general secretary, who also spearheaded the protests against the citizenship law, said Nath’s U-turn “was an insult to Assamese jatiyotabad (nationalism).”

Observers of the state’s politics, however, point out that Nath’s switch is one more sign that Assamese nationalism, which privileged a linguistic ethnic identity over religion, has been tamed by the Hindutva politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

A demonstrator at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Nagaon district in Assam on January 4, 2020. Credit: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters.

Death of an alternative?

Nath, who is in his fifties, headed AASU, the biggest students’ body in the North East for eight years between 2015 and 2022.

He was a member of the central committee, the outfit’s highest decision-making body, for 30 years.

In 2019-’20, along with Lurinjyoti Gogoi, he powered the street protests against the citizenship law.

In the months following the anti-CAA protests, Nath also emerged as an advocate for a regional alternative in Assam, one that would speak for the interests of the ethnic Assamese. “He was among the first AASU leaders who proposed the formation of a regional party,” Gogoi told Scroll.

For some years now, a large section of middle-class Assamese have grown disenchanted with the Congress, which is seen as a party that favoured Muslim migrants in the past. The Asom Gana Parishad, the party which emerged out of the Assam Movement, was in alliance with the BJP during the protests against CAA.

In September 2020, efforts of the two largest and most influential student outfits in the state, the AASU and the Asom Jatiyotabadi Chhatra Parishad, led to the formation of one such alternative – the Asam Jatia Parishad.

Gogoi quit AASU to become the president of Asam Jatia Parishad in December 2020. But though Nath quit AASU in 2022, he did not join the Parishad.

“Nath has betrayed us for his own political career,” Gogoi said.

Jatiyotabad meets Hindutva

In his defence, Nath has said that he was convinced about joining the BJP because the Himanta Biswa Sarma has succeeded in “solving many issues”, which were on the AASU agenda in the last three decades.

For instance, he was appreciative of last year’s delimitation exercise, which the Sarma government has said will enable “indigenous” communities to win at least 94 of 126 assembly seats and which, critics say, will reduce Muslim representation in the state.

He also counted the Assam government’s success in clearing land belonging to the satras – neo-Vaishnavite monasteries of the state – from alleged Muslim encroachers and the eviction of Bengali-origin Muslim families from Darrang district, in which two people were shot dead, as reasons.

The eviction drive in Darrang in 2021. Credit: Himanta Biswa Sarma via Twitter.

“This party is working towards protecting the jaati (community),” Nath said at a joining ceremony at the state BJP headquarters in Guwahati.

The BJP state leadership too underlined that the objectives of Assamese nationalists and the saffron party were now the same.

Bhabesh Kalita, who heads the BJP’s state unit, pointed out the ideological similarity between BJP and AASU as both participated in the Assam Movement in 1983 for the deportation of “illegal immigrants”.

“Our leader and Lok Sabha MP Atal Bihari Vajpayee actively participated against the anti-foreigners agitation in 1983,” he said, referring to the senior BJP leader’s visit to the state during those turbulent years. “AASU speaks about the protection of jaati (community) and maati (land). This is not only the slogan of BJP but we are also implementing it.”

The CAA fallout

The convergence between the BJP and leaders of Assamese nationalism, political observers say, has long been coming.

“[The idea that] Assamese nationalism acts as an oppositional force to the Hindu nationalist juggernaut is now old history,” political scientist Sanjib Baruah told Scroll. “The anti-CAA agitation was probably its last gasp.”

Many leaders of AASU and Asom Gana Parishad joined the party a long time ago and others are in parties that are in alliance with the BJP.

“The political opposition with roots in the Assam movement has nearly collapsed,” Baruah said.

In the 2021 assembly elections, the BJP was able to successfully counter the anger against the CAA, by banking on development schemes and projecting itself as a “protector” of the Assamese community.

Baruah argued that replacing Sarbananda Sonowal with Himanta Biswa Sarma as the chief minister was key to managing the opposition to the citizenship law.

“They wanted someone more effective than Sonowal,” said Baruah. “Having built his career as an uncompromising warrior in the cause of khilonjia or indigenous interests, Sonowal was too tied to the legacy of the Assam Movement to do an about-turn on the issue.”

Under Himanta Biswa Sarma, however, the BJP has deflected attention away from the Citizenship Act by carrying out a programme of hardline Hindutva, which has successfully pandered to both “jatiyotabadi” and Hindutva supporters of the society.

From a peace agreement with the United Liberation Front of Asom, an insurgent group that fought for an independent Assamese state, to the evictions of Muslims, which continually added to the perception of the community as “illegal” migrants, to a proposed uniform civil code, the BJP government has projected itself as a protector of indigenous Assamese interests.

“The Himanta government has given many things to keep Assamese nationalists occupied and happy in order to undermine Assamese nationalism,” said a political observer, who requested not to be identified.

A protest held on February 3 against statements by Bengal BJP leaders promising the implementation of CAA. Credit: Special Arrangement.

A new front?

A day after Nath’s shift to the BJP, Union Minister of State for Shipping and BJP MP from West Bengal’s Santanu Thakur reiterated that the Citizenship Amendment Act would be implemented in the country within a week – from which he later backtracked.

Nevertheless, a section of civil society groups of Assam led by the anti-CAA forum, Coordination Committee Against Citizenship Amendment Act, organised a sit-in demonstration in Guwahati demanding the repeal of CAA on February 3.

Deben Tamuly, the committee’s chief coordinator, said, “People will oppose the CAA and it still holds significance in Assam’s politics.”

Activist-turned MLA Akhil Gogoi of Raijor Dal, one of the parties formed after the CAA stir, also protested at the Assam Assembly premises.

“The BJP government had promised to free us from foreigners’ issues,” Gogoi said. “Instead, over 15-20 lakh Hindu Bangaladeshi people will get Indian citizenship in Assam if CAA is implemented. Instead of solving foreigners’ issues, they are imposing more foreigners on us.”

Sarma, the AASU president, said that the organisation is committed in its opposition to the citizenship law as there is no place for illegal immigration in Assam.

“The regional sentiment is always there in the minds of Assamese people,” the AASU leader said. “It just needs to be triggered as the CAA did in 2019.”

Not everyone is convinced that the ethnic Assamese will take to the streets this time around, too.

“Subnationalism or Assamese nationalism consciousness is getting diluted,” said Chandan Kumar Sharma, who teaches sociology at Tezpur University. “But I don’t see its seamless merging with pan- Indian nationalism. For instance, the CAA still holds significance in Upper Assam. Whether that will translate into votes is tough to say.”