Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley shut down in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, on Tuesday. Most business establishments were closed and attendance in government offices was thin despite strict orders from the administration for employees to be at work. There were few vehicles on the road and railway services were affected in some areas.

The 12-hour bandh followed a shutdown call issued collectively by 60-odd organisations, whose members said it was timed to coincide with the meeting of the joint parliamentary committee on the bill. The bill – which seeks to facilitate citizenship for non-Muslim minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan – is expected to be tabled in Parliament during the Winter Session in December. The joint committee had visited Assam in May. In the Brahmaputra Valley, it had received memorandums from various groups stating their objections to the bill.

The proposed amendment lists the minority groups eligible for citizenship – Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. It says members of these communities must have lived in the country for six years to be eligible for citizenship – in contrast to the Citizenship Act of 1955, which states that people who entered India with valid documents can seek citizenship if they have been a resident for 14 years and lived in the country for 11 of those years.

While the proposed amendment would affect the entire country, opposition to it has been particularly stiff in Assam as it is seen to override the Assam Accord of 1985, which has widespread acceptance in the state. The Accord, which ended a six-year-long, often-violent anti-foreigner movement in the state, stipulates midnight of March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for entry into the state. The much talked about National Register of Citizens exercise currently underway in the state is also being updated according to the provisions of the Accord.

In the Brahmaputra Valley, Assamese groups see the citizenship bill as a move to turn them into a linguistic minority through the arrival of other communities.

‘Scale of protests will grow’

Bedanta Lahkar of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, one of the 60 groups, said the near total response to the shutdown was proof of people’s opposition to the citizenship bill. “People from across communities have supported the bandh,” he said. “Even the non-Assamese trading community refrained from opening their shops, and there was absolutely no coercion on our part – they did it willingly.”

Lahkar said the shutdown should serve as a warning to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which is backing the proposed amendment. “This was just a trailer,” he said. “If they do not immediately shelve the bill, the scale of the protests will only grow.”

Arunjyoti Moran, president of the All Assam Moran Students Union, which represents the Moran community, echoed Lahkar. “People extended full support to the bandh in spite of the government trying to curb [Assamese] nationalistic sentiments with its dictatorial attitude,” he said, referring to the administration’s circulars warning of action if people did not attend office or kept their businesses shut. “If the BJP doesn’t back off now, it will be responsible for any situation of unrest.”

Dissent from within

The citizenship bill has also not gone down well with the BJP’s coalition partner, the Asom Gana Parishad, which supported Tuesday’s shutdown by organising a rally in Guwahati against the proposed amendment. “Come what may, we will not let this bill pass,” the party’s president Atul Bora told thousands of participants at the rally.

He added, “The Assam Accord is our Geeta, Bible and Quran. We will never accept anything that violates its sanctity.”

Asom Gana Parishad spokesperson Manoj Saikia said the party would withdraw from the coalition the moment the BJP tables the bill in Parliament. “We are fighting from within the government now, but we will pull out immediately if the bill is tabled.”

The Congress, too, used the occasion to hit out at the BJP. “The bill is an election gimmick to polarise the people of the state in the absence of any real development work,” said Debabrata Saikia, the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly. “Today’s bandh is an indication that if BJP really cares for the people of Assam, they should modify their stance on the bill.”

Barak Valley unaffected

Assam’s Barak Valley, home to a predominantly Bengali population, was, however, unaffected by the shutdown. The region – which has seen waves of migration over the years, many of them Bengali Hindus fleeing violence across the border in Bangladesh – has been explicit in its support to the proposed amendment, in stark contrast to the rest of the state.

During the joint parliamentary committee’s visit to the Barak Valley in May, more than 300 groups from its three districts had submitted memorandums endorsing the proposed amendment.

“We are not looking for any sort of confrontation with the Assamese people,” said Sadhan Purkayastha of the Citizens’ Rights Preservation Committee, a group that support the bill. “We are demanding the citizenship of India, not Assam, so it is for the Central government to look into the plight of Partition victims even as it placated the concerns of the Assamese people.”