In spite of internet services being suspended in Assam since December 11, protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act continue to rage in the state. In the absence of social media, television news seems to be the go-to alternative for people to keep abreast of the protest calendar.

“We get all our information about the protests on TV,” said Nabanita Borgohain, a lawyer who was part of the All Assam Student Union’s “jailbharo” – fill the jails – protest on Monday.

Chiranjib Deori, a student attending the same protest, said he was “completely dependent” on television news now that there was no internet. “I came here because I heard the AASU’s call to people to come out on TV,” he said.

Adversarial media

The government’s attempts to curb the spread of protests seem to have been thwarted by the Assamese media, particular television media. They have made no secret of their opposition to the Act, which fast-tracks undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh eligible for Indian citizenship.

As the legislation made its way through Parliament to become law on December 11, Assam broke into protests – some of which turned violent. At least five persons have been killed so far. According to the popular local claims, the Act will regularise thousands of undocumented Bengali Hindus in the state, further marginalising populations identified as indigenous to Assam.

The Assamese media’s position is an extension of their position on immigration-related matters. The Assamese press wholeheartedly backed the update of the National Register of Citizens in the state, which is intended to be a list of “genuine” Indian citizens living in the state, sifting out undocumented migrants.

“Television has very well played a very important role in these protests,” said Mrinal Talukdar, who hosts a popular news and debate program on Pratidin Time, a leading Assamese news channel. “I am very proud to be part of the Assamese media right now which is showing such great character and courage against the ruling BJP government – the kind that few others have shown in BJP-ruled states of the country.”

In fact, the narrative on television has been so decidedly anti-government on some Assamese news channels that there are murmurs that the regime has gone to the extent of disturbing their transmission. “I can provide no proof, but it’s a fact that my programme is facing technical disturbances, though commercial breaks are free of such troubles,” alleged Talukdar.

Demonstrators take part in a musical concert to protest against the Citizenship Act in Guwahati on December 15. Credit: Sajjad Hussain/AFP

Pranay Bordoloi, who is managing editor at Prag News, another popular news network in Assam, said it was natural for TV news to assume a new importance in the absence of social media. Unlike Talukdar, though, Bordoloi insisted that his channel did not have an editorial position as such on the matter. “We have carried regular updates about the protests, but we have also cut live to press conferences by the BJP,” he said. “We have been covering both sides of the story.”

Talukdar cited one more reason for television’s burgeoning influence over the protests in the last few days. “The IT cell of the BJP has no means to counter attack now and they have been almost decapitated,” he said. “So now television news is almost entirely running the show and the Assamese media has taken a very very strong stand on the issue.”

Cultural protests

Another factor that many in Assam believe has sustained the protests for so long is the involvement of the state’s artistes and actors. Zubeen Garg, arguably Assam’s most popular singer and songwriter after Bhupen Hazarika, with a fan-following across age groups, has been at the forefront of protests along with the All Assam Students’ Union, exhorting people to hit the streets. Many other musicians have composed songs hitting out at the Act, articulating the Assamese people’s concerns about being demographically and culturally swamped by immigrants from Bangladesh.

On December 15, thousands of people turned up for a protest at the heart of Guwahati, where they broke into impromptu songs and poetry – led by some of the state’s most well-known artistes. Similar scenes were witnessed in several other towns and cities of Upper Assam. In these protests, Assamese cultural motifs such as the dhul [the Assamese drum] and taal [cymbal] were abundantly used.

Nilotpal Bora, a popular Assamese singer who has composed a song against the recent amendments, said the idea behind fusing music with the protests was to wean away people from using violence. “When there is a song playing, no one wants to be violent,” he said. “Besides this has made the protests more broad-based and involved many women.”

Other musicians cited more primal fears behind their participation. “The reason for the artistes’ involvement in the protests is quite simple: we want to safeguard Assamese language and culture,” said Manas Robin, a popular Assamese composer and singer.