Even as protests over the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act have tempered down in Assam since Thursday, stories of non-Assamese speakers being targeted during the violent phase of the protests about a week ago are emerging. In one such incident in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia town, a 70-year-old Adivasi man burned to death, Scroll.in has learnt.

This particular incident occurred on the night of December 11 when at least four shops, all of them owned by Bengali-speaking people, were set ablaze. Narayan Kharia was sleeping inside one of them, a small road-side eatery. The next morning, owner Bidyut Deb found his body completely charred.

“All that was left were his skeletal remains,” said Deb. Kharia had been employed in Deb’s establishment for the last nine years. “He had no home, no family, so he would sleep inside the hotel,” said Deb.

The Tinsukia police confirmed the incident and Kharia’s death.

Despite this, Kharia does not feature among the five dead officially confirmed by the police as casualties of the ongoing protests against the amended law that fast tracks the route to Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from the neighbouring nations of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Assam, protests against the act largely revolve around fears of being swamped demographically and culturally by undocumented migrants from Bangladesh.

While there have always been intermittent tensions between local communities and the state’s migrant population, protests this time seemed to be largely directed at the Indian state. However, it now appears that protesters did also carry out targetted attacks on houses and commercial establishments in non-Assamese localities in certain areas.

A furniture shop owned by a family with its origins in Haryana was torched on December 8. Credit: Arunabh Saikia

The multicultural town of Tinsukia, shaped by several waves of migration from different parts of the country and outside, witnessed several such incidents – almost all of them largely unreported by the local media, which has taken a strong stand on the subject.

For instance, on December 8, a three-storey furniture shop owned by a family who trace their roots to Haryana was torched by protesters, apparently for defying a shutdown called by local Assamese groups. A couple of days later, the family claims, their vehicle was also attacked. Yet, they are hesitant to blame anyone, fearing retribution.

“It’s just our naseeb [fate],” said Ashish Garg Aggarwal, the owner. “We haven’t even named anyone in our police complaint as that would amount to shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Then on late December 15 evening, at least seven vegetable and fruit shops were set on fire in Sijubari locality of the town. These shops were owned either by Bengali-speakers or migrants from Bihar.

Ganesh Debnath, who owned one of these shops, said he suffered losses amounting to Rs 120,000. Debnath, too, was reluctant to blame anyone specific. “What do we even say?” he asked. “Our livelihood has been killed.”

Shopkeeper Ganesh Debnath said his losses could touch Rs 120,000. Credit: Arunabh Saikia

The next evening, seven under-construction houses were set ablaze in the Bengali-dominated Dhekiajuri Bongaligaon area in the town. Here too, people shied away from taking names or accusing anyone for the fire. Ashok Kumar Chowdhury, who lives metres away from where the houses were torched, said by the time he stepped out his home, the miscreants had run away.

Superintendent of Tinsukia police, Shiladitya Chetia confirmed all these incidents, but played them down as handiwork of “miscreants”.

These attacks were not restricted to Tinsukia. In neighbouring Dibrugarh district too, where protests were particularly intense, there were arson attacks on shops owned by Bengali speakers. In the district’s Naharkatiya town, several shops were torched. “It is not like Bengalis did not participate in the protests, yet some of our shops were attacked and set on fire,” said Uttam Dutta, a local businessman.

Around 50 km east in Bhadoi Pachali, Ashish Dutta said a portion of his shop was set ablaze.

Dibrugarh police chief Sreejith T admitted there were “attempted arson attacks on shops of other communities” in many areas in the district. “But we were able to avert most of them,” he said.

Ashok Kumar Chowdhury lives metres away from Tinsukia's Bengali-dominated Dhekiajuri Bongaligaon area where houses were torched. Credit: Arunabh Saikia

Palpable fear

While that may be true, many Bengali-speakers in the district claim to be living under great stress. In Chabua, particularly, where protesters obliterated almost all state-run establishments including the railway station, the local post office and the circle office, and torched the local legislators house on December 12, the fear is palpable. Most shops owned by non-Assamese communities continue to keep their shutter down more than a week later. “Obviously, we are scared and feel insecure; the state completely retreated as the mob went on a rampage,” said Mintu Chakravarty, a local businessman.

Choudhury claimed many people were even considering a shift. “My brother’s family is contemplating moving out to West Bengal,” he said.

In Tinsukia too, Chowdhury said that that he had never seen tensions escalate so much in the town. Chowdhury, a salesman at a shop , has been a resident of Tinsukia since 1965. “There has been friction, but I have seen nothing like this,” he said. “This was worse than the Andolan days.”

The Andolan or the Assam Agitation was a six-year-long, often violent, anti-foreigner campaign that swept through the state from 1979 to 1985. It culminated in the signing of the Assam Accord, which set a new definition of an Indian citizen in Assam: anyone who had come to the state before 1971 and their descendants.

In Assam, the latest amendment to the Citizenship Amendment Act is perceived to violate the Accord.

What then explains the large participation of non-Assamese in protest rallies organised by Assamese groups against the Act? Fear of being singled out, said several people Scroll.in spoke to. As a businessman in Tinsukia said, “We don’t have a choice, do we?”