On December 11, Guwahati – which houses Assam’s political capital, Dispur – witnessed remarkable scenes as protesters against the Citizenship Amendment Act laid siege to the city. One of the most enduring images of the day was of state government employees, amassed behind barricades meant to protect the state secretariat, joining protesters on the other side with “Go back BJP” and “Beware BJP” slogans.
As the protests swelled over the subsequent weeks, with lakhs of people across the state hitting the streets, state government employees joined in again. On December 18, they observed a cease-work protest. Offices across the state that day stayed saw scant attendance, bringing the state administration to a near complete halt.
The government, pushed into a corner, took a conciliatory tone. It announced that it would not cut any absent employee’s salary. Instead, their absence would be adjusted against their quota of annual casual leave. State Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma reiterated as much in a news conference: the government was alright with employees agitating so long as they did not participate in protests organised by political parties and it did not interfere with their jobs.
Yet, over the last couple of days, there have been signs that the government may not be accommodating of dissent, after all.
An order and a suspension
In an official communication dated December 24, seen by Scroll.in, a government department cautioned employees against taking political stands on social media. In the order, issued by the state’s elementary education department, employees were warned there would be disciplinary action against those “indulging and participating in political activities” on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram”.
This was followed up by the suspension of a government school teacher in Assam’s Jorhat district on December 26 for allegedly participating in protests against the Act, which makes undocumented non-Muslim migrants from India’s eastern neighbour eligible for Indian citizenship along with those from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Calls from the ‘top’
That is not all. Apart from these formal actions, Scroll.in has learnt from various government employees that “select” people associated with institutions affiliated to the state government have been “told through various channels” to refrain from making public comments on the Act.
In some cases, calls have come straight from the chief minister’s office. In one case, a senior professor associated with an eminent educational institute of the state was told to not participate in public meetings critical of the Act. This was communicated to the professor by the institute’s vice chancellor, VC who, in turn, had received a call from the top echelons of the state government. “All of this was obviously very politely communicated to me,” said the professor.
A climate of fear
With word spreading about these developments, many people previously critical of the Act and the government are now treading with caution. “When these kinds of things happen, you tend to be careful yourself and exercise self-censorship,” said a person who teaches at a college affiliated to Guwahati University. “When that elementary education order came out, I went to my Facebook timeline to check if I had written anything in the past few days, although, that order doesn’t technically apply to us.”
Another senior professor at a state university said it was natural for there to be fear, given the current government’s history of cracking down on dissent on social media. “This is a retributive government, which is capable of anything,” said the professor. “Once you are targeted you can be turned in for the flimsiest of reasons. Just look at what they are doing to Akhil Gogoi.”
Activist Gogoi was booked under Section 120 B (punishment of criminal conspiracy), 124 A (sedition), 153 A (unlawful association) and 153 B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national-integration) of the Indian Penal Code and Section 18/39 (punishment for conspiracy) of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for his alleged role in the current protests.
‘The personal is political’
But employee unions are pushing back against the government gag order. “The government is trying to suppress our voices and that is injustice,” said Basav Kalita, president the of Sadau Asom Karmachari Parishad, the apex employee union in the state, with 4,50,000 members. “We don’t support calls for violence, but the democratic rights of free speech should not be curtailed.”
The Parishad is now planning a “black day” protest against the government’s actions on December 31. “All government employees will protest wearing black clothes to mark the end of what has been a black year – the year when the Citizenship Amendment Act was enacted,” said Kalita.
The participation of government workers in mass agitations against the government is not a new phenomenon in Assam. Employees participated openly and in large numbers during the anti-foreigner movement that rocked the state between 1979-85. In 1983, as the Centre held elections in the midst of the agitation, state employees refused to cooperate, forcing the government to bring in officials from other states.
Dipen Sarma, general secretary of the All Assam English-Medium Middle Education Teachers’ Association, said the social media gag order amounted to curbing people’s democratic rights. “We are not part of any political party, but why can’t we express our personal opinions beyond our work hours?” he asked. “And the personal is political in today’s world.”