Protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act in Assam began in earnest in the first week of December, much before the rest of the country. A month later, they continue to rage even as the media spotlight has shifted to other parts of the country. Almost every day, a well-attended rally – apart from several smaller neighbourhood protests – is witnessed in some part of the state.
But, increasingly, a question hangs heavy over the protest gatherings in Assam: what next?
Most protesters so far have marched under the banner of the All Assam Students’ Union. As Jul Khound, the union’s organising secretary, said, “People at these rallies are now starting to ask us: ‘You keep saying everyone, from the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] to the Congress to the AGP [Asom Gana Parishad], is bad; who is good then?’”
Khound added: “Sooner or later, we have to give them some sort of an alternative.”
The fear of the foreigner
The Citizenship Amendment Act expedites Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from the three neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While protests against the Act in the rest of India have revolved around the law’s alleged anti-Muslim bias, ethnic groups in Assam and rest of the North East fear they will be physically and culturally swamped by migrants from Bangladesh.
In Assam, there is an added concern: a section of BJP leaders have suggested that Hindus left out of Assam’s recently updated National Register of Citizens, meant to be a roster of bonafide Indian citizens of the state, would be naturalised under the new law.
This would effectively render the NRC redundant, even though the document took more than four years to compile – something that protesters have routinely pointed out.
The NRC was updated according to the terms of the Assam Accord, an agreement that Assamese nationalists signed with the Union government to end a six-year long anti-foreigner agitation that rocked the state from 1979-’85. Over 19 lakh applicants were left out of the final list and must now prove their citizenship at quasi-judicial bodies called foreigners’ tribunals.
Déjà vu Assam Agitation
The current protests are perhaps the most widespread since the Assam Agitation of the 1980s, with demonstrations held across the state. The administration clamped down with an internet ban and a curfew in several parts of the state, including the capital of Guwahati – unheard of in years.
The protests have witnessed several unusual alliances: While Muslims of Bengal origin – often vilified as aliens – joined hands with Assamese nationalists to protest in Lower Assam, the Congress also made common cause with student outfits, often antagonistic to the party, to organise rallies.
While there was no targeted violence in most parts of the state, unlike the Assam Agitation, a section of agitators in Upper Assam did attack businesses and homes of non-Assamese speakers.
Meanwhile, the BJP dispensation in the state refused to back down. While finance minster Himanta Biswa Sarma welcomed the new citizenship law and made communal remarks directed at Muslims, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal struck a more conciliatory tone, trying to assure protesters that the Act would have negligible impact on the state.
‘Cheated by everyone’
But few people have been convinced. With Assam heading to elections in 2021, many in the state seem to be think the time is rife for a political party built on the foundations of the current movement. Several people Scroll.in interviewed at protest meetings in different parts of the state over the past one month suggested as much.
If in Guwahati, a retired bank employee tearfully spoke of being “cheated by everyone from the BJP to the Congress to the AGP”, a farmer in Duliajan angrily emphasised the “need of a party that truly represents the interests of the Assam”.
The resentment against the BJP has done little so far to boost the Congress’s prospects. Mention Congress as the alternative to the protesters, and pat comes the reply: “There is no difference. BJP wants to bring in Hindus; Congress Muslims.”
Observers of the state say that the ongoing, almost relentless, protests mark a new phase of regionalism. “The anger is real and is not just about CAA, it is about the cultural invasion; the appropriation of Assamese cultural and religious figures [by the BJP],” said Udayon Misra, former professor at Dibrugarh University and author of The Burden of History: Assam and the Partition. “So, it is no wonder that people are saying that they don’t want to be dictated by Delhi and Nagpur [the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent]”
The elusive alternative?
However, Misra said that the opposition to the BJP was still “in a very amorphous state”.
“What shape it takes is too early to say,” he said. “Only one thing is certain: the BJP stands to lose from [the protests] as it has now lost the plank of identity politics it won the elections on.”
Indeed, there is very little clarity – or consensus, for that matter – even among the leaders of the agitation on how the street protests could be translated into electoral setback to the ruling BJP.
While the All Assam Students’ Union seems to be the obvious choice for a leadership role, considering its role in the currents protests and its general clout across the state, not everyone in the organisation is keen to take the mainstream electoral plunge.
Samujjal Bhattacharya, the outfit’s long-time advisor and its most well-known face, told this reporter, “I have made this clear: I will personally not do [electoral] politics.”
The trepidation may be rooted in a historical mishap. The Assam Gana Parishad, the BJP’s ally in the state, is an offshoot of the All Assam Students’ Union. It was born after the Assam Agitation.
Now, the party’s reluctance to openly oppose the Act and withdraw from the government is, for many within the All Assam Students’ Union, a reminder of an old adage: power corrupts.
As another senior leader of Union leader said, “A large chunk of the MLAs who now constitute the government started out in the AASU, so that doesn’t inspire confidence in the electoral politics route.
One section of the powerful students’ group has left the door open to the option of joining electoral politics.
In an interview with Scroll.in, All Assam Students’ Union general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said that while there were no concrete plans to float a political party yet, the outfit was aware that that was what a section of people wished. “It is our moral responsibility to listen to them; otherwise it will amount to disrespecting their sentiments,” he said.
As talks of a new political front gain traction in Assam, the Congress, too, has joined the fray. At a recent press conference, former chief minister Tarun Gogoi said the party was open to being part of a united opposition that was “anti-CAA, anti-BJP and anti-communal forces in the interest of Assam”.
But many say that is a fantastical proposition. “The Congress is untouchable,” said political commentator and author Mrinal Talukdar. “It will be suicidal.”
Misra, though, was less dismissive. “Although many people are very anti-Congress, politics is a game of strange bedfellows,” he said. “Besides, the Congress has a readymade organisational base at least in Lower Assam.”
After the debacle of the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2016 Assembly elections, the Congress is slowly starting to gain back lost ground in the Muslim-majority Lower Assam districts.
Party for whom?
But perhaps a more pressing question at this juncture concerns not the periphery of this imagined political alternative, but the core itself. Whose interests will it represent, really? The protests, so far, have been loosely tied by a somewhat abstract thread of Assamese nationalism, but as Misra pointed out, “There is no unanimous definition even of what that even means, where the ethnic groups stand on it, etc.”
Talukdar shares a particularly bleak position on this. “After the previous experience with the AGP, I do not think any tribal group, with the exception of the Ahoms, will be willing to be part of any political alliance built on the foundations of Assamese nationalism,” he said.
Talukdar’s misgivings stem from a belief among a section of of the state’s ethnic groups that the Asom Gana Parishad alienated them after coming to power in 1985. This in spite of them backing the Assam Movement that propelled the Asom Gana Parishad to power.
The Bodos, for instance, wholeheartedly supported the movement, but the community’s relationship with the Asom Gana Parishad-led state government soured soon after, leading to a new movement among the community for a separate state.
The BJP, on the other had, managed its spectacular election win in 2016 by stitching together a coalition of groups defined as indigenous to the region. Parties and civil society groups representing the Bodos, Misings, and several other smaller ethnic communities banded together with the BJP.
However, most tribal groups have rallied around the All Assam Students’ Union in protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
An uneasy alliance
Then there is the elephant in the room: What about Muslims of Bengali origin, persecuted by Hindu nationalists as well as Assamese nativists?
Muslims of Bengali origin have made common cause with ethnic Assamese in opposing the Citizenship Amendment Act. But will they be included in a new regionalist, anti-BJP political alignment, the cornerstone of which is Assamese nationalism? After all, a major strand of Assamese nationalism revolves around anti-immigrant sentiments, the worst victims of which have been the state’s Muslim migrants from former East Pakistan.
During the Assam Agitation, for instance, at least 1,800 people, including hundreds of women and children, from the community were massacred in Nellie village by a mob of Assamese people. The community continues to face sporadic majoritarian violence: often they are the first targets of eviction drives.
Significantly, the All Assam Students’ Union has been at the forefront of several such misadventures. In December 2018, the outfit filed thousands of objections, most of them without any verification, against the inclusion of the people included in the draft NRC. An overwhelming number of them were targeted at people living in the state’s chars – shifting riverine islands on the Brahmaputra populated largely by Muslims of Bengal origin.
Such episodes have led to fears that any political formation spearheaded by the outfit could be plagued by majoritarianism.
Monirul Hussain, chair professor at the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research in Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, said the success of any new regional political imagination was contingent on “learning from the past”. “Many people who formed the AGP, which was supposed to be that party [the political alternative], are now in the BJP,” he said. “For that not to happen all over again, there needs to be a very strong commitment to democratic ideals and secular values.”
‘Assamese is not one community’
Gogoi claimed to be mindful of such apprehensions. “We need to strike a balance,” he said, “between protection of indigenous rights and creating an inclusive atmosphere for everyone to live in. It cannot be a politics of exclusion.”
“For far too long,” Gogoi said, “politics in Assam has revolved around the idea of the foreigner. We want to settle that issue for once and all and move ahead.”
He said the current agitation went beyond resentment against the supposed “illegal” migrant. “It is about the fundamental issues of federalism and Delhi’s overbearing presence,” he said. “It is about our right to preserve our distinct character within India’s federal structure.”
Hussain said he did believe that the current agitation was “on better secular footing” than the movement in the 1980s. But any regional formation, Hussain said, would have to acknowledge that “Assamese is not one community; it is a fusion of various identities who have made Assam their home.”