Scared, angry, confused: Assam struggling to find a fine balance
The deaths of the two men, and injuries to 27 others in violent clashes that broke out across Guwahati on Thursday evening, have both shocked and galvanised Assam in its resolve to resist India’s new citizenship law.Updated: Dec 16, 2019 15:19 IST
At 1.30pm on Thursday, Kabita Das’s phone rang. The mother of three was resting in the family’s unfinished courtyard that flanks their two-room thatched house in Chhaygaon, and fumbled for a minute with the correct button before her son’s voice wafted into her ears. “I am going for the meeting, Maa,” he said.
Her son, 21-year-old Dipanjal Das, worked as a waiter in a restaurant in Guwahati, and was a loyal member of the powerful All Assam Students Union (AASU). On his way to a massive protest at the city’s Latasil field called by his idol, singer Zubeen Garg, against India’s new citizenship laws, he had dialled his mother.
Das lived in a remote corner of central Assam’s Kamrup district, but news of the tumult outside reached her ears. “Don’t go, I have heard there can be gondogol (trouble),” she said.
At 5pm, the phone rang again. This time, it was an unfamiliar voice on the other end. “Dipanjal has been shot,” a man said.
Roughly 70km away in Guwahati’s Muslim-dominated Hatigaon neighbourhood, similar scenes were playing out. The youngest member of the Stafford family, Sam, 17, was part of a group of local men on their way back from the rally when they heard shots.
“Before I could understand anything, we had started running. But Sam collapsed; blood was oozing out of the body. We called an ambulance but it was too late,” said Arif Ahmad, a neighbour. It was 7pm.
The deaths of the two men, and injuries to 27 others in violent clashes that broke out across Guwahati on Thursday evening, have both shocked and galvanised Assam in its resolve to resist India’s new citizenship law that favours non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and more importantly for the North-east, Bangladesh.
The deaths have forced the movement’s leaders to scale back the intensity of protests, announce no events after 5pm, and call to refrain from violence – while renewing the pledge to oppose a law that they feel will sound the death knell of local cultures and languages.
But this has done little to temper local anger and the possibility of lurching back to the dark days of the Assam Agitation that not only took hundreds of lives but also cost the state decades in development.
“The people feel that they are fighting for the survival of their essence, and their economic and cultural rights,” said Rakhee Kalita Moral, a professor at Guwahati’s Cotton University. “They feel that India is not ready to listen to their voices of protest.”
PROTESTS, IN ANGER AND SUPPORT
It’s Friday, a day has passed since Das and Stafford died, and thousands of people are trooping into the Chandmari field in Guwahati for a rally called by Assamese artists and intellectuals. A group of young men shout slogans in their remembrance.
“We will never forget their sacrifice,” said Robin Sarma, a student.
The stage is makeshift – a wooden table with a microphone on it, and some of the older speakers are being helped into plastic chairs before climbing atop the table. There is a citywide ban on the internet, and a curfew, but word has spread like wildfire, and people are walking in columns, many singing the jatia sangeet – O Mur Apunar Desh (our great nation) – penned by Assamese icon Laxminath Bezbaroa.
“You cannot impose a law on Assam. Remember, if we elected you, we can also take the power away, “said educationist Deben Dutta. “Joi Aai Axom (Hail mother Assam),” the crowd thundered back.
For roughly six hours, the crowd defies the curfew to listen to speakers – from student leaders, poets, writers, artists, actors and politicians – renew their pledge to fight the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. “If someone thought they could play with Assam’s self-respect, they don’t know they are playing with a volcano. It is time we show them,” said Lurinjyoti Gogoi, general secretary of AASU to loud cheers.
Such protests are being organised across the Brahmaputra Valley – from the chars near Barpeta where Hindus and Muslims, Assamese and Bengal-origin people have joined hands in protest, to Upper Assam districts such as Tinsukhia and Sibsagar, often called the Axomiya heartland where local ethnic communities have threatened a re-run of the bloody 1979-1985 Assam Agitation if the amendments are not withdrawn or additional safeguards announced.
Many of these demonstrations have devolved into street fights, with mobs pelting stones at police, uprooting road dividers, and torching vehicles.
“The future of Assam as a place with an Assamese cultural face seems more in danger that ever. The numbers would justify these fears. Since this fear has such an old history – going back to the beginnings of a modern sense of Assamese identity – I am not surprised by this [the protests],” said Sanjib Baruah, professor of political studies at Bard College.
Security forces have resorted to baton-charging and firing blanks, and have faced allegations of heavy handedness. The police complaint for Stafford’s death – seen by HT – alleged that forces fired without warning and at point-blank range. Police have denied the charge. “We tried hundreds of rounds of tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. When that failed, we had to resort to lethal force,” said GP Singh, additional director general of police.
In contrast, in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, rallies were taken out to hail CAA. Many in the Barak, comprising the three districts of Hailakandi, Cachar and Silchar, feel that they were unfairly excluded from the recently concluded National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the CAA gives them a way out.
The amendments are especially targeted towards people such as Ajit Das, a resident of Amraghat village in Cachar district.
His family fled communal riots in then East Pakistan in 1956 and were issued refugee certificates – but these were not accepted by NRC authorities. Last year, a foreigners’ tribunal declared Ajit Das a foreigner and he spent three months in a detention camp. “We have heard that once the bill is passed, there will be no cases against Bengali Hindus,” said Sumanta Das, his brother-in-law.
HISTORY OF TURMOIL
Assam’s tryst with ethnic and linguistic tensions dates back to the 19th century. In 1836, the then British government declared Bengali as the official language of the province, sparking huge protests that forced the administration to withdraw the decision in 1873.
Over the next century and half, Assam saw many protests directed against “outsiders” – first shortly after Partition, then during the linguistic reorganising of states in the 1970s, and the last was the six-year agitation in the 1980s against “infiltrators” from Bangladesh that ended with the signing of the 1985 Assam Accord and the finalising of March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date to accord citizenship.
“It is critical to note that when we say Assamese, we mean not only those who speak the language but also those indigenous and ethnic communities who have been living here for decades,” said Moral.
There are three main concerns that have birthed the current crisis, say experts.
The first is around the Assam Accord. In its initial days, the agreement that ended the violent movement created many differences, including those who wanted the cut-off date moved to 1951 and who opposed tribal reservations.
“But over the years, a consensus emerged, and there is widespread agreement today over the accord. CAA seeks to dismantle the accord, and that’s why people are angry,” said Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor of political science at Gauhati University.
The second is anxiety about being overrun by “foreigners” and ending up as an ethnic minority. The tipping point for this was the 2011 Census, which showed that the number of people who declared Assamese as their first language dipped below 50%, and their share of overall population of India was an all-time low 1.26%.
There is also fear of the “Tripura model” – where ethnic indigenous communities ended up as a minority to the dominant Bengal-origin population. “The tribals were poor and had little access to education. They lost out on jobs and privileges. Assam doesn’t want to go the Tripura way,” said Moral.
The third is lack of faith in safeguards and regulation. Unlike previous outings, the government has exempted tribal-majority autonomous regions under the Sixth Schedule, and areas with inner-line permit (ILP) regime, where outsiders need prior permission before travelling. But this hasn’t stopped protests in states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and even Assam’s Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD).
“It is clear that people don’t believe the exemptions will work. They also see it as a tactic to fragment the anti-CAA movement,” said Dutta.
Pramod Bodo, who heads the All Bodo Students’ Union agreed, and said the exemptions were not practically enforceable on the ground. “There is already a population of migrants in Bodo area. Nowhere it’s written that they will be deported or their names will be deleted from electoral rolls. The exemption is only on paper,” he said. Bodos are the largest tribe in the state.
This is the third phase of the anti-CAA protests – the first was before the 2016 assembly elections, when the government amended passport rules to allow people from minorities from Bangladesh and Pakistan to stay back; the second was before the 2019 general election when the CAB passed the Lok Sabha. At each stage, the protests grew.
Some experts contend that unlike earlier protests, the demonstrations spontaneously erupted this time – hemmed by students from universities, and has centred religious neutrality, or secularism, as one of its central tenets.
At every big protest, leaders of the movement have stressed that “infiltrators” have no religion, and that they were not against any faith. “Through these protests, we are making networks with diverse communities across tribes, ethnicities and religion, who are all feeling oppressed,” said Moral.
LOST IN THE PAPER TRAIL
On August 31, Sanjay Sammanit, a resident of Salmara-Dumuria village in Baksa district, found his name struck off the citizenship rolls over a typo.
Sammanit’s father, Satyendra, migrated from East Pakistan in 1964 and possessed a document called “citizenship card” given to refugees. But Satyendra’s name is spelled without the “Y” in the certificate.
The CAA would have solved his problems, but there is one issue: Baksa falls in BTAD, which is exempt from the ambit of the law. “We don’t know what to do. We were told that Bengalis would be taken care of but look at what will happen to us,” he said.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Bengal-origin population dot the entire stretch of lower Assam where they live cheek-by-jowl with Axomiya and tribal communities. Many of these Bengali-origin settlements date back 40 years.
While CAA has been broadly welcomed in these areas, many remain apprehensive of the paperwork and local Assamese officials, who they hold responsible for getting excluded from NRC.
In these areas, there are two main concerns. The first is the promised implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, which calls for local reservation in jobs and land ownership, apart from political positions.
“This could mean that the citizenship Bengalis would get would be second class because they would lose out on land and jobs,” said Shuvankar Ghosh, an activist from Chirang district. Earlier this year, the government set up a high-level committee to implement the terms of Clause 6.
The second deals with the nitty-gritty of proving religious persecution and its impact on community and neighbourhood relations. “These locals hate foreigners. Can you imagine what will happen to us when we declare as foreigners after fighting for five years to prove our Indian-ness?” asked Rasik Das, a resident of Barpeta district.
The mood among the Bengal-origin Muslim community is grim. The community, which has very low education and health indices and is among the most economically backward groups in the state, says it is opposing CAA because it is unconstitutional and also a tactic to isolate Muslims – because they’re the only community not covered.
“Yes, we are scared. Bengal-origin Muslims can be targeted for both their identities. Many of us identify as both Miya [a term for Bengal-origin Muslim] and Assamese, but people are not ready to accept it,” said Ashraful Hussain, a poet and resident of Barpeta district.
Another activist, Shah Jahan, says all communities in the district had come together to oppose CAA. “But there is already a narrative that Miyas are the only ones protesting and causing violence, so we are not taking the lead in the demonstrations,” he said.
POLITICAL BLAME GAME
Shortly after protests erupted in the state last week, curfew was clamped in five districts including Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Dhemaji and Jorhat, and in Guwahati. GP Singh, an Assam-cadre IPS officer serving in the National Investigation Agency (NIA) was posted as additional director general, law and order. “The government wanted to send a message that a tough cop is in charge,” said a senior state government official who asked not to be named.
Singh says at least 1,500 people had been apprehended and 200 arrested all over the state in the past three days. “Things are normal now in the state,” he added.
But there is a concern about rising tensions between Assamese and Bengali communities, admitted the senior official quoted above. “The government also suspects there is more to the protests than genuine anger,” he said.
State BJP chief Ranjeet Dass said the BJP’s 4.2-million-strong cadre in the state were given specific instructions to not get provoked. “Our workers were on the defensive and it helped us. Had they also been on the offensive, Assam would have burnt,” Dass said.
A Border Security Force personnel moved to Guwahati from Jammu & Kashmir said the scale of destruction in Guwahati surprised him. “Destruction to public property is more here. It wasn’t anywhere close to this in Kashmir when Article 370 was scrapped,” he added.
The protests have signed the ruling BJP-Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) coalition with a number of leaders from the alliance quitting or signalling their opposition to the CAA. In upper Assam districts, angry protesters - which the BJP says are Congress members -- have barged into the houses of BJP workers and forced them to resign from the party. In almost every protest, hundreds chant slogans against chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma.
The BJP blames these attacks on the Congress and “miscreants”.
“Congress people have made the situation worse in upper Assam, and are spreading the wrong message,” said Ranjeet Dass, state BJP chief.
The Congress rubbished the allegations. “The state government failed to foresee and that is a failure of the state’s intelligence machinery,” said former chief minister Tarun Gogoi.
A second senior government official said Sonowal – himself a former AASU chief -- had a fair idea that the protestors would hit the streets. “I wouldn’t say we were caught napping. But we didn’t anticipate the scale,” the official said, admitting there is genuine anger.
There is widespread agreement that the AGP, which swept to power in 1985 on the back of the Assam Accord but which is facing brickbats for initially backing the CAA, is in poor shape. “The party is fragmented, there is not a lot of resources and its grassroots support is weakening,” said Dutta. In the face of the anger, the AGP has now said it may go to the Supreme Court against the new law.
It is unclear whether a new grassroots formation will take its place because the AASU and Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (who are heading the protests) have both historically stayed away from electoral politics. More importantly, experts say despite the protests, it would be wrong to say that the BJP will be badly defeated in the next election.
There are three possible reasons for this. The first is that the BJP has consolidated its Bengali vote bank in Barak by including Hindus in CAA. The second is that the party has focused on welfare schemes and doles, especially targeting the tea tribes that form a sizeable chunk of the population in the Brahmaputra Valley. The third is the lack of an alternative because the Congress remains unpopular.
“Elections are never fought on a single issue. Grassroots dissent may not yield electoral dividend,” said Dutta. He pointed out, referring to data by the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, that 75% of those who voted for the BJP in 2019 – when it won eight of the 13 Lok Sabha seats – said they opposed CAB.
Baruah said the connection between protest politics and institutional politics was complicated. “The BJP’s victories in Assam and the north-east are mostly the result of transactional relationships, not ideological conversion. I expect these relationships to change or become fluid. You may have voted for the BJP and still be in the streets now,” he added.
COUNTING THE COST
As the movement against CAA takes a new turn, and AASU activists fan out into villages to mobilise support, some experts have argued that the protests must be seen in conjunction with NRC to understand the human toll and the deep religious and ethnic fault lines that have been opened in the state.
“CAA and NRC are both legitimate institutions of segregation, exclusion and discrimination. Their human costs will be borne by the minorities…Assam, the only state which currently bears the aftermath of both the processes, has seen deep social divides being foregrounded. The social boundaries that were asleep for a while are now awake and we see re-drawing of rigid boundaries supplemented by hate,” said Suraj Gogoi, a doctoral student at the National University of Singapore.
In Chhaygaon, Dipanjal’s father Khagen -- now too old to ply a rickshaw -- has spent the past three days getting clicked for photos and bowing before leaders making a beeline to his home. Dipanjal has become a local hero and a small monument has been built in the village in his honour. “Everyone remembers dada,” said Bikash, his brother.
Moushumi Begum has a new routine now. Every evening, the 24-year-old steps out of her home – located in a narrow lane in Guwahati’s Hatigaon – and walks 400m to the turn in the road where her brother, Sam Stafford, was shot. Locals have arranged bricks around a laminated photo of the boy, and people gather to light candles. In their home, Mamoni has insisted that the photo to be used in the funeral would be flanked by percussion instruments – the dhol, banjo and tabla – because Sam loved playing them. “They are still here, but he’s gone,” she said.