Two killed in north-east firing as citizens protest citizenship law

CAB, cleared by the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, paves the way for immigrants of faiths others than Islam from three neighbouring countries to gain Indian citizenship.
Protestors, amid tear-smoke clash with the police during their march against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.(Photo: PTI)
Protestors, amid tear-smoke clash with the police during their march against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in Guwahati, Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.(Photo: PTI)
Updated on Dec 13, 2019 05:32 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Guwahati | ByHT Correspondent

At least two people were killed on Thursday as violence spread to more regions within India’s north-eastern states against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, or CAB, with police and paramilitary reinforcements struggling to control massive crowds of protesters who defied curfews in some areas.

The state worst-hit by the violence, and the subsequent lockdown, was Assam where military reinforcements have been sent and a near-total ban on internet services clamped in some regions on Thursday, triggering comparisons with Kashmir by some opposition political parties who have criticised the new law as “discriminatory” and “unconstitutional”.

CAB, cleared by the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, paves the way for immigrants of faiths others than Islam from three neighbouring countries to gain Indian citizenship. The move has reopened ethnic fault lines in regions such as Assam, which have a history of anti-immigration movements, especially against people from Bangladesh.

Ramen Talukdar, superintendent of Gauhati Medical College Hospital, said two people died from gunshot wounds and 11 others were injured, also with bullet wounds, news agency Reuters reported.

Guwahati, the principal city of the state, was put under curfew shortly after the bill was cleared, and authorities cut off mobile internet services in some areas to stop rumours and limit the ability of people to organise after mobs began going on a rampage.

On Thursday, the curfew was extended to Dibrugarh and Jorhat, and a disconnection of mobile internet services -- suspended since Wednesday evening in 10 districts – was extended to include broadband services and will now stay in force till Saturday.

Locals reported widespread arson and vandalism, particularly of public property such as road dividers and bus stops. Unidentified suspects set fire to three train stations, Chabua and Khowang in Dibrugarh district and Panitola in Tinsukia district on Wednesday night. The railways cancelled all passengers trains in Tripura and Assam, and short-terminated long distance trains to Guwahati.

Mobile internet and messaging services were also suspended in neighbouring Meghalaya for 48 hours since 5pm on Thursday after incidents in which vehicles were vandalised. Areas under two police stations in state capital Shillong were placed under curfew.

In Kolkata, an army spokesperson said a mob had surrounded the Silchar-Dibrugarh Brahmaputra Express at Naharkatia and were in the process of setting it on fire, when security forces intervened. “Responding immediately, Army and Assam Rifles columns which were on standby rushed to the spot. They immediately took charge of the situation, drove out the mob, managed to rescue the passengers to safety and provided urgent medical attention,” he said, according to PTI.

In a series of tweets, in both Assamese and English, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for calm and sought to assuage the concerns of protesters, insisting his government was committed to safeguarding their rights.

“The central government and I are totally committed to constitutionally safeguard the political, linguistic, cultural, and land rights of the Assamese people as per the spirit of Clause 6,” the Prime Minister said, referring to a provision of the Assam Accord, which was struck 34 years ago, after a six-year-long anti-immigrant agitation led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU).

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) heads the state government in Assam.

The current wave of protests in Assam follows calls for an agitation by AASU. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal have betrayed the people of Assam by ensuring passage of the Bill,” AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya told a gathering in Guwahati.

CM Sonowal, too, appealed to protesters to shun violence and invited all groups to sit down for talks to address their concerns. “Peaceful democratic protests are integral part of democracy. But when somebody resorts to violence and destruction not only kills the peaceful environment but also sets a dangerous precedent,” he said while interacting with journalists in Guwahati.

The state government removed Guwahati police commissioner Deepak Kumar, replacing him with Munna Prasad Gupta. The additional director general of police (law and order) was also replaced.

The situation was also discussed on Thursday in Parliament, where the Congress’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, said Assam fast resembled Kashmir, which has been under a tight security cover following the nullification of Article 370 of the Constitution that gave it a special status. “The situation in Kashmir is not normal because of the government. Now, the North-east is becoming like Kashmir. Both regions are of strategic importance,” he added.

The backlash against the bill in Assam was also targeted against BJP politicians, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP ally Asom Gana Parishad In Dibrugarh’s Chabua, the hometown of chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, local MLA Binod Hazarika’s residence was set on fire. Vehicles parked in the building that also houses his office were torched by protesters, news agency PTI quoted an official as saying.

The circle office in the town was also burned down by them, the unnamed official added.

Five columns of the army, comprising around 70 personnel each, have been deployed in the state and are conducting flag marches in important cities like Guwahati, Tinsukia, Jorhat and Dibrugarh, the agency said.

Student organisations, civil society groups and opposition parties in Assam have been at the forefront of the protests against the citizenship amendment bill, saying it would lead to an influx of religious minorities from Bangladesh and hurt the interests of indigenous communities.

A large section opposing the bill, which proposes a cutoff date of December 31, 2014, also says it will nullify the Assam Accord, which fixed March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for deportation of all illegal immigrants in the state irrespective of religion.

In Tripura, regional-based indigenous political parties withdrew their indefinite strike against CAB on Wednesday night after chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb, during a meeting with them at Civil Secretariat, assured of arranging them a discussion with Union home minister Amit Shah. Shah met these parties on Thursday, following which he said: “...Modi government will try to solve their issues in a positive way. I thank them for their appeal to maintain peace and call off the strike”.

He also held a separate meeting with Kirit Pradyot Deb Barman, head of Manikya Dynasty, the royal family of Tripura .

Pradyot told HT that he will challenge the CAB at the Supreme Court citing the Instrument of Accession that was signed between his grandmother, Tripura Maharani Kanchan Prabha Devi, and Governor General Lord Mountbatten in 1947 before India’s Independence. “Tripura was a sovereign that joined India, the Bill violates the Instrument. I conveyed that to the home minister,” he said. He added that senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal will represent his case.

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Saturday, November 27, 2021