It happened in an instant. One second, Gunajit Barua and his friends were wobbling down a somewhat placid stretch of River Brahmaputra (Siang) in the remote village of Tuting in East Arunachal Pradesh. The next, a huge wave crashed into their raft, tossing the young men in their 20s into a whirlpool of white water, leaving them hanging on for dear life.
Many Decembers later, Gunajit is reminded of the temperamental currents of the mighty Brahmaputra that he had faced a few summers ago. In his late 30s now, Gunajit finds himself flung into a similar vortex back in his hometown Guwahati, only this time the Brahmaputra is flowing on an even keel. The stillness of the water is broken by loud cries of ‘Joi Aai Axom’ (glory to mother Assam) as Guwahati and several other cities and towns in the Brahmaputra valley are still out on the streets with peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).
To be fair to the BJP, it has always been upfront about the CAA — right from the 2014 general elections manifesto to the Assam Assembly elections in 2016 to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019. So in a way, the party was convinced that the people of Assam will support the passage of the bill, especially since the number of BJP parliamentarians from the region increased in the recent Lok Sabha elections.
But at the other end of the bargain, the Assamese voters, now feel cheated by the BJP for forcing on them the burden of (Hindu) Bangladeshis.
While the people in Brahmaputra Valley — mostly inhabited by Assamese-speaking people — agree that they voted the BJP to power, they are certain they “didn’t vote for CAA”. In stark contrast, the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley in southern Assam was eagerly awaiting the passage of the bill and has welcomed the amended Act.
With the anti-CAA protests spreading across the country, the Assamese today find themselves not just betrayed by the BJP and the Hindu Bengali population of the state, but also alienated by the rest of the countrymen, who are up against the CAA for entirely different reasons from Assam.
Two sides of the CAA protests
People in Assam are crying “betrayal” by the BJP as the CAA goes “against the Assam Accord” that was signed between the Centre and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) to protect the interest of the native Assamese people. The accord brought an end to a six-year long violent Assam Agitation of 1979-1985 against illegal immigrants.
“Clause 6 of the Assam Accord promised ‘constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people’. So, what is xenophobic about asking for what was promised,” questions Gunajit.
Even though Gunajit was too young to remember the violent days of the Assam agitation, he says he can feel the pain and the angst of the Assamese people. While most Assamese of his age have grown up listening to stories of the ‘Asom andolon’ in which over 800 people sacrificed their lives for the state, not many youths want to talk about or were told about the Nellie massacre of 1983. Machete-wielding Assamese youths had killed about 1,800 (unofficial figures run much higher up to 3,000) Bengali Muslims they suspected to be illegal immigrants in Central Nagaon district (now Morigaon).
“That was a nightmare. And really unfortunate. There is no justification for killing people but the mainstream media shouldn’t be blind to the actual reasons that led to the build-up,” Gunajit says.
He, like many Assamese old-timers, views the massacre not as a communal affair, but an ethnic clash that was, “a direct fallout of the Assembly elections of 1983 despite stiff opposition from the people of the state,” including a boycott by the AASU. Some of them claim it was the defiance of the election boycott by the Bengali Muslim settlers in the area that irked the Assamese people. But many others now suggest the hand of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) behind inciting the attackers, which included the indigenous Assamese tribe Tiwa.
But speaking at a seminar in 2013, writer Indibor Deori said the Tiwa community, which comprised around 80 per cent of the attackers, is held responsible for the massacre, ignoring the events that incited them.
Deori claimed “the gradual expulsion of Tiwas from the land they had cultivated for generations and incitement by the leaders of Assam movement were the major reasons that led to their involvement in the incident”.
In the Assam of 2019, very few among the present generation like to be reminded about Nellie and feel it’s incorrect on the part of “mainland Indians” with little knowledge about the state’s history to browbeat the Assamese people over a decades-old wrong. Following the political frenzy and human misery unleashed by a whimsical bureaucratic process that the recently concluded National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam was, the Assamese community often faced allegations of xenophobia and religious bias with the ghost of ‘Nellie’ coming back to haunt them.
“But the Assamese resistance to Bangladeshis is not about a particular religion. The anti-CAA protests are a proof of that. We are not against any religion, language or people. Our ‘andolan’ (protest) is to protect our political, linguistic, cultural, and land rights,” says 65-year-old Mridula, a housewife, who wishes to go by her first name only. Mridula sees no reason why those against the CAA outside the Northeast fail to support Assam’s cause.
Outside the Northeast, people have been protesting against both the proposed nationwide NRC as well as the CAA, which they allege target Muslims and violate the right to equality enshrined in the Constitution. The ‘andolan’ in Assam, on the other hand, is directed only against the CAA.
Assam, in fact, had been demanding for long the updation of NRC. The evidently error-filled process, which was completed recently, has been opposed by many outside the Northeast for being used as a tool to harass the Muslims.
But after its completion, the controversial exercise, which excluded 1.9 million or 19 lakh residents from the final NRC list, published in August, left many in Assam dissatisfied — all for different reasons. While the BJP is said to be unhappy with the tally as a majority of the 19 lakh people are Hindus (the official break-up of the numbers are not available), various Assamese outfits, including the AASU, refuse to accept the “small numbers”.
The biggest tragedy amid all this is nobody knows how many of the 19 lakh are genuine Indian citizens who have been excluded from the NRC because they were unable to provide documents due to various reasons. Not everybody has the means to file a legal claim or is literate enough to understand the legalities and technicalities involved. Nor does anybody seem to care how poor people were forced to run from pillar to post, from one district to another on sudden notices, from offices to courts to touts in order to prove their citizenship. This is evident from demands for a fresh NRC in Assam.
Apart from Assam, other north-eastern states in general also backed the NRC update.
NRC, not against any religion
The entire region insists that the demand for detection, deletion (from voter’s list) and deportation of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants is not about religion. In an attempt to dispel the misgivings, noted filmmaker Jahnu Barua recently tried to explain the situation to those outside the Northeast through a video clip. “As you are aware, people across the country are protesting against the CAA. However, we feel that there are many confusions and misinterpretations among the people outside the Northeast about the protests going on in Assam.”
Barua then explains how the people of Assam are mainly fighting to safeguard their identity and that “it has nothing to do with religion”.
In their defence, many in Assam point out that among those who died in police firing on demonstrators were a Muslim and a Christian — something that goes on to show that the anti-immigrant fight is being fought by Assamese of all faiths.
Stoking old fears, creating new fault lines
The BJP’s attempt to redefine citizenship on religious lines has not only created fissures across the country, it has also reopened age-old wounds that threaten to further alienate the entire region from the rest of India.
Following the violent protests of December 11 and the imposition of curfew in Assam, Tongam Rina, a senior journalist from Arunachal Pradesh, said on Twitter: “Assam and rest of NE India have been protesting since the Citizenship Amendment Bill was introduced in 2016. Why did India take so long to take note of the discriminatory bill in 2016? The protest erupted only after the bill was passed. Don’t forget Assam,” she added.
Many in Meghalaya are still angry with Agatha Sangma for voting in support of the Bill in Parliament. “The betrayal of Agatha Sangma is one that will haunt them and their generations to come,” says John Diengdoh from Meghalaya.
Anti-CAA voices in the Northeast also include states which are “exempted from the ambit of the new law” — Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh — where Indian citizens from other states need Inner Line Permit (ILP). The protests also got backing in Manipur, which was hurriedly added to the list of ILP states. States with ILP are suspicious that a permit is not enough to prevent the “influx” of immigrants. “The ILP has never been foolproof. One can easily get it. Moreover, it’s difficult to check even if someone with a permit is overstaying. Despite ILP, many illegal immigrants can be seen living in Arunachal,” says Itanagar-based Robin Bengia.
But what seems to have hurt the common man protesting out on the streets most is the BJP’s relentless and insidious design to divide the people of the region living “in harmony” for ages.
Following the violent protests and defying of curfew, the BJP shifted the blame for violence to Muslims and the Left.
Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said the attack on the Assam secretariat in Dispur was orchestrated by “urban naxals, radical Muslim organisation Popular Front of India (PFI) and some sections of the Congress party”.
The Assamese peasant leader and RTI activist Akhil Gogoi, under arrest since December 12, has been accused of instigating violence in the protests in coordination with Maoists.
PFI’s Assam chief Aminul Haque was held for allegedly conspiring, planning and facilitating violence during the protests in Guwahati.
In between, Sarma opened one more fissure by claiming that neither the AASU nor any other socio-cultural organisation was involved in the violence.
This seems to have worked to an extent as some among the peaceful protestors have bought the BJP narrative that “Assamese youths can’t go to that extent”. “Muslim elements entered and did this,” Sonaram Das, a cab driver, insists.
To calm down the anger on the streets, the government quickly announced a number of measures, including protection of land rights of indigenous people of the state, and preserving Assamese language and culture. The state government also promised to submit the recommendation of Group of Ministers for giving Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities of the state to the central government within January.
But what the BJP forgot is that granting of ST status to six communities threatens to further divide the tribal population of the state.
Bodoland Janajati Suraksha Mancha (BJSM) had warned in November that Assam will boil with protests by indigenous tribal people if the government includes “advanced communities” in the schedule tribe list. BJSM and others claim the six communities do not fulfil the required criteria of being STs as they are migrants from other states.
The fear among Assamese of getting outnumbered by Bangladeshis is not new and has been driving the politics of the state for decades. However, similar fear sweeps other states in NE too, especially after what they saw in Tripura — the local tribals of the erstwhile princely state became a minority due to an influx of Bengali-speaking migrants from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) at the time of Partition. Wrong or right, it’s difficult to make the people of Northeast — with a complex ethnic composition — leave their age-old fear that a fate like Tripura or Assam may befall them too.
They also feel they have enough reasons to fear that more and more Bangladeshi Hindus will now come to their states. With several Hindu Bengalis already settled in the region, their “distant cousins” from Bangladesh, longing to be reunited with their families would “come in numbers”. “And the CAA will give a free pass to Bangladeshi Hindus to come to the Northeast,” fears Das.
While the Assamese today feels disowned and complains of mainland India’s bias towards the region, it will be difficult for those outside the NE not to doubt Assam’s secular credentials — BJP rule or not.
“People in Assam are crying that liberals and Muslims outside Assam don’t empathise with them. But do they empathise with us?” says Shaheen, a 21-year-old from Delhi’s Mayur Vihar.
Shaheen feels Assamese, including the Assamese-speaking Muslims, don’t have a problem with BJP’s communal agenda in general.
She was referring to an announcement after the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Ayodhya dispute. Various Assamese Muslim organisations announced to donate a total of ₹6 lakh towards building the Ram Temple at Ayodhya.
But the “suspicions” against the Assamese go beyond the post-Ayodhya verdict by an Assamese CJI (former top justice Ranjan Gogoi) that many Assamese nationalists opposed to CAB rejoiced and hailed.
Even though the origin of Assamese and Bengali conflict lies in the state’s peculiar history with a whimsical colonial past, three-and-a-half years of BJP rule in Assam have been successful in appropriating the anti-foreigner (Bangladeshi) sentiments in Assam and in giving it an anti-Muslim turn.
The anti-foreigner movement that started with cries of ‘Joi Aai Axom’ merged with dog whistles of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Hail Lord Rama) in an Assam under a BJP government.
In April, a Muslim man, Shaukat Ali, 68, was beaten on the road for allegedly selling beef and forced to eat pork as punishment by locals in Biswanath Chariali town of Assam.
Back in June, a mob belonging to a right-wing organisation, Ram Sena, assaulted a group of Muslim men and forced them to say ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in Assam’s Barpeta. The police had arrested a Guwahati resident, Debojit Deka, for his alleged involvement with the group.
Such precedents and an overwhelming mandate in the elections made the BJP confident of the Assamese people’s support for CAB. Precisely why the ongoing resistance against CAA doesn’t scare the BJP of losing votes in the coming Assembly elections in 2021 as well.