What lies ahead for Assam which is steadfastly, and often violently, protesting the new citizenship act?

Shantanu Nandan Sharma | Guwahati

It is 11 am on Thursday (December 12) and Guwahati is under curfew, imposed by the state government to curb the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). A small group of protesters defy the curfew and attempt to gather at Guwahati’s Latasil playground — a venue for sporting events as well as Bihu celebrations. Police act quickly and push the crowd back.

Soon, another group emerges from a bylane to join the first group. The protesters refuse to budge despite police’s appeal. The law-enforcers lathicharge. But a third group, fourth and a fifth group come from the bylanes to join the main group outside the ground. Police fire tear gas shells to disperse the crowd streaming in from the bylanes. Within half an hour, protesters’ numbers swell to around 8,000, forcing the security forces to step back. The crowd now manages to enter the Latasil ground. A helicopter and a drone are pressed into service to monitor the defiant crowd. Latasil soon reverberates with cries of “Aami CAB namano (we won’t accept CAB)”. “Namano, namano, namano”, shout the protesters.

The chants, however, did not stop President Ramnath Kovind from approving the CAB that night, making it the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act). This has paved the way for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians facing religious persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to get citizenship if they had entered India before December 31, 2014. The law will also grant citizenship to lakhs of Bangladeshi Hindus already settled in Assam but face the threat of being tagged illegal immigrants once National Register of Citizenship (NRC) process is completed. It is this point that has riled the people of Assam and the Northeast.

Protesters claim the government was in a hurry to settle the issue of Hindu Bangladeshis being excluded from the NRC so that they don’t need to appear before a foreigners’ tribunal to contest exclusion from NRC. They point out that the government had reduced the minimum years of stay in India from six to five precisely for this. In effect, it would now help a Hindu immigrant from Bangladesh, who was excluded in the NRC, easily get citizenship.

Protesters say the law has two main purposes: balance the growing Muslim influence in Assam and West Bengal and engineer a subtle polarisation ahead of the 2021 West Bengal assembly elections. This would give the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a huge political advantage. Further, CAA, along with the NRC, would make conditions difficult for Muslims in particular, they claim.

In January, Assam Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma told reporters the new law would “rescue” 17 assembly seats from falling into the hands of Muslim immigrants.

But Assam does not seem to be willing to listen to any argument for rolling out the red carpet to Bangladeshi immigrants — be it Hindus or Muslims. Why should we take the cultural and economic burden of making illegals legal, they ask. The state had seen violent protests in 1979-1985 during a popular movement against illegal immigrants. As soon the Lok Sabha passed the bill on Monday, Assam residents reacted sharply, and in some cases violently, fearing that the legal cover to one more lot of Bangladeshis would threaten their ethnicity, languages and culture. The stage is now set for a long-drawn agitation even as the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the organisation that spearheaded the earlier movement, has challenged the law in the Supreme Court.

State’s residents are disappointed as in 2014, prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi had promised Bangladeshi infiltrators would be forced to leave Assam with their “bag and baggage”. Why, then, has the government extended a legal provision to bestow them citizenship now, they wonder.

“Assam has already taken the load of Bangladeshis who had entered Assam between 1951 and 1971,” says chief adviser of AASU Samujjal Bhattacharya. “Assam and Northeast are not a dumping ground.”

CAB has reopened old wounds because of another issue, too. The Assam Accord, which had ended the earlier agitation, had said illegal immigrants who had entered the country before 1971 could get citizenship. But the citizenship law shifts that to 2014. If the cut-off date can be shifted by 43 years, the protesters ask, what is the guarantee it won’t be moved farther? “How long can we take an additional load? CAB is an insult to the indigenous people of Assam. We will continue a nonviolent, discipled movement for a long time,” Bhattacharya adds.

The agitation intensified on Wednesday, when the Rajya Sabha discussed and passed the bill. Protesters virtually seized Guwahati for about six hours before the Army was deployed and curfew imposed. Protesters went on the rampage Thursday, burning vehicles and public property and taking on local police personnel. Police had to open fire to quell the violence. Protesters even pelted stones on the convoy of the state’s new Director General of Police, Bhaskarjyoti Mahanta. The violence has claimed at least three lives so far. However, people leading the protests claim anti-social elements masquerading as agitators are triggering violence.

Amid the chaos, an even more dangerous element is rising its head. The head of militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent, Paresh Baruah, has called up some reporters from his hideout somewhere in Southeast Asia to warn the police against attacking protesting students.

To allay the fears of the people, PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have said the Centre was committed to safeguarding the political, linguistic, cultural and land rights of the Assamese people. Modi even tweeted about this in Assamese. On Wednesday, the government imposed an internet shutdown in Assam, which has been extended to December 16, to quell rumormongering. Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has also appealed to the people to not resort to violence and pay heed to rumours.

A number of young Assamese ET Magazine spoke to said that bandhs and protests would only derail the hard-earned peace in the state and harm it economically. But they refused to comment on record.

Monjit Sharma, a student leader in Gauhati University, however, says the Centre’s decision to exclude most parts of the Northeast — the areas under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution and those being covered by the Inner Line Permit — from the purview of the new law has boomeranged. The people of the Brahmaputra Valley, in particular, are more angry and determined because of this “divisive strategy”, he adds.

But how long can the protest go on? Sharma says this time, the students will protest with a difference. “Unlike in 1980s, we have decided not to boycott our classes,” he says. “We will study, and at the same time continue our protests with a Gandhian philosophy until this new law is withdrawn.”

[email protected]

Residents of Guwahati take to the streets in Zoo Road (left) and Chandmari to protest the citizenship law on Wednesday

“For us, a foreigner is a foreigner. It really does not matter to us whether she is a Hindu or a Muslim. We won’t accept the new cutoff year, 2014, to identify foreigners. We will continue our agitation”

Madhusmrita Saikia, PG student, Gauhati University

Protesters at Latasil ground in Guwahati on Thursday

“The agitation will continue in Assam. But unlike in the 1980s, we have decided not to boycott our classes. We will study, and at the same time continue our protests using the Gandhian philosophy until this new law is withdrawn”

Monjit Sharma, student leader, Gauhati University

Guwahati Burning

On Dec 11, ET Magazine witnessed how the city in Assam was virtually taken over by anti-CAB protesters

2.30 pm

50-100 protesters burn tyres and block the city’s arterial GS Road. Only 6 policemen are on the spot. They advise motorists to not go ahead.

4.00 pm

We travel 4 km using bylanes to reach Zoo Road in central Guwahati, where a half-km traffic jam stops us. A group of 100 protesters block the road by burning tyres and wooden logs. There is no policeman at the spot.

5.30 pm

We walk a km ahead towards Ganeshguri, a commercial area. A group of protesters block the road here by burning wood. There is no sign of any police personnel.

6.15 pm

State government imposes curfew in the city for an indefinite period.

7.00 pm

We walk back to Zoo Road. By now, protesters have started allowing vehicles to move. We reach Chandmari, 5 km to the west, where roads are littered with burnt or burning material. There are 5-6 policemen here.

8.00 pm

We reach the Guwahati Club neighbourhood in the heart of the city. Burning tyres block one side of the road. Motorists use the other side of the road to move about. Police is not present.

8.30 pm

We then walk towards Uzan Bazar, a residential centre and one of the oldest settlements in the city, using a narrow bylane. The locality is largely peaceful. We check into a hotel here.

11.00 pm

After news arrive that Rajya Sabha has passed CAB, some students hit the streets in Uzan Bazar and raise slogans. No incidents are reported at night.

“Law is an Insult to Indigenous People of Assam”

In the 1990s, Sarbananda Sonowal, now the chief minister of Assam, was the president of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and its general secretary Samujjal Bhattacharya was his second in command. Today, Bhattacharya, who is now the chief adviser to AASU, has taken a lead role in the anti-CAB protests. During an interview in Guwahati, Bhattacharya tells Shantanu Nandan Sharma that Sonowal has betrayed the people. Edited excerpts:

The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) is now a law. Will you still continue your agitation?

We will continue a non-violent, disciplined movement for a long period. Also, we are in touch with senior Supreme Court advocates on how to proceed legally. The indigenous people of Assam have decided to fight back. It is a matter of existence. Students will study and also participate in this movement.

But you have defied the curfew.

Yes, people of Assam have defied the curfew. The BJP government, both at the Centre and the state, has betrayed the people of Assam. They needed the votes of illegal Bangladeshis and so enacted this law. Earlier, the Congress too enacted IMDT Act (Illegal Migrants Determination by Tribunal) to protect Bangladeshis. The AGP (Asom Gana Parishad), which was formed after the Assam Accord was signed in 1985, has also betrayed the people of the state by supporting the new law.

CAB was brought in to protect illegal Bangladeshis. It violates the Assam Accord. The law is unconstitutional.

Why are you calling it unconstitutional?

It is discriminatory on the basis of religion and it violates the Assam Accord, which is a national commitment. In 1985, the then prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi) announced the Accord from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The Accord was presented in Parliament. (BJP leaders) Atal Bihari Vajpayeeji and LK Advaniji, among others, had supported it. In the Citizenship Act, a new clause (6a) was inserted to give a legal teeth to the foreign nationals’ issue under the Accord. In 2019, the same Parliament has undone the provisions of the Accord and imposed a new deadline — December 31, 2014 (to determine who are foreigners). It is not acceptable to us.

What is your estimate on the number of Bangladeshi Hindus who will be granted citizenship under the new law?

The number is not important. The fundamental issue is, we have already taken the load of Bangladeshis who had entered Assam between 1951 and 1971. The entire nation should have appreciated it. Assam and the Northeast is not a dumping ground. Now we are being asked to take an additional load. This law is an insult to the indigenous people of Assam and Northeast.

You had worked closely with Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal. Now you are leading an agitation against the Sonowal government.

We all feel he has betrayed us.