Assam’s identity fears face up to divisive politics

Protests in the State have been brought about by the BJP’s failure to gauge the popular mood

December 27, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:13 am IST

When Assam was first rocked by anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill protests in 2018, the argument put forward against the Bill was that granting of citizenship to Bengali Hindu immigrants up to December 2014 would eventually reduce the indigenous people to a minority in their homeland.

It was said that the Bill was blatantly unconstitutional because citizenship could never be given on the basis of religion. Not many outside Assam and the Northeast were then taken in by this argument because the common perception in the rest of the country was that the protests were chiefly motivated by the ever-present xenophobic fear of the outsider. The assertion that Assam was not prepared to accept any more foreigners, be they Hindu or Muslim, did not get enough attention at the national level.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 after being referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee, was reintroduced in the Lok Sabha in January 2019 and passed, but it lapsed with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) did not have the requisite numbers in the Rajya Sabha. Subsequently, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in the Lok Sabha in December 2019. This revised version was bulldozed through, promptly receiving the President of India’s assent, but this time the protests were not limited to the Northeast alone.

Threat to indigenous people

The dangerous divisive nature of the move to create second-class citizens of the country’s largest minority population has become evident to all those who nourish the idea of India as enshrined in the Constitution of India. However, for the people of Assam, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, or the CAA, goes beyond re-defining citizenship on religious lines; it poses a threat to the identity of the many small indigenous communities that make up the composite Assamese nationality while at the same time fomenting a linguistic-religious divide. Hence, there has been a massive upsurge cemented by a strengthened sense of Assamese identity. Some youth have already been killed in police firing and scores injured.

How does one describe the laceration of the soul of a people? This is exactly what has happened with the Central government’s dictatorial move to impose the CAA on the people of Assam. What defies rationale is that the CAA applies selectively to only the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys of Assam and some areas of Tripura and Meghalaya while all the States, which have Inner Line Permit regulations and all areas which fall under the Sixth Schedule, have been kept outside its purview. Yet, unlike Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram which do not share a border with Bangladesh, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura have extensive land borders with that country and have been facing continuous immigration from East Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh resulting in a swift demographic change.

Immigration, land and identity have long been core issues for Assamese indigenes who, through the Assam Accord of 1985, accepted all Bengali-speaking Muslim and Hindu immigrants from 1951 to March 1971. The National Register of Citizens, all its shortcomings notwithstanding, was seen as a closure of sorts. Now that the cut-off date for illegal Bengali Hindu immigrants has been extended till December 2014, Assamese apprehensions about their language and culture being jeopardised have increased tenfold. Census figures over the years have shown a steady decline in Assamese speakers, prompting fears of the language losing its official status in the State.

Just one voice

The marked feature of the current protests is that people in their thousands have taken to the streets defying curfew and other restrictions. Though 30-odd ethnic organisations, including the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, the All-Assam Students’ Union and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad have been at the forefront of the protests, yet, this time, the protests seem to have gained an even wider base. Not only have Opposition parties and several employees’ unions extended support, but minority student organisations as well as tea tribes bodies have also joined in the demonstrations.

Not even during the heyday of the Assam Movement (1979-1985) were tea garden workers drawn into the protests. What is most striking is the fact that there is a sense of unison throughout the Brahmaputra Valley brought about by the arrogance of a party in power which has utterly failed to gauge the feelings of the masses. It is significant that attempts to divide the movement along linguistic and religious lines have met with stiff resistance. For, every struggle in Assam and the Northeast has, in some way or other, been linked to the rights of the small nationalities. The BJP will never be able to appreciate this, for in its scheme of a mono-cultural Hindu India there is obviously no space for a multi-nationality country.

Initially, the State BJP leadership tried to dismiss the rumblings against the CAA as an aberration. But the party has been caught off-guard, as people’s anger is targeted at BJP legislators. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which thought it was emerging as the determining political force under the Sarbananda Sonowal government, suddenly finds its offices being attacked, with most of its functionaries having disappeared from public view. The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, which had earlier brought out a procession or two in support of the CAA, faces an existential crisis, with many of its leaders having left the organisation. The BJP-RSS agenda of polarising the State on religious lines seems to have hit a major roadblock, with organisers and participants of the present upsurge insisting that they are against all post-1971 illegal immigrants, both Hindus and Muslims.

If the present outrage of people in Assam is any indication, it is almost certain that it will be impossible for the BJP-RSS to regain its pre-CAB position in the State. And, with the 2021 Assembly elections not too far away, it is almost certain that the party will pay a heavy price, especially in the Brahmaputra Valley. This, however, depends on how the present protests are channelised to offer an alternative to the BJP in the State.

Udayon Misra is a former National Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, and the author of ‘Burden of History’


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