The anti-CAA protests in Assam are steadily progressing towards an Asomiya linguistic chauvinism. It remains to be seen whether it turns into an anti-Bengali xenophobic movement.
Protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) are getting stronger in numerous places across India. The anti-CAA protests, which initially started in Assam, subsequently spread to the rest of India. The protests have continued since then and though they are getting vibrant with each passing day, it has not received enough attention from national media as it has covered protests in other parts of India.
The protests in Assam were unquestionably violent in the initial days leading to the complete disruption of normal life in the state. Today Assam is witnessing protests that are more democratic and extraordinarily creative than ever before.
The anti-citizenship Bill/Act protests in Assam have many layers to it. The protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) started in early 2018 and was led by Hiren Gohain along with Akhil Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS). The All Assam Students Union (AASU) too participated in the movement. These protests stopped with the Bill lapsing in Rajya Sabha prior to the 2019 general elections. The protests resumed in December with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government passing the CAB in Parliament.
For years now, Gogoi has been at the forefront of organising and voicing his opinion against anti-people moves in Assam, especially the protests against CAB-CAA. This made him a target of the government which arrested him in September 2017 under the controversial National Security Act, 1980. In December 2019, when the anti-CAA movement was gaining momentum, Gogoi was arrested once again allegedly in connection with Maoists extremists. Many allege that that arrest was aimed at removing a firebrand leader when the demand for an alternative regional political front in Assam was gaining momentum. Gogoi’s absence has given mileage to the ‘student’ group AASU, headed by Samujjal Bhattacharya.
Thousands of protesters from various fields are gathering across Assam and the speakers here talk about the killing of protesters in police firing, inter alia. However, most of them have abstained from condemning Gogoi’s arrest—this gains importance because Gogoi was instrumental in these protests in its initial stges.
Gogoi’s absence has also brought the focus on an unconventional leader: Zubeen Garg, a popular singer and cultural icon in Assam. He has inspired many celebrities from the entertainment industry to voice their protest against the CAA. Actors who were associated with the BJP have now distanced themselves and joined the protests. Popular actor Barsha Rani Bishaya has come out in protest, and asked at a recent rally, “the Act that is evil for other states of northeast, how can that very act be good for Assam?”
The government is using various methods to quell the protests. In protest-related violence five people have lost their lives. Leaders from the ruling coalition have been on the offensive, at times even making controversial and divisive statements. BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, while addressing a rally on January 8, said, “If you look at the current Assam legislative assembly members, you will find that 90 pc of the Congress leaders may be citizens but their ancestors are Muslims from Bangladesh.”
The anti-CAA protests in Assam are steadily progressing towards an Asomiya linguistic chauvinism. It remains to be seen whether it turns into an anti-Bengali xenophobic movement — much like the turn the Assam Movement took almost four decades ago. The movement then facilitated student leaders to wrest political power, under the banner of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Those student leaders failed to stand up to what they promised, and today, while they were initially in favour of the CAA, they seem to be reconsidering their stand now.
Given this precedent, the question is: Will a new political party that is formed by capitalising the emotions of the people be faithful to the people?
The CAA cannot be viewed with isolation, but must be understood along with the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The movement in Assam is against the CAA but not against the NRC. The protests in Assam against the CAA are not so much because it is anti-Muslim or against the Constitution, etc. but because it includes what many refer to as “illegal immigrants”. These realities have shaped the movement into a complex one.Nazimuddin Siddique is an Assam-based independent researcher. Views are personal.
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