Will the fall of Sarbananda Sonowal be as dramatic as his rise? Catapulted to popularity by the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act (IMDT Act) that was declared null and void by the Supreme Court in 2005 rather than by the Assam Agitation (1979-85) itself, the political journey of the Assam chief minister has depended more on astrology (he wears rings on almost all his fingers) than hard work on the ground.
It was in July 2005 when I first saw Sonowal in person while covering his formal victory ceremony for The Assam Tribune at an auditorium in Dibrugarh. The atmosphere was electrifying, people thronged the auditorium (Dalimi Cinema in Chowkidingee) to witness the felicitation ceremony in hundreds if not thousands. A crowd waited impatiently on either side of the road for his arrival, mobile phones rang incessantly with enthusiastic people giving realtime information about the location of Sonowal's convoy on his way to the auditorium from Dibrugarh airport " Sonowal was then no longer just the Lok Sabha MP from Dibrugarh; the win in the apex court transformed him into a demigod. He became Jatiya Nayak (akin to supreme leader of the Assamese community). Sonowal became a beacon of hope for a race which has constantly struggled for its rights, for its existence in its own land.
Contrast this exhilarating journey of Sonowal from the airport to the auditorium in the summer of 2005, to another journey from the airport in Guwahati to the Brahmaputra Guest House (he lives there) in the winter of 2019 and for another piece of law " the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019. This journey was on 11 December when he landed from Tezpur amid large-scale protest in Guwahati against the Citizenship Amendment Bill on the day it was discussed in the Rajya Sabha. The intensity of the protest was such that the chief minister's convoy didn't dare to leave the airport for an hour. Finally, it left but took a detour, escaping the fury of the people to reach its destination.
For the Assam chief minister, instead of deja vu, the situation has metamorphosed into jamais vu. This time Sonowal is no demigod, his stature among the Assamese community has become demonic.
From a trustworthy leader to an accused of betrayal
Sonowal has seen his demeanour nosedive from grace to disgrace right in front of his own eyes. His body language is not only bereft of confidence but also his countenance shows his nervousness of consequences. The stiff opposition against the Citizenship Amendment Act by the Assamese community is not based on any religious ground but it is an uprising to protect its threatened linguistic and cultural identity.
Unlike his counterparts in the North East, Meghalaya chief minister Conrad Sangma or Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh who stood up to the Centre to protect the rights of their respective states, Sonowal turned out to be timid in his approach. He totally failed to convey the concerns of the people of the state before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Once the Act was passed, Sonowal engaged in a futile face-saving exercise through prerecorded televised messages, the first one in laboured English followed by a couple of them in scripted Assamese. The truth is either that people no longer take him seriously or are even bothered with his messages anymore.
"Sarbananda Sonowal deserves no credit for the striking down of the IMDT Act by the Supreme Court. All he did was signing the vakalatnama as he was the president of the All Assam Students' Union (AASU). The case was fought by able lawyers. All Sonowal did was to change parties for his own benefit. He suddenly became a national hero. His role in the Assam agitation is nothing significant. He, in fact, had close ties with AAMSU (All Assam Minorities Students' Union) during the Assam agitation. Sonowal has now become the enemy of the people," said senior advocate of Gauhati High Court Arup Borbora mincing no words to express his anger.
Whether he would have succeeded or failed in preventing the Citizenship Amendment Act is an altogether different matter, what has angered the people more is his meek surrender to the BJP top brass without an ounce of effort to ensure that the voice of the people is heard in New Delhi. The general feeling is that Sonowal his career over community perhaps forgetting that it is the community on whose shoulders the stability of his career depends.
"Sarbananda Sonowal is no longer who he was in the past. Once a darling of the masses, look where he is today. This is a man who came to politics on the strength of nationalistic sentiment. The Assamese people looked up to him. There are a handful of Assamese people. We don't have a strong foundation. There is no industry. We don't have anything except our nationalistic pride. Sonowal has hurt the very spirit of that pride," president of socio-cultural research centre Anwesha Paresh Malakar told Firstpost.
The ruthless clampdown of the Assam government on the protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act that started off peacefully in a democratic manner has only managed to outrage the people even more. Already riled up with him for his sheepish nature, the unleashing of the might of the state through the paramilitary and the military on unarmed civilians antagonised the people even more.
"At a time when he should have stood by his people what Sonowal did was to impose curfew across the state. I walked 12 kilometres from my residence to the Latasil Ground to join the protest. Students from Gauhati University were prevented from attending the protest at the Latasil Ground. Personally, I never believed he has the stature to become a Jatiya Nayak but now he has become a villain," Malakar said.
Illegal migrants irrespective of religion has always been an issue for Assam. It is the fast-changing demographic pattern that has alarmed the indigenous people as they fear running out of land, livelihood and language.
"Assam is at a very critical juncture. His slavery of the BJP leadership has hurt the self-respect of the Assamese people. Sonowal will be known as a traitor like Badan Chandra Borphukan," the Anwesha president said.
Soon after the Supreme Court verdict on the IMDT Act, people had started comparing with the legendary Ahom general Lachit Borphukan who in the famous Battle of Saraighat defeated the Mughals so badly that it ended the imperialist design of the Delhi Sultanate to conquer Assam forever. But with the Citizenship Amendment Bill now accorded the status of an Act, the comparison has now started with Badan Chandra Borphukan, an Ahom general who betrayed the Ahom kingdom by inviting the Burmese to attack Assam.
Tryst with BJP
Sonowal's tryst with the BJP came at a time when both the Assam chief minister and the BJP needed each other. His victory in the IMDT Act case didn't fructify into electoral victory as he lost the 2009 Lok Sabha Election in Dibrugarh as an AGP candidate to Paban Singh Ghatowar of the Congress. It was then when Sonowal was looking for a resurrection of his shrinking political career and BJP in search of a vantage point to penetrate into the Congress stronghold in the North East, both came together.
"When Sonowal left AASU and joined AGP (Asom Gana Parishad), he never got the position and limelight he wished for. He was always overshadowed by Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and others. So his joining the BJP was at the right time as he in some way fulfilled the leadership vacuum that the national party faced in the northeastern region," said former DGP of Assam and Sahitya Akademi Award winner Harekrishna Deka.
"His approach towards the protest by using massive force to deal with it has only made the situation very volatile. Sonowal's promise to protect jati, mati, bheti (community, land and base) ahead of the 2016 Assam Assembly Election was nothing but a heap of lies. Is this how the Assamese wanted their jati, mati, bheti to be protected by pumping in more Hindu illegal migrants to outnumber the illegal migrant population of the Muslims? Sonowal is scared of Modi and Shah and so he dances to their tune. This has been a total reversal for Sonowal. He is greedy for power and showing his true colours now," Deka said.
Sonowal stooped so low in the ladder of political opportunism that he not only failed to support the people who looked up to him but also started working against them.
"The basis on which Sarbananda Sonowal rose and built his political career ultimately becoming the chief minister is the protection of Assamese identity. His entire political career exists and is derived from this cause. The fact that after becoming the chief minister he became a mute spectator starting from when the Supreme Court said that 1951 should become the cut-off date for granting citizenship, his government submitted an affidavit saying that 1971 should be the cut-off date. This was ridiculous because it was obvious that 1951 would have given greater protection to the people of Assam," said Supreme Court lawyer and convener, Prabajan Virodhi Mancha, Upamanyu Hazarika.
"Sonowal himself said that on record that no-one will be allowed to come after 1971, but it was extended to 31 December, 2014 right under his nose. Initially he was mute and now he has gone against us. None of the political leaders who were born out of the Assam Agitation espouses with the original cause anymore. In this crunch time, they have shown political opportunism reigns and it is their own interests that win," Hazarika said.
Booster dose of IMDT Act
Born to Jibeswar Sonowal and Dineswari Sonowal on 31 October 1961 at Molokgaon in Assam's Dibrugarh district, the 58-year-old is a product of the Assamese sub-nationalism. A graduate in English from Dibrugarh University and an LLB from Gauhati University, Sonowal's activism days started since he was a student. In his days as a student leader, he remained AASU president from 1992-1999 and also performed the role of chairman of North East Students' Organisation between 1996-2000.
His career in active politics took off from 2001 when he joined AGP and became a Member of the Legislative Assembly from the Moran Assembly constituency. In 2004, Sonowal became Lok Sabha MP from Dibrugarh and won again in 2014 as a BJP candidate from Lakhimpur constituency. He became part of the Union Council of Ministers as the Union Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports and Minister of State for Entrepreneurship and Skill Development. After the Assam Assembly Election in 2016, he took over as the first BJP chief minister of not only Assam but of any state in the entire North East. The popularity that the IMDT case verdict brought him reached its pinnacle in the power corridors of Dispur.
It was widely believed that the IMDT Act was not a facilitator but an impediment in the process of identification and deportation of illegal migrants which was upheld by the Supreme Court.
"To sum up our conclusions, the provisions of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 are ultra vires the Constitution of India and are accordingly struck down. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Rules, 1984 are also ultra vires and are struck down. As a result, the Tribunals and the Appellate Tribunals constituted under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983 shall cease to function. The Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, the Foreigners Act, 1946, the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950 and the Passport Act, 1967 shall apply to the State of Assam. All cases pending before the Tribunals under the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals ) Act, 1983 shall stand transferred to the Tribunals constituted under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964 and shall be decided in the manner provided in the Foreigners Act, the Rules made thereunder and the procedure prescribed under the Foreigners (Tribunals) Order, 1964," the Supreme Court said in its verdict.
Shocker of Citizenship Amendment Act
After over 14 years, this joy the Supreme Court brought after its verdict on the IMDT Act was nullified by the presidential assent to the Citizenship Amendment Bill that converted into an Act. Along with the joy that disappeared for those vehemently opposing the Act, the popularity of Sonowal also plummeted.
The Citizenship Amendment Act says: "Provided that any person belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian community from Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Pakistan, who entered into India on or before the 31st day of December, 2014 and who has been exempted by the Central Government by or under clause (c) of sub-section (2) of section 3 of the Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920 or from the application of the provisions of the Foreigners Act, 1946 or any rule or order made thereunder, shall not be treated as illegal migrant for the purposes of this Act."
Lonely at the top
It's usually lonely at the top. In the Chief Minister's Office at the Assam Secretariat in Dispur, Sonowal commands all the power he wants but he has been hardly left with any follower who looks up to him as his or her own. Today Sonowal is a karyakarta of the BJP, a kindergarten student at the school of Hindutva, an enthusiastic apologist for the Citizenship Amendment Act, but he is no longer viewed as being true to what it means to be Assamese.