The killing of five Bengali-speaking civilians near Dhola in Assam's Tinsukia district by Kalashnikov-totting gunmen and the political developments that followed have indicated that linguistic polarisation over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, has reached a flashpoint in the state.
Mixed responses to the bandh in Assam called by several Bengali organisations on 3 November to protest the massacre only indicated the volatility of the situation caused by sharp linguistic polarisation over the bill. The strike affected normal life in the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, but in the Brahmaputra Valley its effects were partial. Sporadic incidents of stone pelting and attacks on passenger vehicles by miscreants marred the bandh.
The Assam Police has claimed that the massacre was the handiwork of the Paresh Barua-led United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) [ULFA(I)]. A special branch of the Assam Police, on 29 October, had issued an alert against such a possible attack by the outfit. ULFA(I), however, denied involvement in the Dhola incident, even though its "commander-in-chief" Paresh Barua had claimed the outfit's hand in a low-intensity blast in Guwahati on 13 October, in which four persons were injured. Barua had called local television channels to claim that the outfit had carried out the blast "in protest against the Assam state executive of the BJP adopting a resolution in support of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and to sound a warning to those supporting the settlement of Hindu Bangladeshis in Assam". He had also said that ULFA(I) had "adopted new plans" to resist the bill.
The police has arrested two leaders of the pro-talk faction of the ULFA, Mrinal Hazarika and Jiten Dutta, as well as a leader of the Sadou Asam Bengali Yuva Chatra Federation, Sujit Sarkar, on charges of making provocative and objectionable statements vis-Ã -vis the bill. However, the police has yet to act on complaints against ruling BJP legislator Shiladitya Dev, who has also been accused of making provocative statements. The court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Kamrup district remanded the two arrested ULFA leaders to 14 days in judicial custody.
Sarkar was arrested hours after pro-talk ULFA leader Prabal Neog lodged a First Information Report (FIR) at the Tinuskia Police Station against him, as well as Dev and other leaders for their allegedly provocative statements. Hundreds of supporters of the ULFA faction and activists of several other organisations had accompanied Neog to the police station, also demanding release of the two arrested ULFA leaders.
Assam BJP president Ranjeet Kumar Das has said on record that Dev had been cautioned twice to refrain from making provocative statements, failing which he would be compelled to lodge a complaint against the MLA with the BJP Parliamentary Board. "Such violence has taken place simply because of provocative and controversial statements made by different people and organisations on sensitive issues," Das tweeted, while condemning the Dhola massacre.
Furthermore, police action has given rise to the allegation that the Sonowal government in Assam has adopted a partisan attitude to deal with incidents of public peace being disturbed by some supporters and opponents of the bill through provocative statements. The Assam BJP chief's statement lends credence to the allegation levelled against Dev and provides the state government the grounds to act on the complaints against him, but the police inaction has shaped the perception of a partisan approach.
This perception has added to the linguistic and religious polarisation of communities over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The apprehension of Assamese groups is that the bill, if enacted, would threaten their linguistic identity as it would encourage more migration of Bengali-speaking Hindu Bangladeshis, besides providing citizenship to post-1971 Bangladeshis who had already entered India and have been living here illegally in violation of the Assam Accord.
A majority of Bengali organisations, however, support the bill on the grounds that it will protect those Bengali-speaking Hindu refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan, who have not been able to prove their citizenship for inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, as well as the post-1971 Hindu Bangladeshis, who migrated illegally and are ineligible to get their names included in the updated NRC. The 1951 NRC has been updated with midnight of 24 March, 1971, as the cut-off date for migration to India for inclusion in the latest NRC.
Political parties and organisations against the bill have clarified that their opposition has nothing to do with genuine Indian Bengali speakers in Assam, and they want all post-1971 illegal Bangladeshi migrants, irrespective of whether they are Hindus or Muslims, to be identified and excluded from the updated NRC. They also said they are opposed to granting of Indian citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis as proposed in the bill.
However, the narrative that the bill will protect illegal Bangladeshi Hindus in Assam and encourage more Bengali-speaking Bangladeshi Hindus to migrate to Assam has given rise to the fear that Bengali-speakers may overwhelm speakers of Assamese and other ethnic languages, reduce them to a minority and pose a grave threat to the existence of Assamese and other ethnic languages, culture and heritage. A rise in the number of Bengali speakers and a decline of Assamese speakers recorded in successive census operations added to this narrative.
This has pushed the Assamese/indigenous-Bengali binary to a flashpoint of inducing a sharp polarisation on linguistic lines. Extreme opinions and provocative statements by some over the bill have only worsened this linguistic divide.
The BJP and other members of the Sangh Parivar have been making attempts to turn this linguistic binary of Assamese/indigenous-Bengali into a Hindu-Muslim binary by campaigning for Assamese speakers to embrace Hindu Bangladeshis so that illegal Bangladeshi Muslims don't outnumber them. Besides Dev, Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Union Minister of State for Railways Rajen Gohain have been in the forefront of this BJP campaign. The party hopes to gain from both linguistic and religious polarisation over the bill.
Spin doctors in the ruling BJP believe that Assamese-Bengali polarisation will help the party woo Bengali voters in the state with the bill, and that religious polarisation will help the party use the updated NRC as a shield against Bangladeshi Muslims to win the support of both Assamese Hindus and Muslims.
It is the incoherent narratives the BJP has built around the bill that has made speakers of Assamese and other ethnic languages more apprehensive about the fallout. Initially, the BJP tried to push the perception that the bill does not say that Hindu Bangladeshis are going to be settled only in Assam, and that the burden would be shared by all other states. The ruling party then pushed the campaign that the bill talks about only those Hindu Bangladeshis who had migrated to India by 2014, and that it was not going to encourage new migrants. However, the bill has not mentioned any cut-off date, which is why opponents of the legislation are not convinced about this assurance. At the same time, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are pushing the narrative that Hindus in Bangladesh are being subjected to religious persecution, and that they are not to be treated as foreigners or illegal migrants in India.
Meanwhile, 70 organisations that met under the aegis of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad on 3 November have decided to intensify the stir against the bill, calling to have November and December observed as "Resistance Months". They also decided to organise a "Sankalpa Yatra" on 11 November, which will culminate into a rally in Guwahati on 16 November to mount pressure on the Centre to withdraw the bill.
The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) and 28 other organisations representing ethnic communities have also announced a series of agitations in November to intensify their protest against the bill.
As a result, multiple challenges of maintaining law and order, curbing the rise of insurgent activities and ensuring peace and harmony will put to test the political acumen and governance skills of Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal as the BJP pushes for the bill amid growing protests.