The people of Assam have been opposing the CAB for various reasons. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)
Even though people in Assam have been agitating strongly against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, the BJP government didn’t pause to reconsider its decision to introduce it in the Rajya Sabha. It left no stone unturned to muster the votes needed in the House to pass the Bill.
The people of Assam have been opposing the CAB for various reasons. There are those who oppose it for its communal, divisive and unconstitutional character. Others oppose it because it is going to make the NRC in Assam useless and nullify the Assam Accord. Some others are opposing it for it will give legitimacy to illegal Hindu immigrants, while depriving their Muslim counterparts of citizenship and sending them to detention camps. Another reason — the most emotionally charged one — is the apprehension of the indigenous Assamese people that it will open the floodgates for the Hindu Bengalis of Bangladesh, who may enter Assam in great numbers. The fear is that this will jeopardise the already precarious existence of the indigenous Assamese people, who will be outnumbered. There is fear that the language and culture of the indigenous people will be wiped out and they will be reduced to second-class citizens in their homeland.
It may be argued that such fear is not well-founded, since the Hindus of Bangladesh are in no hurry to come to Assam, given that the condition in Bangladesh is not so inimical towards them at the moment — though they have suffered a lot, even in the recent past. However, it may be pointed out that with the CAB in place, any change in the political climate of Bangladesh, that is, if the reigns of power are captured by the fundamentalists at any future date, Hindus there could be tempted to escape religious persecution and cross over, secure in the knowledge that India will give them shelter. The Assamese people fear that in such a scenario, Assam will suffer. Thus, the very idea of the CAB is fraught with danger to the indigenous people of Assam.
In the aftermath of the passage of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha, there has been relentless agitation in Assam. There is a feeling of humiliation, insult, neglect and a sense of betrayal that has stung the people. As a result, they have taken to the streets in large numbers, protesting against the BJP government, even defying the curfew that has been clamped in Guwahati and a number of other towns. The situation is extremely tense and uncertain and it is very difficult to say what course the movement will take in the days to come.
Unlike during the Assam agitation, there is hardly any acknowledged leadership and the outpouring on the streets seems mostly spontaneous. Incidents of violence and arson are being reported. At least two people have been killed in police firing. If the government does not want the agitation to escalate further, it should stall the Bill, even though it has been passed in both Houses. It should reach out to the people of Assam with a sincere and firm assurance that the CAB will not be imposed in the state without the consent of its indigenous people. People are wary of the vague promises of constitutional safeguards for the language, culture, political and other rights, including the right to the land: The recent withdrawal of Article 370 of the Constitution with respect to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is being cited as an example of the unreliability of such safeguards. People are also questioning why such safeguards were not implemented before the Bill was introduced in Parliament.
Assam voted the BJP to office despite the fact that the party’s leaders — including Amit Shah and Himanta Biswa Sarma — had declared in no uncertain terms that they would reintroduce the CAB. They had, however, postponed placing the Bill in the Rajya Sabha during the first term of the Modi government for fear of not being able to pass it. Even before the election, people in Assam had been agitating against the Bill, and it was largely assumed that the party would fare badly because of the agitation. Strangely, that did not happen and the BJP won handsomely.
In hindsight, we may explain the BJP victory in Assam bearing in mind two factors. One, Sarbananda Sonowal, the chief minister of Assam, a charismatic leader enjoying the people’s love and trust, won the confidence of the people as he declared that he would do nothing that would harm the Assamese people. Two, the BJP government was displaying the welcome intention to fight corruption, which had been so rampant under the previous Congress government. People were full of high hopes, convinced that here was a government that meant business. However, as the days passed, those hopes began to give way to resignation, with the people, once again, realising that promises are made to be broken.
The BJP government failed to realise that the trust placed on it was waning. Which is why Sonowal and company didn’t take the protests against the CAB seriously, dismissing the outcry as a conspiracy of a disgruntled elite without any mass base. They were not entirely mistaken. The people still had great trust in Sonowal, who was once hailed as a jatiyo nayok (national hero). They believed that he would not let something like the CAB happen. Nobody, not least the BJP, had any inkling of the enormity of the public outrage and anger that erupted once the CAB was passed.
One thing is certain — even Sonowal will have a tough time assuaging the hard feelings of the Assamese who so naively and unquestioningly put their faith in their jatiyo nayok, Sorba-da to many youth of the state.
It is fair to assume that we will not see the end of the agitation very soon, since people are talking of continuing the protests even while preparing to challenge the CAB in the Supreme Court. Let us see how the government responds to the demands of the people in the wake of the massive protests taking place in the state.
(Patangia is a Guwahati-based novelist and short story writer in Assamese. She won the Sahitya Akademi award in 2014)