AASU returns to centre stage as Assamese elites, commoners repose faith in student body to lead fight against Citizenship Amendment Act

  • Despite the protests in Assam largely being a spontaneous affair, it is AASU to whom people in Assam look for leadership in such moments of crisis.

  • Turning to AASU shows a circular political disposition of people in Assam and the inability to think in alternatives or even ask for it.

  • With young students joining the protest, AASU has managed to baptise a newer generation with the ideals that made the Assam Movement possible.

Although Guwahati is no longer under curfew, the suspension of mobile internet services still remains. As per news reportage, the government only intends to prolong the restriction. Because of this ban, the only way to correspond with my co-author who is in Guwahati was to resort to text messages and phone calls.

The seize was similar across most other places in Assam. The curfew was imposed first when the Upper House of the Parliament was debating the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 (CAB) after a violent protest broke out in the streets of Guwahati. A mood of despair had gripped the people and by nighttime, an easy lull prevailed over most neighbourhoods that was only broken by the occasional blank firing and faint sloganeering of the protestors at a distance.

 AASU returns to centre stage as Assamese elites, commoners repose faith in student body to lead fight against Citizenship Amendment Act

All Assam Student Union during a protest rally against the Citizenship Amendment Act. AP

After 10 days, the situation seems to be returning to normalcy, but with old fault lines resurfacing again, and only time will tell, if peace would sustain or whether it is the calm before (another) storm.

We followed the previous round of protest as well on the issue of Citizenship Amendment legislation that had taken place during the runup to the general election. College students, cultural artists and civil society members enthusiastically participated in both rounds of protest. Yet, there is a broad difference, in terms of the scale of both rounds of protest. So, what explains this difference?

The two reasons/factors explain the substantially higher levels of participation and intensity that was witnessed during the current round of protest.

The previous round of protest actually remained confined to formal members of social organisations, students of a few government colleges and universities, opposition parties, civil society elites, and the sympathetic media that inflated the actual size of the turnout. In contrast, the current protest has been successful in mobilising a much wider section of the urban middle class. The protest could go beyond the aforementioned actors and draw in the participation of disparate groups such as shopkeepers, housewives, retired middle-class government employees, students of private schools and colleges to name a few.

The greater intensity that marks the demonstration this time could be because with rapid mobilisation of newer groups, the protest escaped the leadership of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) for a brief moment. It is to be noted that AASU led the anti-foreigner movement in Assam that ended with the signing of the Assam Accord of 1985. If one observes closely, it becomes apparent that the character of the current protest has been very different from the style that characterises AASU led demonstration.

It is, however, unfortunate that the spontaneous turn of protest was misappropriated by certain vested interest groups that resorted to a spree of vandalism. This has also given a chance to the AASU to reclaim its virtual leadership of the protest as it has now begun laying down the ‘rules and timings’ of protesting. With peasant leader Akhil Gogoi’s arrest this has become even easier.

A word needs to be said on the role of the government as well in responding to the protest. It is felt as if the government considers students as a bigger threat to the law and order in comparison to miscreants who resorted to stone-pelting and vandalism in Assam. This is because although the students have been leading democratic protest marches, yet they were brutally assaulted wielding cudgels. In comparison, the police, as well as the Central Reserved Paramilitary Force, have shown much laxity in containing the miscreants.

This is probably the first time Assam witnessed such widescale stone-pelting. During the Assam Agitation days in the 1980s, although there was stone pelting on Bengali shops yet, this time the stone pelters directly targeted security forces like in Kashmir Valley. This is surely a very disturbing sight. It, however, took the government nearly two days to curb these incidents. This naturally raises the question whether it was in the interest of anyone to allow such miscreants to have such a free run?

The young students are being cornered, beaten up and asked to leave their hostels in various institutions in Guwahati. Paramilitary forces entered the hostels of Cotton College and Assam Engineering College on the 12th of this month and imprisoned students in their premises. Many of these people who were beating up and harassing students were also seen in civil dress naturally raising many questions. In Cotton University, the army also made peaceful protesters forcefully leave. These students have borne the brunt of the administration more than the people and groups who caused vandalism. One is here let to speculate, why that could have been the case?

Popular artists in Assam also have come out in large numbers opposing CAA, however, the issues they have raised and positions they have taken only deepens the existing social fissures and spreads the existing antagonisms among social groups on the wake of NRC. Even in the last round of CAB protest in Assam, we saw a significant production of hate speech through popular music. It makes us question the role and responsibility artists carry in moments of crisis. Are the protesting artists being responsible in Assam?

Seemingly, AASU is seeing its rebirth as a political hope in the state. It is a tragedy that people did not have any other political alternative to turn to. Despite the protests in Assam largely being a spontaneous affair, it is AASU to whom people in Assam look for leadership in such moments of crisis. This is their sheer power. It is no longer a students' organisation. It stopped being one long back. Turning to them shows a circular political disposition of people in Assam and the inability to think in alternatives or even ask for it. People continue to buy their empty rhetorics and it is surprising that despite everything they continue to be in demand. In sort, it has legitimised its position once more in the political life of Assam.

With young students joining the protest, AASU has managed to baptise a newer generation with the ideals that made the Assam Movement possible.

Abhinav is a political commentator based in Guwahati and Suraj is a doctoral student in Sociology at the National University of Singapore.

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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2019 08:19:00 IST