From putting AGP on back foot to stoking indigenous fears, Citizenship Act is shaping Assam's political dynamics ahead of 2021 polls

The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament is seen by many Assamese as an important moment in their history. Given the nature of the protests to the now Citizenship Amendment Act, the issue is shaping the political dynamics of the state in various ways ahead of the 2021 polls.

 From putting AGP on back foot to stoking indigenous fears, Citizenship Act is shaping Assams political dynamics ahead of 2021 polls

Representational image. Getty Images

The Act is likely to be used as a talking point by political parties in the run-up to the polls to whip up insecurity among the indigenous peoples who were pivotal to the BJP's victory in 2016. Soon after the Bill became law after the president gave his assent, the slogan for many Assamese subnationalists on Facebook offering support to the movement was “More Axom Jiye Kun” (if Assam dies, who lives on?)

The new law, which will make make immigrants who entered India before 31 December, 2014, eligible for citizenship, is seen by many indigenous communities in Assam as a tool to dilute the language, culture and political rights of the natives.

Birendra Prasad Baishya, a member in the Rajya Sabha of the NDA ally Asom Gana Parishad spoke at length about the fear of the indigenous in the Upper House, “We the people in Assam live in great insecurity today fearing that our language and culture would be extinct forever. My insecurities are not driven by any emotion. Rather they transpire from facts. For 36 years since 1836, the Bengali language was imposed in Assam. In the year 1960, during the Congress rule, people had to struggle to have Assamese as the state language. Many Assamese youth had to lay their lives see their mother tongue as the state language. Even in the year 1972, we had to struggle to have Assamese as the medium of instruction. After all these struggles Assamese people have established their mother tongue as one of the best languages in the world. But the CAB would lead to an influx of additional people most of whom are Bengalis. They will threaten the existence of the indigenous society.”

Baishya is playing to his constituency, a trend that will no doubt only further gain traction among politicos the closer the election gets. This has wrought five notable changes in Assam's politics.

Law and order

Assam recently entered an era of relative peace after a decades-long history of armed struggle. The Ministry of Home Affairs published a report last year showing that insurgent activities declined by 50 percent in Assam during the 2017-2018 period compared to the prior year.

The protests have opened the lid of violence in Assam once again. The protests are seen as the most violent in recent history with the capital being under curfew after angry mobs besieged the city for two days.

“Guwahati has seen a curfew after a gap of more than three decades. Even during the Assam Movement, violence of this magnitude did not occur in the capital city,” said Naba Thakuriya, secretary general of Guwahati Press Club, who has been in the field for the past three decades.

The city is facing a severe shortage of essential items.  The BJP is blaming miscreants for the violence, but what cannot be denied is that the passage of the Bill has ripped open fault lines in society. Maintaining law and order would require additional vigil and effort, while political parties may continue to use the situation to feed their narratives.

Setback for Sarbananda Sonowal

A section of Assamese society is against the Act because it is against a crucial provision of the Assam Accord which mandates that anyone from outside Assam who entered the state after 25 March, 1971, must be deported. But the CAB shifts deadline to the year 2014 for Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who face religious persecution.

Home Minister Amit Shah, in his speech tabling the CAB in Parliament, said that the Assam Accord, which was signed in 1985 after the Assam Movement, was never implemented. He added that it took Narendra Modi to come to power to initiate the process of implementation. Though it is true that the Assam Accord was never implemented in the last 34 years, it was never violated either.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, who built his political career demanding implementation of the Assam Accord, and rose to power promising the same, was seen supporting the law, which may severely damage his credibility.

“Nowhere in the BJP’s vision document published before 2016 Assam Assembly election it was mentioned that a law like CAB would be passed. Rather it promised to implement Assam Accord in letter and spirit,” says Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya, leader of the All Assam Students Union.

Sonowal, who was earlier hailed as a ‘Jatiya Nayak’ (hero of the community) because of his firebrand role in the four-decade anti-illegal immigrant movement, may face a severe hardship in resurrecting his image. Whether the BJP should take him along as the chief ministerial candidate again in the 2021 polls or launch a search operation would be something the party ought to contemplate.

BJP facing uphill battle

Amidst the turmoil, Paresh Borua, the leader of the anti-talks faction of the insurgent group ULFA(I) in an interview with a regional news channel in Assam accused the All Assam Students Union of "clandestinely supporting" the BJP in the 2016 polls.

“It was Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharya who had brought the BJP into power," Borua alleged. “Before the polls he had a secret meeting with Sarbananda Sonowal in a vaishnavite monastery in Assam. Can he tell what the meeting was all about?”

Bhattacharya responded: “That was then. At the time, the BJP promised to implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit in its vision document. This was the reason why people voted for the party. But now the chief minister has betrayed us.”

The episode indicates that Assamese subnationalist groups might have played a role in mobilising Assamese votes in favor of the BJP. But now these groups are angry with the BJP.  The saffron party might face a tough time mobilising voters in its favour.

AGP on back foot

The Asom Gana Parishad, a political outfit which is a partner in the BJP-led government in Assam, may lose out the most.  The AGP was formed by the signatories of the Assam Accord. It was expected that the AGP would protest the contentious Bill. Instead, a number of its leaders offered supported. During the protests, a number of AGP offices were vandalised by irate mobs and many leaders faced a backlash from their own communities at public meetings.

Before the Bill was placed in Parliament, AGP leader Atul Bora told the media that rather than protesting, it would be more realistic to bargain for more benefits for the Assamese people.  “Assam has accepted the burden of immigrants. But we have not got any constitutional safeguard to protect our culture and language. Now we need such measures,” Bora said. His statement did not go down well with many Assamese people.

“In the Assam Accord, the Assamese people accepted illegal immigrants who trespassed into the state from Bangladesh from 1951 to 1971. For accepting such a huge number of illegal immigrants we were promised of constitutional safeguards in the Accord itself. Those measures were not taken. Now the CAA has extended the deadline of accepting illegal immigrants to 31 December, 2014. Speaking of constitutional safeguard alone is pointless now,” said Bharati Deka, a former AASU activist in Lakhimpur district.

The BJP partner is now left with the uphill task of convincing its voters and its workers.

New forces emerge

Amidst the debris of the violent movement, cries for a new political group which speaks with the voice of Assamese subnationalists are also being heard. In all likelihood, many Assamese subnationalist leaders may unite to form a political outfit to cater to this demand.

“There is certainly a political vacuum now. BJP was voted to power as an alternative. So the formation of a new political outfit cannot be ruled out. But what is even more important now is that though the NRC is complete, the exclusion of illegal immigrants is minimal and now Citizenship Amendment Act has become a reality which is likely to make the indigenous population a minority. These issues are required to be solved,” claimed Upamanyu Hazarika, a Supreme Court of India lawyer and convener of the Prabajan Virodhi Manch, an anti-influx body.

Some are already contemplating matters. “To build an effective political edifice, we need a trustworthy, credible leader, and a prominent face. Now the question is who that face will be,” said an Assamese leader who did not wish to be named.

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Updated Date: Dec 17, 2019 15:15:19 IST