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Demonstrators setup a bonfire on a street as they protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Guwahati on December 11. — AFP

Why Guwahati exploded in protests — and what explains Assam's resistance to India's Citizenship Bill

Nativism alone isn’t driving the protests. They are as much a backlash to the BJP’s hegemony of power.

Updated 13 Dec, 2019 11:24pm

Normalcy takes time. That is perhaps why in news headlines, a city always limps back to normalcy. Chaos, on the other hand, strikes suddenly, as Guwahati found out on December 11.

The day began normally. The city was recovering from the complete shutdown observed on Tuesday to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. But Wednesday was supposed to be business as usual — none of Assam’s many ethno-nationalist groups had, after all, announced a formal protest on the day.

How the protest began

But as Union Home Minister Amit Shah began extolling the "humanitarian values" of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha, a few hundred college students suddenly laid siege to the city’s arterial Guwahati-Shillong road. "CAB namanu," they affirmed in unison — CAB is a commonly used acronym for the Citizenship Amendment Bill — "We won’t accept the bill."

As the afternoon traffic came to a halt, the police opened a lathicharge on the protestors to disperse them. Instead, their numbers seemed to only swell by the moment: bystanders slipped into the crowd; shopkeepers shut their shutters and joined in; and people spilled out of homes in the lanes skirting the main road.

All of them broke into an impromptu rendition of the state anthem.

How the protests spread

In a matter of couple of hours, the few hundreds suddenly seemed to have become a few thousands. The slogans got louder. "Go back BJP," shouted men and women as they marched towards the Assam Secretariat. Strikingly, across the barricades, the state government employees at the secretariat responded: "Go back BJP," some of them said.

The contempt for the Bharatiya Janata Party was punctuated only by the war cry of the day: "CAB namanu!"

Reports streamed in that protestors had hit the streets across the state, particularly in the towns of Upper Assam. "If you are Assamese, come out join us," the young students could be heard exhorting.

How the protests escalated

In Guwahati, as the agitators closed in on the fortress that the Assam Secretariat had become — guarded by the Assam Police with a contingent of the Border Security Force on standby — the security forces responded by lobbing tear gas and unleashing a lathicharge.

The protesters would disperse momentarily to dodge the batons and tear gas, but would regroup soon. "Sarbananda Sonowal hai hai," they said, shaming the chief minister, charging on defiantly, ransacking metal road dividers and makeshift stages that had been set up for the upcoming India-Japan summit, and finally setting them on fire.

As the winter sun set on the city, Guwahati had turned into a war zone. Angry protesters stood vigil at every street corner, marking their presence with the red flames and the black smoke of burning tyres. Security forces fired blanks and lobbed tear gas. The state government put the city under indefinite curfew and cut off mobile internet. Two army columns stepped out of the cantonment on the eastern fringe of the city and flag-marched in sensitive localities.

Later in the evening, the state clamped a curfew in Dibrugarh too.

The two strands of resistance

With the Rajya Sabha voting in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Bill on Wednesday evening, it has cleared both houses of parliament and now awaits a formal approval by the president to become law. The new law enables Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For many Indians, the reason to oppose the new law is simple: as pointed out by several commentators, a law that discriminates on the basis of religion is antithetical to the secular principles the country was founded on.

But, in the North East, the only region where the changes in law have sparked vehement street protests, the resistance is rooted less in concerns about Indian secularism and more in primal apprehensions. Ethnic groups in the region fear getting physically and culturally swamped by migrants from Bangladesh.

To address these concerns, the Modi government has introduced geographical exemptions in the bill for tribal-dominated Sixth Schedule and Inner Line Permit areas. It even extended the Inner Line Permit regime to the state of Manipur and Dimapur in Nagaland overnight. While the exemptions have quelled the protests in some states, protests in the places not covered by them — for instance, most of Assam — have only escalated.

Protestors from the North East have expressed their disdain with the secular-minded liberals from the “mainland” for being tone-deaf to these anxieties of small populations in the region. Many liberals, on their part, have accused the North East groups of weakening the resistance to the Citizenship Bill by employing one chauvinism to blunt another.

Old faultlines

Yet, to attribute the Assam protests on Wednesday — almost entirely spontaneous — to just nativism would be simplistic.

A major strain, undoubtedly, was Assamese nationalism. Young filmmaker and radio professional Manjori Borkotoky, for instance, said she stepped out to join the protesters because she feared the bill could lead to Bengali hegemony. "It happened during the British era when they imposed Bengali as the state language," she reasoned. "I don’t want my kids to grow up in a situation like that."

Indeed, Assamese anxieties about Bengali Hindu migrants are more cultural than demographic. Assamese justify these fears with historical reasons: in 1836, Assamese pride received a body blow when the colonial government declared Bengali the state’s official language. Although the ruling was overturned 37 years later, many Assamese are still troubled by it.

The changes in India’s citizenship law could reopen these old faultlines, say many progressive Assamese, citing this as the reason they oppose the bill.

"Why I didn’t want the bill to be passed was primarily because it is going to make Bengalis vulnerable to violence," said Hrishita Rajbangshi, a young academic from Mangaldoi. "And nobody will come to their defence, definitely not the BJP."

In November 2018, five men were gunned down in Tinsukia district during the previous wave of protests against the bill.

A woman shouts slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. — Reuters
A woman shouts slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. — Reuters

Resistance to the BJP

Rajbangshi and Borkotoky’s apprehensions about the bill may seem to be different — almost contradictory — but they converge on one thing: disillusionment with the Indian state and the BJP, which is in power both at the centre and in Assam.

"I usually don’t go to protests," said Borkotoky, "But I thought if I don’t go today, they [the BJP governments] will do something else to undermine us tomorrow."

That, activist and academic Ankur Tamuli Phukan insists, is the cornerstone of the protests this time. "Yes, the abstract entity driving the protests is the so-called foreigner," said Tamuli Phukan who has actively participated in the protests. "But the fight is not against the foreigner, it is against the Indian state, which insists that we must accept refugees on their terms in spite of an agreement we have with them on this subject."

In 1985, Assamese nationalists had signed the Assam Accord with the centre to end a six-year long anti-foreigner agitation. According to the Accord, only those Bangladeshi migrants who came to Assam before 1971 would be eligible for Indian citizenship.

An attack on federalism

The move to amend India’s citizenship law, widely seen in Assam as an unilateral abrogation of the Accord by the centre, amounts to undermining the federal structure of the country, argued Tamuli Phukan.

Kaustabh Deka, who teaches political science in Dibrugarh University, tended to agree. "I attended the students’ protests today and they raised these questions about basic problems with the federal structure of the country and the brute majority of numbers," he said. "How the Indian state seems to think they can do anything on the basis of numbers in the Parliament."

Yet, the protests this time, too, have not been completely immune to anti-Bengali sentiments. Disparaging remarks about Bengali-speakers are very much part of the protest vocabulary on the street, but they are usually not mainstreamed. They don’t usually manifest in slogans and, if they do, they are discouraged.

Tamuli Phukan is fairly confident that it will stay like that. "People have come out to streets this time in such large numbers on their own and not under any banner much like the old days," he said, "because they feel humiliated and insulted by the Indian state."


This article was originally published in Scroll.In and has been reproduced with permission.