In Assam, the BJP Govt is Looking to Quell Protests in Inventive Ways

From announcing jobs, to threatening media houses and humiliating those it has gotten arrested, the Sarbananda Sonowal government has left little undone in an effort to silence protesters.

New Delhi: Street protests, processions and rallies have continued to rock different parts of Assam — all with the common demand that the Narendra Modi government scrap the Citizenship (Amendment) Act as it would violate the terms of Assam Accord and as good as declare the state open to undocumented migrants from Bangladesh.

However, the BJP-led state government is out to quell public unrest, with what comes across as a multi-layered calibrated method.

On December 16 and 17, the Sarbananda Sonowal government made two announcements which are widely being received in the state as ‘sops’ to placate agitators.

 Employment to 55,000 youth

The December 16 announcement, reportedly made at a meeting of the chief minister with top officials, was that “the government of Assam would soon start the process for filling up 55,000 posts of different categories, including teachers, which are lying vacant in various departments in the state”.

A PTI report from Guwahati said, “Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal asked senior officials of various departments to immediately start the measures and complete the appointment process within six months.”  

On August 1, state industry minister Chandra Mohan Patowary had told the assembly that there are nearly 17 lakh educated unemployed people in Assam. Since a huge number of youth have joined the protests, the government’s sudden announcement os being received, both by local media and public, as one aimed at dampening the agitation.

“Since the Assam agitation days, I have not seen people getting out of home voluntarily like this. Most of them are the youth. Sonowal being one who who took part in the Assam (anti-foreigner) agitation then, knows too well that the anger of the unemployed youth towards the then Congress government was also a factor as to why the protests got the initial boost. So he is playing the job-giver card,” commented a senior Guwahati-based Assamese newspaper editor who refused to be identified here.

The Internet shutdown was lifted at 5pm in Assam. Photo: PTI

An anti-CAA protest in Assam. Photo: PTI

He also said, “For 55,000 jobs, at least four to five lakh youth would be applicants. These people may not then be seen protesting against the government. Importantly, finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said a press meet in Guwahati on December 17 that they are scanning video footage to check who took part in the agitation. So the idea is to scare away at least four to five lakh people from the protests.”  

On being asked of the job promise, AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi, however, said, “Announcements like this will not weaken the agitation. Today, we are wrapping up three days of gana satyagraha where hundreds of people have courted arrest.”

He told The Wire, “From tomorrow onwards till December end, except for Christmas Day and on December 22 when we will be observing the shraddha (death ceremony) of Sam, the young man killed in police firing in Guwahati, we have already announced daily agitation programmes.”

One-time financial grant to 2,000 artistes 

A day later, on December 17, the state government made another announcement that caught the public eye. This time, a one-time offering of Rs. 50,000 to 2,000 artistes of the state.

Led by popular singer and youth icon Zubeen Garg, artistes have been at the forefront of the agitation. Across the state, there have been ‘protibad’ against CAA with protest music, Assamese patriotic songs, plays, poems, and so on. The artistes have been a huge crowd puller. In Guwahati, on December 15, the state’s top artistes held a protest rally which was attended by over 50,000 people.

A protest in Guwahati on December 12. Photo: Twitter/@@afridahussai

Two days later, the government’s sudden announcement for a one-time financial help to artistes seemed too much of a coincidence.  

Artistes, when asked for reaction to the government’s announcement by local news channels seemed to be upset at “the government trying to buy” them. Later that evening, at a prime time news show with an all-women panel on the Assamese channel Pratidin Time, editor Nitumani Saikia asked popular actor Barsha Rani Bishaya what she thought of it. Barsha, at the forefront of the agitation, called it a ‘cheap trick’. “I want to tell your audience today that it is Assam’s public and not the government which has made us; public makes artistes, not government, so our commitment is to the people,” she added.

Media intimidation

With the spread of the agitation like wildfire, the state administration had resorted to internet and broadband ban across the state and clamped a curfew. However, lakhs of people defied the curfew and came out of their houses to question the government they elected in 2016 as to why they couldn’t pass on their concerns to New Delhi. The BJP in that election won 60 of the 126 seats, for the first time ever due to rousing public response to its poll slogan – jati, mati, bheti (protection of home, hearth and identity).

Since December 17, with some amount of control over the violence – which also included police firing leading to five deaths – the curfew has been lifted in various parts; broadband connections have been restored too, even though the internet ban continues, even after the Gauhati high court has asked the state government to consider lifting it in an order on December 17. In its final order on December 19, the HC asked the state government to restore the internet ban by 5 pm on the same day.

In the absence of the internet, Assamese news channels have been the go-to source for information about the agitation for the masses. Notabley, soon after parliament passed the Bill, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory to news channels, widely seen to be aimed at the Assamese channels, to desist from airing content that in the government’s view would incite violence or compromise law and order situation. 

Also read: An Unnatural Politics and the Madness of the Indian State

However, the state’s media houses have not only continued to widely cover the agitation but top editors have been addressing public at protest rallies as well. Most editors also refused to honour an invite extended by the chief minister to have a discussion around the agitation.  

While news has come about armed security forces breaking into the premises of Prag News and beating up some journalists soon after its editor in chief Ajit Bhuyan addressed the agitators at Guwahati’s Latasil grounds by breaking the curfew, what is to be noted is that the Sonowal government seems to be also resorting to doing what the Modi government has so far been accused of unleashing on political opponents – utilising the central investigative agencies.  

Sources in Guwahati told this correspondent that the owner of Pratidin Time, Jayanta Baruah, has been issued “a CBI notice” on December 13.The news channel has been extensively covering the agitation. 

Baruah’s professional rivalry with Himanta Biswa Sarma, whose wife owns another Assamese news channel, News Live, is well-known in local media circles. Sarma himself has mentioned it before TV cameras. He has also often indirectly insinuated Baruah’s ‘involvement’ in the Rose Valley chit fund scam.  

In February, Kolkata police commissioner Rajeev Kumar was issued a CBI notice with regard to this scam, which led West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to sit in a dharna. Kumar had headed the special investigating team (SIT) set up by Bengal to investigate the Rose Valley scam (and the Saradha ponzi scam) which is said to have links in Assam and Bihar too. The case was handed over to the CBI in 2014 as per Supreme Court orders. Interestingly, Mamata had then told media that Himanta Biswa Sarma was “involved” in the Saradha scam, which he had denied. 

File image of a protest against the Saradha scam, in Assam. Photo: PTI

Sources said Jayanta Baruah is at present hospitalised in Guwahati. On being asked, a senior journalist at Pratidin Time said, “Yes there is a lot of pressure on us from the government to back off. But we are going full steam covering the agitation. It is the peoples’ agitation, our commitment is to the people, how can we not cover it?” In the last ten days, quite a few prime time news shows of channels that have not toed the government’s line have been barred from transmission. 

Commented Prag News editor Bhuyan, “Like governments usually do during a mass agitation, these prohibitions are mounting a huge pressure on us too to bow down to them. For us, freedom of expression is sacrosanct and based on it, regional media plays a big role in projecting people’s voices, which the government ties to silence at times. And this is what is happening in Assam too. It was way worse during the Hiteswar Saikia government.”

He said, “That some channels are willing to toe the government’s line is creating a division within us. But how can you expect channels owned by politicians to raise people’s voices?”   

Injecting the BJP’s national narrative of a ‘Muslim’ hand in the protests

No sooner did the agitation break out in Assam, starting from the Prime Minister, the top national and state leaders of the BJP and those in the government had resorted to blaming the Congress for ‘instigating’ the public. On December 17, PM Modi, during a poll rally in Jharkhand, asked people to check “the clothes” of the protesters to assess who had been behind the agitations against the CAA.

Also read: ‘Look at Their Clothes’: Modi Plays Communal Card on CAA, Targets Muslim Protestors

In a veiled manner, the prime minister tried sending out two messages to the majority community: Being a Hindu, one can’t be protesting against the CAA. It will, after all, be increasing the Hindu population in India. The second message that could be deduced then is, so it must be a Muslim who can be identified by his or her clothes.   

That day itself, Himanta Biswa Sarma tried taking forward the same communal line in Assam too. In spite of the vociferous protests against CAA, Sarma through his continuous statements to the state’s majority Hindu community exhorted them to identify their “enemy” (Muslims) and accept the CAA as it would help import only Hindus (so what if they are undocumented Bangladeshis) to the state.

This line of reasoning did not cut much ice. 

Protests against CAA in Assam. Photo: Twitter/@UNHumanRights

At a press meet in Guwahati, he announced that an SIT had been set up to probe the violence during the anti-CAA protests in the state. However, before the SIT could establish any crime, he was seen brandishing photos and video clips, mainly of Muslim protesters, to accuse a section of Congress and its allies and People’s Front of India (PFI) of fomenting trouble in the state.

He said 48 of the 107 people rounded up on charges of indulging in vandalism and rioting came to Guwahati from lower Assam districts of Goalpara, Barpeta, Dhubri. These districts have huge population of Muslims of East Bengal origin, many of whom have loosely been accused of being “illegal Bangladeshis”.

He named a local Muslim leader belonging to the Youth Congress as having been part of a “conspiracy” with “an intellectual working in a central institution” (it seemed from Sarma’s statement that the unnamed person’s phone was tapped) to burn down the state secretariat during the protests. Just when an SIT has been formed, the minister already claimed a “design” in the “Guwahati violence”, “like how the Pakistani handlers carry out attacks in India.”

Though he accused peasant leader Akhil Gogoi of being a part of it too, he absolved AASU of it.

State Congress leader Debabrata Saikia has warned Sarma not to “divide Assamese society in the name of religion”.  

New Land Law 

Meanwhile, to send out a missive to the angry public, minister Patowary, on December 18, told reporters that his government is looking at bringing a law to protect the land of the indigenous people. A committee formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs this June to offer recommendations for granting “constitutional safeguards” to “Assamese people” has also been asked by the state government to submit its report within the next few weeks.

Arrest of agitation leader Akhil Gogoi under UAPA

Yet another step taken to quell the agitation was the arrest of Akhil Gogoi, a vocal opponent of the BJP-RSS, Sarma and Sonowal. Early 2017, Gogoi was charged with sedition by the Sonowal government but was later released by the Gauhati high court.

Though the students of Cotton University fuelled the first spark of the anti-CAA protests in Assam and were joined by students of other universities, civil society organisations like AASU, KMSS and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) soon added forces along with the general public to turn it into a mass movement. Several other organisations too jumped into the fray. 

KMSS since has been leading the protests in upper Assam, mainly in the rural areas, where Gogoi had addressed thousands of agitators, often resorting to castigating BJP-RSS’s ‘Hindutva designs’ on Assam. On December 12, Gogoi was picked up from Jorhat under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act – UAPA – and handed over to the National Investigating Agency (NIA). He was reportedly accused of being a Maoist.

Akhil Gogoi before he was arrested. Photo: By special arrangement.

Gogoi, who often used to be in the crosshairs of the earlier Congress government too, had made a public statement in 2010 in response to a state police intelligence report accusing him of Maoist links that he “is a Marxist but not a Maoist”. A case was filed against him by the Congress government based on that report in 2009, which has now been activated by the BJP government to hand him over to the NIA. 

Bhuyan, who in his popular weekly show ‘Xakhyat’, aired on Prag News, had interviewed Gogoi some time ago, told this correspondent, “First he was arrested on charges of sedition, which couldn’t be proved. So the government typically was looking at some way of getting back at him, mainly because he has a mass base and mainly in the rural areas where he was spearheading the anti-CAA agitation. It found a 10-year-old case against him. If he has indeed Maoist links and the state had information, my question is, what was it doing till now? This government came in 2016.” 

“So we have to deduce that like governments do during a mass movement, it is also trying to break it by arresting him. If they sense that one organisation is not quite on the same page as the other, even though they are both supporting the agitation, the typical thing to do is to try and operate within that space,” he added. AASU and KMSS are not quite known to be on friendly terms.

On being asked about his arrest, Cotton College students’ union general secretary Rahul Bordoloi told InsideNE, “If Akhil Gogoi is a terrorist then all of us protesting against the Act are terrorists too.”  

On December 18, a day after a special court sent Gogoi to NIA custody for ten days, ANI reported that he has been shifted to the investigative agency’s headquarters in New Delhi. In an exclusive interview to Scroll taken inside the special court just before he was presented before the judge, Gogoi said, “I have been subjected to very inhumane treatment”.

He also added, “There are two possibilities and, as things stand now, it (the agitation) can go either way: it can flourish into a genuine people’s movement or it can turn into a state-sponsored movement. I have only one appeal: I urge people not to be part of the state-sponsored movement.”

Meanwhile, AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya has demanded immediate release of Gogoi from custody. “We saw that he (Akhil) was tied up (in handcuffs violating the Supreme Court’s recent directive against it) and taken to court. Nobody has the right to abuse someone like that. That is indeed condemnable…he must be released immediately,” Bhattacharya told local media.

In coming times, it would be seen whether the university students and the AASU would succeed in mounting enough pressure on the government for his release, and take along all the outfits opposed to CAA as a single consolidation till it reaches its intended goal – the scrapping of the Act for Assam.