New Delhi: On December 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, taking a short break from his trips to Jharkhand to address poll rallies — which incidentally have also kept him from attending Parliament — tried sending a message to the people of Assam, who have been protesting against his government’s decision to include the state in the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill.
Modi’s tweets in both English and Assamese said he and his government “are totally committed to constitutionally safeguard the political, linguistic, cultural and land rights of the Assamese people as per the spirit of Clause 6”.
My assurance to the people of the Northeast… pic.twitter.com/LycG8BhiBN
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) December 12, 2019
The “safeguards” that he referred to were mentioned in Clause 6 of the Assam Accord of 1985. The clause was, however, for accepting undocumented migrants till March 24, 1971 and not extending it to December 31, 2014 (only for Hindu Bangladeshis as per the Bill) residing in the state – a crucial fact not lost on the Assamese public.
Early this year, the Modi government had set up a “high powered committee” to suggest recommendations as per Clause 6 of the Accord with a six-month deadline for submission of its report. However, the Centre went ahead with the Bill without waiting for the report to be submitted.
Though the Centre kept the seven tribal-dominated districts of the state from the scope of the Bill, it included the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra Valley and the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley in it. The two valleys of the state are bitterly divided over language. The linguistic sub-nationalism of the Assamese community dates back to the British colonial period when Bengali was imposed on them as an official language.
While the official language of Barak Valley is Bengali, that of Brahmaputra valley is Assamese.
According to state minister and BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Bill would benefit a little over four lakh people residing in the state. However, the Assamese people are opposed to diluting the principal clause of the Accord as per which any undocumented migrant – Hindu or Muslim – would not be accepted in the state after the 1971 date. The Bill would extend the deadline for Hindu Bangladeshis residing in the state.
On campaign mode, Modi only blamed the Congress for the continuous unrest in the state. He reportedly said, “There are attempts to fuel tensions in northeast, don’t be misled by Congress.”
While the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and North East Students Union (NESO) have spearheaded the agitation by joining hands with a large number of civil society groups, many protesters have told local media channels that they have joined the agitation spontaneously and do not belong to any “dal xangathan” (political party or organisation).
The Congress has opposed the Bill in both the houses of parliament and have supported the agitation in the state.
On December 12 morning, even though Modi asked his “brothers and sisters of Assam” not to worry over the passage of the Bill in Parliament, he seemed to have forgotten that the BJP-led government in the state had shut down internet access to common people across the state since Wednesday night.
The state administration, which brought the Brahmaputra Valley under Section 144 since December 11 following incidents of violence and a rise in the number of protests both during the day and night, expected the public to stay indoors on December 12.
However, reports from across the state said thousands of people had hit the streets early morning onwards, defying the curfew. Many were seen gathered together to shout “Joi Ai Axom” (‘Hail mother Assam’) and sing the state anthem “O Mur Apunar Dex” (‘O my motherland’).
In Guwahati, people began to gather at the Latasil grounds in Uzan Bazaar area to register their protests against the Centre for ignoring their sentiments, and the state government for not being able to convince Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah to keep Assam out of the ambit of the Bill.
Houses of many BJP and Asom Gana Parishad leaders, MLAs and MPs were gheraoed by the agitators during the week. News has also reached of an office of the BJP’s ideological fountainhead, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, being set on fire in upper Assam on December 11. The residence of an Union minister of state in the Modi government, Rameshwar Teli, was also set on fire at Dibrugarh, as were two railway stations in Upper Assam.
BJP and AGP offices have also been vandalised in different parts of the state. Effigies of Modi, Union minister Amit Shah, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and BJP leader and state minister Himanta Biswa Sarma were burnt in various areas.
Early this week, Sarma, on being asked about the escalating agitation and public processions, had tried to play the protests down and told local media that he hadn’t seen any. “Only news channels have [seen protests],” he had said.
However, by the end of the week, it has come to a point where uncertainty looms large over the India-Japan summit slated for December 15 in Guwahati. Angry protesters were seen on local TV channels on December 11, setting on fire the banners readied for the summit.
A game of football of the Indian Super League and a Ranji Trophy cricket match, slated for Guwahati, have also been cancelled due to the growing unrest. Across the capital city and the state, plumes of smoke curling out of burning tires are visible, as are shouting protesters blocking arterial roads. The protesters include a wide cross-section of people, including children.
While schools and educational institutions have been closed till December 22, hundreds of people are stranded at the Guwahati airport for want of transport to travel to the city or elsewhere. Train and bus services have also been largely suspended. Many trains have been cancelled keeping safety in mind. Hundreds of vehicles are stranded at the borders with neighbouring states, including those carrying people in need of medical treatment. Shops and business establishments have been shut for the last few days across the Brahmaputra Valley.
On December 11, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal was among those stranded at the airport because of the massive protests. That he congratulated Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah for passing the Bill in parliament and remained quiet in spite of the protests only aggravated public anger. Until now, Assamese people largely held Sonowal in high esteem. He is called ‘jatiyo nayak’ or community’s hero for successfully challenging the Illegal (Migrants) Determination Act, brought by the Indira Gandhi government for Assam.
Breaking his silence, on December 12, Sonowal appealed for calm.
Witnessing public pouring out on to the streets on December 11, senior Guwahati-based journalist Mrinal Talukdar tweeted, “What I have seen today surpassed even 1980. Tens of thousands of people defied the curfew in Guwahati and recorded their protest against the CAB. This is unbelievable.”
— Mrinal Talukdar (@mrinalt1) December 12, 2019
Many prominent citizens of the state have also appealed for calm, with some warning people that “CAB supporters posing as protesters” might want to give the public protest a violent turn. While popular artistes like Jahnu Barua, Zubeen Garg, Paon, Joi Barua, Barsha Rani Bishaya among others have joined the protest, a couple of actors, including Jatin Bora, who had joined the BJP, have resigned from the party.
At a press meet held in New Delhi on December 12, three Congress MPs from the state – Abdul Khaleque, Ripun Bora and Pradyot Bordoloi – appealed for peace too.
Bordoloi said, “What we fear at this moment is that the BJP-RSS and Sangh Parivar will try to give a Hindu-Muslim turn to the spontaneous public protest to justify the passage of the Bill. We fear that one of these days, a naamghar or a temple may be vandalised intentionally to give it a communal turn so that people accept the Bill.”
Though early this week, members of ABVP brought out a procession in Guwahati in support of the Bill under heavy police protection, in the subsequent days, hundreds of its members have resigned from the outfit to join the protesters. Some RSS members belonging to the Assamese community have also resigned from the Hindutva outfit.
Meanwhile, to maintain law and order, paramilitary forces have been called in. In some instances, security forces have fired in the air to disperse crowds. A PTI report said police opened fire to disperse protesters in Lalunggaon area of Guwahati, injuring a few. The report quoting an Army spokesperson said five columns of Army have also been requisitioned to and deployed in the state.
Unconfirmed reports from Guwahati’s Lachitnagar area also said two people died due to police firing. Security forces have been resorting to lathicharge across the state. The updated death toll due to police firing in various parts of Assam has reached three.
Police also reportedly entered the premises of an Assamese news channel and carried out lathicharge, injuring several journalists.
As per latest reports, farmer rights activist Akhil Gogoi, who took part in the agitation along with the members of his organisation Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, has been arrested in Jorhat.
In what can be seen as government preparing to tighten the noose around the agitation, early on December 12, the Guwahati police commissioner Deepak Kumar was replaced with Munna Prasad Gupta, till now with the special protection group. Additional director general of police (law and order) Mukesh Kumar was also removed. The Ministry of Home Affairs has dispatched G.P. Singh, till now with the National Investigative Agency in New Delhi to replace Kumar.
L.R. Bishnoi, (ADGP of CID) has also been transferred out. Two other IPS officers have been brought in too to oversee the law and order situation in the state.