There is now widespread and growing disenchantment in Assam with saffron politics, and popular anger is exploding in massive rallies and demonstrations. On December 11, people sat glued to their TV sets and when they realised that they had been taken for a ride and the saffron government had been least concerned with the anxiety of Assam about the Citizenship Amendment Bill, they poured out pell-mell onto the streets in Guwahati and spontaneously moved—an enormous swelling mass of people—towards the fortified capital complex at Dispur to vent their grief and fury.
Unnerved, the government declared a curfew which was simply swept aside by the human tide. Apart from battalions of armed police and CRPF, who tried ineffectually to stem it with lathi-charge, the Army was deployed. There were flag marches in two places, but young women and young men in the streets remained unperturbed. While there was subsequent propaganda by the government that the crowd was prone to violence, the TV footage makes it clear that it was the government that panicked and used naked brute force to suppress spontaneous and impassioned popular protest.
Five young men in their teens and early twenties were gunned down, none caught in any act of violence or destruction of property. They belonged to Hindu, Muslim and Christian faiths, and several ethnic groups.
Significantly, none in the state government dared meet the explosion of popular anger with some assurance of responsive review of the hated Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).That is a measure of both the isolation of the government and their abject surrender to the the whip-wielding masters in Delhi.
There was an appeal to the people by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, repeated on TV and the print media. But it brazenly went wide of the real public concerns and tried to dismiss the protests as acts of irresponsible violence incited by “vested interests”. The state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president archly attributed the eruption of protest to the machination of people of the usually maligned religion and was widely jeered at for his pains.
Peasant leader Akhil Gogoi has been slapped with some trumped-up charges of Maoist conspiracy and flown to Delhi for interrogation by NIA. The actual reason seems to have been his tremendous success in rousing the masses in upper Assam to tumultuous protests against CAA.
There had been some acts of destruction of property, including a school bus parked on the street with none inside being burnt down, and an ambulance car being gutted, but neither any real act of arson nor any violence targeting people. Pent-up frustration tends to burst out in such unsavoury incidents. But even the so-called “national media” lip-synced the government message on violence with headlines like “anti-CAA violence.”
That has incidentally always been the attitude of such media, which ignore popular concerns here, explaining why some situations in Assam tumble gradually into scenes of utter chaos and horror.
There are whispers everywhere here that the alleged violence had been the work of saffron agents and there is ample reason to consider that possibility. The only explanation of this scornful media bias is the mindset of the rulers in Delhi which is in some ways shared by powerful sections of the media.
As is well-known, internet was suspended in the state for ten days and curfew was declared in many places after dark. Curfew became the staple of the law and order machinery for two weeks. The leadership/s of the movement later also counseled restraint and sober peaceful methods after the killings but also joined people of the state in mourning the dead and paying homage to martyrs. There are many injured still recuperating from wounds inflicted by bullets and batons.
People here see in the CAA a two-pronged attack on their rights and interests. First, it shows little real feeling for the agonising anxiety of the people here about their future security as a loose but tangible national entity owing to sudden and massive increase in numbers of a rival linguistic community as citizens. [It must be added that people have refrained from any acts of animosity against them and older groups from that community have also joined anti-CAA protests.]
Second, they are deeply disturbed by the patent dishonesty of the rhetoric trying to divide people along religious lines. One Nellie has been more than enough and they are wary of another trap. As the local saying goes, “One cannot sell sour mangoes twice.”
The saffron party and government have met the worsening situation with their trademark package of tricks. Doublespeak, fake facts and arguments that cleverly miss the point by conjuring out of the air quite another line of reasoning from a different context. On December 22, one could hear on TV the Prime Minister thundering that the CAA is not going to harm any Muslim citizen. But, it betrays a subtle anti-Hindu bias and its cousin, the country-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC), is definitely aimed at driving Muslims into a corner, if not worse.
It is easy enough to draw applause from religious refugees from Pakistan, which has a loathsome record of vicious persecution of non-Islamic communities. That is precisely what is being done by Modi and Shah, though they do not breathe a word about the vicious persecution of Shia Muslims and Ahmadiyyas there. Amit Shah has gone to town with the specious plea that all Muslims are safe in an Islamic country. Bangladesh is in a different class altogether. Religious persecution gains ground only when the Jamaat-e-Islami-supported fanatics have a share in government though such incidents are quite grim.
More to the point is the fact that there has been a deadly struggle between Hasina-led secularists and the Jamaat-led Islamists for the soul of Bangladesh. Hindu exodus from Bangladesh will only strengthen Islamist fundamentalists and multiply cross-border terrorism like Pakistan. The CAA will only help to serve the latter tendency.
Is there any truth in the frequent avowals of saffron leaders that such refugees from “religious persecution” will be accommodated only up to March 31, 2014? Not a jot. For, already, rules under the Foreigners Act 1946 and the Indian Passport Act had been modified in 2015 to ensure that such “illegal migrants” were not required to produce any documents. In that case, the terminal date loses all meaning.
Here, powerful ministers are selling the line that in all the increase in numbers of citizens will be only a little over 5 lakh. But the fact is that 10 lakh Hindus have been left out of NRC, and 24 lakh had refused to apply for registration. That is why such an outright falsehood has been angrily rejected by the people.
The writer is a sociopolitical commentator and literary critic. The views are personal.