Anti-CAA protest

Fiery reaction in Assam

Print edition : January 03, 2020

Demonstrators burn tyres during a strike called by the All Assam Students Union and the North East Students Organisation in protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, in Guwahati on December 10. Photo: PTI

Assamese singer Zubeen Garg addressing protesters in Guwahati on December 13. Garg, who has a large fan following in Assam and the other States in the region, appealed to the people of the State to maintain peace and unity while intensifying the protest. Photo: PTI

The anti-CAB protest turns into a mass resistance, reviving the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam.

The passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019, has stoked the embers of the Assam movement of the 1980s and revived the anti-foreigners agitation in the State in a more intensified form, which neither New Delhi nor Dispur could imagine. The Army was called out and additional Central forces were deployed in the State as spontaneous protests took the form of unprecedented mass resistance. Three protesters had been killed and several others hurt in police firing at the time of writing this report.

The situation went completely out of control in Guwahati on December 12 as support for the agitation grew exponentially. Repeated police firing in the air failed to deter angry and emotional protesters in the curfew-bound city. They regrouped at different locations and converged at the State Secretariat in Dispur in Guwahati and laid siege to it. The capital city virtually turned into a battle zone after the Lok Sabha passed the Bill on December 10, which is observed as Martyrs’ Day to commemorate the death of the first martyr of the Assam Movement, Khargeswar Talukdar. Several protesters were hurt in police action across the State as emotions ran high. The protesters vowed to make any sacrifice to resist the implementation of the CAB in Assam. Heavily escorted convoys of Ministers and top police brass had to retreat in the face of angry protests. Sounds of continuous police firing at different locations of Guwahati city could be heard at short intervals on December 12 throughout the day and until late in the night.

The protests refused to die down and they intensified and turned violent in some parts, including Guwahati city, despite tough measures adopted by the State government such as imposition of an indefinite curfew, suspension of Internet services, promulgation of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and resort to firing of rubber bullets and tear gas and baton charge.

The protesters flayed and burnt effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal across the State. They accused the latter of pushing the Assamese and other indigenous people of the north-eastern region into the danger of being swamped by “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants”.

Over 30,000 students, youths, men and women, including singers, actors, lawyers, writers, artists, editors, teachers and government employees defied the curfew, braved police batons, tear gas shells and guns, and gathered at the Latasil playground in Guwahati on December 12. They came out in response to an appeal by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and leading artistes of the State led by the music sensation and youth icon, Zubeen Garg. Addressing the gathering, AASU adviser Samujjal Kumar Bhattarcharjya called for “peaceful, democratic and continuous united protest by all sections of the people of Assam” until the Bill was rolled back.

Garg, who has a large fan following not just in Assam and the other States in the region but also in West Bengal, appealed to the people of the State to maintain peace and unity while intensifying the protest.

Bhattacharjya cautioned that the government would intensify its clampdown on the movement if the protests turned violent. The student leader warned the government against any attempt to curb the “peaceful and democratic protest”. In what seemed like a lesson learnt from the Assam Movement, when students lost one whole academic year owing to the boycott of classes and examinations, he appealed to the protesting students to “study and struggle”.

Even as the Army carried out flag marches in Guwahati city, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and Tinsukia, which were under curfew, thousands of protesters came out on the streets chanting slogans such as “ami CAB namanu” (we will not accept CAB), which were reminiscent of the Assam agitation at its peak in 1983. The protesters termed the CAB as “unconstitutional, divisive and communal” and demanded that all “illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, both Hindus and Muslims”, who came to Assam after the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, of the Assam Accord be expelled from the State. The AASU and the erstwhile Asom Gana Sangram Parishad signed the Assam Accord in 1985 with the State and Central governments to bring the curtains down on the six-year-long agitation launched in 1979.

When the Rajya Sabha was debating the Bill on December 11, thousands of students, along with other protesters, fought a pitched battle with police and Central Reserve Police Force personnel on the streets of Guwahati demanding its rollback. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas shells, used water cannons and resorted to lathi charge, but these measures did not help prevent the protesters from laying siege to the State Secretariat. The protesters attacked Chief Minister Sonowal’s residence in Dibrugarh town. They attacked and torched the offices of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Asom Gana Parishad in several parts of the State, including Majuli, Sonowal’s Assembly constituency.

Internet services were initially suspended in 10 districts of the Brahmaputra Valley from the night of December 12 for 48 hours, which was extended until December 16 at the time of witing this report. A section of the protesters set fire to public and private vehicles and pulled out the iron railings of the divider on the Guwahati-Shillong road, which were fixed recently as part of the facelift given to Guwahati city for the December 15 summit between Prime Minister Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe. Abe has postponed his India visit in the wake of the prevailing situation. (Amit Shah cancelled his visit to Shillong and Itanagar, scheduled for December 15, as protests intensified in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.)

Artistes announced their decision to boycott cultural and all official programmes of the summit. The noted film-maker Jahnu Barua withdrew his film from the Eighth Assam State Film Awards as a mark of protest against the Bill. The popular film personality and actor Jatin Bora quit as chairperson of the Assam State Film (Finance and Development) Corporation and from the BJP to join the protest.

Local train services were suspended and long-distance train services were terminated or rescheduled after three railway stations were torched by miscreants on December 11.

Thousands of students of Cotton University took to the streets on December 11 and surged towards the State Secretariat. The numbers swelled quickly as they were joined by students of Handique Girls’ College and B. Barooah College en route. The police tried to disperse them by resorting to lathi charge and firing of tear gas shells, but the students regrouped and continued to raise slogans. The students of P.C.P.S Girls’ Polytechnic scaled the walls of the college as the main gate was closed, to join the street protests. Students of various colleges across the State took out protest rallies, chanting slogans against making Assam a “dumping ground of foreigners”.

Students of Assam University took out protest rallies in Silchar town in Barak Valley against the Bill.

The momentum for the anti-CAB agitation started building up in the first week of December with students of Cotton University, Gauhati University, Dibrugarh University and Tezpur University launching protests warning New Delhi and Dispur of a fresh student movement if the Bill was not withdrawn. Students wrote the slogan “No CAB” with their blood and took out torch-light processions. Addressing a rally organised by students of Cotton University on December 6, student leaders from the four universities clarified that the movement was “not a fight between Assamese and Bengalis” but against the BJP and the RSS.

The protests started to snowball as writers and artists from different parts of Assam took to the streets, wrote poems, drew artwork and cartoons and sang songs in Guwahati and other parts of the State in protest agaianst the Bill. They expressed fears that the passage of the Bill would pose a grave threat to the Assamese language, identity and culture.

Popular slogans of the Assam Movement, Ei Jui Jolise, Joliboi (this fire is burning, will keep burning) and Ei Songram Solise, Soliboi (this struggle is on, it will continue) have returned to the streets. The most popular slogan of the Assam movement, Joi Aai Asom, has grown louder and Bharat Mata ki Jai (Hail Mother India) is fast fading out in Assam. The situation in the State is poised to reach a point of no return.

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