Assam and CAA

CAA protests: Winds of change in Assam

Print edition : January 31, 2020

The singer Zubeen Garg (in hat) with All Assam Students’ Union chief adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya (on his right), AASU president Dipankar Kumar Nath, and other artistes from different parts of Assam play traditional musical instruments during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Guwahati on January 9. Photo: PTI

A torchlight procession against the new citizenship legislation by the AASU and ethnic organisations, in Guwahati on January 3. Photo: BIJU BORO/AFP

A silent “peace rally” led by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal along with senior Cabinet colleague Himanta Biswa Sarma and BJP State president Ranjeet Kumar Dass in Dhemaji district on January 8. Peace rallies by the ruling party leaders require heavy security deployment to keep anti-CAA protesters at bay. Photo: PTI

A rally against the CAA by the AASU joined by local residents at Beltola in Guwahati on January 8. Photo: PTI

Although the AGP leadership is clinging on to the party’s alliance with the BJP, a vocal section in the party has come out strongly against the CAA. A protest by this section in front of the AGP headquarters in Guwahati. Photo: PTI

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act has triggered a resurgence of regionalism in Assam and fuelled speculation about a new party that may be formed to take on the ruling dispensation and its agenda which is perceived to be violative of the Assam Accord.

For Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, the New Year has brought a tough challenge as the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, has intensified. The talk of formation of a new regional political party under the aegis of the student and youth organisations spearheading the anti-CAA movement has only added to his worries. Leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) have dropped hints about a new regional political party to dislodge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led ruling coalition from power as part of the intensified movement against the CAA. Assembly elections in the State are due in April-May 2021. The AASU, along with 29 organisations of different ethnic communities, the AJYCP and the Silpi Samaj, Assam, a banner organisation of artistes, has been organising joint protest rallies across the State demanding withdrawal of the CAA. Opposition parties and other organisations such as the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) are also organising rallies in protest against the CAA.

Unlike the previous anti-foreigner movement of the 1980s, there is no scope for leaders to sign a new accord this time, for the movement is to defend the Assam Accord of 1985 and press for the updating of the National Register of Citizens on the basis of that accord. The movement leaders are aware of this reality and maintain that the anti-CAA movement will be long-drawn. They say, too, that the movement on the streets and the legal battle in the Supreme Court will continue simultaneously.

Lurinjyoti Gogoi, AASU general secretary, told Frontline: “People taking part in anti-CAA rallies have started asking whom they should vote for in the 2021 Assembly election. They say that they cannot vote for the BJP as it has brought in the CAA by violating the core clause of the Assam Accord. They cannot vote for the AGP [Asom Gana Parishad] as it has collaborated with the BJP. The Congress is also not an alternative for them as it is also seen as a protector of illegal Bangladeshis. The people will take a final decision on whether a new political party should be formed.” Asked about the AASU’s role in the event of such a party being formed, Lurinjyoti Gogoi said: “The AASU is an apolitical organisation and will always remain apolitical. But we will certainly have to respect the people’s wishes. We cannot remain indifferent and must play the role they expect us to play in facilitating the process. However, the formation of a new regional party must be based on strong ideological fundamentals of healthy and powerful regionalism. That involves the protection of the interests of the Assamese and other indigenous people and the protection of their language, identity and culture by driving out illegal migrants and preventing fresh influx on the basis of the Assam Accord. It involves ensuring rights over natural resources for indigenous people.”

Palash Changmai, AJYCP general secretary, spoke on similar lines. “The primary agenda of the movement is to mount united pressure on the Centre to withdraw the CAA. It would be wrong to reduce it to the formation of a new political party. However, it is the people who are talking about it, and the people will take a decision if a new party needs to be formed or not. We have to respect the people’s wish to express their opposition to the CAA through electronic voting machines as well.”

The popular singer-composer and film-maker Zubeen Garg, the youth icon who has been leading the Silpi Samaj, Assam, in its anti-CAA protests with the AASU and the AJYCP, also maintains that a new regional party will be formed if the people want it. He clarified, however, that he would not join such a party but would extend help in its formation.

The AASU gave birth to the AGP in 1985 immediately after the signing of the Assam Accord, following six years of anti-foreigners agitation. The new party came to power in the State the same year, the first regional party to do so in Assam. The then AASU president, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, was the founder president of the AGP and also the Chief Minister.

History of betrayals

The AGP formed the government for a second time in 1996 and Mahanta was Chief Minister for a second term. But then the Congress returned to power in 2001 and retained power for three consecutive terms until it lost the 2016 Assembly election. The AGP, which forged an electoral alliance with the BJP and won 14 seats, joined the government led by Sarbananda Sonowal, who had been with the AGP until 2011 before he joined the BJP.

The question of setting up a new party is a fraught one, given the AGP’s history of having betrayed the cause that had propelled it twice to the seat of power. What is the guarantee, people ask, that a new party will not end up producing leaders who will ultimately join either the BJP or the Congress. What is the guarantee that they will boldly push for the implementation of the Assam Accord? The Assam Accord carried commitments to identify, disenfranchise and expel illegal migrants and seal the border with Bangladesh. The AGP did not do much on this despite being in power for two terms. The example of AGP leaders who built their political career through the Assam movement spearheaded by the AASU and the erstwhile All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad (AAGSP) but eventually dumped the ideals of the regional party to join parties like the BJP and the Congress has created a trust deficit. In this context, the AASU and the AJYCP are extra cautious in taking a direct initiative for a new regional party.

Leaders of the AASU admit that though Sonowal was once president of the student body, he failed to ensure the implementation of the Assam Accord. It is the same with other former AASU leaders who are with the ruling coalition.

Leaders of the AASU are aware that while the movement of the early 1980s was spearheaded by the student body and the AAGSP, the anti-CAA movement now has many stakeholders, including the Congress and the Left parties. In the 1980s, AASU leaders called for boycotting of the Congress and the Left parties, while the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) played an active role in the movement. This time around, the AASU, the AJYCP and other groups in the movement are raising slogans against the BJP.

Revolt in AGP

The revolt in the AGP, officially an ally of the BJP, over the CAA has added momentum to the push for a new party. The revolt reached a new high on January 7 when Mahanta, along with two other party legislators—former Minister Brindaban Goswami and Pabindra Deka—took the initiative of convening a consultative meeting of grass-roots workers to seek from the party leadership a clarification of its stand on the Act. In a bid to scuttle the meeting, the AGP leadership kept both gates of the party headquarters at Ambari in Guwahati locked. The office was fortified with a heavy deployment of Central Reserve Police Force personnel. The rebel leaders went ahead with their meeting by the simple expedient of shifting the venue to a public auditorium.

A resolution adopted at the meeting called on the party leadership, including the three State Ministers from the AGP, Atul Bora, Phanibhusan Chodhury and Keshav Mahanta, and the party’s lone Member of Parliament, Birendra Prasad Baishya, to either clarify their position on the CAA or quit the party. Baishya had voted in favour of the CAA in the Rajya Sabha even though the party officially opposed the legislation. Atul Bora, Phanibhusan Chodhury and Keshav Mahanta initially quit Sonowal’s Cabinet after the CAB was passed in the Lok Sabha but rejoined soon after. Pressure from Mahanta and other party members failed to get them to resign again.

The three Ministers from the AGP were criticised for taking part in the State government’s “peace rallies” in support of the CAA. The rebel leaders claimed that grass-roots AGP workers from 29 districts had taken part in the meeting, which urged party workers to join the anti-CAA movement and “save the AGP from the clutches of the BJP”. The AGP leadership dissociated itself from the rebel leaders’ meeting on January 7 and said it had not convened any meeting.

The AGP, which split several times in the past, seems to be on the verge of another split. A split in the party at this juncture may bolster initiatives for a new regional party.

BJP jittery

The prospect of the formation of a new political party has made the ruling BJP jittery. Himanta Biswa Sarma, who holds the portfolios of Finance, Health and Public Works, has been claiming that the movement against the CAA will have no impact on the BJP’s electoral prospects and that it would win 100 Assembly seats in 2021. The BJP now has 60 seats in the 126-member Assembly; 49 of these came from the Brahmaputra valley, eight from the Barak valley, and three from the hills. The Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), a BJP ally, won 12 seats. The Congress won 25 seats; the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) won 13; one seat was won by an independent.

In their speeches in the “peace rallies”, Sonowal and Sarma have been trying to assure people that the CAA would not result in any fresh influx of Hindu Bangladeshis into Assam and claiming that no “foreigner” would be accepted beyond the cut-off date of December 31, 2014.

Sarma claimed that the CAA would result in the grant of citizenship to the five lakh Hindu Bangladeshis who came to live in Assam before that date. Sonowal gave no figures but said only “a small number” of “illegal migrants” would get citizenship under the CAA.

Sonowal, however, has poor credibility because his definition for “illegal migrant” is not the same as the one he held when he challenged the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunals) Act, 1983, in the Supreme Court, leading to the apex court scrapping the controversial Act in 2005. He was with the AGP then and had filed the petition as a former president of the AASU and the North East Students’ Organisation to defend the Assam Accord.

The AASU and the 29 organisations, the AJYCP and the Silpi Samaj have rejected any dilution of the Assam Accord and its cut-off date of March 24, 1971. “Our stand is very clear. Not a single illegal Bangladeshi, irrespective of whether they are Hindu or Muslim, who came after the cut-off date of March 24, 1971, mentioned in the Assam Accord will be accepted or allowed to stay in Assam,” says AASU adviser Samujjal Kumar Bhattacharjya.

Sonowal and his Cabinet colleagues have been shown black flags by AASU and AJYCP workers and other movement supporters in public. Heavy security has had to be deployed to make way for the ruling party’s peace rallies and convoys and keep protesters at bay.

The KMSS and its student, youth and workers wings, opposition parties such as the Congress, the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India and other Left and democratic parties, leftist student and youth bodies including the Students Federation of India, the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the All India Students’ Federation, various trade unions, the All Assam Minorities Students Union, and other groups agitating against the CAA have also vowed to oppose any dilution of the Assam Accord. Congress president Rahul Gandhi said at an anti-CAA rally organised by his party in Guwahati on December 28 that the “historic Assam Accord laid the foundation of peace in the State and the accord should not be diluted or violated”.

Sitaram Yechury, CPI(M) general secretary, said at an anti-CAA rally in the city on January 3 that his party stood committed to its support for the Assam Accord and urged the Modi government to respect the accord. The crowds drawn by the anti-CAA protest programmes of the Congress and the Left have also been worrying the BJP. Sonowal has been alleging that these parties are spreading rumours on the Act.

The Congress is cautious about the moves to form a new party. Pradesh Congress Committee president Ripun Bora said that his party had no objection to joining hands with anti-CAA forces to defeat the BJP in the interests of Assam. Former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi also appealed to all organisations opposed to the BJP and the CAA to unite in order to defeat the BJP in 2021.

The tea garden factor

It is especially worrying for the BJP that the anti-CAA movement has picked up in its strongholds in the tea garden areas. The Assam Tea Tribe Students’ Association (ATTSA) has called for protest rallies and programmes from January 6 to 15. It has also called for torchlight rallies in every tea garden from January 6 to 20 to press for a revision of tea garden workers’ daily wage to Rs.351 from the existing Rs.167. There is also a call for a three-hour sit-in strike on January 18 to press for Scheduled Tribe status for “tea tribe communities”.

The dents made by the BJP in traditional Congress strongholds among tea garden workers were crucial in the formation of the first government led by it in the State in 2016. Of late, however, anti-CAA rallies organised by the ATTSA have drawn huge crowds in tea garden areas. Chief Minister Sonowal has tried to explain it away by citing rumours that the new legislation would make way for Bangladeshis to be settled in surplus land in tea garden areas and in vacant, cultivable land belonging to Adivasi peasants, and fears that a fresh influx of cheap labour would push out the existing tea garden workforce. Yet, an amotional appeal by him to the people saying he is one of them and requesting the public not to isolate him shows that he senses trouble in the 2021 Assembly election.

Indeed, the BJP seems to have taken the prospects of a new party being formed seriously and started mobilising its grass-roots workers to prepare for the 2021 election. A party conclave of booth-level and other grass-roots workers from across the State in Guwahati on January 5 was addressed by BJP working president J.P. Nadda and general secretary Ram Madhav, apart from Sonowal, Sarma and State party president Ranjit Kumar Dass. It was followed by the launching of the Jan Sampark Abhiyan (mass contact drive), a door-to-door campaign to drum up support for the CAA.

The BJP has been mobilising busloads of workers and supporters from different districts for peace rallies to showcase its strength. Yet, there is no wishing away of the numbers of people that have joined rallies against the CAA all over the State and the diverse sections represented by the spontaneous crowds. Sonowal, who is a former president of the AASU, can well gauge the depth of the sentiments associated with the Assam Accord. The spontaneous participation of the people in anti-CAA rallies has perhaps made him realise that winning another term in power without the support of a strong regional party will not be an easy task for the BJP.

All eyes are now on the AASU, the AJYCP and other organisations spearheading the anti-CAA movement. People are waiting to see them take the first step to facilitate the formation of a new party.

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