Curfewed Nights – Part I

There was an easiness in the winter breeze that blew on December 8, 2019. I say that because nature always has its way of indicating ominous times. But not that day. That day had an unsuspecting sense of ease. As I made way home from Zaloni Club where my father was, organising an engineer’s conference, everything seemed pretty normal. No scent of menace in the air.

Assam had been protesting the Citizenship Amendment Bill (now Act) ever since its introduction in 2016. The protests however hadn’t gained much traction, despite the lead of violent anarchists such as Akhil Gogoi. I had even seen one such protest in the summer when our car was stopped by the peaceful protestors. “We won’t obey the Citizenship Amendment Bill”, “we won’t follow the Citizenship Amendment Bill” were the chants I had heard around seven months back.

As a boy growing up in upper-Assam, I saw many instances of violent protests, revolutions gone bad, leaders gone rogue and the general inconvenience that it had caused the Assamese people, privileged or unprivileged. I was born in 1997, a year after Parag Kumar Das, the leading ideologue of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was shot dead in front of his son by some members of the Surrendered United Liberation Front of Assam (SULFA). Das was perhaps the most radical intellectual Assam had and has ever had. But he never had the beam of a leader like Ambedkar or Gandhi. He was a very typical rebel, one who prescribed the easier path – that of the sword. Of course, by the time he started criticizing the Frankenstein he had played a part in creating, he would have to perish by the sword he prescribed through his pen. After 1996, the ULFA turned completely rogue – from revolutionary leaders demanding an independent Assam and fighting for the cause of the Assamese people to being caught in multiple extortion rackets, corruption scandals and of course being responsible for violence against their fellow Assamese. The freedom fighters were no longer terrorists for the oppressor. They had become terrorists for the oppressed as well.

By this sheer undisputable but seldom credited thing called luck, I was born into firstly a wonderful family and secondly a wonderful place in Assam – Duliajan, located around 480 km east of Guwahati. The remoteness of the town however didn’t preclude its people of life opportunities. This was after all home to one of the largest oil companies of India – OIL India Limited, which was previously the Burma Oil Company, nationalised in the early 1960s which had led to the birth of the industrial town of Duliajan. Other things however precluded me as a kid growing up from having a ‘normal life’ – the weekly Assam bandhs, the bomb blasts, the killings, the acidic air of fear and of course, the curfewed nights. Only years later, when I moved out of my state to study law at Gujarat National Law University did I realise that other people had a pretty different idea of a ‘normal life’ growing up.

The entire upper-Assam belt was the hotbed for the ULFA’s operations. In fact, I found out years later that the chief of ULFA Paresh Baruah once played football in the same field I do today and worked briefly in Duliajan during the early days of ULFA. That’s essentially why some executive officers of OIL India Limited were assassinated during the 1990s when they failed to pay the extortion money. I found out these things years later when I started reading up on Assam’s history and was shocked that my parents had hidden so much from both me and my sister about how close the danger was, from home. Probably because they didn’t want to alleviate an already fearsome environment.

But the ULFA lost its relevance as we entered the new millennium, its most menacing years seen from 1996-2009. By 2011, we had stopped hearing of its acts of terrorism and we greeted the news of their arrests and capture with great joy. For me, it was the end of a brief nightmare. For my parents, it was the end of a terrifying reality that they had endured from the 1980s (starting with the Assam Agitation). My parents had lost much more during the Assam Agitation when the whole state had come to a halt to protest against the large influx of the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Most people in the state lost a year or two in protests, some never going back to school or college, many more lost their livelihoods, some even lost their lives. So, for us together, as Assamese people, the end of the ULFA marked our liberation of sorts, from our nightmares and parallel horrifying realities. A 30 plus year struggle for Assam had seen little contribution to Assam leave alone peace. The freedom fighters had finally given us freedom by their own good riddance. If Orwell had taught me to not romanticize revolutions, growing up in Assam kind of made me despise it, because I had started seeing things more clearly, as it being nothing more than a violent struggle for power. It was the beginning of a new era and we looked forward to the new decade with great hope and I could see those changes as a teenager.

I could move more freely in my own place. There were no more ‘no-entry’ barriers at every cut in the town. Assam bandhs had come to mean very less for people and we openly defied them. There were no more traumatic nights when the army guy at the checkpoint would give my mother dirty looks or harass my father telling him to ‘show them the empty trunk’. Let me tell you this. Only the innocent and powerless were harassed. The SULFAs still move around freely today with guns in their cars. The state didn’t control law and order. A fringe group of the population did.

As an Assamese the Citizenship Amendment Bill of course affected me. And I knew it would hit Assam the hardest given our history of struggle for the Assamese culture. But what I was wrong in thinking was that this would be just another protest, just another Assam bandh and that we would get through it like we always have. Of course, I thought, if we had to protest vehemently, we would have done so long before the bill was to be tabled to be passed by Parliament. Of course, I misjudged, but so did Modi, Shah, Sonowal and Sharma.

So I came home to my mother who was getting paranoid about me getting in late. It was only 7 in the evening I pointed out. “You don’t know what will happen Rothi (my nickname) she said. Assam will burn again.” She had wrapped her mind around the TV, focused on the news channels – protests, people, processions, people. More people, more people. I saw that and I laughed it off saying “just another day in Assam”.

A few hours later, my mother came to me stiff scared. A mob was burning tyres outside Zaloni Club and they had gheraoed the club. My father along with his colleagues were inside the club. That scared me a bit but I knew that it was nothing more than to instil fear in people – “go back inside and be outside only if you’re protesting” – that was the message. My father made it back somehow, late at night. But that changed things for the town. The next day however blew everyone off. Things fell apart. The centre couldn’t hold. Mere anarchy was yet again loosed upon our world.

Everything shut off in just a day. The company (which is a PSU mind you) had to shut off its operations. Employees were told off by protestors, tyres were being burnt in every street of Assam, shops forcibly closed, people doing anything on the street except not protesting were beaten up, cars vandalised, railway crossings demolished. It was total anarchy but it was all too sudden for us to process it. And there was no one particularly leading the revolution. We still haven’t identified a central figure. It was all mobs everywhere. It took just one day to expose Modi-Shah’s serious misreading of Assamese history and sentiments and party’s recent gains in Assam, just one day to expose the deplorable state of law and order in Assam and just one day to undo around 9 years of peace. But it also took just one day for the rest of India to see what people can do to the powerful who try to bulldoze through everything in a democracy. It was a revolution in the making, one that would later gain traction all across the nation and one that happened so close to home. And I know I’ll have to restate this for I know (as I have already seen) that future historians and the mainstream media will definitely try to misappropriate the history of this seminal moment in Indian history by totally leaving Assam out of the picture. For future readers and generations, it was in Assam that this entire movement began and not in Jamia Milia Islamia or Aligarh Muslim University as some would like you to believe.

The second part of the article can be found here.

Swagat Baruah is the founding editor of Catharsis Magazine.