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Fear and Loathing in Assam

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is lostThe best lack conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity – W.B. Yeats

Ominous clouds gather over the streets of Assam. Whatever the Home Minister tells you or assures you of today, don’t be swayed by his words. There is serious unrest in Assam. But there is division even in the unity against the Citizenship Amendment Bill. While the rest of India is concerned with its communal shade and unconstitutionality, Assamese people are concerned it being against our interests as well. How so?

Assamese people’s anti-immigrant sentiment stems from the huge influx of Bangladeshi refugees in the 1970s when there were about 1,50,000 refugees coming into the country mainly through the points of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. Regions like Barak Valley, Dhubri, Karimganj and many areas of Nagaon district became culturally unrecognisable overnight with the refugee population overpowering the local Assamese population. Why weren’t other parts of the country made to share the burden of the refugees? Well, there was no answer for that and that is exactly what led to the Assam agitation, a cultural movement of the Assamese people who feared their cultural annihilation.

The CAB further amplifies this problem. States like Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur are exempted from the bill as people entering these states require a special Inner Permit Line to do so. Manipur has been given this status only under this bill while other Sixth Schedule areas are also being exempted. Majority of Meghalaya’a areas are being exempted except for Shillong which leaves the major burden of refugees again, on the Brahmaputra and Barak Valley, that is mainly the states of Assam and Tripura. The fate of Sikkim under the bill is still unknown but they too are seeking exemption. The Central Government is seeking to divide the North-East states in this regard a play a typical game of divide-and-rule. That is essentially why the states of Assam and Tripura are erupting in heavy protests as they will once again be subject to additional burden of taking in immigrants and face the possibility of a loss of cultural and linguistic autonomy in their own states.

That is one of the serious misreadings of the Central Government – that they thought they could exploit Assamese people’s ethno-nationalism to play their cheap game of Hindutva. I can’t speak for all North-East people but Assamese people have a very liberal understanding of religion and would never give into such religious divide. The Hindus here are still Hindus and we resist the Hindutva Hindus of Lutyens Delhi.

Another serious misreading comes from the Central Government’s confidence of suppressing any revolt against this bill in Assam. In Assam, law and order rests with the people, not the state. It is mob rule everywhere since a very long time, starting from the 1980s itself. There is no way the police can suppress this revolt and having realised that now, they have sent in the army. Even the Chief Minister has his hands tied given that he too was a leader of the All Assam Students’ Union, which is now leading the movement. He is very much part of the deep state that is now against him.

As I write now, there are mobs everywhere around me, roaming the streets chanting ‘death to Modi’, ‘death to Shah’, ‘death to the BJP’. If there is a dim light of liberalism still shining in this country, it is here, it is here. This just might be the beginning of the end for the BJP’s rule. Well it most certainly is, in Assam.

This now might have serious ramifications for a state which has barely had peace for 9 years. This has the potential of giving rise to secessionist movements in Assam as Assamese people feel betrayed, they feel threatened that they will be turned into a cultural and linguistic minority in their own state. In the last four days, there already has been a serious standstill to all activities – nobody is going to work, nobody is going to school or college and nobody is even going shopping because there are no shops opened. People are stuck at the airport, trains have been cancelled and cars are being vandalised all over the state. There is fear and there is violence in the air. This is at least five steps back for the state, as these days are just a revisit to the early ULFA days of the 1990s and 2000s. If there is light at the end of this tunnel, let it be the end of this hate agenda, for I surely see this as the beginning of the end for it. This is where it started. I hope the rest of India joins hands with us in this struggle for our Indian democracy.


Swagat Baruah is the founding editor of Catharsis Magazine.

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