How upper Assam became the epicentre of anti-CAA protests
Tinsukia: Tumi Jodi Axomiya Ulaai Aaha Ulaai Aaha (If you are an Assamese, come out, come out).
During the recent stir against Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which has now become Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the catchy phrase kept on gaining momentum as the protests scaled to “new heights with a new dawn” in most upper Assam districts, which have now become the face of anti-CAA protests in Assam, after Guwahati.
The period, December 8 to December 28, witnessed bandhs, burning of tyres, widespread protests, peaceful rallies and meetings and was hit by unrest and massive violence -- including vandalism and arson at railway stations, post offices, gaon panchayat offices, circle offices and banks, beside others, in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts, prompting the district administration of most of the districts in upper Assam to clamp total to partial curfew.
The unrest and violence triggered panic with the airport and railway stations in Tinsukia and Dibrugarh remaining closed for days. The road transportation between Tinsukia and Dibrugarh was also blocked at several places along National Highway 37, leaving travellers stranded for days, before they could reach their destination.
The majority of districts of upper Assam remained closed for four days in a row. Dibrugarh markets opened only after a week, while Tinsukia markets continued to remain close for over 10 days in a row.
The closure of markets and curfew created a scarcity of essential commodities, vegetables, fuel and LPG supplies, leaving scenes of heavy rush whenever these shops and outlets for whatever little period. The worst-hit remained tea industry, oil & gas sector and thousands of wholesale and retail business houses, with schools and colleges suspended till December 22, and mobile internet prohibited till December 20, restored only after a high court order.
Amid the chaos and a sense of panic, the upper Assam districts continue to remain hot with peaceful rallies and meetings every other day in last 15 days. What makes it the face of anti-CAA protests is the crowd in thousands of numbers, including elderly, women and girl protesters in huge numbers
Who gets Indian citizenship and where is the conflict?
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act grants citizenship to the non-Muslims Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhist, Jains and Parsis -- from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who arrived in India before December 31, 2014.
In other words, the CAA paves way for Indian citizenship to lakhs of immigrants, who identify themselves with any of the given religions, even if they lacked any document to prove their residency. It also means that any immigrant, who does not belong to the said communities, would not be eligible for Indian citizenship.
The powerful All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) along with various organisations and indigenous people of Assam are of the opinion that CAA is against the spirit of the historic Assam Accord -- a Memorandum of Settlement signed between representatives of the government of India and the leaders of the Assam movement. It was signed in presence of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in New Delhi on August 15, 1985, following a six-year agitation that started in 1979, which aimed to identify and deport all illegal migrants who have arrived in Assam after 25 March, 1971 irrespective of their religion. For other states, it was 1951. CAA now has a new cut-off date as of 2014, hence, it violates the accord, claims Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, general secretary of AASU.
Anit-CAA protests post-violence
The protest in upper Assam districts, post the unrest and violence, between December 11 and December 14, and after withdrawal of curfew, has grown louder and stronger with rally or meetings held almost every single day at multiple places and towns, and "peace" being the strength of these protests this time. Crowd drew from semi-urban, rural and villages in these rallies and seemed to be spontaneous.
Some of rallies and meetings that need mention are:
December 28, Jorhat stadium: A massive gathering of around 30,000 protestors gathered at a stadium in Jorhat town under the banner of Asom Jatiyatavadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP). They took out a rally after a public meeting during which entire market closed down.
December 24, Chowkidingee field in Dibrugarh - A packed Chowkidingee field in Assam’s chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal's home town rose to the slogans of anti-CAA. Over 70,000 protesters gathered in the protest meeting organised by AASU in support of various organisations. The support of business community, which lowered their shutters and participated in the meeting, emitted strong signals of people’s mood to the state and central government.
Addressing the gathering, AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said that Jharkand poll is a political rejection of BJP and it’s a communal agenda to divide the country for vote bank politics. “The people of Jharkand have responded to Modi and Amit Shah on this unconstitutional act that is aimed to divide the country on religious lines. The political rejection comes after social rejection pan India against CAA,” Gogoi had said.
“BJP is trying to polarise the population in the name of Hindu and Muslims using CAA and they have shown a pro-Hindu face,” Gogoi had said in his speech.
Talking to EastMojo over phone, Gogoi had said this is a mass movement and people are opposing this act for communal agenda of BJP. “They are trying to communalise and polarise the entire population of the country; using Assam and Northeast as guinea pig they are imposing CAA. There is clearly a vote bank agenda hidden behind CAA,” he had said.
Gogoi had said that BJP is trying to “trap” the Muslim vote by introducing national register of citizenship (NRC) nation-wide.
“In Assam, CAA will safeguard citizenship of all non-muslims who have not made to the list of NRC. The day NRC will be mplemented nation-wide, this act will do the same thing, leaving Muslims trapped,” he had said.
December 17, from Borguri to ASTC in Tinsukia: More than 15,000 protestors marched from ITI field in Borguri to ASTC Bus stand (heart of the town) after which a public meeting was organised right at the road bringing the town to a standstill.
Addressing the gathering, All Assam Matak Students' Union leader Dhoroni Gohain said, “Thousands of people have gathered here. We are not against any community, but the injustice done by this government by imposing this act on us.”
Gohain said, “Altogether, 865 people laid their life during Assam Andolan. Then we agreed upon March 25, 1971 as the cut-off date for taking people in Assam, but those who were heroes of that Andolan today backstabbed the people of Assam by increasing the cut-off date.”
December 16: From Bor-naamghar to Panitola town: Over 30,000 protesters, including gaonburhas, took out a massive protest rally in traditional attire.
Thana Charali: The ‘protest’ square of Tinsukia: From December 8 onwards, the Thana Charali in Tinsukia town has emerged as a protest square. Tyres kept burning on all four sides of the Charali for almost 24 hours between December 8 and 12 as make of protest. Thousands gathered at Charali raising slogans against CAB, later CAA, and BJP -- making the images and visuals appear like start of yet another revolution.
Thana Charali: The ‘protest’ point of Dibrugarh: Several rallies taken out in the home town of Dibrugarh used to culminate at Thana Charali, converting it into a place of protests, in the early days of protest,
In front of DC office: The protesters’ paradise in Jorhat
Thousands people from various walks of life gathered constantly outside the office of deputy commissioner of Jorhat with placards against CAB and CAA. Peseant leader Akhil Gogoi was also arrested from Jorhat.
Cascading effect of protest on economy
The fervent protests have left a cascading effect on the state industries and commerce, leaving PSUs reel under loss in crores in terms of revenue, besides hitting common traders very deeply. From oil & gas to tea, wholesale to retail the business bore the maximum brunt of anger in this northeastern state of India. Employees could not make it to offices, refineries, production facilities, oil and gas wells due to panic and/or shut down of transportation, disrupting day to day operations.
In unorganised sector, there were hardly any customers in the trade bearing groceries and vegetables market, leaving traders run in losses as a result of fixed overhead cost in terms of shop and godown rents, staff salaries, electricity bills and bank interest. The impact was so deep that crude oil major, Oil India Limited (OIL), had to issue an appeal --- in a newspaper of Assam -- to the people of the state on December 14 to allow it to carry out day-to-day operations, which the firm said has been “severely impacted”.
The appeal, ad verbatim, reads: “The ongoing agitation in the state has severely impacted day-to-day operations of Oil India Limited. Besides loss of production of crude oil and natural gas, the stoppage of OIL's operations has badly hit production of LPG and supply of crude oil to refineries and consumers of natural gas like BVFCL, BCPL, NEEPCO, AGCL and APL among others. This will have an adverse impact on the power situation in the state as well as lead to shortage of essential items like LPG, which will impact the common people the most.
In the greater interest of the people of the state and the local economy, Oil India Limited makes an ardent appeal to the people of Assam to allow OIL to carry on with the day-to-day operations so that the company can ensure uninterrupted supply of crude oil, LPG and natural gas to the various industries based in Assam and ensure that these industries in turn help the common people to have uninterrupted supply of essential amenities like LPG, electricity, petrol, diesel, kerosene and fertilisers.
Oil India Limited appreciates the present situation and the sentiments of the people. However the total disruption of OIL’s operational activities will adversely impact the economy of the state and the lives of the common people. Therefore, in the interest of people of the state and keeping in perspective the availability of such essential amenities, OIL appeals to all concerned to allow OIL to carry on with the company’s day to day operations.”
Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) had been forced to shut down its Digboi refinery in Assam and is operating its Guwahati unit at minimal capacity, while OIL has been forced to shut LPG production and its crude oil production has dropped by 15-20 per cent, source said, and added, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has seen up to 25 per cent drop in production.
The source added, “Indian Oil has refineries in Guwahati, Digboi, and Bongaigaon in Assam. Production in these refineries is ‘down’ because Indian Oil is unable to produce more due to stoppage of tanker movements. Our storage tanks are full. Where will we store the products, unless tanker movement happens.”
The four refineries in Assam put together processed around 7 MT crude oil in the last financial year.
“Our fields were shut for four days in a row. This has led to a cumulative loss of 5,000 kilo litres in terms of oil output, which has an economic impact of Rs 8-10 crore alone. The company is suffering losses on account of drilling equipment that has been hired but not used. Since it has old fields, a halt in production will affect reaching production optimisation once operations restart,” the source added.
A highly placed official in Brahmaputra Cracker and Polymer Ltd (BCPL) told this correspondent that, the gas supplies from OIL to BCPL facilities were snapped due to massive protest against CAB, leading to shutting down of Assam gas cracker project.
“The entire upstream and downstream units of BCPL we’re compelled to shut down due to non-availability of Feed Gas on December 12 onwards and could resume operations on December 17 onwards, that too, with one third of supplies. BCPL requirement is 6 MMSCMD gas every day from OIL as well as 1MMSCMD from ONGC and gradually rich gas supplies has increased to 5 MMSCMD from OIL and approx 0.4 MMSCMD from ONGC, which means we are still running facilities below our maximum output. After extraction of C2+ from rich gas and the remaining lean gas is being send back to Oil India which further sends it to industries like NEEPCO, BVFCL, APL, NRL, Assam Gas Company among others,” the official added.
“We are the engine for our facilities at Lepetkata in Dibrugarh district. Our closure means the cracking facility at Lepetkata would also close down,” the official said, adding: “The loss is in crores without any doubt.”
The other PSUs -- like NEEPCO, NRL, etc -- government companies and private industries, mostly having their facilities in upper Assam, have similar stories to share.
Tea industry too have similar stories and losses
In Tinsukia, the small tea growers had to face a loss of Rs 2.5 crore in 10 days of protest, unrest and violence. Speaking with EastMojo, general secretary of All Assam Tea Growers’ Association, Majid Moran, said, “Our annual production of green leaf is around 49 lakh crore in a year of nine months of plucking. There was a loss of 20 lakh green leaf production during December 9 to 19 amounting to a loss of around Rs 2.5 crore.” However, barring Tinsukia district, there was no loss to small tea growers in other districts of Assam.
The Assam Chamber of Commerce said all the major wholesale markets supplying to the entire Northeast were closed for over four days. “On a daily basis, each of these major eight markets is suffering a loss of Rs 8-10 crore, a source in Assam Chamber of Commerce, said.
Bandhs -- CAB protests
December 8: A bandh was called in Tinsukia district from 3 pm amid a planned rally. Thousands people marched on the streets, with “mashals” in hand, raising slogans. Two more torch rallies were taken out.
December 9: A 48-hour bandh call by All Moran Students’ Union (AMSU) witnessed a total shut down in entire upper Assam. Peaceful protests were reported from several towns which intensified by the evening as the Lok Sabha passed CAB on Monday.
December 10: A 12-hour bandh called by All Assam Students' Union (AASU) brought the entire state of Assam including Guwahati on a standstill. Peaceful protest were reported from several corners.
December 11: No bandh call but majority of districts and towns in Upper Assam remained closed fearing passage of bill in Rajya Sabha. Situation remained very tensed throughout the day.
Unrest and violence in upper Assam -- the day CAB was presented in Rajya Sabha and passed as CAA
The first trigger of unrest came on December 11 when the Bill was placed in Rajya Sabha for discussion.
Initially, the protests were largely peaceful, but with every passing hour the chorus of protest grew louder with thousands of protestors on the streets. Security forces had to resort to lathicharge to disperse protestors in Dibrugarh and Tinsukia. These were followed by tear gas and rubber pellet firing.
The first report of face-off between protesters and security forces came in from Bokul in Dibrugarh district where the administration and security forces had to use force to clear blockade at National Highway 37 resulting in injuries on both sides. Few hours later, reports of another face-off between protesters and security forces came in from Tinsukia town. Thousands of protesters had gathered outside the office of the deputy commissioner since morning. Around 1.30 pm, police had to fire tear gas after protesters pelted stones. No one injured during this face-off. But by 3.30 pm there was another face-off at same place and finally security forces resorted to lathi charge, tear gas and rubber pellet firing in which six protestors were injured.
However, as voting started in Rajya Sabha, reports of violence first came in from Dibrugarh -- the home town of chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal. Hundreds and thousands of protesters pelted stones on the residence of BJP MLA from Dibrugarh Prashanta Phukan. The anger did not stop. Protesters marched towards the residence of chief minister and pelted stones damaging his residence partially. More reports of damaging of RSS office and lights near the park came kept coming.
Soon, reports came in that protesters torched Chabua railway station, around 25 km from Dibrugarh town. Chabua post office was also set on fire after vandalising it. The violence spread to the neighbouring district of Tinsukia with reports of Panitola railway office and post-office been torched by protesters.
As the news of the bill passed in Rajya Sabha, reports of violence continued to pour in and the list of installations damaged kept increasing. The violence continued till December 12, and around 43 government installations were vandalised and / or torched in Dibrugarh district alone and few others in Tinsukia district. The list included circle office in Chabua, United Bank of Indian (Chabua branch), several gaon panchayat offices in both the districts including Panitola GP office, traffic booth in Tinsukia town. Most of the railway crossing between Panitola and Dibrugarh were damaged and bent on national highway 37 (NH 37), trees were felled at various places on NH 37, blocking the highway.
In Tinsukia -- the multicultural town with populations having migrated and staying here from different parts of the country since decades, witnessed several such incidents. Beside government properties, several road-side shops and empty labour quarters were torched amid curfew in multiple incidents. However, Tinsukia SP Shiladitya Chetia played down the incident as an act of miscreants.
On December 11 night, at least four shops were set on fire in Hijuguri locality of the town in which one elderly person sleeping in one of the shop died.
On December 15 night, around 12 shops mostly vegetables, fruits and meat were torched at Hijuguri locality, around 200 metres from the earlier place of incident. An empty labourers’ quarter was set on fire at Sripuria 700 gate locality on the same night. However, no casualties were reported in these incidents.
On December 28 night, around six shops were torched at Hijuguri locality. It is not clear how the fire took place this time around.
Three-storeyed business establishment gutted in fire amid anti-CAB protests
On December 8, fire broke out at a three-storey furniture shop, in the heart of Tinsukia town, owned by a family who trace their roots to Haryana. The incident happened amid a shutdown call by a local organization and soon after three “mashall” rallies were taken out.
Talking to EastMojo, additional deputy commissioner Gurneil Singh said, multiple versions have come to forefront. “The district administration has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident to ascertain the cause of fire. Action will be taken if report indicates any foul-play.”
According to sources, police had detained two persons in connection with the incident hours after the incident took place. However, duo was released the next day and reports of any arrest in this case are yet to be heard.
Govt properties damaged during violence
“Around 43 government installations have been damaged fully or partially in the recent vandalism activities by antisocial elements in the district,” Pallav Gopal Jha, deputy commissioner of Dibrugarh, told media persons.
In Tinsukia, dozens of government installations were vandalised and torched.
Indian Railways was left with loss of crores of rupees with massive violence unleashed against them in upper Assam’s Tinsukia and Dibrugarh district. Besides Chabua and Panitola railway stations, protestors destroyed railway tracks and damaged several level crossing.
On December 8, a fire broke out at a two-storyed business establishment in the heart of Tinsukia town. On December 11, Army was requisite by Dibrugarh district adminsitration and was later deployed.
In Tinsukia, army was requisite in December 12 evening and was soon deployed. Army conducted flag march in both the districts for few days.
The unrest and violence led to closure of the Mohanbari airport for three days in a row, leaving numerous flights cancelled and passengers stranded at airport for couple of days.
The rail connection between upper Assam’s Tinsukia and Dibrugarh with rest of India remained snapped more many days. Hundreds of trains were cancelled, short-terminated and diverted leaving thousands of passengers stranded at railway station for several days. Even today, several trains remain diverted.
More than 80 protestors had been arrested in various districts of upper Assam allegedly on charges of leading violence, instigating protestors and indulging in violence.
The first major arrest came from Jorhat on December 12, a day after massive violence were reported in Upper Assam’s Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts. Assam police arrested peasant leader Akhil Gogoi. Later, his case was transferred to National Investigating Agency (NIA).
The second big arrest came from Tinsukia district where Assam police arrested pro-talk leader of Ulfa Jiten Dutta. He has two cases against him.