Tyres burnt across Guwahati in protest against CAB

Even as yours truly writes this piece, unprecedented violence is being witnessed in many parts of the country over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, which was passed by both Houses of Parliament little over a week ago. Having initially begun in Assam, the violence quickly fanned out to other parts of the country.

While violence in any form cannot be condoned, the ruling dispensation in New Delhi will ultimately have to shoulder a part of the blame first, for having rushed through a legislation without trying to first build a political consensus over it that was bound to cause unrest, and then failing to pre-empt the wanton violence sweeping across states that now threatens to lead to anarchy in the country with a chief minister even calling for a referendum on the Act under the United Nations. The opposition parties and their leaders too cannot absolve themselves from their insidious role in exacerbating an already volatile situation as they have all been too happy to fish in troubled waters. Instead of trying to calm the situation, a few have even been found adding fuel to fire with provoking comments. Blaming the government is easy and understandable, but that doesn’t mean that a section of the political class can run riot with irresponsible statements by instilling fear in the minds of a particular community.

Meanwhile, even as Assam – which was the epicentre of violence for three consecutive days beginning December 10 over the passage of CAA – limps back to normalcy, the winter of discontent is apparently unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Of course, it needs no iteration that the campaign against CAA in Assam is about ethnic identity, unlike in other parts of the country where the opposition is largely on communal lines. And with dharnas, rallies, public meetings, etc, becoming the order of the day and a section of local media acting as rabble-rousers, there is no indication that the cycle of protest will end anytime soon in the state. The artist community, including prominent singers and film stars, besides a section of the intelligentsia, too have joined the movement. The saving grace, however, is that almost all the organisations have decided to carry forward their stir in a “democratic” and “peaceful” manner, besides announcing not to hold any protest post dusk. This has been done with the twin objectives of helping normalcy return to the state suddenly gripped by violence and thwarting unscrupulous elements from hijacking the entire movement. No wonder, the effects are already visible on the ground with all forms of violence have petered out.

Further, to allay all kinds of misgivings and apprehensions among the student community and their parents, All Assam Students’ Union chief adviser Samujjal Bhattacharyya has also been quite categorical in stating that the academic atmosphere would not be allowed to be affected in any manner by the ongoing agitation against CAA. The apprehension was not totally unfounded as lakhs of students had to lose their precious academic years during the six-year Assam Movement (1979-85).

Now, even as organisations from the Northeast, including Assam, have filed petitions before the Supreme Court challenging CAA and called for its scrapping, they have also made no bones about calling off the ongoing stir anytime soon. Thus, the campaign against the Act seems to be on a long haul in the state. Be that as it may, but while the outrage against the legislation is understandable, its certain discerning aspects can’t be missed altogether either, raising several questions.

Without going into the merits of CAA or the stir surrounding it, what is very apparent is that the current movement is being largely emotionally driven as was witnessed during the Foreigners’ Movement of 1979-85. People are pouring out on to the streets in large numbers singing, reciting poems, performing naam and jikir (traditional hymns sung collectively), painting (a few with their blood), tonsuring heads, etc., even as a section of the media, particularly some local news channels, has converted the entire campaign into some kind of a reality show replete with melodrama telecast live 24×7 so as to arouse public passion. But, as the earlier mass movement of 1979-85 had proved, any agitation driven purely by emotion and bereft of any strategic planning is likely to falter in the long run. Sadly, the current campaign’s leadership seems to have learnt little from history and apparently trudging along on a similar path this time too. Impressed with the huge public turnout, they are yet to put their heads together in chalking out a strategic plan and seem content in playing to the gallery. While the movement’s primary objective may be lofty (abrogation of CAA or at least exempt Assam from its purview), there is no clarity over:

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i) How long this would continue (as the legal battle won’t end anytime soon)?

ii) ii) Whether it would be called off in the event of a favourable judgement from the Supreme Court?

iii) What would be its ultimate goal?

iv) Will a political alternative (or alternative politics) be explored in future, especially if the apex court’s ruling doesn’t go along the expected lines of the movement’s leaders?

Without any vision or long-term planning, it could prove difficult for the leadership to sustain the current tempo, and the movement runs the risk of faltering as public fatigue would set in too soon. Yes, protesters across the world tend to get emotional, but it’s the responsibility of leaders and organisations leading them to draw blueprints, which is absent in Assam today.

Another aspect that can barely be missed is the movement’s somewhat exclusive character. Besides being largely confined to the Brahmaputra Valley, the movement has also seemingly failed to cut much ice among other communities residing in the valley, let alone in other northeastern states. Never mind the occasional expression of solidarity, frankly, there is little to suggest that members from other communities too are enthusiastically hitting the streets to oppose CAA, barring the Assamese-speaking community. While the Barak Valley, the twin hill districts of Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong and Bodo belts have not witnessed the kind of mass upsurge witnessed in the Brahmaputra Valley, even in the latter it is largely confined to the Assamese-speaking people. While there could be different interpretations for this, it also reflects poorly on those leading the stir. Campaigning from Guwahati or from the TV studios alone won’t ensure good returns.

The sad reality is that communities in the Northeast are largely bound by convenience than by heart. Hence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if a particular community views the entire campaign as another manifestation of Assamese chauvinism. Therefore, the challenge before the leadership is to make the movement more broad-based and inclusive lest it acquires a sectarian character and fails to meet the desired objective. There are several fault lines that need to be bridged else it will become another voice in the wilderness. The complex ethnic, communal and linguistic composition of the state should convince the leaders to recalibrate their approach.

Further, even within the Assamese-speaking community, not everyone is gung ho over the ongoing movement. With changing demographic dynamics, a section is not convinced that opposing Bangladeshi Hindus alone from acquiring citizenship would ensure the protection of the community. Thus, the movement will have to traverse many undulating paths.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)

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