Thousands turned up at Guwahati’s Latasil playground on Wednesday to attend what the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) christened a “Khilonjiya’s Bojro Ninaad” or “lightning call of the indigenous Assamese” against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which will be put to vote in the Rajya Sabha at the end of the month.
Like in all their previous protests against the Bill, this one, too, was marked by vociferous sloganeering and speeches that denounced the BJP government, demanding that they scrap the Bill which seeks to “threaten the very existence of the Assamese community”.
“Lord Indra’s weapon, which he used to kill his enemy, was called the Bojro or the thunderbolt. Even our call is as thunderous as Lord Indra’s was against his enemies— because the people in Delhi, who are adamant on passing this Bill, are nothing but our enemies,” said Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, AASU general secretary.
On Wednesday, the 5,000-strong crowd comprised students, musicians, artists, journalists, representatives of various organisations as well common citizens without an affiliation to any organisation.
“We elect a government to bring peace. What kind of peace is this,” said Kalpana Borthakur, a resident of Guwahati, who attended the protest.
The 72-year-old remembers how in the “anti-foreigner” Assam Agitation of 1979-85, she took part in several protests, and was even arrested on one occasion. “We had walked from this very field all the way to Narangi, shouting slogans. Today I am much older and even if I am unable to shout slogans, just being here, even if I am standing silently, is my way of protesting,” she said.
Pahi Kaushik, an 18-year-old from Handique Girls’ College, one of Assam’s oldest colleges, said that they have been protesting for weeks now. “Everyone wants to be out on the streets but for many of us, our families — who remember the days of the Assam Agitation — stop us saying that we will get into trouble or get arrested,” she said.
There was an overwhelming presence of students — most of whom were a part of the AASU — at the protest. “Assamese youth like us struggle to get jobs. We also keep hearing about the ‘lack of seats’ in universities in Assam. If the Bill is passed, the prospect for us students, will get only worse. Not all of us have the option of studying in Delhi and Mumbai,” said Gourab Kalita from B. Borooah College,an institution of higher education established in 1943. Abdul Salim, also from the same college, said, “We are happy to host guests in our homes — but what about when they overstay their welcome? This is what is happening in Assam.”
Many fear that the days of the Assam Agitation will return when students had lost an entire year of education because of the protests. However, AASU chief advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya told the crowd that protests and education can happen simultaneously. “Students can study, and students can protest, too,” he said.
Musicians such as Maheshwar Deka and editors of local papers such as Amar Asom and Doinik Asom also took to the stage to voice their opposition. However, it was Assamese singer, Zubeen Garg, many youngsters admitted, they had come to see.
Garg, who has been extremely vocal in voicing his opinion against the Bill, made an appearance at end of the protest around 3 pm, singing his latest song, composed specifically to oppose the Bill: “Politics nokoriba, bandhu (Don’t do politics, my friend).”
At a function in Nagaon on Wednesday, Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said “While they (the AASU) are doing a Bojro Ninaad, we are doing a Vikaas Ninaad. We do not want an Assam of protests. We want an Assam of development.”
While AASU’s Gogoi said there were “definitely more than 10,000 people” at the protest, BJP state president Ranjit Dass dismissed the entire event as a “token programme”. The politician spoke about the recent victories of the BJP during the Panchayat elections in December and the 12th North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council elections in Dima Hasao on January 19 where the party won 10 seats.
Dass said, “We were very worried about this AASU programme but the reports have assuaged our fears — I don’t think as many people as they expected turned up. People do not fall for emotion anymore. This was just a token programme.”