As the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 inches a step closer to becoming a law, Assam — and the Northeast — erupted in protests, during an 11-hour-long shut down from 5 am to 4 pm on Tuesday. As situation turned grim, in Dibrugarh, police resorted to lathi charge, tear gas and firing rubber bullets to disperse the protestors vandalising properties.
Earlier in the day, the Lok Sabha passed the contentious Bill, which seeks to grant citizenship to non-Muslim minorities communities from three neighbouring countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Bill will now go to vote in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday. Following its passage, BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma welcomed the development saying that the Bill “will save 17 Assembly constituencies from Jinnah’s ideology”, however, the Congress staged a walkout from Parliament abstaining to vote.
Meanwhile, all of Assam — barring the Bengali-dominated Barak Valley — supported the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) call for a total shutdown, as streets bore a deserted look across the state. However, chemist shops remained opened and necessary services (fire, water, milk, newspapers) were exempted from the purview of the bandh.
Parts of Assam including the districts of Dibrugarh and Tinsukia witnessed violence when protestors pelted stones at moving vehicles, burnt tyres and blocked railway lines. Similar incidents also took place in Guwahati where properties were destroyed. A candlelight procession was organised in the city to protest against the passage of the Bill in the Lower House in the evening.
According to a release issued by the Northeast Frontier Railways, as many as 26 trains (including the Dibrugarh-New Delhi Rajdhani) were delayed on various routes due to protests. However, all blockades were later removed and railways resumed its operations.
Reacting to the developments, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi said, “It is sad that the Congress did not oppose the Bill in Parliament today — if they do the same in the Rajya Sabha tomorrow, the Assamese public will be compelled to call them as traitorous as the BJP.”
The Bill has been facing opposition from those sections who believe that it has the potential to ruin Assam, its culture, language, and indigenous population — that has been beleaguered by the influx of migrants from neighboring Bangladesh for years now.
Along with clearing the Bill, prime minister Narendra Modi led Cabinet also approved to grant the long-standing demand of Scheduled Tribe status to indigenous communities of the state. The Home Minister announced that a Bill will be introduced to give ST status to six indigenous communities of Assam: Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Tea Tribes, Moran and Motok.
However, the Assamese public took to social media to express their protest against the Bill terming it a “black day” for democracy Singer Zubeen Garg — who has a cult-like following across Assam — posted an open letter to CM Sarbananda Sonowal giving him an ultimatum of one week to “do something about the situation.” Garg wrote in a letter that went viral on social media: “There are bigger things to do than sitting next to Modi and clapping. Modi fooled us. Sarbananda Sonowal fooled us. BJP fooled us.”
In Dibrugarh district’s Moran, musicians Neel Akash, Kusum Kailash and Bipin Chawdang protested by singing songs with a black cloth tied around their mouths. Meanwhile, Assam BJP Spokesperson Mehdi Alom Bora resigned from the BJP In other sister states of the Northeast, the bandh was observed in its entirety. The NPP-led Meghalaya government, despite being in coalition with the BJP, has taken a firm stand on the Bill, and had a resolution last year announcing that they will not support the Bill under any circumstances. Members of the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) gathered together to the burn a copy of the Bill. Throughout Aizawl, shutters were down and streets deserted through Tuesday. The newly-elected Mizo National Front (MNF) also opposed the Bill.
Cities in Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur were also empty, with security forces stationed at different locations. While there wasn’t a complete shut down in Tripura, the bandh turned violent with a clash between the police and the NESO at Khumulwng, headquarters of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC). At least five persons were injured.