With the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) exiting the BJP-led coalition, things have come to a boil in Assam over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016, which was cleared by the Union cabinet earlier on Monday.
In protest, the entire Northeast is observing an 11-hour bandh on Tuesday from 5 am to 4 pm. “This is the first time in ten years that the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) is calling for a bandh,” said AASU General Secretary Lurin Jyoti Gogoi. “We don’t mean create inconvenience for anyone through bandhs. But the situation is so grave that we have been left with no other alternative,” he added.
This is also the first time since independence that the entire Northeast region will observe a unified bandh, he said. The North East Students’ Union (NESO) — the umbrella student body representing all the states — has also called for the bandh across seven northeastern states, which is being supported by the AGP, the Congress and 30 other ethnic organisations from Assam. The decision was taken right after PM Narendra Modi’s rally at Silchar on January 4, where he stated that the Bill will be passed by the Parliament soon.
The main grouse of the opposers is that they fear the Bill — which seeks to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 by granting citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan — will destroy Assam, which has been grappling with the issue of ‘illegal immigration’ for decades now. The Bill effectively allows anyone belonging to the above-mentioned groups to seek citizenship in India, as long as they have entered Indian before December 31, 2014. The opposers also feel this contradicts the ongoing update of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) which takes into consideration March 24, 1971, as the cut-off date for citizenship in Assam. In May 2018, a Joint Parliamentary Committee was sent to Assam to take stock of the opposition and support with regard to the Bill.
While the bandh came into effect at 5 am on Tuesday, in parts of Assam, riled by protests over the past week, things had already come to a standstill as shopkeepers in Jorhat reportedly pulled shutters down early Monday evening.
Across the state, protests gathered momentum over the past week. A huge congregation — of intellectuals, students, activists, scholars, politicians as well as citizens — gathered in Guwahati on Monday afternoon. Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) members also stripped and staged a protest in New Delhi.
On Sunday, a group of women protestors — having no political affiliation — reportedly thronged the BJP state headquarters in Guwahati demanding the Bill be scrapped. In Dibrugarh, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal was greeted with black flags by the KMSS when he came to attend an Asom Sahitya Sabha function.
Since early Tuesday morning, people have been pelting stones at moving vehicles and trucks in several districts across Assam. A number of vehicles, including private vehicles and auto rickshaws, have been damaged by protestors in Azara, outskirts of Guwahati. Agitators across Assam are carrying demonstrations by burning tyres and voicing slogans in Baksa, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Tezpur, Golaghat.
“We have been protesting for months now — not just in Guwahati, but in the remoter corners of the state. Tomorrow’s bandh is called by the AASU and we are extending our support wholeheartedly,” said a KMSS member. The student bodies from Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland have also asked people of their respective states to observe the bandh in “a bid to save their indigenous communities from extinction”. Total shutdown has been observed in these states too.
“We protested a lot; we protested on the road; we came to Delhi, spoke to the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the JPC…but it is unfortunate that the Centre didn’t listen to us,” said AGP President Atul Bora, addressing the media after announcing their exit from the BJP government in Assam.
“If a government doesn’t give importance to a democratic protest, then there is really no choice for us,” said Gogoi. “We have got support from all constituent student unions of the NESO for the bandh tomorrow. We have requested through various social media forums for all the Assamese to stand by our decision. This is the only way we can save our culture.”