Assam is roiled and angry. The opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is not an abstract argument in the state; people are on the streets to oppose a bill they see as an existential threat to their identity. The Asom Gana Parishad has walked out of the government it formed with the BJP only two years ago. How has the BJP government responded to this grave crisis? By hoping that knee-jerk intimidation can pass off as a solution. Its decision to slap sedition cases on a respected academic (Hiren Gohain), an activist (Akhil Gogoi) and a journalist (Manjit Mahanta) for articulating their opposition to the bill is a dangerous low. It is as if the BJP has so bought into the self-image propagated by its comic studio performers, that it truly believes that it can tackle dissent and discussion with cries of “anti-national!”
The sedition law is a colonial legacy that has no place in the give-and-take of protest, dissent and policymaking of democracy. More importantly, in a situation as volatile as this, it is a blunt instrument hammering away at the fragile bridges of trust between the mainland and the Northeast. Much of the crisis has to be blamed on the risky, polarising game the BJP has played in the state. The implementation of the NRC has churned up paranoia as well as xenophobia against Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state, which has been encashed by the party in the mainland elections through the worst form of dog-whistle politics against “40 lakh Bangladeshi infiltrators”. But the NRC has also left the Bengali-speaking Hindus, a reserve of votes for the party, vulnerable. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is meant to be a masterstroke: Rescue this section as well as signal to its core constituency that this government prizes Hindu interests above all. Arguments against the bill’s religious bias, which goes against the very fundamentals of the Constitution, have, of course, been made.
In this case, the Hindutva wishful-thinking is up against the reality of an Assamese subnationalism that is religion-agnostic. The three men who have been accused of sedition by the government were, in fact, warning the Centre that its refusal to respond to the tide of fury of the Assamese, their fear of being swamped by refugees, would revive the discontent that had led to the birth of a militant, “truly seditious” movement in the state. Instead of shooting the messengers, when a state sits on a keg of anger, the government should step back from the brink, and go to work on assuaging the people’s fears.