Updated: March 25, 2021 7:08:24 am
On December 12, 2019, a day after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed by Parliament, this small town in Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district had erupted into violent protests. The same night, the town’s railway station, post-office and Circle Office, apart from sitting BJP MLA Binod Hazarika’s house, were set on fire, with Chabua, home to both Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and wanted ULFA militant Paresh Baruah, emerging as the epicentre of the anti-CAA protests after Guwahati.
Hundreds of local youths were picked up from here and several charged under stringent laws.
Amidst the Assam elections, the BJP has maintained complete silence on the CAA, even after promising to implement it in West Bengal. Its manifesto released on Tuesday too didn’t mention the Act, though party president J P Nadda said, “The CAA has been passed by Parliament… It will be implemented in letter and spirit.”
Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have been for campaigning in Chabua — Modi’s massive rally of March 20 strengthening the BJP’s belief that the CAA no longer matters here.
Around the town, the signs of anti-CAA anger are all over — on the railway station’s walls, at the desolate post-office, roadside graffiti, and the abandoned Circle Office still strewn with burnt government documents.
Right opposite to the partially renovated railway station is the local office of the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which led the anti-CAA protests. Sitting in the office, Mridupawan Gogoi, the AASU’s Chabua unit president, admits that while a large section of the people are dissatisfied with the BJP, he is not sure if it would matter electorally.
On Wednesday, the AASU staged an 11-hour dharna across Assam, including Guwahati.
“The BJP promised to deport all foreigners from Assam, but instead it implemented the CAA (that speeds up the citizenship process for immigrants from neighbouring countries). It said Clause 6 of the Assam Accord (promising constitutional safeguards for Assamese people) will be implemented. The recommendation is rotting in Guwahati. On the other hand, has the BJP government solved the flood issue? No. So there is discontent for sure. But whether that will go against the BJP-AGP alliance electorally, remains to be seen,” Gogoi says.
On the day of Modi’s rally, Gogoi led an anti-CAA motorcycle rally. He says it was stopped by security forces. “This government is pursuing domon (oppression), prolobhon (temptation) and xoxon (exploitation).”
Perhaps keeping the local sentiments in mind, the BJP has left the seat to the AGP, which has fielded a local old-timer, Punakon Baruah. Baruah had quit the AGP in protest against the Act, but returned soon after. Sitting MLA Hazarika has been shifted by the BJP to Lahowal seat.
Also in the Chabua race are Ajoy Phukan of the Congress and Bhaben Baruah, a former AGP minister contesting on the ticket of the regionalist party Raijor Dal, which was born out of the CAA protests.
One of the cases which Raijor Dal leader Akhil Gogoi, held in jail over UAPA charges, is facing relates to the violence in Chabua.
Baruah says the protests may have weakened but “the sentiment against the law (CAA) is fully there”. About Chabua, he adds, “It is an important constituency because it is reflective of the regional sentiments of Assam. Therefore top leaders are coming here.”
Bhupesh Baghel, the Chhattisgarh CM who is among those leading the Congress campaign in Assam, told The Indian Express that the anger against the BJP is so high that “its sitting MLA has fled”. “Chabua is characteristic of the Assamese angst, that Assam’s identity is under threat due to the CAA which the BJP has brought.”
However, even here, like in other parts of Upper Assam, which is at the heart of Assam regional sentiments, the question is how this anger will weigh against the BJP’s welfare schemes, doles and development works. A local youth, who does not want to be named, says, “Chabua has a major tea garden voter chunk and a sizeable vote among the Moran and Motok communities. In tea gardens, the BJP has initiated several schemes, and for the Moran and Motok communities, the government has announced Autonomous Councils.” The BJP has also promised ST status to the tea tribe communities.
Chabua’s Chubwa Tea Estate, considered among the oldest in the country, was established in 1836 and has over 3,500 voters amongst its workers. Overall, the tea tribes, comprising 17% of the state’s population, hold influence in almost 40 Assembly seats. During his Chabua tour, Rahul shared a meal with tea garden workers. The Congress has promised to increase the daily wages at the gardens to Rs 365 from the current Rs 167.
However, Naresh Bagh, 40, of Chubwa Tea Estate, says, “From roads in our residential areas to money directly into our accounts under schemes… We are seeing visible difference in our lives under BJP rule.” His worry is that the BJP is backing an AGP candidate, and that may confuse some voters. “For ages, we voted for the hand symbol. Then, we trusted the lotus… The elephant (AGP)… we have almost forgotten.”
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