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Sun, 29 Mar 2020

Northeast Today

The Paradox of Incongruities: The Complex Dynamics of the Anti CAA Protests in Assam

The Paradox of Incongruities: The Complex Dynamics of the Anti CAA Protests in Assam
January 18
13:54 2020

|Jyotirmoy Prodhani|

The anti CAA protests in Assam has drawn immediate national attention ever since the protest in Assam began in a huge manner right on the day the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed in the Lok Sabha when the rest of the nation was yet to brace up to hit the streets. After the Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha and it turned from CAB to CAA, the country erupted in protest. This time Assam has been eulogised, many had glorified and praised the sustained tempo of Assam protest carried out under the aegis of AASU. But as has been largely projected by the mainstream media of Assam as well as in rest of the country, Assam’s response to CAA has not been mono-dimensional; rather the response of Assam to CAA is varied, multilayered and intrinsically conditional to the history and social realities of the respective regions in the state.

When the NRC was being carried out till September last, a large section of the national media, the class of intellectuals and their followers, claimed to be left liberals and also the influential metropolitan academics and opinion builders had branded the entire Assamese community as anti immigrant Muslims and therefore ‘xenophobic’. But almost the same group of people are now full of praise for the same Assamese lot as somewhat heroic, as if these ‘xenophobic’ Assamese have redeemed themselves from the pit to emerge at least as basic humans this time. But then once the wider spectrum of the Assam scenario pertaining to CAA would get more visible, the same class of
intellectuals might as well hurriedly withdraw their redemptive warrant meant for the people of Assam.

Evidently, there is a huge section of Assamese people who are vehemently opposed to CAA but not because the Act has not included the Muslim migrants from the three Islamic states of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They are against the Act because this Act would now provide opportunities of formal citizenship to the Hindus from Bangladesh in Assam, to be more precise, the Hindu Bengalis from Bangladesh who had purportedly come to Assam after 24 March, 1971 till 31 December 2014. For, unlike the rest of the country, where the belligerent protest might even subside if the government adds the Muslims too as the prospective beneficiaries of the Act to make it, what has been basically demanded, secular; Assam, on the other hand, would not be amused at that, and under no circumstances would ever accept such a modification. For Assam an immigrant from Bangladesh, Hindu or Muslim, is a settler colonizer and a threat to its demography, land, economy, religion, culture and language.

However, it is not as simple either. The CAA-Assam dynamics might turn out to be quite a teaser for the uninitiated. Well, the Brahmaputra Valley, which was zealously upbraided as ‘xenophobic’ following the strong campaign in the valley in favour of an NRC, is now resolutely against the CAA and being regularly featured favorably in the same news portals. Meanwhile, the other valley of the land, the Barak Valley, which had once again started calling the Assamese in general as ‘Anti Bengali’, had opposed the NRC across party lines because a significant chunk of the population that outnumber the indigenous natives in that valley happen to be immigrants and refugees who had migrated to the region after partition in 1947 and later in 1971 after Bangladesh was born out of East Pakistan. At the same time it is often overlooked and forgotten or not even considered in the Brahmaputra valley the fact that Sylhet was an Assam district till 1947. After partition, of course, everybody who had migrated from Sylhet to Assam leaving behind everything did not cross the border exactly on the very day East Pakistan and later Bangladesh came into existence. Many of them migrated out of a conscious decision or out of compulsion over a period of time. The Barak valley therefore, unlike the rest of Assam, has generally celebrated and welcomed CAA anticipating a final solution to the decades old uncertainty about the citizenship of a considerable number of people in the valley. The estimated population of such people in the state is about five lakhs or little more as per some unofficial speculations based on the number of NRC exclusions.

The divide between the two valleys of Assam, the Barak and the Brahmaputra, has been further widened following the CAA. But again in the Barak Valley itself there are areas where CAA is opposed, so was NRC. Mainly in the Muslim dominated districts of Karimganj and Hailakandi there were protests against the CAA but that does not mean that such protests have helped bring the two valleys come closer to each other. In fact, the anti CAA moves mainly by the immigrant Muslims took part in large number, have confused even the most staunch supporters of the AASU led movement against the CAA. Immigrant Muslims were strongly opposed to the NRC process for they had suspected large scale exclusion from the Register. However, after the final NRC draft was out the major exclusion seemed to have been the Bengali Hindus rather than the Bengali Muslims. In fact, out of this apprehension of potential exclusion of Bengali Muslims, the intellectual and the influential section from that community successfully turned this into almost an international campaign to vilify the Assamese as the veritable scums on earth. This was also the time when a campaign was carried out in the form of ‘Miya Poetry’ that even unequivocally portrayed the Assamese natives and other indigenous of Assam as the mass rapists and murderers without even bothering to take recourse to metaphorical nuances one would expect in sincere poetic discourses. However, post the final draft of the NRC such belligerence and propagations predictably subsided. (Though one might not be surprised if another movement begins in the name of ‘Hindu Bangladeshi/ Bengali Poetry’ in the wake of CAA protests and yet again use the same rhetoric to castigate the Assamese natives once more)

There is another paradox to the whole story -the lower Assam, the western most region comprising mainly the undivided Goalpara district. This district throughout the post- colonial history of Assam has been one of the biggest support bases for the greater causes of Assam – be it the State Reformation of 1956 when there was that notorious conspiracy to include Goalpara into Bengal as part of Bengal’s neo colonial agenda of territorial extension, or during the great language movement or during the epochal Assam Movement in the ’80s and the subsequent ULFA insurgency that followed. The people of Goalpara across community and caste had resolutely fought to frustrate the cunning Bengali leaders during the State Reformation Commission. During the language movement of the early ’60s the indigenous communities of Goalpara including all the tribal and ethnic natives, indigenous Muslims and other communities together fought and had established Assamese language in the district by conclusively crushing the linguistic imperialism of Bengali language which was largely propagated by the immigrant Bengalis. In the ’80s, when the Assam Movement took off, undivided Goalpara saw massive mobilisation of common people in support of the movement as a result of which the district was subjected to brutal state atrocities and violence. Places like Goalpara, Dudhnoi, Bijni, Bongaigaon, Gauripur, Chapar, Golakganj, Dhubri etc. were the major flash points of the Anti Foreigner movement where several youths were tortured, crippled for life and also killed. Post Assam Accord, when ULFA emerged, there were considerable number of recruits into the outfit from the undivided Goalpara that turned the district into a major theatre of insurgency and violence. But this time round the undivided Goalpara is conspicuously non- committal to the CAA outrage that has evidently swept the Brahmaputra Valley. When the rest of Assam is on the throes of massive public protest, districts like Dhubri, Goalpara, Bongaigaon are not as much agitated though there are some rallies and marches in certain areas, nevertheless. A major part of Goalpara district was Kokrajhar which is now part of the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District Council (BTAD) where CAA is not applicable, hence not much protest against the act in the entire BTAD area. A significant part of Goalpara district at present is also part of Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council where CAA is not applicable, hence quite understandably the anti CAA move is not as much acute there as well. But what might explain the relative reticence in rest of the areas of the lower Assam districts?

Organisations like AASU, Congress etc. had carried out protests against the CAA in the lower Assam districts. AIUDF of Badaruddin Ajmal, who is also the MP of Dhubri and basically represents the immigrant Muslims, have been, quite predictably, opposed to CAA though and agitated and hyper over the issue. Significantly, in the few protest rallies and marches in undivided Goalpara, there were considerable Muslim presence, at times outnumbering the non- Muslims. The visuals of such protests were conveniently used by the BJP and their supporters to vindicate their argument that the anti CAA protests were essentially a pro immigrant- Muslim move.

But in all these discourses one big picture is often kept unaddressed – a group of indigenous and the tribal laity who were forced to come from their native hearths in present Bangladesh to this side of the border. In Goalpara there is the biggest presence of the Hajong community among whom a significant number of them are immigrants from Bangladesh. In Goalpara alone the highest number of Hajongs could not make it to the final draft of the NRC. Apart from the Hajongs there are other tribal communities who are among the indigenous migrants who have also been bracketed within the broad category of “Hindu Bangladeshis”. It is evident that the anti CAA protestors have either conveniently forgotten this lot or have consciously been indifferent to the plight of this section. Among the indigenous migrants who were forced out of their native hearths would include a huge number of Chakmas some of who are residing in some parts of old Goalpara as well as some other tribes like the Rabhas, Garos, Koch Rajbanshis among other. These are the people who do not have the sophistication to keep referring to some partition narratives, or can build discourses on memory and suffering. They are a silent lot coping up largely of their own without claiming privileges and rights of any kind, nor are they involved with any agenda of displacing the natives culturally, linguistically or politically. Their only concern is to survive their own cultural life. The robust protest against CAA, unfortunately, is a shout against this lot of people, as well.

When it comes to the Bengali Hindus in the Brahmaputra valley, old Goalpara arguably is one of the districts having the biggest experience with the community. So far as the language is concerned, it is a settled issue now. They cannot be described, by any stretch of the imagination, a threat to the Assamese language at the moment. In undivided Goalpara, most Bengalis have become part of the larger identity of Assam, nor are they patrons of such practices any more like opening new Bengali schools etc. to promote exclusive identity for themselves and enforce a distance from the native, rather they would prefer to send their wards to Assamese schools now and are also the major patrons of the events like Bihu and Beshma in their respective localities. The imperialist practices like renaming roads and localities after Bengali figures, setting up of statues and busts of Bengali icons in the native localities as acts of epistemic aggression, have also greatly subsided as the community is gaining larger access to
the native cultural spaces and have become integral to the respective social milieu. So far as their number is concerned, their lot has remained almost the same for decades without any visible increase of new settlements unlike other the settler colonisers. Culturally most of these Bengalis prefer their Assam identity more rather than a dogmatic Bengali one. Significantly, outside Assam, I have seen, most of them identify more with their Assam identity than would like to present themselves as pure Bengalis. Their average economic activities, except some, are largely restricted to medium and small scale business ventures mostly in the form of shops and trading. There is, practically, nothing much to protest so much against them in the context of undivided Goalpara. They are at least no longer a threat to the land and language of the natives. Perhaps, to go all out, investing all the energy against the community might not appear to be as much a dire emergency, at least under the present circumstances here. An ordinary native of old Goalpara has rather a different set of worries and anxities, needs and demands which, as in the AASU days of the ’80s or later in the ULFA days of the ’90s, the mainstream Assam never bothered even to acknowledge. With the growing awareness of the self, old Goalpara is cautiously responding to the present bandwagon.

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