There are significant protests underway in Assam after the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) was passed by the Rajya Sabha. As expected, people from other regions of the country have been indulging in a significant amount of fearmongering and have twisted the matter beyond all recognition. The protesters have received great support from the liberals in the country which only goes on to show that liberals will support just about anything as long as it’s against Narendra Modi and the BJP. They really have no ideological stand as such.
If one relied on social media lone, people would think that the world was coming to an end tomorrow but that’s certainly not the case. Having said that, the situation in Assam is serious and has the potential of escalating into something much worse. Therefore, the government will need to tread with caution and certain concerns of the Assamese community must be assuaged. Under such circumstances, there’s a need to clear the air about certain aspects of the issue, which is extremely complicated.
Decades of bad-blood
The conflict between Assamese and Bengali Hindus isn’t new. It has been happening for decades. There have been numerous agitations in the past and protests which consequently turned violent. The Assam Accord that was signed in 1985 between the Government of India and Assamese leaders marked the culmination of these protests. There have been numerous ethnic clashes in the past. In 1960, there was the infamous ‘Bongal Kheda’ campaign. Violence erupted sporadically over the years even after the signing of the Assam Accord where victims have been Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims.
Thus, there is historical bad-blood along linguistic lines that cannot be denied. However, it must be remembered that the blame for it does not lie in the Assamese people alone. Mistakes have been committed on both sides. And the state will move forward when genuine reconciliation has been achieved between the communities. It is not being overly optimistic when one says that despite the current scenario, the relationship between the two communities has been improving over the years.
Does the entire Assamese community oppose CAB?
We had said as far back as August 2018 that the North East was on the verge of imminent turmoil. I recommend that people read that article in its entirety as well, it can be read here. The violence that we are witnessing now was always fated to happen at some point. Liberals would like to blame the CAB for it but the CAB is not the main issue here. The main issue here is illegal immigration that has changed the demography of Assam so quickly that people haven’t had any time to adjust or cope with it. It did not happen with their consent either.
Another important thing to note here is the fact that not the entirety of Assamese society is opposed to the CAB. It is reflected by the fact that the BJP won 9 seats in the 2019 General Elections despite having the CAB on its core agenda. And not just in areas where Bengali Hindus are the majority. Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Tezpur, these are all seats where the Assamese Community is in the majority and yet, the BJP won comfortably in these seats. Therefore, the protests now are likely to confuse journalists in the mainstream media but not those who are aware of the actual situation.
That is the most confounding thing in all of this.
— Aniruddha Ghosal (@aniruddhg1) December 12, 2019
Thus, it can be safely said that the CAB has significant support even among the Assamese community. Their voices may get drowned by the protesters, however, the results of the General Elections clearly show that the Assamese Community is not as averse to the CAB as liberals would like to believe. As we had said in August 2018, “there is another section of Assamese people, a much larger section presumably although not as loud as the other, who are of the opinion that Bengali Hindus do not pose a threat to their way of life contrary to Bengali Muslims and that those primarily responsible for the ongoing influx of illegal immigrants into Assam are Bengali Muslims.”
Given the results of the General Elections, we will have to assume that this section is indeed much larger although their opinions aren’t being reflected in the ongoing protests. Because elections in a democracy are the truest measure of public opinion.
The CAB-NRC juggernaut
Liberals who are currently supporting the protesters in Assam do not realize that the protests only intensify the necessity of an NRC. Liberals oppose the CAB but they oppose the NRC as well. It’s contrary to the sentiments of the protesters who oppose the CAB but greatly support the NRC. In fact, we can safely say that those protesting today in Assam were deeply disappointed by the fact that only 19 lakh people were ultimately deemed to be illegal immigrants through the NRC process. They expected and wanted the number to be much higher.
The protesters will be abandoned entirely by liberals when they emphasize the need for an NRC. But an NRC is part of the solution here. The government must implement an NRC in a speedy manner, or as fast as such processes can be completed in a democracy. These protests only intensify the necessity of the NRC and a nationwide NRC at that. Because in the absence of an NRC, the fate of Assam will be shared by the entire country.
It is the CAB-NRC juggernaut that won BJP 9 seats in Assam. Of course, certain sections of the Assamese community do not want Bengali Hindus to be given citizenship rights as well but as we have said before, a significant chunk of them has made peace with it.
How bad can it really get?
With the violent protests that are underway, certain people who have no connection with the North East at all are certainly salivating at the prospects of social unrest in the state. But in Assam, the dominant feeling is that people are being reminded of what happened in Assam all those years ago and the kind of violence the state witnessed. An overwhelming majority of the people of Assam do not wish to go back to that period.
But there is significant danger here that the state could be dragged into a new cycle of violence. Of course, political players will be quick to blame the CAB for that but the reason is something much different. As we have said earlier, the fault for the violence that we witness in Assam today lies squarely at the feet of Nehruvian Secularism. They sacrificed the interests of the Assamese Community in order to build their minority vote-banks.
Most people who are aware of the violent history of Assam say that the current spate of violence is nowhere near as intense as the violence that was witnessed all those years ago. But they do fear that Assam can be pulled back to that phase if steps are not taken to address the concerns of people affected.
It cannot be denied that there’s a toxic mix of ethnic hatred that has been unleashed in the state. This ethnic hatred always existed in the hearts of people but was only waiting for the opportune moment to surface. And it has surfaced now. The genuine danger with such violent outbursts of ethnic hatred is that it could undo all the positive developments that have been made over all these years. A new generation of victims of ethnic violence could be created which, in turn, would perpetuate the divisions within the communities for years to come.
There are good reasons for optimism even in this critical time. Assam is far more integrated to other parts of the country than it was earlier. Cultural exchange between the communities is prominent. The Assamese Youth are far more invested in India as a whole than the youth of earlier years. Therefore, the integration that has occurred in all this time will likely knock some sense into people before things go out of hand.
Furthermore, the Assamese and Bengali Hindus of this generation do realize that their interests are far more aligned than they differ. Therefore, the possibility of a compromise and an end to a historic dispute could be reached if the government manages to control the spate of violence and bring the protesters to the negotiating table. Thus, even under current circumstances, it appears unlikely that the state will devolve into a period of anarchy like it did in previous years.
What is the solution?
First of all, it needs to be drilled into the heads of people that CAB is not the main cause of the violence. Assam would have witnessed violence at some point in time or the other even if the CAB was not implemented. Therefore, the liberals who are attempting to blame the CAB for it ought to rethink their position because the protests only strengthen the government’s position on the necessity of the NRC. Therefore, the NRC is a major part of the solution and this time, it needs to be more effective than the one monitored by the Judiciary.
The second part of the solution is the Assam Accord. A Committee was formed in January this year which was to submit its report on the effectiveness of the implementation of the Assam Accord within six months. The Committee was reconstituted in July after the NDA government was re-elected to power and it has been given another six months’ time to submit its report to the government.
One of the mandates of the Committee is to “assess the appropriate level of reservation of seats in Assam Legislative Assembly and local bodies for the Assamese people.” Another is to “suggest measures to be taken to protect Assamese and other indigenous languages of Assam.” The notification also says that “The Committee may suggest any other measures as may be necessary to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.” Therefore, if all these measures are taken, the concerns of the Assamese people are likely to be assuaged.
In addition to these, numerous other measures may likely be proposed by the Committee to address the cultural anxiety of the Assamese people. There will be compromises that will have to be made by people from both sides of the aisle but a reasonable one will hopefully be reached. Therefore, right now, the government needs to act quickly to prevent the situation from escalating and address the concerns of the Assamese people. Hopefully, Narendra Modi will be able to resolve another mess created and perpetuated by decades of Nehruvian Secularism.