People dissatisfied with the Congress after years of political stagnancy argue ‘if not Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), then who is the alternative?’ Congress’ negligence of unabated illegal immigration and anti-incumbency paved the way for BJP in Assam. The party came with a promise to implement Assam Accord in letter and spirit, sealing of Indo-Bangladesh border and updation of NRC in their vision document of 2016–21. This led to a successful campaign in the 2016 Assam Assembly Elections where “son of the soil” Sarbananda Sonowal became the Chief Minister of Assam.
Contrary to their claims to implement the Assam Accord in totality, the BJP tabled Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) under the on-going regime. The Bill alters the pact by extending the base year for granting citizenship to 2014, by extending the 1971 cut-off for the five religious communities. Also, nowhere in the accord is the mention of religious exclusivity.
The first time the Bill (CAB1) couldn’t pass Rajya Sabha (RS) in January 2019. It was met with huge opposition in the Northeast (NE), and all opposition NE parties came together against a single agenda. The innumerable pressure groups, too, started raising flags about the issue. It felt like the second coming of regional politics, and the Bill was seen as a unifier.
A few contested LS elections based on the CAB1 momentum. In Guwahati Upamanyu Hazarika, Senior Advocate of Supreme Court raised the ‘Khilonjia’ (indigenous Assamese) issue and contested as an Independent candidate. He criticised both the Congress and BJP for using illegal immigrants as vote banks. Some opted for simpler options to stay relevant. All Assam Scheduled Cast Students Union Leader, Jadav Das, who had staged a naked protest in January, joined BJP by April. Another Hiranya Pathari, who had shown black flags to Assam ministers, entered the party. The common people moved on, and the anti-CAB narrative died.
BJP didn’t change track and forward CAB for the second time (CAB2) in its Lok Sabha (LS) poll manifesto with an additional disclaimer “that northeast apprehensions will be cleared.” Assamese people voted for BJP in huge numbers, so did the entire Northeast and the rest of India. Congress who protested against the bill garnered only three seats in Assam.
Hazarika got 20–30 thousand votes as opposed to the lakhs bestowed upon Queen Ojha (BJP). Bobeeta Sharma (INC), too, failed to make any difference. BJP did well even in Upper Assam where the demonstrations were rampant. People danced in the streets after Queen Ojha’s victory with the catchy song “akou ebaar Modi Sorkar” (once more Modi Sarkar).
The scenario can be summed up by the famous quote by England football legend Gary Linekar, “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes, and at the end, the Germans always win.” BJP is the German National Team of Indian Politics.
In the U.S., people dependent on Obamacare voted for Donald Trump, knowing he intended to repeal the healthcare act. When he tried reducing the funding, the same supporters were worried in Kentucky. The exact happened when BJP placed CAB2 again in the Parliament. The people who danced in the streets and voted for BJP were puzzled and heartbroken like the Trump supporters. Some branded CM Sonowal as “Badan” (betrayer). (Badan is a historical person who was responsible for bringing the Burmese to attack Assam—one of the reasons British could capture Assam).
The absence of opposition came with the downfall of regional parties such as Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). The integration of major parties with the BJP through the pan-Northeast Alliance (NEDA), created a political vacuum. Leaders like Meghalaya’s CM Conrad Sangma of NPP, who protested the CAB1, supported CAB2 citing “constitutional protections” in the form of Inner Line Permit (ILP).
Most of the local leaders whose politics revolve around ethnicity took waivers, concessions and tried to save their skin. AGP added the cherry on top when RS member Biren Baishya criticised the CAB2 yet, voted in favour. Ironically, AGP is a product of the same Assam Agitation which gave us the Assam Accord that CAA complicates. The overall lack of representation can be inferred to be a product of something bigger.
German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote extensively on the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. Totalitarianism is a system of government that is centralised, dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.
Leaders don’t emerge out of the abyss, she wrote in her book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’. In the time of adversity, people forget it is they who elected them in the first place. The totalitarian nature was evident in CAA implementation, which failed to address the burden on the ethnic NE communities, who are the primary stakeholders. Being border states, NE has absorbed the majority of the immigrants to the extent of compromising their demographical composition. The clampdown, through the use of state machinery, committed excesses in the name of law and order is another indication.
In order to function, totalitarianism needs homogeneity instead of pluralism. BJP faced the opposition of Assamese cultural pluralism in their ethnicity. In NE, people place ethnicity ahead of their religion. For them being a Hindu, Muslim or Christian is important, but being a Bodo, Naga, Asomiya is the priority. After the Assam NRC, it had been clear to the party that Hindu Bengalis constitute a big number of the undocumented. Their removal from the register would be detrimental to BJP’s Bengal venture. The party before entering the Northeast had failed to understand the religion neutrality angst of indigenous people towards illegal immigration.
So BJP lured the Assamese caste Hindus into its fold and appealed to them to place their religious identity above linguistic or cultural identity. The smaller fragmented indigenous groups who prefer asserting their ethnic identity primarily were rallied as well. People forgot about the syncretic traditions of Srimanta Sankardev (Bhakti reformer) and Azan Fakir (Sufi saint). The grand old concern of ‘Assamese vs illegal immigrants’ was shifted to ‘Hindus vs Muslims’. The ethnic plurality, which felt like a hindrance until now by the BJP, was dodged by the old school technique of ‘other the minorities’. The rhetoric being illegal immigrants are majorly Muslims, thereby confusing the voter.
Apart from total ignorance, voter irrationality, lack of alternative, opportunism and confusing the voter, what might be the other causes? It must be understood that not all voters read the manifesto or listen to speeches. The relative silence of ‘Hanghatans’ (pressure groups) about the BJP’s manifesto indicates a weak civil society.
To understand the cause, reflect upon Hannah Arendt’s take on modernity’s disengagement to public life in her postulation of the “economic man” theory where she explores how economics hinders the political. The “Assamese Middle Class” was an active participant in the Assam Agitation in the 80s. Post economic reforms in the 90s, the middle class have been the beneficiaries of globalisation and mostly moved into corporate jobs looking for materialistic neo-liberal aspirations in metros.
The state economy failed to provide for the burgeoning working class. Their political dissociation facilitated leaders to be elected without scrutiny. The ethos of traditional tribal Assamese community-living based on concerns for your society is no longer relevant. All these factors contributed to a weak civil society that failed to grasp the impending doom because many shied away from participating.
BJP, under the leadership of Himanta Biswa Sarma, might have predicted the fallout in Brahmaputra Valley and NE. However, the mass agitation was beyond the scope of any calculation. They neglected the two essential traits of Assamese people: ‘okora khong’ and ‘kaniyami’. ‘Okora khong’ and ‘kaniyami’ can be roughly translated into naive anger and laziness, respectively. The naive anger came when people realised that the sacrosanct Assam Accord, which a generation died fighting for had been manhandled. The plan to cool off the protesters by waivers in the name of constitutional protections like Clause 6 backfired.
‘The northeast apprehensions’ which BJP talked about in its manifesto did end. Just not through constitutional safety, but by a political sense of self and identity with enhanced consciousness. Assamese reflected upon Ahom’s victory against the Mughals where Bagh Hazarika an Assamese Muslim helped Lachit Borphukan fight against the ‘outsiders’. A small community like the Sikhs came out in the demonstrations to reassert their ‘Axomia’ identity. The laziness ended, and the need to prioritise identity made a comeback.
The current spontaneous demonstrations in the state are different from previous ones. Students, senior citizens and workers from all walks of life are resorting to ‘maha satyagraha’ and a democratic Andolan based on Gandhian values. After initial violent outbreaks, massive gathering where songs, dance, dialogues from Assamese plays set the tone of social emancipation through culture. This has the potential to shape political will as cultural revolutions precede political revolutions.
What the development lacks till now is consensus building and a certain ‘charter’ to sustain the democratic movement peacefully in the long run. Badruddin Ajmal floated AIUDF following the scrapping of IMDT Act in 2005 to consolidate the minority-based angle. Politicians must not hijack the current agitation, but a structured political solution should not be dismissed. The goal? A proper course of action that is inclusive to all stakeholders of the greater Assamese society and the emergence of fresh leaders guided by the new-found political will.
Otherwise, everything risks getting hijacked by opportunists or might lose steam owing to ideological scarcity. The worst-case scenario would be leaving us again with the same alternatives.