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It Was Never A Hindu-Muslim Issue: Why Assam Is Burning At The Moment

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The controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2019, has been passed in both the houses, which makes it a law. It is a bill amending the Citizenship Act of 1955 to make illegal migrants, who are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, eligible for Indian citizenship. It also seeks to relax the requirement of residence in India for citizenship by naturalization from 11 years to 5 years for these migrants. The Union Cabinet cleared the bill on the 4th of December 2019. It was passed by the Lok Sabha on the 10th of December 2019 and subsequently passed in the Rajya Sabha on the 11th of December 2019.

Amit Shah in Parliament introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019
Amit Shah in Parliament introducing the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2019. Picture Courtesy Business Today

While many argue that it is unsecular and unconstitutional, as it excludes Muslims from the bill and that’s exactly how national media is portraying it since a very long time, the protests that have erupted out of Assam and other northeastern states is because of a totally different reason. We don’t want to turn into minorities in our own state. We don’t want to turn into Tripura where the indigenous population is today a minority in their own state, and this reduction happened quickly in just a decade after the Bangladesh liberation.

While BJP has clearly cherry-picked these three Muslim majority nations to polarize Indians further and to generate a general hatred for Muslims everywhere possible, the party does not acknowledge the persecution of Muslims happening in Myanmar (Rohingyas) and China (Uighur Muslims). Aren’t they our neighbours? It also fails to acknowledge the persecution of Ahmediyas in Pakistan who are not even considered Muslims in their own countries. This is all but vote bank politics!

The only thing BJP does is blame the Congress party for the partition of the country on the basis of religion. An expert in the art of lying and keeping people in the dark, the BJP forgot that the RSS was one of the major supporters of the two-nation theory in 1937. What saddens me is weakest of the weak opposition and dousing of all voices that differ from what the majority thinks. Have we become this powerless?

Some of the leading news channels have not really shown what the North East, especially Assam, is going through since the past couple of days. All they are doing is just talking and conducting debates as to how unsecular it is whilst completely forgetting the northeast as usual—just as they forget to cover us during our appalling floods that take away our vast stretches of land, homes and people year after year. The national media is not showing how Assam is burning at the moment; why Assam is burning at the moment. For Assam, it has and was never a Hindu-Muslim issue. Opposing this controversial bill was and is always from an ethnic standpoint.

Internet services in Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh have already been cut off, and have been banned in some parts of Assam as well. A curfew has been imposed sine die in Assam, and I’m writing this piece from Shillong in Meghalaya before the telecom services get affected here because I simply believe that this regime can go to any length to put our voices down!

Assam Agitation And Why Is Assam Boiling Now?

The Assam Agitation also popularly known as the Assam Movement was a popular movement between 1979-1985 against the illegal immigrants in Assam. It was led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the All Assam Gana Sangram Parishad(AAGSP). Ironically, the CM Sarbananda Sonowal, who took part in the agitation from AASU in the 80s, is defending CAB today.

For Assam, it was never a Hindu-Muslim issue. Opposing this controversial bill was and is always from an ethnic standpoint.

During this period of six years, there were 855 martyrs (the list of which is given in the website of the Assam Government), many people had to sit in their homes for two years, which affected their academics and the prospects of jobs severely. The movement came to an end officially with the signing of the Assam Accord between the leaders of the Assam Movement and the Government of India on 15 August 1985, just three weeks after signing the Rajiv-Longowal Accord.

The Northeast in general and Assam in particular, is burning at the moment because the present provisions of CAB totally go against the Assam Accord and make a joke of the tedious NRC process concluded earlier this year, which was undertaken under the supervision of the former CJI Ranjan Gogoi, who also hails from Assam. The NRC was implemented to identify the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who came after March 24, 1971. Immigrants here refer to both Hindus and Muslims.

There was a huge influx into Assam and other parts of Northeast going up to many lakhs who came into India since Partition and even after Bangladesh Liberation. So there is an inherent fear among people that the ethnic Assamese will turn into a minority in their own state, which will affect their language, customs and culture. So the basis of the Assam Movement was never a religious one. For the Assamese, an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, as many like to call ‘Bangladeshi Infiltrators’ is a Bangladeshi; it doesn’t matter if the person is a Hindu or a Muslim.

The CAB allegedly promises not to include the Schedule 6 areas and the areas where the ILP (Inner Line Permit) system works. Presently, in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram, one needs an ILP to visit there. The basic idea of introducing ILP was to integrate the masses with the mainland slowly over time. ILP was otherwise a result of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulations, 1873, which was introduced by the British keeping in mind their interests because of the natural resources like Tea, Oil and Timber discovered in the region.

Please understand that the borders along Bangladesh are very porous; it is extremely easy to cross over. For instance, last year, I went on a trip to Dawki in Meghalaya where I accidentally crossed over Sylhet in Bangladesh, and I did not even realise until I saw a signboard in Bengali. We were later chased away by the BSF Jawans. So you see there are many border areas like these which are not as well-fenced as along India-Pakistan.

I can write more on this, but it is beyond the ambit of one article. But I do want to share a few social media posts and statements given out by eminent Assamese personalities, friends and family. One such eminent personality is filmmaker Bhaskar Hazarika, who has been in the news of late because of his film ‘Aamis’ which has been liked by people all over the country and the globe. Here is what he had to say:

Filmaker Bhaskar Hazarika's comment on CAB

One of my friends, Vilina was on her way to her hometown Dimapur from Sikkim. She has been stranded in Guwahati Railway Station since last evening. All the trains going to Upper Assam have been cancelled. She cannot go outside because of the curfew imposed. There is no internet connection available on her network. She has not been able to eat properly except for a few biscuits and chips since yesterday evening. She is asking me for updates every few hours.

Another senior of mine was stranded at the airport for many hours. Some of them were stranded for close to two days. There is already a shortage of food and water, and the army has been deployed everywhere. Another friend had to post this on Facebook,

“A dear friend is pregnant, nearing her due date. Instead of excitement, she asks, What am I bringing this child into?”

These are just a few stories. More than hundreds and thousands of people are suffering at the moment. My Assam is burning!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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