Why BJP Should Fear Assam Civil Society’s Anti-CAB Protests
Image used for representational purposes.
Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: Shruti Mathur / The Quint)

Why BJP Should Fear Assam Civil Society’s Anti-CAB Protests

Days after failing to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in the Rajya Sabha, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is refusing to let go of the contentious legislation in Assam.

On 17 February, BJP President Amit Shah, during the inauguration of the party’s Assam head office at Guwahati, said that the Bill would be included in the BJP’s manifesto for the upcoming national election. He also warned the Opposition to not “rejoice too much”, and said that “only the CAB will prevent demographic changes and safeguard the identity of Assam”.

Also Read : AASU warns against Citizenship Bill 2016

BJP’s Refusal to Engage With Civil Society on CAB 2016

These remarks come less than a week after the drawing down of massive statewide protests against the CAB, the kind that were rarely seen since the tumultuous Assam Movement years (1979-85). Led mostly by Assamese-speaking organisations based in the Brahmaputra Valley, these protests gave the BJP a front-row show of the unusual might of Assam’s dominant civil society.

Yet, the BJP’s senior leadership in the state has persistently refused to engage with the civil society on the CAB, fueling new forms of rage and dissent.

There were no lathi-charges, water cannons or blank firing, but there were no open consultations either. For a pan-India party that has just entered the Assamese fray, this is unwise conduct.

Further, BJP’s continued propagation of the CAB as an election issue for 2019 is a direct challenge to the many well-entrenched civil society groups who are still celebrating its lapse in the Rajya Sabha. It is no less than a reckless political agenda that is designed to insinuate, if not fail.

Also Read : Lapse of Citizenship Amendment Bill: ‘BJP’s Agenda Has Failed’

Assamese Civil Society

Assam’s civil society is among the most powerful in India. It has consistently played a nuclear role in mobilising the state’s dominant ethnolinguistic demographic, including during the years preceding and succeeding the Assam Movement. In that sense, it enjoys much historical legitimacy and sociopolitical capital among the population it claims to represent.

Among all such groups, the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) is the most popular and influential. Alongside smaller groups, it commandeered the recent anti-CAB protests from the front, and led the dominant anti-BJP narrative in Assam.

The AASU is unlike any other students’ union in the country. It almost single-handedly took Assamese ethnonationalism to the streets through the anti-foreigner agitation in the 1970s. As one of the three main parties that signed the tripartite Assam Accord in 1985, it decisively set the tone for the nativist, ethno-linguistic discourse that continues to frame Bangladeshi immigrants as ‘outsiders’ in the majoritarian imagination.

AASU & Other Civil Society Organisations Against CAB

The AASU has also directly spurred mainstream political entities, like BJP’s former coalition partner in the current state government, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). Through the years, it has nurtured a wide array of political actors who played prominent roles in shaping Assam’s politics, including chief ministers. Even the current chief minister in the state’s BJP government, Sarbananda Sonowal, was once the organisation’s president from 1992-99.

Other civil society organisations that spearheaded the recent anti-CAB protests, such as the Assam Jatiyabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), too played pivotal roles in Assam’s ethno-nationalist movement in ways that few other civil society actors in the country have.

For instance, many scholars contend that the AJYCP, which was less popular but more systematic than AASU, provided the baseline organisational capacities and initial pool of recruits to the militant outfit ‘United Liberation Front of Asom’ (ULFA), in its formative years.

While no such civil-militant links exist today, the dominant civil society remains the pied piper for large sections of the culturally and politically conscious population in Assam, especially the younger generations in the Brahmaputra Valley. It continues to provide a time-tested platform for the majoritarian, nativist impulses within Assamese ethno-nationalism to flourish in the public space. Most of all, it offers that invaluable sense of solidarity and security that are essential for any movement to survive external pressures or criticism.

BJP Would Underestimate Assam’s Civil Sociey At Its Own Peril

What’s more, with the initiation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise by the BJP, Assam’s civil society has found a new pulse of unity that was missing for a very long time. The headcount project to identify “illegal” Bangladeshi immigrants infused new spirit into its ethno-nationalist core, only to be unsettled by the CAB. The Bill, which stands to dilute the NRC’s religion-neutral design, did much to sharpen the dominant civil society’s newfound unity.

The BJP would underestimate this resurgent unity only at its own peril. It must not forget, even from its own limited experience in the state, that Assam’s civil society is a more resilient source of opposition than it’s given credit for. As to what civil society mobilisation can achieve in Assam, history is testament.

For a quintessentially mainland party like the BJP, to counter such a strong civil society head-on, is a lost fight, and to ignore it, political suicide. The next few months are crucial in this regard, and will decide the fate of Assam’s ever-volatile state-society relations.

(Angshuman Choudhury is a senior researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. He tweets at @angshuman_ch. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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