"First they alienate Kashmir by locking up the whole state after abrogating Article 370. Now, it's East and Northeast India's turn. From the corners of the nation, soon they'll work their way towards the centre," bellowed a relative in Guwahati, Assam, after the Lok Sabha passed the highly contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill – CAB.
This was a dramatic U-turn for him because on August 5, he had hailed the decision to abrogate article 370 in Kashmir. A staunch BJP supporter since the days of A B Vajpayee, he was hopeful in August that the party leadership would hear protest cries of an entire region (they have been raging furiously for over a year now). "No government of the day can ignore mass protests of millions of people for over a year," he had claimed then.
Besides, protests in Hong Kong had made him hopeful. If even a brutal regime like China could be made to back down by mass protests, surely a democracy would and must do better.
He seems to have a point. But not entirely. Because what he does not know, is just how isolated the NorthEast India is from a media perspective. Comparing notes with a north-eastern friend living in the US, I realise there’s more news about India in newspapers across the United States than there is about Assam and its seven sisters in newspapers across the rest of India, except perhaps in West Bengal.
And with a Prime Minister susceptible to public perception only if those public come from north (except Kashmir), West and Central India, the NorthEast of India and its protests – are at a loss.
Consider this. In the last year, when the protests against CAB have intensified drastically in Assam with millions out on the street, there has hardly been any news about the same in the rest of India.
Reading a newspaper in Mumbai where I live, Hong Kong seems nearer as detailed news and photos of protests there make their way into my papers but not from Assam.
JNU protests have rightly occupied public consciousness. But do you know that thousands of students of every university and most colleges in Assam have protested – some non-stop – against the CAB for over a year now?
Then there is the immense tragedy of the NRC - National Register of Citizens. Stories, both news and features – are so aplenty, it's enough to fill pages every day in newspapers and hours on TV.
Entire families have been called to the Foreigners' Tribunal. Disabled and aged, the working man, a newborn baby, the housewives and homeless - all have had to prove they belong to the state. Dozens – perhaps more - have committed suicide as fears of externment or deportation to a land they have not known, has bred fear of losing even the little that poor people in the flood ravaged landscape of Assam can call their own. The suffering – both for the purported sons of the soil and alleged illegal immigrants - has been immense.
A Bengali-speaking help in my parents' house barely made it. She had to make many rounds to a far- flung tribunal along with her disabled sister before she could take her name off the suspect list. Her husband died a few years ago and she barely makes ends meet for herself and her kids. She lost a few of her house help work because she had to spend time travelling to prove her citizenship.
In many cases, entire families have been called together to tribunals. This caused a friend depressive agony because she had to come face to face with her father, who had molested her after her mother's death. She had run away from home swearing never to see the monster's face again.
The tragedy that has unfolded in Assam in the last few years since NRC has been unleashed is gargantuan. With the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, it’s just a matter of time that the rest of the nation would know the same.
"Isn't it strange that under CAB Hindus from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan won’t have to submit any papers to become citizens of India. But citizens of India must get their entire family together, give birth certificates of their grandfathers and beyond just to prove that they are citizens of the only country they have known all their lives,” this relative rues. "Perhaps it would be better to claim from to onset to be a Hindu from Pakistan," he jokes, "You're likely to be believed more."
He opens an article he had saved on his phone and shows me. It says that Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) – India’s external spy agency – is against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. They suspect CAB would be the perfect way for enemies of India to infiltrate spies and saboteurs.
Despite all of this, my relative's support for BJP has not waned. He thinks these are all just bad days. "Some sensible leader will soon prevail some sense into others that what they are doing is bad for the country."
In the middle of this optimistic thought though, he suddenly goes pensive. “Kashmir has almost been in lockdown for months, people are dying for lack of easily accessible medical facilities, protests have been quashed brutally and not only has the government not blinked but they have got the rest of the nation to chant ‘all-izz-well in the valley’. Who is to say that if the protests intensify in Assam, they won’t put Assam in lockdown as well. And if that happens, won’t the rest of the country make similar excuses to prove that we are not suffering?”
His words throw me off balance. This is something that I have neither read nor heard anywhere – the possibility of a lockdown in Assam, a la Kashmir. No, this is a stretch of the imagination, I reason. But so was literally imprisoning an entire state. The way things are in the nation today, no nightmare seems implausible anymore.
"Post an Assam lockdown, the media will be brought on choppers on curated tours of deserted streets of the state to prove that everything is normal. Parachute journalists will declare normalcy from the Kamakhya temple and the PM will go on a rhino safari with Bear Grylls in Kaziranga and we’ll watch all of it locked inside our own homes," he laughs.
Amidst a state-wide bandh called and observed against CAB, there’s a chill in the air of Guwahati this evening. It’s being warmed by tyres being burnt in anti-CAB protests. But in a realm of endless possibilities of oppression and suppression and lack of basic human decency from politicians – this is a warmth that manages only to send cold shivers of dread down my spine for I am scared of the future because as Yogi Berra once said: The future ain’t what it used to be.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications
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