On the evening the bill was passed (11 December, 2019), the Assam government not only imposed an indefinite curfew in Guwahati but also blocked internet. This wasn’t enough to stop these artists, singers, students and people from every walk of life to gather at this ground for protest. An anchor on Prag News – a local news channel – called this a historic day comparing it to April 10, 1980, the day when under similar circumstances, people broke curfew, gathered all across the state and began what would later be christened the Assam Agitation which lasted decades. I went for a walk in the curfew around afternoon in the Zoo road area here and found the situation calm. Except medicine shops, everything else was shut but the curfew wasn’t being strictly enforced. People living in houses around, mill about. Occasionally a two-wheeler or car would zoom past and though half a dozen cops stood guard in Hathigarh Chariali, no one stopped these vehicles.
Around 5 kilometres away in Latashil Khel Pothar, over 10,000 people walked miles to gather. Footage of people walking in hordes to this place on local channels show people in a festive spirit.
Unknown to most in rest of India, Assam has been the protest capital of India. The bugle of revolt that was sounded on April 10, 1980 was never really silenced. Beginning with non-violent student protests, it led to violent ones by ULFA – United Liberation Front of Assam, that culminated in a crackdown by the centre that saw unaccounted for brutality unleashed on the population in which hundreds disappeared.
Complaints of national leaders not paying heed to the plight of Assam and fears of their land and culture being overrun with Bangladeshi migrants led by the slogan ‘Jati- Mati-Bheti’ had fuelled the Assam Agitation. It’s little different this time around as a sense of deja vu engulfed many who spoke at Latashil.
What is different, though, is a sense of disbelief that many feel. “Both Chief Minister Sarvananda Sonowal and Home Minister Himanta Biswa Sarmah were student leaders during the Assam Agitation where they opposed illegal migrants. And now these same people are praising CAB? They have betrayed exactly that which they fought for so many decades ago,” a young man who said he was going to the protests, said.
A fear of an uptake in militancy again is also palpable. “Whatever one might say about corruption in the Congress government, they brought peace into the state. Militancy gradually died and life returned to normal. But alas that was only a brief pause,” a well-known film and TV actress in Assam who later joined protests in Latashil told me on condition of anonymity.
Today’s Protidin – one of Assam’s most popular newspaper - carries a comment by Paresh Baruah, Chief of ULFA, where he states that they will unleash violence on police if even one protestor was killed in police firing anywhere in the state.
Meanwhile rumours are rife that PM Modi’s visit with Japan’s Prime Minister on the 15th, stands cancelled. A stage made for one of the ceremonies was burned down by some protestors. A person who does contract work for the public works department in Guwahati and who has barely slept all of last week to meet deadlines says, “Not only has the work stopped, my only hope is that at least we are not penalised with stop-payments against us after these protests.”
Protestors also fear a Kashmir-like total clampdown in the state. “If the CM who protested against something like CAB in his student days, now supports it, there is no saying what will happen next. Obviously, he will have to bring down an iron fist against us because we are personally shaming him for his drastic U-turn. In such a situation can a Kashmir like total shutdown be ruled out,” one protestor told me. Anchors on local channels here are fuelling such fears today.
Popular Assamese actor Jatin Bora who had joined BJP, came to the protest ground at the fag end of the protests and said he was quitting the party. “I am what I am because of the love of the people and I have come to stand with them during these times,” he told reporters. In the overall analysis, many say, Assam Agitation did not give good results. What good would these fresh protests do, one is bound to wonder.
Samuel Bhattacharya, mentor figure and advisor to AASU – All Assam Students Union who are at the forefront of the protests here, roared before the crowds, “The CM asks what will come out of protests. We want to remind him that he became a CM due to such protests.”
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)Read more by Satyen K Bordoloi: