In Assam, it's Mahatma Gandhi vs Modi-Shah and Nehru-Patel

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 19, 2019 12:58 hrs
Assam protest

In the first two days after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was passed in the Lok Sabha, Assam erupted in spontaneous combustion. Marauding youths burnt vehicles, damaged public property and in one case, burned a tanker with the driver and cleaner inside. Five young men died in police firing.

This movement had symptoms of a volcanic eruption that destroys everything in its wake. Yet, almost as immediately as it had erupted, the violence died. There have been massive protests – and hundreds of thousands of people have hit the streets every day of the last week but without any more vandalism, death or scuffle with the forces. And this, even when emotions have run high.

No matter how huge, there is no history of things that are prevented from happening. But anyone who has attended the emotionally charged protests and meetings here can vouch, the non-violent nature of the same is nothing sort of extraordinary. Especially considering that Assam has a history of violent insurgency and because many have extolled this as "the last battle to save the Assamese tribe," and that "if this battle is lost, the Assamese must forget they ever existed."

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There is one Gujarati who is responsible for this sprouting of nonviolence in the state - Mohandas Karmachand Gandhi.

It is surprising because the Gandhian movement is nowhere close to having been kept alive in the state with Gandhians across the country receding from political life, busy revering Gandhi like a messiah rather than spreading his ideals and being actively involved in the political grassroots.

So how did this resurrection of an ideal seemingly forgotten in India, find its way into the mainstream of Assam? Turns out, in a most roundabout way.

When Narendra Modi launched his blitzkrieg national campaign to be elected Prime Minister, he made multiple sorties in Assam and swept people off their feet by saying not just what they wanted to hear but what was the truth e.g. in Guwahati, he said that most of the city does not have municipal water despite the Brahmaputra flowing next door.

In one massive gathering after another, he had talked of the ‘foreigner’ – the ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrant’ to the state and promised to drive them out after coming to power.

Assamese people deposed their trust in him in Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and 2019 and also elected a BJP government in 2016 in the state. Sarvananda Sonowal became Chief Minister and Himanta Biswa Sarma the Home Minister.

Assam joined the mainstream like no other, even indulging in lynching in the name of cow-protection. This was unheard of in Assam where different religions have lived in relative harmony for centuries. One observer told me these lynching and heckling of minorities was proof of Modi-Shah’s popularity here.

It all came crashing down last week as the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was passed in the Lok Sabha, went to the Rajya Sabha and after the President put his signature to it, became the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019.

Assam erupted and overnight, the much-loved duo of Modi-Shah began being hated. In this hatred, they are in the illustrious company of none other than Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel.

In the 1940s, just before independence – when Jinnah asked Assam to be included in East Pakistan, apparently Nehru and Sardar didn't object. However, Gandhi – on the prodding of Gopinath Bordoloi – protested and said that the Assamese people had a right to self-determination and that if they did not want to be in Pakistan, their wish had to be respected.

This is also part of the reason why Mahatma Gandhi has found new resonance in the state. In protests and on television, many speakers have narrated this story in the same breath as they extolled people to remember what the man preached.

Nehru is also disliked because in 1962, after the Chinese army romped through Arunachal Pradesh and reached Bomdilla in Assam, Nehru gave up hopes of saving the northeast and what he said then: "My heart goes out to the people of Assam", is repeated with derision here.

Nehru is looked upon as people's traitor. Today, so are Chief Minister Sonowal and Home Minister Sarma of Assam and also Modi and Shah with the ire of the public constantly fluctuating between Sonowal-Sarma and Modi-Shah in words that are vile and at times inflammatory.

Despite this, there have been no violence post the first two days. And the reason has been the invocation of not just Gandhi, but also the use of his tactics. First, artists joined and invoked Gandhi asking people to be non-violent. Second, the All Assam Students’ Union - AASU has been instrumental in using Gandhian tactics. E.g. on the 16, 17 and 18 they organised a Satyagraha where thousands courted arrests under the slogan: "Either remove CAA or arrest us."

Other groups of people including doctors and even civil servants have come out in planned civil-disobedience rather than with emotionally charged zeal. Even religious heads living in the world’s largest river island Majuli held a sit-in in the town's main square to protest against CAA.

Gandhi’s ideal of secularism and religious harmony have also been repeated endlessly here.

If there was ever a time when the ideals of peace and non-violence were required, it is now. And it is irrelevant whether one likes the man Gandhi or not. Whether you like Alexander Fleming is not relevant to how effective penicillin would be to saving your life.

In an increasingly globalised world, erupting in conflicts spontaneously, the ideas of non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, Satyagraha continue to be relevant. If for no other reason than the unprecedented power of governments to brutally crackdown on the masses.

I reached out to people of politically opposing sides in Assam – the left and the right. Both, interestingly, are unanimous in invoking Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals of peace and non-violence even though they may not necessarily like the man.

It is perhaps a good sign that a man who took ideas from both the left and right of the political spectrum without giving in to either, who claimed non-violence as a prerequisite for a moral life, is being resurrected in these troubling time.

If Gandhi were alive, he'd let out his famous giggled laughter and given a new aphorism for our new times: "Violence is never inevitable. Peace should always 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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