The eve of Bhogali Bihu, Uruka, is to Assam what Lohri is to Punjab or god is to religion. But this time around, many in the state have decided go on fasting during the festival of feasting in the wake of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016.
Peasant leader and RTI activist Akhil Gogoi announced a a 24-hour hunger strike from January 14 afternoon to oppose the passage of the Bill that seeks to legitimise the stay of non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh (apart from Pakistan and Afghanistan).
Gogoi said he will not celebrate the festival this year and won’t even eat anything on ‘Uruka’ as he will be observing a 24-hour hunger strike with the members of 70 organisations.
On Sunday, the condition of three student leaders, who were on an indefinite hunger strike inside jail after they were arrested on January 8 for allegedly vandalising the BJP office at Golaghat, deteriorated and they had to be admitted to hospital.
The anger building up for decades following the Centre’s alleged neglect and the lack of understanding of a delicate situation has erupted into widespread protests ever since the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 was passed by the Lok Sabha on January 8.
The ongoing protests have clearly affected the Bhogali Bihu celebrations which otherwise is marked by endless feasting, drinking and merry-making.
Whipping up a storm against the Bill in a staid January, well-known scholar and president of the Forum Against Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, Hiren Gohain, earlier said: “Let the celebration be subdued this time as a mark of protest. We also urge people to burn copies of the anti-race Bill at the Meji (the ceremonial bonfire).”
Eighty-year-old Gohain, along with two others, was booked by the state police last week on charges of sedition for mobilising support against the Bill. The Gauhati High Court granted them bail a day later.
The outlawed United Liberation front of Asom (independent) has also issued a statement, urging the “indigenous people” to celebrate this Bihu as a point of “emergence of Assamese national consciousness”. There have been a few instances where Assamese youths have left to join the separatist ULFA in its undisclosed locations over the “betrayal of Assam by Delhi once again”.
Cries of protests everywhere
Even as a high-level committee set up by the Centre to implement Clause 6 of Assam Accord has come to a standstill after its chairman MP Bezbaruah refused to head the panel, protests have continued unabated against the Bill across the state.
On Sunday, over hundred agitators were picked up when they blocked the road to Kaziranga University, where Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal went for a convocation.
The snub that stung the BJP more was Assamese musical heartthrob Zubeen Garg’s demand to “return the votes” that the BJP got using an election song sung by him in 2016. In a Facebook post, Garg also offered to return the remuneration he received for the song.
Garg has a fan following of more than 8.58 lakh followers on Facebook and the post has gone viral.
People have been staging protests of various kinds. While the members of Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chhatra Parishad tonsured their heads at Jamugurihat demanding immediate withdrawal of the controversial Bill, around 60 students took part in the mock funeral procession over the “death of democracy”.
SFI activists during a mock funeral protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. (Image: PTI)
Last week, some outfits, including the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, protested in the nude in Tinsukia and also near the Parliament in Delhi.
Leading artists held sit-in protests and demanded the government o scrap the document. Even BJP’s spokesperson in Assam, Mehdi Alam Bora, has resigned from the party in protest.
Congress and Trinamool Congress have opposed the bill as well, on grounds that citizenship cannot be determined by religion under the Indian Constitution.
Other NE states, including the governments of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland — despite being part of the BJP-led NDA and North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) — too have come out against the bill.
Last week, the entire region observed a unified bandh, the first time since 1947, the AASU claimed. The North East Students’ Union (NESO) — the umbrella student body representing all the states — also called for the bandh across seven northeastern states.
ST status to six ethnic groups
The Centre’s announcement to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six ethnic groups in the state has added to the disgruntlement. Tribal bodies called for a bandh on Friday to protest against the BJP government’s move. The bandh was called by the Coordination Committee of the Tribal Organisations of Assam (CCTOA).
The CCTOA accused the BJP governments (central and state) of not taking the tribals into confidence before bringing a bill. It also accused the BJP of hatching a plot to eliminate the genuine tribals of Assam.
Why people are so angry with the Bill?
While citizenship is determined across the nation based on the Citizenship Act, 1955, Assam got the Assam Accord in 1985 and a new cut-off date — March 24, 1971 — to determine citizens following the anti-foreigners’ movement (1979-85) against alleged illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
According to the accord, it was decided that anyone who entered Assam after March 24, 1971, would be treated as an illegal migrant and will be detected and deported. People in the state believe that Assam has “absorbed all immigrants till this date” but now the BJP government wants it to take the burden of more people who have entered up to December, 2014.
To put things in perspective, the Citizenship Amendment Bill seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to grant Indian citizenship to the Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians, who fled religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and entered India before December 31, 2014, after six years of residence in the country, instead of the current 12 years, even if they do not possess any proper document.
Even though the Rajya Sabha is yet to clear it, Assam has been on the boil ever since. Immediately after the Bill was passed in the lower house of Parliament, Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) reneged on its alliance with the BJP in the government. According to the former ally, when Assam Accord was signed, there was no mention of giving citizenship to victims of religious persecution. It also talked about a cut-off date.
Now, the BJP has suddenly started talking of religious persecution against Hindus in Bangladesh just for the sake of the Bill.
AGP leaders claim religious persecution happened in Bangladesh after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was murdered in 1975. But after that both Bangladesh and India have been maintaining that there is no more religious persecution in Bangladesh.
People in Assam strongly believe and fear that the bill will legitimise the presence of Bengali Hindus and Buddhist Chakmas from Bangladesh in their states. Also, intellectuals like Gohain reason it out that the Bengali Hindus are unlikely to accept Assamese as their mother-tongue as most Bengali Muslim immigrants did.
Many contend that there is a possibility that upset with the NRC exclusions and the clear discriminatory tone of the Citizenship Bill, Muslims of Bengali origin in Brahmaputra valley may return to Bengali as their mother tongue in the next Census. In that case, by 2021, there will be more Bengali speakers than Assamese in the state.
There is also a worry that Assam will turn into another Tripura — where the tribal population have become a minority due to large-scale migration — if this bill is passed.
Life moves on
When Assamese are asked what Bihu is, the simile that best describes the importance of the festival is that it as big as Durga Puja is for Bengalis. The truth though is that Bihu is celebrated thrice a year — Bhogali Bihu (during winter/January), Rongali Bihu (during spring/April) followed by the muted Kongali Bihu (October).
A bigger truth, however, is that both Assamese and Bengalis have been celebrating Bihu as grandly as Durga Puja is celebrated across Assam. But as the state stands buried in protests over the Citizenship Bill, this year’s Bihu has taken a political colour, pitting Hindus, Muslims, Bengalis and Assamese against each other.