As protests against Amendments to the Citizenship Act (2016) gains momentum in Assam, a nervous state government is cracking down on citizens. The Assam Police have registered a sedition case against well respected Assamese intellectual Hiren Gohain. He is 80. A similar case was slapped on Anti-corruption activist and environmentalist Akhil Gogoi, and journalist Manjit Mahanta. Local reports quoted the police as saying that these three individuals were speaking “against the law”at a recent public meeting.
Sedition is a serious charge and cannot be slapped on such a flimsy ground as speaking “against the law.” Sedition implies treason and working to overthrow or disrupt the Indian state. Sedition charges are being loosely applied to fix those who disagree with the government. The BJP is constantly doing so. The ruling dispensation cannot tolerate criticism. Neither the old or the young are spared. The BJP is using a pliant police force to do intimidate and harass opponents ahead of crucial national elections this summer.
What can explain the police filing its charge sheet on a 2016 sedition case against the former JNU students now? Kanhaiya, Umer Khalid, Anirban and other young men are critical of the government, should they be charged with treason and punished? The UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s police force is using the National Security Act against Muslims suspected of killing cows. Can anything be more ludicrous? And in Assam, the mild mannered chief minister Sarbananda Sonwal has done the same. It is so unlike him to do so that most assume that he has been directed to take tough line by the Centre or is working on the direction of his powerful cabinet colleague Himanta Biswa Sarma known for his unscrupulous methods and use of the big stick if enticements fail.
The fact is there is anger in the streets of Assam and the BJP-led state government is finding it hard to explain the Centre’s stand to its support base. Gohain, a Left oriented academic (former head of department of English in the Guwahti university) was once a trenchant critic of the anti foreigners movement, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union for its communal twist. Gohain was as critical of the Left for contesting the state elections in 1983, imposed by the Congress government of Indira Gandhi, which was boycotted by the Assamese. But he believes that Assam has the right to protect its culture and identity. He is, therefore, a vocal critic of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Not one to mince his words, Gohain has dubbed the sedition charges as grotesque.
Gohain, was participating in a protest against the Amendment to the Citizenship Act, passed in the Lok Sabha which makes it easier for minority Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan obtain Indian citizenship. Assam sees this as a virtual cake walk for Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, even those who came in as late as 2014, remain in the state as full fledged citizens. This undercuts the Assam Accord and give illegal Bengali Hindu migrants a virtual carte blanche to reside in the state. The cut off date for citizenship for migrants from Bangladesh was fixed at March 24, 1971, according to the Assam Accord signed between the government of India and the All Assam Students Union, and the state government.
National Register of Citizens (NRC), also regards 1971 as the base year for determining whether a person is a genuine citizen or a immigrant. But the amendments have made all this infractrous in case of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. What is more the latent concerns of Bengali speakers, both Hindus and Muslims becoming a majority in the state. Language riots were a regular occurrence in the state, till the foreigners issue and illegal Muslim migration became the focus. The amendments have again brought this into focus.
Ironically, Gohain has revealed that he was trying to cool tempers of a few hotheads calling for independence at a protest rally held in Guwahati. The Assamese feel let down by the BJP government. Assam, like the rest of India, had enthusiastically embraced Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he came to power in 2014. What is more in the assembly elections of 2016, people voted for a BJP government for the first time. There was general euphoria that now the problems of Assam would be dealt with seriously by a sympathetic Central government. Incidentally, the BJP has always supported the anti-foreigners agitation in Assam mainly because it meshed with its Hindutva ideology and was anti-Congress.
During his election campaign in 2014, Modi had thundered against illegal migrants and promised to throw them out of the country bag and baggage. So the BJP’s decision on Hindu refugees was doubly cruel and a stab on the back by Modi and the BJP. Most analysts in Assam believe that the Citizenship Bill with an eye on West Bengal, where it has long been needling Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. West Bengal has 42 Lok Sabha seats while Assam has just 14. Altogether the north-eastern states have just 25. The Assamese are bitter that politics gets the better of every party whether Congress or BJP.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.