Guwahati: When Assam erupted in violent protests after the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by the Narendra Modi government in December 2019, it seemed like the issue would become the defining factor in the state assembly polls due less than 18 months away.
The Act, after all, impacted Assam the most — a state that has struggled with a deep-seated resentment against outsiders for decades. Ethnic identity has given birth to not just an entire movement in the state, but also a key regional political party.
CAA affects Assam particularly as it is the only state to have an updated National Register of Citizens (NRC), which identifies 19 lakh people as foreigners.
And yet, as Assam went to vote Saturday, CAA hardly seems to be an issue for the people of the state. In some ways, the question of ethnicity and indigenous inhabitants as a socio-political issue seems to have got diluted, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looking at a different kind of politics.
But the issue is more complex and there is no telling if this shift away from ethnic politics is merely a phase in Assam. The Opposition, meanwhile, is hoping there are undercurrents still, and the Congress has made the CAA its main poll plank.
‘People have forgotten CAA’
Ahead of the first phase of polling in the state, ThePrint spoke to a range of voters from different parts of Assam and found that the new citizenship law is absent from the issues in this election.
“CAA is not an issue in this election. Nobody is really talking about it or even thinking about it. Roads, welfare schemes and corruption are real poll issues,” said Samrat Talukdar, a Nalbari resident.
Dipak Kalita of Kakomari Village in Nagaon district agreed. “We are too busy with our own lives and livelihoods to think about CAA. Many don’t even know about it,” he said.
Even in Upper Assam, which was the heart of the anti-CAA agitation, the controversy seems to have receded into the background for voters. It is a region where jailed activist Akhil Gogoi, who made fiery anti-CAA speeches, is making his electoral debut. So is All Assam Student Union’s product Lurinjyoti Gogoi, who is now the president of the newly formed Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP).
But for voters, the matter seems more of a thing in the past.
“Using the issue of CAA, some political parties have been launched. This is not an issue to be raised before elections… it wasn’t solved when it should have been. Now, there is no point in raking it up before elections,” said Anurup Kalita from Sivasagar in Upper Assam.
“For some, who understand the issue and its repercussions well, CAA is an issue. And it should be too. But largely, not many are talking about it,” said Usha Kalita of Samaguri.
Oddly enough, for a people who were so protective of their linguistic identity and hence, opposed to the idea of ‘outsiders’, giving citizenship to Hindus from other countries, primarily Bangladesh, does not seem to be an idea they are averse to anymore. It is perhaps an indication of how deeply the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP have reached Assam.
“People have actually forgotten CAA. It is not a factor. First, when it was passed, there was misinformation about it. Only the Hindus who came here are being given citizenship, not everyone. They are almost like us now. India is a Hindu nation, it is our responsibility to think of Hindus,” said Siyamal Chanda Bora of Nagaon district.
What this means
The six-year-long Assam Agitation, which ended with the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985, was an identity-based movement, a crusade against the ‘outsiders’.
For Congress, ethnic identity was not a core issue, which is why after the Assam movement the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) was formed as a party to represent the cause of the Assamese people.
With the CAA now seeming like a non-issue, at least on the surface, and the AGP continuing to be allies with the BJP despite the latter’s push for the new law, it seems issues like development, and welfare and personality politics have taken precedence over ethnicity, marking a socio-political and cultural shift in the state.
“BJP has given us roads, bridges and schemes like Orunodoi and Ujjwala, which is why we like the party. Even those who support the Congress do it because they perhaps like the work Tarun Gogoi did, or what the Congress is promising in terms of people-friendly policies. Nobody is voting thinking about CAA or Assamese identity, we have to look ahead,” said Mridul Saha, a voter in Morigaon.
This could also explain why the BJP, a party not organic to Assamese politics, has surged ahead of AGP, a party born out of the Assam movement.
The Congress, meanwhile, seems to be harping on the issue of ethnicity vehemently in this election, perhaps in an attempt to corner the BJP.
In its manifesto, it has promised to repeal CAA if voted to power. It has also promised to build a memorial for anti-CAA “martyrs”, referring to those who lost their lives in the 2019 protests in the state.
However, in the Barak Valley, dominated by those of Bengali origin, the Congress is obviously uncomfortable.
The Congress claims the dichotomy is at the BJP’s end.
“There is no dichotomy in Congress. If you see our Barak, or in Brahmaputra, CAA is clearly mentioned. On the other hand, if there is a dichotomy, it is in BJP’s manifesto. In Bengal they talk about CAA, in Assam they don’t. They are duping the people of Assam,” Congress MP from Kaliabor Gaurav Gogoi told ThePrint
The BJP, which is boasting about bringing in CAA in West Bengal, remained silent on the issue in its Assam poll manifesto.
“We know that right now it is not an election issue, but we also know how volatile this question can be. We don’t want to risk igniting anything just ahead of elections. Ethnicity is perhaps an issue that can never quite die,” said a source in the Assam BJP who did not wish to be named.
Sure enough, two new regional outfits — Raijor Dal and Asom Jatiya Parishad — have emerged in this election, claiming to champion the cause of the ethnic Assamese.
With inputs from Karishma Hasnat.