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Yearender 2019: Assam on edge amid fear, uncertainty over citizenship law, NRC

Thousands of women protest in Assam on Saturday, singing songs and shouting slogans against the new citizenship law, following a call for a statewide women’s protest by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU). (Dasarath Deka)

Assam was on edge in 2019, a year that saw rumblings of discontent and violent protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and the NRC exercise tremors of which were felt across the country. The state’s ruling BJP had a tough time rallying its North East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) partners behind it amid criticism of the updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which the opposition claimed was a “botched-up” exercise. More than 19 lakh people, a sizeable number of them Hindus, were excluded from the final NRC list that was published on August 31.

The Supreme Court-monitored process saw tens of thousands of applicants standing in seemingly unending queues outside seva kendras (assistance booths) with documents to prove their identity. Countless families claimed some members made it to the register, aimed at weeding out illegal immigrants, while others could not. Many of those deemed ‘foreigner’ and ‘doubtful voter’ were sent to detention centres, triggering condemnation.

NRC coordinator Prateek Hajela was subsequently transferred out of the state amid allegations of “huge irregularities and anomalies” in conduct of the exercise, which entailed an expenditure of Rs 1,200 crore. North-East Democratic Alliance convener and influential state minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was among those who said the final register, in its current form, was not acceptable and should be scrapped as it “failed to fulfil the aspirations of people”.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah later announced that NRC would be implemented across states and Assam would have to undergo the process again to rectify the errors. It is not known if the process will be undertaken at all after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that a pan-India NRC was never discussed by his government, a statement that was endorsed by Shah.

“Since my government first came to power in 2014, I want to tell 130 crore countrymen, there has never been a discussion on NRC,” Modi told a massive public meeting in New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan last Sunday.

Earlier in the year, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill had sparked agitation in pockets of Assam, with the BJP’s state ally AGP walking out of the ruling coalition, insisting the legislation be dropped.

Notwithstanding the prevailing anger over the issue, the BJP swept the Lok Sabha polls, bagging nine of the 14 seats in the state. The Congress retained three seats, while the AIUDF and an Independent secured one each. The controversial bill, which had lapsed after Lok Sabha’s term ended in the first half of the year, was then revised and reintroduced in Parliament following the BJP’s emphatic win in the general election, leading to fresh unrest in the state, prompting imposition of curfew in several towns and cities. The protests, spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union (AASU), Left parties and indigenous organisations, intensified after the legislation was cleared by Parliament.

The AGP, which had re-aligned with the BJP two months after it severed ties with the saffron party over CAB, moved the Supreme Court against the amended law. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pinned the blame for the clashes and arson on opposition parties. The Sarbananda Sonowal government followed suit, holding a few Youth Congress leaders responsible for two incidents of violence in Guwahati. The Congress denied the allegation outright, claiming that the protests were spontaneous, and people from all walks of life joined the anti-CAA agitation.

A major consequence of the protest was the indefinite postponement of India-Japan Summit, which was scheduled to be held in the city. The indigenous population of the state, which endured unabated influx from Bangladesh over the years, had long been insisting that illegal immigrants be ousted, irrespective of their religious faith, unlike several other states where the new citizenship law is being seen as a clash of Hindu-Muslim interests.

People in the Brahmaputra Valley alleged the Centre had isolated them by not exempting the region from the purview of the controversial Act, barring areas under the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) and the three Autonomous Hill Districts. Hindu Bengalis of the Barak Valley, however, have welcomed the amended Act that seeks to accord citizenship to non-Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who fled religious persecution there.

Sonowal, in an attempt to allay fears over the law, held a peace rally in Nalbari and his cabinet took a slew of welfare measures to appease the irate citizens, including declaring Assamese as the state language. The land of two mighty rivers Brahmaputra and Barak the northeastern state also battled floods during monsoon which left over 90 dead and affected more than 50 lakh people.

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Source: Financial Express

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