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United by Anti-CAA Sentiment, Can AASU and Zubeen Garg Offer Assam a Viable Political Alternative?

AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi said there is a need for 'new political alternative' as Assam limps back to normalcy after violent protests, curfews and a sense of betrayal.

Aditya Sharma | News18.com@aditya_shz

Updated:December 24, 2019, 11:21 AM IST
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United by Anti-CAA Sentiment, Can AASU and Zubeen Garg Offer Assam a Viable Political Alternative?
Popular singer Zubeen Garg and AASU advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya take part in a peaceful protest in Guwahati. (News18)

In Assam, factionalism was negotiated by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) to create the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in 1985. The party had once championed the causes of forwarding aspirations of the Assamese people, at the peak of the Assam Agitation 1979-85 against illegal immigration into the state. But three decades later, its mass appeal holding together multiple ethnicities – political idiom in India’s north east – has failed the test of time.

On the flip side, however, the political insignificance of the AGP amid cultural resistance against the settlement of foreign migrants, via the Citizenship Amendment Act, has added a new dimension to reason and history in the state. Last week, the All Assam Students Union (AASU) yet again announced the launch of a new political party; this time along with Assamese singer and cultural icon Zubeen Garg. And Assam cannot keep calm.

Not AGP 2.0

AASU general secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi spoke to News18 explaining the need for a “new political alternative to lead its social and cultural cause” as the state limps back to normalcy after violent protests, curfews and a sense of betrayal.

“Whether it is the AGP, BJP or Congress, all have betrayed the people of Assam by opposing the interests of the state. We need leaders who are accountable to the people of Assam and AASU. We don’t want to create betrayers in a political market who break the trust of people,” he said.

Gogoi told News18 that formation of the new party is in its “preliminary stages” and it’s uncertain if it will be launched before the 2021 assembly elections. “The movement against the CAA is spontaneous. Launching a party right away will give the BJP a chance to make it appear like political opportunism. The AASU doesn’t want to repeat the bitter experience of AGP in Assam.”

News18 reached out to Assam BJP chief Ranjit Das and minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for their comments. Unfortunately, all calls and requests were unanswered.

Besides, on the question of whether Zubeen and AASU chief advisor Samujjal Bhattacharya plan to contest elections, Gogoi said: “One of them will remain inside the field and the other will support it from outside the political arena.”

However, the AASU general secretary dispelled all talks about the “AASU re-branding the AGP or the party returning to the political forefront.”

“They have betrayed us. The whole of Assam is undergoing a difficult period and we have to take a difficult decision, no matter how tough the path is. The political party we plan to launch may take time to cement itself in the state but we are committed to it,” he said.

The AGP’s Parfula Mahanta responded to AASU and Zubeen’s political ambitions with a pinch of salt. “Everybody has the right to form their own political party. Let them form it and we will see,” he told News18.

On the other hand, leader of opposition in the Assam Legislative Assembly, Debobrata Saikia, welcomed the announcement but also launched an attack on the AASU.

“We are also committed to the Assam Accord as much as the AASU. But one must remember that those who went against the people and their aspirations were former AASU members. The student body groomed them for a public life. This history makes the outcome of the new political party very uncertain,” he said.

Arts and Roots

Being a politically active and aware state, Assam has had a history of cultural icons like Bharat Ratna Bhupen Hazarika contesting elections. Hazarika’s prominence as a singer had not helped him win the only election he had contested in Guwahati city. Quite like him, Zubeen, too, is a man of masses and attracts a lots of crowd, especially the youth.

The popular youth and cultural icon from Assam has been at the forefront of peaceful protests against the CAA. He has gotten together many artists from the Assamese Shilip Samaj (Assamese Artists Association) to stage non-violent protests across the state using drama and art. The past few days have witnessed musical protests where in the singers performed emotional tributes to the five lives lost during the ongoing agitation.

“We are a new generation, we know how to make our country and we know how break the same. Time has come to make our country while raising our voice in a more effective manner,” he had said during a protest at Chandmari field in Guwahati a few days back.

Assamese actress Barsha Rani Bishaya is another face in a sea of protesters, making thundering speeches, and leading protests against the contentious citizenship legislation. Though she does not have any political ambitions, Bishaya is hopeful of a “new political dawn” in the state; one she can whole-heartedly support.

“I do not want to give my vote away to NOTA. We need a party which would think locally. Assam has had one before, but they betrayed us. I have lost faith in the existing parties. Rajneetik vikolpo (political alternative) is what everyone wants,” she told News18.

The AASU and Zubeen’s “declaration of a political alternative in the state is a workable proposition” but it needs to be accessed from both theoretical and practical point of view, said Shyam Kanu Mahanta, an entrepreneur and political analyst based in Guwahati.

In theory, “Assam needs a strong regional force so that regional expression and aspirations can be met with it. People had previously considered the AGP as this regional force but it failed,” he said.

But, Mahanta noted that it is equally important “not to romanticise politics in Assam” given the demographic composition of the electorate. He said elections in the state is not won only with the votes from “indigenous Assamese in Brahmaputra valley.”

“We have more than 28 per cent of Hindu Bengali voters, more than 20 per cent are tea tribes and then there are indigenous communities like Mising, Karbi, Dimasa, Boro who make another 20 per cent. The rest are the various Muslim and other Assamese speaking communities of the state,” he highlighted.

Noted international filmmaker and national award winner Jahnu Barua has also expressed for the need of “careful thought and evaluation” for Assam’s newfound political ambition. “The idea of forming a political alternative must not be decided emotionally. All communities in the state must identify with this new alternative. It must be formed devoid of all anger, excitement, and resentment. We must look beyond electoral victory and look at the state 50 years from now,” he said.

In addition to this, Barua said “an inclusive definition of an Assamese” must be precede the formation of the new party. “History must not be selectively read, written and understood. After all, the whole of this regions comprises of migrants from different places.”

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