The ruling BJP in Assam has been employing different tactics to douse the fire in the state against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act ever since the agitation gathered steam more than two weeks ago.
Close on the heels of the crackdown against some violent protestors, the government organised peace marches and announced a slew of cabinet measures, including declaration of grants and filling up of vacancies, aimed at safeguarding indigenous communities and protecting their language and culture.
However, most of these decisions are simply the acceptance of demands that have been forwarded by different ethnic groups from time to time. The organisations spearheading and taking part in the agitation have welcomed the announcements, while sounding a note of warning that the movement against the CAA would continue till Assam is exempted from the new legislation.
“We welcome everything that the government has announced, but this is also a ploy to weaken the movement against the CAA. The government is mistaken if it thinks that the movement would be given up because of these policies. It is a mass movement and it will continue till our demand is accepted,” said Palash Changmai, general secretary of the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad.
As many as 18 decisions were taken in the meeting held last Saturday which was attended by legislators of all parties in the coalition government.
They cover a wide gamut of issues, including making Assamese the state language and a compulsory subject in schools in a majority of the districts in the state’s Brahmaputra Valley, upgrade and creation of autonomous councils, new medical and engineering colleges and increase in daily wages of tea garden workers.
The government has also resolved to grant constitutional status to a few autonomous councils, but that would not exempt the concerned areas from the CAA, unless they are included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution that entitles the council to administer more subjects in the State List.
Another key decision of the government is the introduction and passage of a bill in the next Assembly session to protect the land rights of indigenous communities. The bill is likely to include recommendations of a committee, headed by Justice (Retd) Biplab Sarma, which will submit the report next month to implement Clause-6 of Assam Accord (on safeguards for indigenous communities in the state).
At the same time, the BJP’s efforts would also be to ensure that the entire credit for implementation of the vital clause is not taken away by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) which is at the vanguard of the ongoing agitation against new Act.
“The BJP does not want to be seen as accepting everything that the committee would suggest. The party would now like to portray itself as the saviour of the indigenous communities in Assam,” said a member of the committee who did not wish to be named.
With only 15 months to go the Assembly elections in Assam, the saffron camp’s desperation is understandable. Besides Guwahati, the entire stretch between Bokakhat to Sadiya on the south bank of the Brahmputra is witnessing the most severe protests.
Three leaders – Akhil Gogoi of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), Jiten Dutta of the overground United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) faction and Srinkhal Chaliha of Lachit Sena — who have a support base in this zone are already behind bars.
And, it was in this region that the BJP-AGP combine had won the maximum number of seats in the last Assembly polls.
The performance of the government in the last three-and-a-half years has been far from satis with hardly any of the burning issues being addressed. Contractors engaged with government tenders and projects allege the level of corruption has not gone down when compared to the previous Congress regime.
Before the agitation against CAA erupted, there were widespread allegations of the government’s involvement in illegal coal extraction at Ledo-Margherita and with some trading syndicates.
The party high command is not unaware of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s limitations, but it would probably prefer not to replace him ahead of the polls.
“The party high command and the RSS receive regular reports on every minister’s performance and activities which include the chief minister and his coterie,” said a BJP legislator.
Simply put, the government will have to deliver results and move beyond the hollow promises in a brief span. The recommendations of the Clause-6 Committee would have to be implemented, but it could also open a can of worms for the government.
The report cannot be kept a secret and selective implementation of the report could add fuel to the ongoing movement. Besides, a final decision would have to be taken on the negotiation with the pro-talks ULFA faction that have reached final stages.
BJP’s Poll Strategy
Senior BJP leader and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has claimed the ruling alliance would form the next government after the Assembly polls by winning over a hundred seats.
Sarma’s assertion was necessary to instill confidence in the party workers many of whom have begun to cast doubts given the existing scenario in the state.
“There is a peculiar trait of the Assamese people. Some people who have been participating in the movement against CAA were perceived as traitors 10 years ago. So everything would be forgotten soon and we are going to form the government with an overwhelming majority in 2021,” said Ranjit Das, state president of the BJP.
While what comes out of the BJP’s optimism remains to be seen, what is most certain is the declining fortune of its ally Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) which even faces the possibility of a split.
The party had secured 14 seats in the previous state polls. This development definitely does not augur well for the BJP which could be compelled to think of other options next year.
The BJP had garnered 36 per cent of the total votes polled during the previous last elections held in 2016. Its leadership is of the view that protestors against CAA in the Assamese heartland are a minority who would be unable to swing the results in the Assembly polls.
The peace marches by the party are an exercise to demonstrate that the movement against the Act is being orchestrated only by small groups of people.
Meanwhile, if a section of BJP functionaries is to be believed, plans are afoot to unveil several projects in the state next year with most of them being earmarked for the districts in the eastern region.
There is speculation among some circles that major announcements would be made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visits Guwahati next month.
Sources revealed that January 10 has been tentatively fixed for the event in Guwahati where Modi will inaugurate the third edition of Khelo India and attend the golden jubilee celebrations of the Assamese daily ‘Dainik Agradoot’ at Kalakshetra.
The event has been kept under wraps as the government is apprehensive of a recurrence of the episode last February when the Prime Minister was shown black flags in the city by anti-CAA protestors.
(The author is a senior journalist in Guwahati. Views expressed are personal)