Diminishing Return

Assam’s failing anti-CAA protests

Activists from the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad staging a protest in Assam's Nagaon district, after the central government notified the rules for the implementation of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, in early March. Anuwar Hazarika / NurPhoto / Getty Images
31 March, 2024

Few states have had as contentious a relationship with citizenship laws as Assam. It was no surprise, then, that the state erupted in protest as soon as the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the centre notified the rules for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on 11 March this year. The notification of the rules was an electoral exercise, carried out before the upcoming general election, to reiterate that the BJP’s position on the law remained unchanged despite the nationwide protests that the passing of the act had set off four years earlier.

Soon after the notification was issued, students in Guwahati’s Cotton University began a protest, and clashes were reported between the Guwahati University Students’ Union and cadre of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The All Assam Students Union, or AASU, the state’s most influential student political body, burned copies of the act in protest. The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a farmers’ body led by the politician Akhil Gogoi, also launched protests. Gogoi had previously been jailed under an anti-terror law for over a year in connection with his role in the CAA protests in 2019. The Assam administration took a repressive stance against the protests. The chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, threatened that political parties and organisations who take part in the movement will have their registrations cancelled, and the police chief tweeted that losses occurring from protests would be recovered from organisations calling for bandhs.

Assam had begun seeing protests in 2018, when the amendment was only a bill, yet to be passed into law. In 2019, too, Assam was one of the first states where protests against the CAA began, before becoming a nationwide phenomenon. The scale of the 2019 protests was the largest the state had seen, rivalling the protests during the Assam Movement between 1979 and 1985, which had eventually led to the signing of the Assam Accord. But the 2024 protests, by comparison, are diminished. Attendance is thin, and the fervour is muted. Even those who were leading the protests in 2019, such as Gogoi and the AASU, seem unable to draw similarly large crowds.

The failure to revive the CAA agitation in Assam at the same scale as 2019 has much to do with the diminishing relevance of the ethnonationalist outfits in the state, which were anyway never concerned with secularism or democracy, and were instead rooted in the interests of Assamese Hindu elites. These communities, who have long opposed naturalisation of any minorities or non-dominant groups, had always seen the anti-CAA agitation as a means to magnify jatiyotabad, or ethnonationalism. This was not different from agitations of years past—especially the 1980s, when Assamese nationalist organisations led a massive movement against “outsiders” in the state, resulting in the signing of the Assam Accord, which became the basis to cut off citizenship for those who entered the state after 25 March 1971. Even then, outfits such as the AASU tried to ride the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment into electoral power. They were only marginally unsuccessful then, and now, they are failing to contend with the larger umbrella of Hindutva, which has subsumed the state’s anti-immigrant politics.