This is Assamese for ‘this fire is burning and will keep burning’. And the fear is that it will torch the political career of Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and leave it in a pile of ashes. His failure either to prevent the passing of the passed and contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 — that allows Indian citizenship for non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan — in the Lok Sabha or to mark any significant protest against it has been viewed by many as an outright betrayal of the people who voted him to power.
The Lok Sabha passed the bill on Tuesday and is likely to be placed in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday for the nod from the Upper House. If it gets the go ahead from the Rajya Sabha, it will become an Act before the country votes for a new Lok Sabha in April-May this year.
For a student leader who went on to become the Jatiya Nayak, a title that was lovingly accorded to him by the Assamese society for being the petitioner in the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 (IMDT Act) case which was struck down by the Supreme Court on 12 July, 2005, the rise and fall of his esteem in the public eye has been mercurial. Ironically, Jatiya Nayak itself means leader of the community. And the Assam chief minister is no phoenix to rise from the ashes.
More than his tenure as the president of the All Assam Students’ Union which he had held from 1992-99, this legal victory ensured a phenomenal rise in his stature in the entire state. Sonowal, who was part of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), was already a Lok Sabha MP from Dibrugarh when the verdict came. The AGP itself was an offshoot of the AASU as many leaders from the student organisation graduated into the political outfit. The current Assam chief minister is no exception.
Assamese society as a whole had reasons to celebrate as the IMDT Act threatened to turn the majority Assamese into a minority in their homeland due to the unabated influx of Bangladeshi nationals and with hardly any effective mechanism to identify and deport them. While giving its judgment on the IMDT Act, the Supreme Court very rightly observed, “As a result of population movement from Bangladesh, the spectre looms large of the indigenous people of Assam being reduced to a minority in their home State. Their cultural survival will be in jeopardy, their political control will be a weakened and their employment opportunities will be undermined.” The Supreme Court finally declared IMDT Act “to be ultra vires the Constitution of India and are struck down”.
The 12th day of July in 2005 was indeed a red letter day when it comes to Assamese sub-nationalism and Sonowal was undoubtedly the hero of the day.
Despite his glory in the Supreme Court, Sonowal lost the Lok Sabha election in 2009 from the Lakhimpur constituency to Ranee Narah of the Congress and it was obvious that regionalism was fast losing appeal in the political arena of the state. Hence, the charm for national parties grew and the BJP which was keen to make inroads into the welcomed many AGP and AASU leaders into its fold. In 2011, Sonowal joined the BJP and was immediately appointed to the party’s National Executive. He, later on, went on to become the state spokesperson, state general secretary and state party president before regaining the Lakhimpur Lok Sabha seat in 2014 and then going on to become the chief minister and win the Majuli Assembly seat.
This was indeed a dream period for Sonowal and he always knew that for his dream run to continue he would have to be in the good books of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Even now, caught between the call of his people and the desire to serve his political bosses, Sonowal chose the latter giving only half-hearted assurances all the while that he would not allow anything to happen against the interest of the community he belongs to. Perhaps what Sonowal didn’t realise in his own political wisdom is that a tough stand against the bill would have only enhanced his stature and not pushed him the path of political suicide that he strangely opted for.
Even after the Lower House nod to the Citizenship Bill, Sonowal on Tuesday in his Twitter handle thanked Modi and Union home minister Rajnath Singh for granting of ST status to six communities of Assam calling it “a momentous decision and one more step towards securing our Jati, Mati & Bheti”. He was totally silent on the clearance to the Citizenship Bill in Lok Sabha which threatened the very Jati, Mati & Bheti (community, land, foundation) that he appears to steadfastly want to protect.
Granting of ST status to Six Communities of Assam is a momentous decision and one more step towards securing our Jati, Mati & Bheti.
— Sarbananda Sonowal (@sarbanandsonwal) January 8, 2019
Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) leader Akhil Gogoi warned of severe agitation if the Bill gets through Rajya Sabha.
“We have approached all the Opposition parties and urged them to take a united stand against the Bill. If the Bill scrapes through even after that the condition of Asam will worsen. Sarbananda Sonowal has ruined his own career and has no political future by siding with the BJP. He has become the enemy of the people of Assam and has no ground beneath his feet. People of Asam hate him because of his betrayal. He acted completely against the wishes of the people of Assam,” Gogoi said.
There are also talks that the KMSS leader might himself plunge into active politics as he is building on his own profile owing to the rising Assamese sub-nationalism sentiment towards him.
“This is not the right time to speak about it. But if this bill becomes an Act, the people of Assam will throw BJP into the dustbin and we will definitely have to think about a political alternative,” Gogoi said.
Assam Congress MLA Rekibuddin Ahmed said that his party will do all it can to stall the Bill in Rajya Sabha.
“Under the leadership of Ghulam Nabi Azad in the Upper House, the Congress will do all it can to prevent the Bill from getting passed. The Congress party like all others wants Sarbananda Sonowal to quit as Assam chief minister,” Ahmed told Firstpost.
Although the Union Cabinet approved the grant of Scheduled Tribe status to the six communities of Assam — Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Chutia, Tea Tribes, Moran and Matak — it is only seen as an attempt to pacify the anger of the people and as an electoral gimmick. Except for the chief minister and members of his cabinet, no one is seeing it as a “momentous decision”.
In the Report of the Joint Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, vehement opposition to the Bill was seen which was otherwise available in every single media.
“The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 makes the ongoing revision of the National Register of Citizenships (NRC) redundant as the cut off date for consideration of Citizenship which now stands at 1971 will be extended to the year 2014,” said one of the objections. “Assam Accord finding manifestation in the Citizenship Act, 1955 is a medium of ensuring identity of indigenous people of Assam. The spirit of Assam accord should be retained to stop any challenge to the demography of the state,” read another.
Although being privy of the stiff objections to the Bill from the man in the street to the civil society, the chief minister preferred to keep mum and showed little audacity, unlike his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad Sangma who even threatens to walk out of the NDA.
With all of three AGP ministers likely to resign on Wednesday from the Sonowal government including party president Atul Bora, after it pulled out of the alliance on Monday, the regional outfit would have to rethink its political path. The party, however, appeared little undecided on Sonowal.
“Let us quit first. Then we will decide if we should seek Sonowal’s resignation,” Bora told Firstpost.
The Leader of Opposition in the Assam Legislative Assembly Debabrata Saikia asked Sonowal to act according to his conscience.
“Even if I call for his resignation, he won’t because he is from another party. The call should come from within and no one should call for it. He should resign on his own based on his own thinking. Sonowal needs to understand that the BJP wants to ruin Assam. He has compromised his own position politically. All the while BJP has only been anti-people, anti-tribal, anti-Assam and violated the Consitution numerous times. It has not delivered as it promised before the polls,” Saikia said.
In a missive to the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), the Assam Leader of Opposition assured that the Congress would support any government if the BJP is thrown out of power in the state.
“Like the AGP, if the BPF comes out of the state government and allow the Sonowal government to fall, we will support the next government which will come up in lieu of the BJP,” Saikia said.
However, that’s not happening immediately as BPF leader and Tamulpur MLA Emmanuel Mosahary denied any such possibilities.
“We have not thought about going out of the government,” he said.
When pointed out that Bodoland itself has suffered much because of Bangladeshi immigrants, Mosahary said, “Even if Bodoland suffered due to illegal migrants we will stay within the system and fight it. Anyway, successive governments did nothing about it so far.”
Sonowal must be quietly praying that the storm blows over soon and that he could retain his office when the state goes for Assembly polls next year. Only on Monday, the chief minister laid the foundation stone of Tinsukia Medical College in Assam, which is going to be the biggest in the state, perhaps oblivious to the fact that his career is already in ICU.