Anti-CAA Protests and State Response in Assam: Identity Issues Challenge Hindutva-based Politics

Faced with a backlash over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam has been compelled to resort to the Congress’ approach of granting ethnicity-based recognition to groups. Will the party be able to recover lost ground before the next elections?


Protests have been ongoing in Assam since 10 December 2019 against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). The Act allows Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who came to India on or before 31 December 2014 to become Indian citizens on grounds of religious persecution. The massive and spontaneous protests against the CAA in Assam have been fueled by the anxiety of the people regarding linguistic, cultural, and political marginalisation as well as apprehension regarding the stress on the resources and ecology of the state due to the expected demographic change. If the CAA becomes operational, the Assam Accord would be rendered ineffective as the cut-off date of 1971 (which was also the basis for the implementation of the National Register of Citizens to identify illegal immigrants) would become void and Assam would have to accept several lakhs of immigrants who entered the country between 1971 and 2014 (Pisharoty 2019). The uproar has largely been a result of hurt ethnic sensibilities of the people of Assam due to the CAA legislation which dashed the hopes of nearly three generations (before and after 1979) who had reposed faith in the Assam Accord to solve the issue of illegal citizens in Assam. 

After massive protests against the bill since 2018 in North East India, the new act was declared to not be operational in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram due to the Inner Line Permit  (ILP) as well as in the sixth schedule areas of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya. Manipur was also brought under the ILP securing its exemption (Economic Times 2019; Outlook 2019). Such exemptions meant that the support for the anti-CAA agitation from the rest of the states in the North East became mild. Following the protests, the Assam Government cabinet announced, among other measures, the creation of three new Autonomous Councils for the Koch Rajbongshi, Moran and Matak communities (Assam Tribune 2019). 

This measure of implementing identity-based legislations and thereby recognising such communities based on ethnicities is a departure from the way in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) usually implements its policies. The BJP, so far, was indifferent to demands based on ethnic assertions made by movements as they ran counter to its Hindutva-based ideology. However, as is evident by the recent decision of the cabinet to grant autonomous councils to the three communities, it appears that the BJP in Assam has begun to change its strategy towards ethnicity-based assertions making it appear similar to the approach of the Congress governments in the past. 

The Congress and the Question of Ethnic Assertions 

Following the Assam movement (1979–85) which was a protest against “foreigners,” several ethnic movements began in the state, and these were led by different communities demanding administrative and representative autonomy. Their demands were premised on the need to preserve their cultural, linguistic and land rights which they contended were on precarious grounds given their small sizes and the large influx of “other” people. 

As early as 1952, two autonomous councils––Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong ––were created under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Owing to consistent demands and prolonged movements, a Bodoland Territorial Council was created in the plains of lower Assam in 2003 by an act of Parliament under the Sixth Schedule. In response to assertions by other groups, three statutory non-territorial autonomous councils under the State Act were created in 1995 for the Rabhas, Misings, and Tiwas (Prabhakara 2012, p 85). These autonomous councils were created to ensure the protection and promotion of the social, economic, educational, ethnic, and cultural identities of these two Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities. As there was an aggressive demand from these communities for greater autonomy, the creation of these autonomous councils was justifiable. 

However, the Congress party began to create such councils even in the absence of demands in certain instances (Prabhakara 2012). For example, in 2005, the Deoris, Sonowal Kacharis, and Thengal Kacharis, were awarded their own autonomous councils. While the Deoris and Sonowal Kacharis had demanded greater autonomy, there had been no such prolonged demand from the Thengal Kachari community. Creation of autonomous councils regardless of substantial demands had become a tool to further the political foothold of the Congress party among smaller ethnic communities.

Aside from autonomous councils, the Congress government also created 31 development councils (DC) for various backward communities for formulating and implementing developmental schemes. The Congress initially created six development councils as a way of gratifying the Moran, Matak, Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Sootea communities and Tea Tribes, that had been demanding inclusion in the STs list, which was delayed by the central government. Subsequently, Congress created several more development councils despite the lack of strong demands from some of the communities. This indicated that the formation of the DCs was also a strategy adopted by the Congress government to ensure electoral gains. Moreover, these DCs were created by executive order and not by the passage of acts in the Assam State Legislative Assembly. By creating such councils along ethnic lines, the Congress was successfully able to make inroads in areas where the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) had failed owing to its narrative based on Assamese linguistic nationalism.

The anti-CAA protests in Assam must be contextualised against the historical backdrop of the anti-foreigners movement of 1979–85. The movement ended with the Assam Accord signed in 1985 and this was followed by the formation of the AGP by the conglomerate of stakeholders that had led the six-year-long movement. The plan, programme and ideology of the AGP that came to power in 1985 was mostly determined by the idea of Assamese linguistic nationalism. However, in spite of the landslide support that the AGP received in the 1985 elections in the Brahmaputra valley, it could claim only half the seats in the state legislature. The AGP had historic limitations in negotiating with the multiple ethnic identity movements that had arisen in the state in the 1980s and this led to the erosion of its electoral space. Assamese linguistic nationalism since the pre-independence period had failed to accommodate the aspirations of the tribal communities, and the dominant narrative which influenced Assamese nationalism was mostly articulated in the language of assimilation of these communities. According to Prabhakara (2012: 60), “Such a perception was undoubtedly influenced by historical considerations that viewed the plain tribes as an inalienable part of the still-evolving (caste Hindu) Assamese society on whose periphery they were placed, but into whose lower ranks they would eventually find entry.” AGP as a regional political party formed after the signing of the Assam accord that ended the anti-foreigners movement inherited the same social and ideological base of linguistic nationalism that was unable to engage with the new phase of tribal assertion which emerged around 1988 (Mishra 2014). The Congress, on the other hand, was able to create a narrative around autonomous councils as a way of empowering tribal communities, thereby reaping electoral benefits and highlighting the glaring limitations of the AGP in dealing with demands for tribal autonomy. 

These councils also became platforms for the Congress to promote and appropriate political leaders by bestowing them with high positions in these councils. Funds were hardly provided for the implementation of development schemes which invalidated the focus on welfare. Elections to certain councils were not held for several years and there was hardly any representation or substantial empowerment of the communities. Elections to the Mising Autonomous Council, for instance, were held after more than a decade, and only when they were mandated by a high court order (Singh 2008; Saikia 2011, Times of India 2012). 

The BJP and the Question of Ethnic Assertions 

The BJP, which believes in the idea of cultural nationalism and Hindutva, has been averse to the idea of functional development councils, unlike the Congress which had used them for political mobilisation of communities along ethnic lines. After coming to power in the state in 2016, the BJP deactivated the existing development councils regime (Sentinel 2016). The dissolution of these Congress-era institutions indicated a difference in the way the BJP intended to conduct politics in the state. 

Both the Congress and the BJP in Assam, had incorporated the inclusion of the six communities (Moran, Matak, Tai Ahom, Koch Rajbongshi, Sootea and Tea Tribes) in the STs list, as part of their manifestos in the last elections. As of 2020, this demand of the six communities has not materialised because it has overt as well as covert opposition from the pre-existing ST communities of the state (Karmakar 2018; Times of India 2016; Zaman 2019). During the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) movement which began in 2018, there were continuous parleys between the representatives of the six communities and the government of Assam to explore possible solutions. 

The National Commission for STs (NCST) had cleared the proposal of the Assam government to grant ST status to these six communities in early 2019. However, the NCST had directed the government to suggest measures to ensure that the interests of the existing STs in the state would be safeguarded. This proved to be an elusive task as the BJP governments at the centre and in Assam were unable to reconcile the opposing demands of the existing STs and the ones demanding an inclusion into the list. The proposed bill that was to be introduced in parliament was promised before the 2019 elections, but did not materialise.  

In the aftermath of the current anti-CAA protests in Assam, a string of decisions were announced by the Assam government on the 21 December 2019, aimed at assuaging the communities demanding inclusion in the ST list (Assam Tribune 2019). Creation of autonomous councils was announced for three of the six communities demanding ST status, namely the Moran and Motak communities in Upper Assam, and the Koch-Rajbongshis of the original Goalpara district, excluding Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) and Rabha Hasong area in lower Assam. The same cabinet decision also mentioned that the Tai Ahom Development Council, Chutia Development Council and Koch Rajbongshi Development Councils, which were earlier dissolved by the BJP, would be restructured with substantial budgetary allocations. To address the fear of the masses about being overwhelmed by Bengali language due to the granting of citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi immigrants, the Assam cabinet resolved to request the Government of India to amend article 345 of the Constitution to declare Assamese as the state language of Assam, excluding the Barak Valley, BTAD area and hill districts (Kalita 2019). Other developmental initiatives included the establishment of 100 schools for the tea-tribe communities within the next few months. These measures were in sharp contradiction to the BJP’s earlier stance of not recognising demands on ethnic lines.

While the Congress had derived electoral benefits by mobilising communities along ethnic and identity lines by creating autonomous and development councils, these tactics eventually failed in the 2016 elections. The anti-incumbency factor in 2016 in Assam, the defection of Himanta Biswa Sarma to the BJP and the landslide victory of Narendra Modi at the national level in 2014 changed the electoral dynamics in Assam. The ideology of Hindutva and mobilisation along religious lines by focusing on the changing demographic pattern of the state owing to the influx of Muslim immigrants and the rise of the All India United Democratic Front, were used by the BJP as successful electoral strategies in the state assembly elections of 2016, state panchayat elections of 2018 and parliamentary elections of 2019. In spite of anti-CAB protests in the state, the BJP won by a huge margin in these elections. Even defections of members of the AGP who were a part of the ruling BJP-coalition in the state, over the CAB issue at the time of the panchayat elections of 2018, did not prevent the BJP from coming to power.

The narrative of the BJP was also founded on the “protection” of indigenous people of Assam from the “immigrant Muslim population.” This narrative gained credibility due to the electoral alliances formed with the AGP, Bodoland People’s Party and other small ethnic political formations prior to the elections. The rhetoric of the “last battle of Saraighat” was harnessed by the BJP in this regard in the 2016 assembly elections (Sethi and Shubhrastha 2019). The medieval battle of Saraighat where the Mughals were defeated by the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan has been referred to in a recurring manner in different moments of 20-century politics of Assam, and has now become the quintessential new rhetoric in the Assamese nationalist imagination. 

However, the Hindutva based narrative of the BJP, since the passage of the CAA, failed to convince the people. This was evident from the large-scale post–CAA protests, especially in upper Assam. Despite the huge electoral mandate secured by the BJP in the previous elections, they had not anticipated the intensity of public resentment and the widespread participation of indigenous groups against the CAA legislation. The scale of disenchantment and fury exemplified in the anti-CAA protest, mostly in upper Assam, motivated the ruling dispensation to take some decisions to allay fears regarding a possible loss of indigenous rights. The cabinet decisions to empower ethnic communities seeking ST status are strikingly uncharacteristic of the party and seem to be a response to the exigencies of the political context in the post-CAA situation prevailing in Assam. 

The decisions to grant autonomous councils and reactivate development councils announced by the cabinet were not preceded by any substantial discussions. This indicates that the BJP, in the face of the backlash over CAA, has been compelled to eschew its decision of repudiating the Congress policy of granting ethnicity-based recognition to groups. In fact, the BJP has even gone a step further than the Congress in the announcement of the creation of autonomous councils to Other Backward Category (OBC) communities as previously autonomous councils were only created for STs, while development councils were created for groups belonging to the OBC category. This betrays the level of desperation amidst the BJP to regain lost ground over the CAA in the state. 

In Conclusion 

Overall, these decisions signal a return to the Congress-era politics of mobilisation of communities along ethnic lines. Only time will tell whether these measures will be enough to quell the surge of anti-BJP demonstrations in Assam.

Since the CAA, several petitions have been lodged in the Supreme Court with regard to the unconstitutionality of the act. The perception among the protesters is that there will be a long drawn battle in court on the CAA similar to the contentious Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) (IMDT) Act of 1983, which had made it difficult to deport immigrants from Assam. The IMDT Act was eventually withdrawn in 2005 as it was declared ultra vires after a prolonged battle in the Supreme Court (Roy 2015). 

Another implication of the anti-CAA protests and evolving political context in the state is the possibility and need of the creation of a new regional political formation to successfully challenge the AGP–BJP alliance in the 2021 state assembly elections.

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