‘Time to declare a war’: Assam’s papers rail against Citizenship Bill, laud protests against it

‘Time to declare a war’: Assam’s papers rail against Citizenship Bill, laud protests against it

An article in 'Asomiya Pratidin' argues that the Bill's passage proves the Assamese people don't get the slightest respect from the Indian state.

By Ayan Sharma

Published on :

As the Rajya Sabha was debating the Citizenship Amendment Bill on Wednesday afternoon, Assam erupted violently in protest. By evening, as the Bill was passed, the protests intensified. Thousands of people, led by students in many places, took to the streets, defying curfew and laying siege to highways and railway lines. Guwahati, the capital, turned into a battlefield, with the protesters resorting to arson and blocking roads despite a flag march by the Army.

Unsurprisingly, coverage of the protests dominated all newspapers published from Assam today. The newspapers decried the passage of the Bill as a snub to the people of Assam, and lauded the protesters for their “resolve and fortitude” in standing up to “police brutality”. 

Amar Asom headlined its lead frontpage story, “Axomiya mora nai, lathi guli mana nai.” Roughly translated, it means, “The Assamese have not died, they are defying lathis, bullets.” Stories about protests in various parts of the state covered almost the entire frontpage, with one column devoted to an old poem titled Jiyar Jujot Joyee Ho, meaning “Triumph in the Battle of Life”, by the 20th century Assamese nationalist Ambikagiri Raychoudhuri.  

Referring to the ban on mobile internet in parts of Assam, a message on the top left of the frontpage regretted the daily’s inability to provide coverage of the protests as it had originally planned. Many correspondents, the message noted, were unable to file their reports owing to the clampdown.

The daily’s editorial lashed out at the BJP government for “demeaning” the resistance to the Citizenship Bill, and urged it to “learn to respect the legitimate demands of the masses”. It also criticised the regional parties of the Northeastern states that had opposed the Bill only to change their positions recently. It asserted that the ongoing protests should be seen not just as people’s opposition to a dangerous piece of legislation but as an outburst of long-simmering, collective anger of the region.

Asomiya Pratidin led its coverage with the headline that roughly translates to, “Relentless before bullets, water cannons, teargas, students’ stir a revolution in Dispur.” It too devoted its entire frontpage to news reports and articles about the protests, including an opinion piece by the editor, Nita Bora, titled “Time to declare a war”.

Bora argued that the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Parliament proved once again that the Assamese did not get even the slightest respect from the Indian state. He appealed all Assamese people to unite in a “people’s war” to achieve their rights. This movement, he added, should also be fought to protect the fundamental values of India’s Constitution. Bora urged people from the rest of the country to join Assam in solidarity and fight this long battle together.

The Assam Tribune, one of the oldest dailies in the region, went with a subded lead headline, “CAB passed in Rajya Sabha”. Yet, in keeping with the trend, reports on the protests filled the frontpage. Only a tiny column was given to snippets of other news.

The daily’s editorial, titled “Mass Protests”, was more blunt in denouncing the Bill. “Not only have the country’s citizenship laws been drastically changed,” it argued, “the hurried and unwarranted exercise – driven apparently by the BJP’s aggressive majoritarian ideology – runs contrary to the tenets that define the nation’s Constitution.”

It went on to argue that the worst aspect of the Bill was that it brushed aside “the legitimate concerns” of smaller communities in a state like Assam, which is beset with “an existential crisis” of infiltration from Bangladesh.

Calling for a united fight against the legislation, the editorial concluded, “Given that the Bill is a threat to many indigenous tribes of the Northeast, which have small populaces, a unified and properly coordinated agitation – and non-violent too – is necessary to make the voice of the Northeast heard before the powers in Delhi.”

Even Niyomiya Barta, which is owned by the wife of Himanta Biswa Sarma, the BJP’s most vocal minister in the Northeast, sided with the protesters. “Rajar Bargharat Prajar Ranahunkar,” ran the newspaper’s lead headline, which, roughly translated, means, “Citadel of power besieged by battle cry of the masses.”

Apart from news reports on the protests, the frontpage carried an opinion piece by its editor Homen Borgohain, titled, “Is being Assamese the only fault of the Assamese?”

The editor started by criticising the government for singling out the Brahmaputra Valley as the only major area to be affected by the new legislation. Citing statistics, Borgohain wrote that the proportion of Assamese speakers in the state had shrunk from 67 percent in 1971 to 48 percent. Against this backdrop, he added, the Citizenship Bill was a “big assault” on the Assamese language by the central government. It was a part of their agenda to turn Assam into a Hindu majority state, he complained.

Borgohain lashed out at the BJP governments in Delhi and Assam for not reading the pulse of the people. The protests, he warned, should be understood as only the tipping point of a range of grudges rumbling in the region for a long time. “The inability of the government to read the current protests correctly, thirty five years after the Assam Agitation, will inevitably thrust them towards a grave crisis,” he argued.