Citizenship law protests: Devastated by mob violence, this eastern Assam town is struggling to get back on track

Protesters burnt down or vandalised almost every government office and the local legislator's house in Chabua, a town not far from Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s ancestral village.

WrittenBy:Ayan Sharma
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The road to Chabua runs along a long railway track. Cutting across vast tea estates, as soon as NH 37 approaches the historic town in eastern Assam, a scene of devastation greets you.

Sat between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, Chabua has a legacy of producing tea for two centuries. A town of 10,000-odd people, it also boasts a major base of the Indian Air Force that came up and served the Allied Forces during World War II.

The rich history remains. But the face of the town has been scarred by what happened on December 12. That day, thousands of people went on a vandalising spree across the town. By night, almost every government establishment was turned into a ruin.

The violence came a day after the Citizenship Amendment Bill had been passed in the Rajya Sabha. The amended citizenship law seeks to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees who entered the country from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014.

Starting on December 11, huge protests broke out all over Assam against the new law, some turning violent in Guwahati and a few other places. None matched the rage and ferocity that was unleashed on Chabua on December 12, however.

“Sab kuch tod diya, everything was demolished,” said a CRPF man guarding the railway station, standing a few metres away from engineers and labourers busy rebuilding it.

Across from the station, the post office lay in ruins. Its doors and windows were broken and the walls blackened with ashes, burnt papers lay strewn on the ground, and tin sheets dangled from the roof. The office, said Branch Post Master Prabhat Chandra Duarah, had been set on fire. “Nothing survived,” he rued. “All the files, papers and computers were gutted in the fire. The estimated loss is approximately Rs 2.81 crore.”

The post office staff have mostly stayed home the past two weeks. They are all waiting for the Postmaster General to come from Delhi and decide what to do next, he added.

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The post office in Chabua.

Around two hundred metres ahead, by the highway, stood another wreck. The Chabua branch of the United Bank of India, housed on the first floor of a three-storied building, had fallen to arsonists the same evening. “Furniture, networking computers, office stationery, CCTV cameras and all paper documents were lost in the fire. The total damage would be around Rs 50 lakh,” said Rajyeswar Chetia, senior manager at the branch.

While documents related to loans, deposits and title deeds had a backup in the bank’s system, recovering those would not be easy, said Chetia. “It requires some permission from the court. Therefore, our legal team has been deliberating and exploring options regarding that. We will do as they instruct,” he added.

The railway station, post office and bank were only a few in a long list of government establishments targeted on December 12. The offices of the Chabua Town Committee and the Circle Office were vandalised and set afire too. The local offices of BSNL and the Assam State Transport Corporation were severely damaged.

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The Assam State Transport Corporation office.

While anger against the new law was understood and expected, the scale of violence in Chabua left everyone astounded. So, what explains it?

Mridupawan Gogoi, a member of the All Assam Students Union, believes that the violence stemmed from the people’s expectations from Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

“Sonowal hails from Bindhakata, a village about 15 kilometres away from here,” he said, by way of an explanation. “Until the last minute, many expected that he would take a stand against the citizenship law. But because that didn’t happen, protesters probably turned furious and came out in thousands.”

Although government offices became the primary targets, at the peak of violence, the crowd didn’t spare the home of Chabua BJP legislator Binod Hazarika either. Situated opposite a unit of the Air Force station, Hazarika’s home now resembles a construction site, with broken walls, debris and excavators all around.

“At around 3 pm, a mob of over 1,000 people came towards the house, many carrying axes and machetes. They first bombarded the house with stones, then stormed inside, and finally set fire to the building,” said Mukul Gogoi, personal assistant to Hazarika.

The legislator, along with his bodyguards, family members and associates, managed to escape through the backyard after the protesters started pelting stones at his house. “It was his ancestral property where his mother used to live with the families of two other sons. All have now moved to rented accommodations nearby,” Mukul added.

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Binod Hazarika’s destroyed house.

Chabua has long been a hotbed of Assamese nationalism. Sonowal cut his teeth as a jatiyotabadi, or subnationalist leader, in AASU, rising through the ranks to become its president. The region has also seen many people join the secessionist United Liberation Front of Assam. The group’s commander Paresh Baruah and its general secretary Anup Chetia both come from Jerai, a village a couple of kilometres from Bindhakata.

In spite of this history, Chabua’s residents insist that what happened on December 12 was unprecedented. “Even at the height of the Assam Agitation in the 1980s, we didn’t see anything like this here,” said Mintu Chakraborty, a resident.

According to the police, the mob was too hostile for them to prevent any of the attacks that day. For example, the Circle Office was vandalised and set on fire in the presence of the executive magistrate, policemen and CRPF personnel, said an officer at the Chabua police station. “It was a 10,000-strong crowd that surrounded the office from all sides. Despite provocations, we only did lathicharge, lobbed tear gas shells, and fired rubber bullets. Firing directly would’ve led to too many deaths and the situation would have gone out of hand,” said the officer, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the press.

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The Revenue Circle office.

On a day when all government offices were destroyed by angry protesters, the police station bore the last symbol of state machinery in Chabua. Saving it from any assault became the police’s top priority, he explained.

“It was a warlike situation for us. About fifteen of our personnel took positions from behind the gate and on the roof. Luckily, the crowd did not move towards the thana,” the officer added.

Two weeks since disorder suddenly struck Chabua, normalcy is slow to return. Traffic is thin and most people stay home even in daytime. Shops and offices are shut shortly after noon. Business, naturally, has taken a hit.

Raju Shah, who owns a grocery store, said tension was still palpable within the business community. As a precautionary measure, shops open for hardly four-five hours a day, he said. “Sales have gone down by 70-80 percent. Our supplies have become costlier as the transport network has also been affected. Business is really bad for all of us,” said Shah.

Chetia echoed the worry. While it took five days to restore his bank branch in a nearby facility, business has been slow. Considering the protests, the makeshift branch, he said, closes early in the afternoon as per instruction from their superiors. “Only basic services like deposit and withdrawal are being facilitated currently. Therefore, we get just a handful of customers every day. It will take at least a month for the branch to get functional properly,” Chetia added.

The police have registered 22 cases and arrested 20 people so far in connection with the violence. The arrests have been made mainly from neighbouring villages, though a few people have been held from Chabua as well. Most of them have been booked under the Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act. However, the involvement of any organisation behind the attacks on state properties looks unlikely, the police said.

“In some of the incidents, the crowd consisted of all sections of people, from schoolchildren to old men and women. So how can you say it was an organised act? I think people were just frustrated and came out spontaneously,” said a police officer.

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Chabua’s railway station.

The public backlash against the citizenship law has put the BJP on the backfoot in the area. A series of resignations has shaken the party since the protests began. Narayan Sarmah, former vice chairman of the Chabua Town Committee who quit the BJP recently, said the party would have a tough time recovering its support. “Apart from me, two other office bearers of the Town Committee resigned immediately after the new law was passed. Many of our grassroots workers have also followed our path. What’s the point of clinging on to positions when the people are not with you?” asked Sarmah.

A BJP legislator from a neighbouring constituency who would only speak anonymously echoed this view. “Seeing how people came out and paralysed Chabua, we will likely lose the seat in the next Assembly election in 2021,” he predicted.

Such political calculations will continue, as will the investigation into the violence. The townsfolk, at the moment, are only praying for normalcy to return. “Even I oppose the law and want the protests to continue,” said Anup Das, who runs a pharmacy in the town. “But that shouldn’t derail day-to-day life.”

All photographs by Ayan Sharma.


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