5 killed in Assam: Why ULFA sees last chance to revive fortunes in BJP govt's push for Citizenship (Amendment) Bill

Sanghamitra Baruah
Sanghamitra BaruahNov 02, 2018 | 18:22

5 killed in Assam: Why ULFA sees last chance to revive fortunes in BJP govt's push for Citizenship (Amendment) Bill

A protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Credit: PTI/Files

On Wednesday, as a 600-foot-tall statue of Sardar Patel was inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi in Gujarat, the Assam government took out 'Run for Unity' rallies across the state to celebrate Rashtriya Ekta Diwas (National Unity Day).

Taking part in the 'Run for Unity' in Guwahati, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said this was an occasion to renew the commitment to build a strong nation by fostering unity among people across the country.


A day later, five people were killed by suspected United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) terrorists in Upper Assam's Tinsukia district. Although the outfit has denied any role in the attack, various reports, including intel inputs, suggest the terrorists belonged to the ULFA's Paresh Baruah faction (the ULFA-Independent).

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal paying tributes to Sardar Patel on his 143rd birth anniversary. (Credit: Twitter)

The latest attack comes close on the heels of a low-intensity blast in Guwahati on October 13, in which four people were injured. ULFA-I later claimed responsibility for the incident, terming it a warning for Hindu Bengali groups working "against the interests of Assam".

As Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh expressed "deep anguish" over civilian casualties, the fact that the 'civilians' belonged to one particular community — Bengali Hindus — makes one thing clear: the state’s past divides are still driving its politics.

This, many fear, is perhaps just the beginning of a spate of violence that awaits the hapless people.

Many in Assam have already termed this a fallout of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, — how the background to ethnic violence has been created by the Centre by "unconstitutionally placing" the contentious Bill in Parliament.


Why Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 seeks to make ‘illegal migrants’ from members of minority communities — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian migrants — from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan eligible for Indian citizenship.

The Bill, if passed, will make these migrants eligible for citizenship by naturalisation. Citizenship by naturalisation, under the present law, requires an applicant to have stayed in the country for 11 years of the last 14 years, and throughout the last 12 months. The proposed amendment brings down the residency requirement to six years, besides the last 12 months.

The BJP government argues that this exception has been made because these minorities are fleeing religious persecution and have no option apart from coming to India illegally.


The amendment will not cover Muslims because they are part of the majority in these three countries.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has met with serious opposition in Assam. (Credit: PTI photo)

The supporters of the Bill also argue that non-Muslim migrants are forced to move out of these countries fearing for their lives, while others voluntarily cross over to India seeking economic opportunities.

In Assam, this Bill has met with serious opposition.

Many, including political parties and civil society groups, have been opposing the Bill on the grounds that the amendments will grant citizenship to all Bengali-speaking Hindu immigrants. This is not acceptable to them because the issue is about 'illegal Bangladeshi immigrants' — not Hindus and Muslims.

The Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), an ally of the BJP in the state government, was clear in its stand even during the 2016 Assembly election that the party doesn't distinguish between Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshi immigrants. After announcing a series of agitations against Bill, the AGP now has decided to contest Panchayat polls on its own.

In fact, the opposition to the Bill is so strong that many claim even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been forced to do a rethink.

“If tabled in Parliament, the situation in Assam could take a turn for the worse, with adverse consequences for the elections next year. Moreover, the majority of activists from the Brahmaputra valley in the state have voiced their opposition to the Bill,” a senior functionary of the RSS’s Guwahati chapter was quoted in this report.

There is a strong view among some in the RSS that the Bill ought to have been “planned in advance” with the goal to address the concerns of the people in Assam. 

Dreams don't die — but they do disappear

While the Assamese no longer romanticise ULFA as their saviours, the outlawed outfit sees the controversial Bill as a godsend to revive its fortunes and restore the sagging morale of its cadres. ULFA (I) chief Paresh Baruah recently threatened Bengali outfits who wanted to stage a rally in support of the Bill.

The contents of the Bill have given ample ammo to critics of the BJP government in Assam on the grounds that the Bill discriminates against Muslims and violates the secular nature of the Constitution.

The Bill, however, has met opposition mostly in the Brahmaputra valley, where people have been accusing the BJP of bending the law in favour of Bengali-origin Hindus to get their votes. Those in Bengali-dominated Barak valley naturally feel the amendments will secure their rights.

Amid all this, it's the state BJP government that seems to be in a precarious position — it can't oppose the Bill introduced by its central leadership, yet it can't ignore local Assamese sentiments.

While the Centre has launched a massive counter-insurgency operation along the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border following Thursday's killings, this is exactly what the ULFA (I) would be looking at — an opportunity to garner more support in its war against the state.

ULFA (independent) chief Paresh Baruah. (Credit: PTI file)

During the ULFA heydays of the 1980s and early 90s, gross human rights violations, including secret killings during military operations, spread not just mistrust but more resentment among people against the Indian state.

Where there is politics, there is provocation 

While ULFA rebels have been threatening attacks over proposed amendments to the citizenship law, political and social groups, both for and against the Bill, have kept the cauldron burning. The Assamese-Bengali war of words is fuelled by hypernationalism on both sides.

Following Thursday's attack, the police have summoned ULFA (pro-talk) leaders Mrinal Hazarika and Jiten Dutta over suspicion of their involvement. Hazarika, a former rebel, allegedly threatened to bring back the days of the Nellie massacre (1983) and violence against Bengali-speaking people in a recent press meet. 

On the other hand, Hojai BJP MLA Shiladitya Dev and Congress leader Kamalakhya Dey have been accused of spreading 'Bengali jatiyatabad' (nationalism) in Barak Valley. 

If the divide between the two valleys is deep, the Assam government seems to be twisting the knife deeper into the chasm with irresponsible statements.

Condemning the killings, Assam railway minister Rajen Gohain on Friday reportedly claimed that constituencies of Raha, Nagaon and Jagiroad should be recovered from "Bangladeshi-Muslims". According to Gogoi, "If Assam does not welcome Hindu Bangladeshis, the state will be destroyed by the Muslim Bangladeshis. The Assamese community will become the slave of the Bangladeshi Muslims. Shall we take a stand against the Mughals or shall we take a stand against our brothers?"

Meanwhile, the All Cachar Karimganj Hailakandi Students' Association said the incident marks the beginning of riots. 

Pradip Dutta Roy, founder-president of the All Cachar Karimganj Hailakandi Students' Association in southern Assam's Barak Valley, too reportedly warned that "Assam will burn in violence, if the government does not take stern action in this regard".

Back to square one

It seems the mass unrest and crisis that many were fearing is finally here to take Assam back to those dark days of fear, bloodshed and hopelessness.

The ULFA was formed in 1979 with mass support in Assam. But the spate of terrorist attacks and counter-insurgency operations over three decades were enough to breed disillusion among the Assamese. The ULFA's alleged links with Pakistan's ISI further fuelled the mistrust.

A lot has changed in Assam in the past decades — ULFA is no longer relevant, the Assamese have stopped romanticising a sovereign state long back, but Paresh Baruah hasn't, or perhaps has no other option but to remain stubborn.

Those behind unleashing the volcano of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill will be responsible for giving elements like Baruah the agency he has been seeking so badly.

Last updated: November 02, 2018 | 18:23
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