In Assam, two valleys divided on CAA, united in its absence as poll plank

Opposition leaders have mentioned CAA in their speeches but it hasn’t emerged as a major poll plank in Barak or Brahmaputra.
Monindra Das had migrated to India in 1964. He is not aware of the new CAA rules.
Monindra Das had migrated to India in 1964. He is not aware of the new CAA rules.
Written by:

“Even if somebody had come from Bangladesh, he won’t be able to apply under CAA, given the way rules are made. As per the rules, one needs to produce documents from Bangladesh. How is that possible, tell me?” 

Shrikanta Das is a 40-year-old Trinamool Congress worker from Cachar district who recently left the BJP. He runs a small eatery in Silchar, and was declared a streamlined foreigner two years ago. 

He is among thousands of Bengali Hindus living in Assam’s Barak valley who are grappling with such questions after being left out of the NRC final draft, facing cases in foreigners tribunals as doubtful voters, or even sent to detention camps as illegal migrants.

While the Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act had triggered widespread protests in Assam, the Union government’s notification on new rules this year was expected to give the BJP support among certain sections, including Bengali Hindus in Assam. 

But doubts have lingered among people like Das, who claimed that he will be allowed to vote this year even though streamlined foreigners lose their voting rights.

Amid such apprehensions, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had earlier promised during his campaign in Barak valley that the issue of the Hindu D-voter will be solved within the next six months. All those whose cases are pending before foreigner tribunals or who have been declared as foreigners are identified as doubtful or D-voters. A D-voter can only be included in the NRC after a clearance from the tribunal and on removal of her name as D-voter from electoral rolls.

The BJP, meanwhile, is not making the CAA or its rules a poll plank, trying to focus its campaign around other issues, including development efforts undertaken by the Modi government.

“We have assured people that everything will be sorted out in six months, police will not harass them and that’s why we are no longer making it a poll issue here,” said BJP Cachar district president Bimal Ray.

In another valley, discontent over other reasons

Meanwhile, in Brahmaputra valley, separated from Barak by the North Cachar hills, the discontent takes on a different shape.

When CAA was passed in 2019, the Brahmaputra valley had seen massive protests due to apprehensions that the law would grant citizenship to Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh and thereby violate the Assam Accord, according to which anyone who entered the state after March 25, 1971 would be considered an illegal immigrant.

But Babul Ali, a shopkeeper from the Jorhat Lok Sabha constituency in Sivasagar district, said “there was no such reaction from people” on the rules, compared to the CAA protests. “It is like a deleted chapter.”

Akanto Doley, a participant at a BJP election meeting in the area, said it’s because the protests were based on “lies”. “In March, the rules were notified but nobody has applied so far. This proves it all.”

Doley said he is only concerned about soil erosion in his area and the BJP has made many efforts to tackle the problem. “Anyway ours is a tribal area. So, nobody can come and stay,” he said about CAA.

Five people had died during protests in Brahmaputra and, in the 2021 assembly election campaign, the opposition had tried to make anti-CAA sentiment a poll plank here. But the BJP returned with a thumping majority. 

This time, Jorhat is the primary battleground constituency in Brahmaputra, with Congress’s Gaurav Gogoi pitched against BJP’s Topon Gogoi. The BJP’s campaign in Jorhat was led by CM Sarma who held several roadshows in the segment. Several state ministers also camped in the constituency during the BJP’s campaign. 

Opposition leaders mentioned CAA in their speeches but the legislation hasn’t emerged as a major poll plank.

Leader of Opposition Debabrata Saikia said CAA might sometimes get overshadowed by other issues that matter. “In some areas, they are distributing fake Arunodoi forms. So we had to raise that issue…CAA cannot be the only issue for the Opposition...Why ignore issues such as BJP misrule and hike in prices of medicines for CAA only,” Saikia told us. “In a tea garden, the issue is wage. There is no point talking about CAA there.”

However, Akhil Gogoi, who was arrested during the anti-CAA protest and later won an election from the Sivasagar assembly constituency from jail,  claimed that CAA will still play out in the election even if the opposition doesn’t play it up. 

“Whether the opposition makes it an issue or not, everyone in Assam has an anti-CAA sentiment and people have taken a stand against BJP. Even in Upper Assam, people have taken a stand against BJP. The main reason for this is CAA; because people have seen the real character of the BJP government,” Gogoi told us.

"They have declared themselves as Indian when they filled their NRC form. Now if they say that ‘I am not Indian and I am from Bangladesh’, there will be forgery cases."

Kamal Chakravorty, a social activist

CM Sarma had earlier claimed that only one person from the Barak valley had applied for citizenship under the amended law. “Now people have come to know the truth and the leaders of anti-CAA protesters have to seek apology from people for misleading,” Sarma had said.

Meanwhile, the vulnerable sections have been left out, said Kamal Chakravorty, a social activist who has been working on citizenship issues in the region as the nuances surrounding the citizenship issue and the new rules haven’t been communicated properly by the government.

Chakravorty said the primary issue for anyone whose name has been left out of the NRC is to contradict the claims they made previously during the NRC process – when they tried to prove themselves Indian. “Already they have declared themselves as Indian when they filled their NRC form. Now if they say that ‘I am not Indian and I am from Bangladesh’, there will be forgery cases filed against them for duplicacy.”

In Barak, murmurs of ‘chaos’

While ‘doubtful’ voters are not allowed to vote, Monindra Das, a 64-year-old from Cachar’s Sidipur, has received his voter information slip for the Lok Sabha poll.

A lawyer termed this as the “chaos” of Assam’s citizenship questions. “Technically, a D-voter or streamlined foreigner cannot vote. But this time, this is happening. This is nothing but the chaos of citizenship,” the lawyer said.

Monindra had migrated to India from Mymensingh district in Bangladesh  with his parents in 1964. In the relief eligibility  certificate issued by the ministry of rehabilitation, the reason for migration was written as “atrocities by Muslims.” 

He was served a D-voter notice in 2013 and was eventually declared a foreigner in 2019 on an ex-parte judgment, but he is planning to challenge the order in the high court. And no one in Monindra’s family is aware of the CAA or its rules. “We have heard of it in the news sometime but not sure what exactly is in it,” he said.

The biometric details of 27 lakh people taken during  the claims and objection process of NRC had been seized  following a Supreme Court order in 2019. 

Meanwhile, in Amtall Bazar in Cachar, Anjali Rai said the names of four of her seven family members were excluded from the final draft of NRC. 

“I was served a notice for D-voter in 2013 but I got a clean chit from the foreigner tribunal. I am yet to get my voter ID,” Rai said.

However, her son Bijoy, who could not make it to the NRC, is more concerned about an Aadhaar card. “I have not been able to open my bank account, I can’t even access any government scheme as my name is not in NRC,” said Bijoy.

Tanya Laskar, a human rights lawyer from Silchar who has been working on the issue of citizenship, said the existing amendments under CAA are making the rules more complicated. “In Assam, you will see there are people who are D-voters, then there are suspected foreigners, then there are others who are neither D-voter nor suspected foreigners – they are simply left out of NRC. It is not clear how these new rules are going to pan out on these people,” she said. 

Despite the discontent, the opposition has an uphill task in Barak.

In Silchar, one of the two Lok Sabha seats in Barak valley which is a traditional stronghold of the BJP due to a huge number of Bengali Hindu migrants, locals claimed the BJP had an edge.

While BJP has fielded state minister Parimal Suklabadya, TMC and Congress have fielded former Karimganj MP Radheshyam Biswas and youth leader Surya Kanta Sarkar, respectively. 

Ram Deb, a local businessman in the Silchar reserved constituency, said the poll prospects of BJP have remained unchanged even when CAA rules don’t help Bengalis.

Akhil Ranjan Dutta, professor of political science in Gauhati University, said there are several reasons why CAA hasn’t been able to make any poll impact in Assam. These include the alignment of ethnic groups with the BJP, the fragmentation of groups that resisted the law, and the change in electoral politics in the state, he said.

While Jorhat voted on April 19, Silchar is among five seats in Assam that will go to the polls on Friday.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute