“Whither is our democracy bound?”—It can be said that the present time is marked by a deterioration of circumstances in which such questions can be raised. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government and its fraternal organisations have defined democracy in their own terms. These organisations have also tried to define citizenship to suit their agenda by trying to determine who is an Indian and a patriot as well as who are anti-nationals. As a result, the fundamental ideas about free speech have also transformed. It has been seen that the ruling party and its fraternal organisations have given priority to those who are their ideological allies when it comes to appointing the heads of institutions of higher education and research in the country. A parallel may be drawn between the situation that prevails today and the curtailment of free speech during the emergency in the 1970s. During emergency, it was not possible for independent writers to publish articles or broadcast radio plays in government media unless they maintained the interests of Indira Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi family or promoted the twenty point programme and the five point programme introduced by Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. Even private newspapers were censored or they succumbed to the iron grip of the government. The situation today is more or less the same if not worst.
The journal Economic and Political Weekly had been publishing progressive and investigative writings for a number of decades. Some months back, its former editor and one of the authors of the book, Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis Paranjoy Guha Thakurta pointed out how the capitalists and close allies of Narendra Modi—Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani—had profited from their investments in natural gas. He also co-authored an article on 14 January 2017 on how Adani had earned an exemption from tax worth a thousand crores. He co-authored another article exposing how special opportunities were created by the government by tweaking rules related to special economic zones (SEZs) so that the Adani group could reap a bonanza of five hundred crores. Guha Thakurta has been forced to severe his ties with EPW despite prominent people like Deepak Nayyar, former Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University, Romila Thapar, eminent academician and historian, Dipankar Gupta, social scientist, among others, being members of the Sameeksha Trust that publishes the journal. Adani Power Limited sent a legal notice and slapped a defamation case against EPW, Guha Thakurta and the co-authors of the article.
In the 8 August 2016 edition of Outlook, a freelance journalist from Lucknow, Neha Dixit, did a detailed investigative cover story titled “Operation #BetiUthao” on how poor Bodo and Adivasi girls from Assam were trafficked by the Sangh Parivar to impart “special” education in schools run by the Sangh in Gujarat, Punjab and the areas bordering Haryana. Neha conducted extensive interviews of the girls’ parents, Sangh activists, school authorities and government officials and accessed government documents to expose trafficking by different Sangh outfits. She laid bare the facts about how these girls were snatched and stolen from their homes by an extensive network of Sangh outfits in the name of modern education. It is now known that a case against Neha has been filed by Bijon Mahajan – a lawyer and BJP spokesperson in Assam, Mominul Awal – Assam state president of BJP Minority Morcha, and S.C. Koel – Assistant Solicitor General, Gauhati High Court. This must have thrown Neha’s professional life as a journalist into jeopardy. The issue was not even discussed in Assamese media. Therefore, many would say that the current situation is akin to an undeclared emergency. The bureaucracy is also being gradually forced to follow special allegiances in the wake of such a situation. The legal system, like other institutions, is also being manipulated by a specific agenda but nonetheless, it has managed to retain the faith of the people to a significant extent. If this faith is destroyed, nobody knows where the democratic institutions in the country would be heading.
A few weeks back, reports complete with photographs of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Hojai district and the Bajrang Dal in Nalbari district of Assam giving armed traning to its cadres were published in the media. Who is going to attack whom and who is going to thwart such attacks and for whom—for which these trainings are being given—I do not think that anyone can have any sane answers to these questions. None in Assam seems to know where everything is heading, for these preparations for a hypothetical war are a departure from the main issues based on which the current government of Assam assumed office. The government came to power with the promise to safeguard jati (nation), mati (land), bheti (home) and preserve the distinct identity of the indigenous communities living in the state along with promises of creating employment opportunities and inculcating a scientific temper among the youth. Today, most of the people of Assam, whether Hindus or Muslims, have become increasingly reliant on outsiders. Nowadays outsiders come to give the people of Assam lessons on patriotism and nationalism. Their language, motives and objectives are different and their politics is repugnant to the politics of nationality in the state. Assam has now become a colony of a different category of ‘outsiders and foreigners’. The land is being wilfully given away to outsiders and the educated youth of the state would have to fight for survival by opening betel nut stalls and small roadside food kiosk or through petty contracts in the name of trade and commerce. The resources are being gradually taken over by outsiders. The language, identity and the traditional educational institutions of the state are being pushed towards destruction. The politics has become totally subservient to Delhi; the leaders have become mere puppets. The regional politics of nationality assertion has been trapped in this sinister design planned by the Centre. In the coming days, the possibility of conflicts between the existing scheduled tribe (ST) communities and those demanding ST status taking a violent form is growing at an alarming pace. Only the future will tell whether the conflict between the Assamese and the Bengalis living in the state would be resolved or not. Moreover, a certain section with vested interests has already created a fertile ground of simmering conflicts between Hindus and Muslims to engender riots. An atmosphere is being created in which a spark could ignite a conflagration in the state. In the past, instead of taking into account the interests of the common people, politics in the state had been premised on terror, violence, exclusion and discrimination based on ethnicity. Now, it has become clear that megalomaniacs masquerading as politicians could go to the extent of selling the state to further their own interests and manufacture violence and hatred in the name of religion and language.
Talks have resurfaced to re-table the Bill to amend the Citizenship Act of 1955 in Parliament. It is commonsensical knowledge that Bengali would undoubtedly become the dominant language of the state if the majority of the Hindu Bengali foreign citizens from Bangladesh immigrate to Assam. Since Independence, the issue of immigration has always held a prominent position in politics and social life in Assam. It has been 38 years since the Assam agitation was launched to expel the perceived foreigners residing in the state, and more importantly, 32 years have passed since the signing of the Assam Accord. The figure of the Bangladeshi and the problems associated with it have been politicised again and again but there has been no resolution. In the meantime, the process of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC) is almost half-finished but the remaining part of it is languishing now due to government apathy. The other day, the State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh clarified in Guwahati that no Bangladeshi citizen has migrated to Assam and that the Indian government has not conveyed any information to Bangladesh government regarding the problem of immigration. The Indian government has not refuted the Bangladeshi Minister’s statement. The question therefore arises: If the Bangladeshi government is not willing to take back these alleged illegal Bangladeshis living in Indian territory, how will they be dealt with? Or, will they just be killed off? On one hand, the government and its allies have created a potentially explosive situation by invoking the bogey of Bangladeshis, and on the other hand, they are yet to take up any systematic attempt to deport these people to their own country. During the three years of Modi regime, many agreements have been signed with Bangladesh, but the issue of Bangladeshi immigration never found any space in any of the meetings. Does not this amount to a betrayal of the interests of the people of Assam through the connivance of the Indian and the Assam government, the political parties and the many organisations that have mushroomed in response to the alleged presence of Bangladeshi infiltrators in Assam? They have lost the right to appropriate the name of Lachit Borphokun long ago. Once upon a time, though not very long ago, the people of Assam grew opium and used to get stoned by consuming it. The Assamese nowadays have become more apathetic than their opium-addicted forefathers. They have become numb and they no longer feel pain— they no longer scream in hunger, or do they cry in despair and feel hope any longer. Instead, they have started lionizing criminals and thugs as leaders. The Assamese no longer guard their own dignity and have started to enslave themselves to outsiders without any hesitation, just for a morsel of food or a piece of cloth. Those who have sworn to safeguard Assam have now become the kings and have subsequently been devoured by temptations strewn in the corridors of power and it would be foolhardy to expect them to protect and defend even the last remaining framework of the national character of Assam. May be, the time is ripe to turn the tables and think of defending Assam from the clutches of those who are in power and this could be the only way of preserving the identity of the state. In the meantime, everyone needs to try to know what would happen if the people do not consciously stand up to defend the ethos of plularity from the iron grip of those in power.
Tanslated from Assamese by Rupam Sindhu Kalita. The article was originally published in the leading Assamese daily, Axomiya Khabar.