[This reportage for RAIOT is by Mr. Berham Pooter, who for the purpose of retaining his freedom wishes to remain anonymous]
In the Quiet Morning
In the morning of December 12, 2019 most people around the Uzan Bazar, Ambari area of Guwahati had come out to see who had assembled at the Latasil field and hear some of the speakers they were sure would come: Zubeen, Samujjal and others who had been vocal in their opposition to to the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB). Before mobile internet services were shut down at 1900 hours on December 11, 2019, many citizens of Guwahati had updated their status to ask people to come to Latasil grounds at 1100 hours the following day. The messages had a ring of defiance to them. In an age that demands distraction via the world wide web, the status updates managed to help individuals focus on the event that they were coming out to participate in.
They were somewhat disturbed to see four army trucks lined up outside the Latasil police station. Some young women, probably from the various paying guest hostels in the area, sat down at the crossroads and began singing. They were joined by young men, shouting slogans against the CAB and a new, very irreverent shout that followed every time someone shouted the name of Assam’s finance minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma. Lei lei, sei sei! They shouted, breaking into derisive laughter and song once again. The slogans remained focused on the repeal of CAB, as other people made their way to the play ground from various parts of the city.
Meanwhile, the police and paramilitary had cordoned off Gauhati University and the Jalukbari area, where there are several educational institutions located within a three-four square kilometre radius. Back in Uzan Bazar, rumour had it that the police had gone and parked themselves around Zubeen’s house in Kharghuli to prevent him from making it to the grounds at Latasil. Someone walking on the side of the road said that most activists of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) had been prevented from making it to the field.
All of a sudden, a policeman walked up to the protesting women and asked them to leave since the curfew was still being enforced. As the women, young men and army faced off against each other in front of the iconic Ideal Pharmacy (which uncharacteristically remained closed in the morning), one heard ear splitting shots being fired on the parallel street. As if on cue, the soldiers began to march towards Barowari, even as few more rounds were fired upon the people who were gathering around the area. While some did turn around, most people — especially women — were enraged and defiant. They spilled out of their houses wearing their night gowns, shouting down the soldiers and screaming in Assamese at the the local policemen: “Have you no shame?”. Pretty soon, the soldiers and police gave in and the crowds occupied Latasil field.
Speaking amidst spies and drones
The speakers arrived, while people made their way to the centre of the field. Some had already been in the vicinity, since the AASU office is a stone’s throw away. As the army and police drew back, speaker after speaker picked up a mike that had miraculously appeared with a generator. “Please be brief”, begged Samujjal Bhattacharya, the AASU advisor, “we are running out of diesel”. Immediately, the crowd kept broke out into slogans. Veteran journalist and human rights activist, Ajit Bhuyan appealed to the crowd to show restrain as they let the news of the CAB sink in. He quoted from the works of Laxminath Bezbarua and said that politicians had betrayed the people of Assam once again. Journalists Haidor Hussain, Prasanta Rajguru, Nitumoni Saikia, advocate Arup Borbora, ULFA leader Anup Chetia, all spoke about the need to reclaim the dignity of the people of Assam after such a devastating result of the CAB being passed in both houses of parliament. All the while, their speeches were egged on by a crowd shouting “Joi Ai Oxom”.
Occasionally, the city police tried to weave their way to the centre (of the field) where a podium had been set up, to try and break up the gathering. They were almost always shouted back by the people. A few policemen wearing civilian clothes tried to blend in with the crowd. “Dada, which thana are you from?”, a
young man would shout from the crowd and everyone laughed at the sheepish police personnel, who sidled off towards the station. “News Live, go back!”, was another popular refrain, as people made it abundantly clear that they were not happy with the television station that is owned by Mr. Biswa Sarma’s wife.
In the middle of all the speeches, some young children began to point to the sky and the people of Guwahati were witness to at least two menacing drones that hovered in the air. The British-Israeli academic, Eyal Weizman, said that one of the most disturbing aspects of Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian territory was aerial surveillance. Drones and helicopters had become a way by which the Zionist state had strengthened surveillance over Palestinian people. As if to complete the miming of Israel, a helicopter circled above the Latasil ground twice and then flew off towards the south. In both cases, the people flipped a bird at the drones and the helicopter. For now, those on the surveillance monitors will have to identify several middle fingers that were aimed at them.
There is little doubt that ordinary people in Assam are angry. If the responses of those in Latasil are anything to go by, their anger is currently directed at the government, especially the prime minister, the home minister, the chief minister and finance minister of Assam. Yet this is clearly not only about the CAB, as many bystanders were saying on the streets. People had barely erased the memory of the counter-insurgency years and to be suddenly reminded of the humiliation and brutality of the 1990s and 2000s seemed to elicit more anger among them. Many of the protestors were young, barely out of school and in colleges. This was a generation that had not seen human rights violations, nor were they very vocal about the political concerns of the 20th century. Yet, as they face an uncertain future, with higher fees and no work, the CAB has become the symbolic repository of humiliation for them.
It is hard to imagine that the administration did not anticipate this kind of a response to the passing of the CAB. There are two disturbing possibilities that can explain where we stand today and what we can expect in the future. The government might have been given to believe that the recently concluded parliamentary elections were a referendum for CAB, hence they underplayed the possible fallout of the actual passing of the Bill. In such a case, the future looks full of compromise and confusion, as parties and politicians try to figure out how to assuage the deep grievances that people have against them.
The second possibility is more sinister. Perhaps the government knew that there would be such a response and are convinced that they can win the day by clamping down harder on the protests. They figure that by threats of more violence and some skulduggery that involves turning people against each other, they will manage to reappear as arbiters of law and order. That will be a truly unfortunate turn of events.
As the news of the death of protestors filter in, one is told that the protestors are amassing in a different part of the city. Tomorrow (December 13, 2019), the agitators who have experience with street campaigns have asked people to defy curfew peacefully and assemble in the Chandmari locality of the city. One fears that the moment for restraint and reason might have passed with the dead protestor.