Protests have erupted in Assam against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, likely to be tabled in parliament next week, with agitators claiming that it goes against the country's spirit of secularism.
The voices driving the bill in the state are that of Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal and his cabinet colleague, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who started off as student leaders before assuming prominent positions in state politics. Ironically, the challenge they face today comes from the powerful All Assam Students' Union (AASU), which has threatened to launch an all-out agitation if the bill is passed.
Campuses across the state were abuzz with activity on Friday as students shouted slogans against the bill and sang along to "Politics Na Koriba Bondhu", a popular song by singer Zubeen Zarg that translates to "don't play politics with us".
At the epicentre of the protests is the Guwahati Cotton University, the very institution that led a student agitation nearly 40 years ago that ultimately culminated in the Assam Accord of 1985. The atmosphere seems just as charged now, with intellectuals, artists, singers and students from other educational institutions across the state joining in. Former Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, a signatory of the Assam accord of 1985, also made a surprise appearance on the occasion.
"The Citizenship Amendment Bill goes against the promise of secularism enshrined in our constitution. Secondly, we in the Northeast are emotionally connected to our land, language and culture. This bill is a threat to our very identity," a student of Cotton University, which is incidentally the alma mater of Himanta Biswa Sarma, told NDTV.
"India is a secular nation, and we cannot allow something like the Citizenship Amendment Bill here. We will not stand for it. We will fight it tooth and nail," said a post-graduate student from Dibrugarh University. It was at his institution that Sarbananda Sonowal achieved prominence as a student leader.
The students are using protest music to build momentum for the statewide agitation, expected to reach its peak by next week with support from civil society groups. "People are very upset about the new bill proposing to award citizenship to Hindu refugees who have been here since December 2014. We will fight this bill, which will only increase illegal migration into the region," said Assamese singer Manas Robin, who also participated in the protests.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill aims to make it easier for non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh to become Indian citizens.