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  • Published at 12:03 am December 17th, 2019
BJP Assam Citizenship bill
Anger and resentment REUTERS

Why has Arnab Goswami broken with the BJP on the Citizenship Bill?

He’s been the “voice of the nation” and the troll-in-chief of the BJP’s television propaganda army for a while now.

But Arnab Goswami’s sudden turn on the Citizenship Amendment Bill has left his Hindu nationalist trolls befuddled. Speaking on his Republic TV show the day the Bill was passed by the cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Goswami accused the BJP of doing “appeasement politics,” describing it as “Nagpur appeasement” in a reference to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

He went on to add, “The BJP is trying to appease the Sangh Parivar … saying where will Hindus go …to the BJP I say … truly it’s none of our concern where anyone from Pakistan or Bangladesh goes … let them go to Malaysia, let them go to Jordan, let them go to Vatican City, I couldn’t give a damn. We are not a dharamshala for Hindus from Pakistan or Bangladesh.”

Goswami’s vitriol against the BJP, the RSS, and Hindu migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh may have come as a surprise to many of his fans, but that is because their view of him was probably based on a misunderstanding. They probably thought he was just a regular Hindu nationalist like them. He reminded them that he’s an Assamese and, in his subsequent stance, reminded them too that his Assamese identity takes precedence over his Hindu nationalist identity.

This is the fundamental point that the BJP’s outsider cheerleaders in Northeast India failed to grasp: that in the event of a clash between their Assamese and Hindu nationalist identities, many like Goswami will discover that they are Assamese first. For the BJP and the RSS, it was a matter of principle that persecuted Hindus should have India as their place of refuge, not just in practice but in theory, because that is an important part of being a Hindu Rashtra -- and the Citizenship Bill is a step in that direction. For the Assamese, including many who may have become cheerleaders of the BJP, the “anti-foreigner” Assam Agitation of 1979-85 directed primarily against the Bengalis, Hindu as well as Muslim, was the formative event of their lives. The RSS and the BJP in Assam started out from Silchar, in the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley. Their expansion in the Northeast has occurred from this base among the Hindu Bengalis.

The Bengali population included many who had been made refugees by the Sylhet Referendum, which led to the Bengali-speaking district of Sylhet in Assam go to East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, in 1947. The resentment of Hindu Bengali refugees fed into the sentiments that powered the Sangh Parivar in Northeast India.

Goswami’s attack on the RSS was thus on point. It’s correct that the Sangh Parivar held a principled position on the issue of citizenship for Hindu immigrants fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, unlike the Assam BJP, which at the top is a party comprised almost entirely of former All Assam Students Union members.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, his main rival in the party, Himanta Biswa Sarma, and most of his ministers are former AASU members who cut their teeth in politics through the anti-Bongal agitations. The term “Bongal” was originally used for outsiders in general, but gradually came to apply to the Bengalis.

The history of tension between the Bengalis and the Assamese, and the tribals and the non-tribals, is very old in what is now Northeast India. The entire spectrum of politics there, for a long time, has been dominated by ethnic politics. In state after state, sub-nationalist or “little nationalist” politics, which at its extreme has veered into struggles for separation from India, have reigned for decades. Even now, the fact is that ethno-nationalist concerns can come to dominate at the drop of a hat -- which is what has happened, to the BJP’s surprise, with the passing of the Citizenship Bill.

The BJP had thought it would barrel through with the legislation because it had bought over all those who mattered. The BJP’s managers forgot that Assam and the Northeast have a long history of hidden resistance, that dislike of domination by outsiders, including those from the mainland, is deeply embedded in the culture, and that there can be other games afoot as well, including power politics within the party itself.

The sense of being different from the Indian mainland existed even during the years of India’s freedom struggle, as recounted in a recent essay by Professor Sanjib Baruah for Frontline.

Baruah narrates an anecdote from an account by historian Bodhisattva Kar of an argument between Jawaharlal Nehru and the Assamese public intellectual Jnananath Bora in 1937. “Nehru after reaching Assam had found to his surprise that local public opinion was exercised mostly by the question of immigration from eastern Bengal and not by any ‘national issue’ -- not even Indian independence,” Baruah writes.

Things were the exact opposite in Bengal, which contributed multitudes of real “veers” to India’s freedom struggle and suffered the pains of Partition and the Bangladesh genocide of 1971. The politics there was always dominated by broader concerns and guided by ideologies rather than naked self-interest. As a result of this, millions of Bengalis died and millions more became refugees.

The BJP’s trolls spend much of their lives cursing Nehru for all of India’s ills, so it’s ironic that the great Chanakyas of whom they are bhakts made the same discovery in 2019 that Nehru had made in 1937: That public opinion in Assam is exercised more by the question of immigration from eastern Bengal than by any “national issue.” For the Assamese ruling classes, many of whom share surnames such as Goswami, Dutta, Bhattacharjee, Talukdar, Chakraborty, and Choudhury with their Bengali brethren, saving Assam from “foreigners” was and remains the primary political concern.

In the struggle between Hindu nationalism and the little nationalisms it had apparently swallowed whole in Northeast India, this round has gone to the little nationalisms, which will receive a new lease of life now. The next 30 years or so are going to be “interesting times.”

Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist, and a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. He tweets as @mrsamratx. This article previously appeared on newslaundry.com and has been reprinted by special arrangement.