The defining moment of the campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Assam, many agree, came at a rally addressed by then prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. After May 16, he thundered, all Bangladeshis will be sent back “bag and baggage”. May 16 was the day when votes were counted and Modi’s BJP began its march into Assam, winning seven of the state’s 14 parliamentary seats. Exactly two years to the month, the BJP overran the Congress’s 15-year-old citadel in Assam, storming to power in the state for the first time. Throughout the weeks-long campaign, the BJP’s trump card, again, was the promise to deport all “illegal Bangladeshis”, the biggest and most divisive of all issues in Assam for decades.
Now fast forward to January 4, 2019. At a similar rally in Silchar, in the heart of Bengali-majority Barak Valley, Modi announced his government’s resolve to go ahead with amendments to the Citizenship Act of 1955, paving the way for granting citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from three neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh (See graphic). The Assamese-speaking natives in Brahmaputra Valley erupted in anger at what is being seen as a “great betrayal” by the BJP. By the time the Union cabinet approved the bill—and the Lok Sabha passed it subsequently—the anger spilled on to the streets, in the form of protests and a daylong shutdown across the Northeast supported by more than 70 organisations. At least six protesters were wounded in Tripura in police firing.