Assam's 'sons of the soil' cherish new protest symbol

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - At the centre of deadly protests in Assam, a red and white cloth has come to symbolise the struggle of the Indian state's "sons of the soil" against a new citizenship law that they see as a threat to their unique culture.

Traditionally worn by fishermen and peasants, millennials and others in the far-flung region have taken to wearing the gamosa, tying it around their heads, their waists and inscribing it with anti-government slogans.

"This is like a flag for us," said Jatin Borah, 22, one of the thousands taking to the streets in days of riots and running battles with police that left five people dead.

"It represents Assam, its culture and collective political and social aspirations of its people," the student said. "It's our pride. It is uniting us."

epa08070144 People from the Indian state of Assam hold placards during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), in Mumbai, India, 14 December 2019. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah on 09 December introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) during the winter session of the Indian Parliament. The passing of the bill will give Indian citizenship rights to refugees from Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikhs, Parsi or Christian communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. EPA/DIVYAKANT SOLANKI
People from the Indian state of Assam hold up a gamosa painted with a slogan denouncing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) during a rally in Mumbai. EPA

India's north-east region, which lies sandwiched between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar, has long seethed with inter-ethnic tensions, with armed tribal groups still resisting being part of India.

Assam, in particular, has long witnessed hostility between locals and Bengali-speaking immigrants brought by the British to toil on tea plantations or who flowed in during Bangladesh's war of independence in 1971.

Years of agitation driven by student organisations that included the 1983 Nellie Massacre – when about 2,000 people were killed in six hours – only ended in 1985 with the Assam Accord.

Part of the agreement was to root out foreigners and this year a contentious citizens' registry left off 1.9 million people who were unable to prove that they or their forebears were in Assam before 1971.

They face possible statelessness, incarceration in prison camps or even deportation.

epa08062918 Students shout slongans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Guwahati, Assam, India, 11 December 2019. Hundreds of students from various collages of Guwahati took part in the protest. The passing of the bill will give Indian citizenship rights to refugees from Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikhs, Parsi or Christian communities coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah introduced the Citizenship Amendment Bill 2016 in the lower house of Parliament 09 December. EPA/STR
Students shout slogans during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in Guwahati, Assam. EPA

Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi has re-opened old wounds with legislation passed last week that could give citizenship to 20 million immigrants living in India – including about 500,000 in Assam.

Graffiti has sprung up across Guwahati, Assam's main city and the epicentre of days of riots and clashes with police that left two people dead and dozens hurt, saying the citizenship law violates the hard-won 1985 deal.

"The law poses a direct threat to our culture, livelihood and homeland," Samujjal Battacharya, a senior figure in the powerful All Assam Students Union organisation, said.

"We won't accept even a single immigrant. Assam has taken enough immigrants in the past," he said as protesters chanted "Long Live Assam" and "Hail, Mother Assam".

He, too, wore a gamosa, as did two young women walking silently by, theirs emblazoned with a message in English and Assamese, the local langauge, that read, "Mr Modi, Assam is not your dumping ground".

The gamosa comes in different sizes but the pattern of a red border of flowers around the white handmade cotton is universal, cutting across more than 20 tribes in Assam.

"The gamosa has been part of the life for centuries in Assam," Bishnu Saikia, a social scientist said.

He said it was used by farmers and fishermen "primarily to wipe sweat at work" but had over the years become part of local popular culture, evolving into a symbol of Assamese identity.

It is often given to visitors as a souvenir of the state.

"Assam's millennials and later generations have adopted it as a cultural symbol and are unabashed about flaunting it," he said. "It is giving them the feeling of connecting with the roots."

"Our ancestors have preserved the tradition for centuries and if outsiders are allowed to settle here, this might die too," Utpal Borah, a protester, said.

"Our existence is under threat," he said.

Updated: December 15, 2019 03:01 PM

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