2020: The year Assam was dealt with blows upon blows

2020: The year Assam was dealt with blows upon blows

Assam had little luck escaping the ravages of Covid-19 in a year filled with myriad developments for the northeastern state

National Disaster Response Team (NDRF) personnel carry out search and rescue operations after two firemen of Oil India Limited went missing since an oil well at the company’s Baghjan oilfield exploded, in Assam’s Tinsukia district. Credit: PTI File Photo

Assam had little luck escaping the ravages of Covid-19 in a year filled with myriad developments for the northeastern state from aggressive protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and birth of new political parties to a major industrial disaster.

Assam's tryst with the killer virus happened on March 31, when a returnee from outside the state tested positive for Covid-19 in Silchar, and since then over 1,040 people have died from the contagion and more than 2,16,000 afflicted.

The Assam government adopted the policy of 'Ruthless Quarantine with A Human Heart' as nearly 30 lakh people underwent both institutional and home isolation.

It also set up 550 dedicated Covid-19 hospitals and health centres to deal with the pandemic, and provided Rs 2,000 each to people from the state who were stranded outside during the nationwide lockdown.

The widespread agitation against the contentious Citizenship Act in 2019 spilled onto 2020 with renewed vigour before coming to an abrupt end owing to the lockdown in March.

The Assam government quelled the protests with an iron hand, arresting key leaders like Akhil Gogoi, who opposed tooth and nail the law that seeks to grant citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian migrants who fled religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

The anger of the indigenous Assamese was triggered by the concern that they would be reduced to a minority as Hindu Bengalis and illegal Muslim migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh posed a threat to their land, language and culture.

The Centre and the state government made efforts to assuage the Assamese people with the promise that they were committed to constitutionally safeguarding their political, linguistic, cultural and land rights, and urged the High Level Committee on Implementation of Clause Six of the Assam Accord, set up last year, to submit its report at the earliest.

The 13-member committee submitted its report in February, but there was no further action or word on it, prompting the All Assam Students' Union (AASU) to make the report public on August 11.

Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, however, asserted that his government and the Centre are committed to implementing the report.

There was also no further progress on the National Register of Citizens, the final list of which had last year excluded the names of 19,06,657 people. A total of 3,11,21,004 names were included out of 3,30,27,661 applicants.

In December, NRC state coordinator Hitesh Dev Sarma told the Gauhati High Court that it was only a "supplementary list" and the final document is yet to come out.

Over 10,000 names were either wrongly included or excluded and necessary orders have been issued to delete nearly 4,800 "ineligible persons" from the document, Sarma said in an affidavit.

Two new political parties were floated during the year as the state geared up for assembly elections in 2021 The AASU and the Asom Jatiyotabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) formed the Asom Jatiyo Parishad (AJP), while the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) created the Raijor Dal.

Both the parties have agreed on an alliance, but details are yet to be worked out.

The opposition Congress and the AIUDF announced that the new parties will be part of a 'Grand Alliance' to prevent the BJP and its allies from returning to power in the state, with former chief minister Tarun Gogoi playing an important role in the initiative.

Gogoi, unfortunately, tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week of August and succumbed to post-Covid complications on November 23, creating a void in the party and resulting in defections.

The ruling BJP, late in the year, emerged victorious in the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) and Tiwa Autonomous Council polls, and asserted that the outcome was like victory in a semi-final match before the assembly elections.

Assam was also witness to one of its worst industrial disasters in the pandemic year, after Oil India Ltd's gas well at Baghjan in Tinsukia district started spewing gas uncontrollably. Three persons lost their lives due to a fire incident and high-voltage electric shock.

The well was finally 'killed' and the flames doused after 173 days, but not before forcing more than 3,000 people to leave their homes, besides damaging the bio-diversity of the neighbouring Maguri-Motapung wetlands and the Dibru- Saikhowa National Park.

Another major environmental issue that rocked the state was alleged illegal mining by Coal India Ltd inside the Dehing-Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary, with the state government ordering an inquiry into it and PILs filed in the Gauhati High Court.

Floods, which create havoc in the state year after year, were particularly devastating, as they coincided with the pandemic, affecting over 60 lakh people in 29 districts.

In the course of the year, the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent), which is yet to come to the negotiating table, suffered a serious blow when its deputy commander-in-chief Dhristi Rajkhowa was apprehended by the Army in November and, along with 18 other ULFA militants, surrendered before the state government in December.

Scams also made headlines in Assam in 2020, including the sub-inspector recruitment fraud in which a retired DIG and a serving SP were among 40 people arrested.