“Will he be released?” Nomol Roy, the bookseller at a small shop at Panbazar in Guwahati asks me as he signs the receipt with his right hand and touches the image of the man on the book cover with his left. The incarcerated man in question is Akhil Gogoi, the leader of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), who was arrested by Assam Police on December 12 in the wake of the protests against the impending Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. A suo moto case was registered against him at Chandmari Police Station on the next day and on the very next day, the case was transferred to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) who booked him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Amid the anti-CAA outrage that continues to affect normal life in the state, many like Nomol Roy are wondering if Akhil Gogoi, the leader of many battles in the last two decades, will be let off anytime soon, considering the strengthening public opinion regarding a political alternative for the 2021 assembly elections.
Akhil Gogoi may not be a familiar name among followers of Delhi-centred political writing, but the anti-CAA protests one sees across the country can be traced back to Gogoi’s assertions in Assam. It is reported that when a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the citizenship bill led by BJP MP Rajendra Agarwal visited Guwahati on May 7 in 2018, Gogoi argued in front of the delegation for an hour, and his organisation KMSS organized state-wide protests.
The recent period in Assam’s history – after the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) lost its popular appeal among the masses – cannot be discussed without the mention of Gogoi and the organization he founded. He is an activist that both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments in the state have equally loved to hate, and sent to jail from time to time by either raking up old FIRs or filing new ones with allusion to alleged activities in the past. While the middle class has mostly been disapproving of his politics, they did rally behind him in massive numbers during an anti-dam movement he led in 2010.
FROM STUDENT LEADER TO MESSIAH FOR FARMERS
In 2005, Gogoi, a 29-year-old son of a farmer, founded KMSS. Before that, as a student of Cotton College in Guwahati, he had founded the Cotton College Study Circle ― his first formal foray into politics. He gathered a group of friends he had met that year and explained that their political opinions need to be translated into action and thus, and CCSC was born.
“Defined by his restlessness to lead movements, Gogoi decided to test the cultural route and planned yearlong events to observe the birth centenary of Jyotiprasad Agarwala.”
Akhil Gogoi’s life as a leader of peasants, according to his wife Geetashree and former colleagues, is in fact, completely accidental. He always wanted to be a student leader, hoped for mass mobilization of students and had dreamt of a massive convention at the Judges Field in Guwahati where a new revolutionary students’ union will be born. The zeal in the study circles he had formed as a college student did not quite coalesce into something as tangible, and the convention never happened.
Defined by his restlessness to lead movements, Gogoi decided to test the cultural route and planned yearlong events to observe the birth centenary of Jyotiprasad Agarwala, a filmmaker and lyricist Assam considers as one of its foremost cultural icons. This was Gogoi’s way of being a familiar face among people. One such programme was held at the Sudmersen Hall in Cotton College (now University) which was attended by none other than the singer Bhupen Hazarika.
It is in June 2002, in the midst of the centenary celebrations, that Gogoi found himself involved with issues of land rights before he realized or planned. Gogoi, Geetashree, fellow workers Soneswar Narah and Hema Phukan, among others, were leading the Jyoti centenary preparations in Golaghat. One day, Hema informed the team that there is large-scale eviction in a place called Tengani not far from where he stays. Tengani is a reserve forest — part of the Nambor Wildlife Sanctuary — where poor people, mostly Assamese Hindus who had lost their land to erosion in Majuli islands had settled.
The government gave them warnings to move, but these people had nowhere to go. So then the government started razing their huts and vandalising their belongings. It was raining heavily and news came that a pregnant woman among the evictees had gone into labour on the street and the newborn died immediately. Gogoi and Soneswar packed their bags and left for Tengani to meet the evicted people. Tengani was like an island, there was no help that came to these people. Gogoi and Soneswar camped in a tent and soon word went out, sending dozens of student activists to Tengani to help the evicted people. More people travelled to Tengani, and the movement gave Gogoi and team both purpose and mileage.
People from more and more areas that were targets of eviction started approaching this group of activists now known from the Tengani incident. One such place was Doyang and it was from Doyang Mukti Sangram Samiti — a temporary name given to the team working in Doyang — that Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti was birthed in 2005.
GOGOI VERSUS ASSAMESE MIDDLE CLASS
Working with landless peasants – some of them Bengal origin Muslims, has not gone down well with the Assamese-speaking middle-class. And this is why Gogoi finds himself caught between multiple politics. To stay afloat, he has often compromised with ideological consistency. During the 2014 elections, he even asked people to vote for BJP in a few seats. He later attempted to defend this move by calling it a tactical decision that would help defeat the ruling Congress. In this desperation to remain relevant, he has often disappointed his biggest supporters and fans.
“When Akhil started out, I, like many others, was very hopeful that this man and his organization will move away from the bureaucratic Marxism of parties like CPI and CPI(M) and will usher in a new kind of politics in the state.”
The exact number of KMSS members is not known, but Ashraful Islam, a leader with the organisation, pegs it at approximately 12 lakhs. “The student wing that I am currently leading also does not have an exact figure that I can give you right now. But the student unions across many colleges in Assam are led by us as of now,” said Islam.
Over the years, the organization has led popular movements against a range of things- increase in bus fare, introduction of toll gates, the under-construction and the proposed hydroelectric dams and for proper irrigation facilities for farmers. To fight unemployment and to boost tourism, KMSS also established the Kaziranga Orchid and Biodiversity Park in 2015, a huge hit with tourists who visited the national park.
Despite having the strong backing of students and farmers, Gogoi never fought an election.
“When Akhil started out, I, like many others, was very hopeful that this man and his organization will move away from the bureaucratic Marxism of parties like CPI and CPI(M) and will usher in a new kind of politics in the state. Now, I am sorry to say, Akhil’s line of politics is not very different from All Assam Students’ Union’s. The talk of a new regional force is gaining momentum. But, who is saying any new things?,” asks Abhinav Borbora, a PhD scholar at Gauhati University. The fact that Gogoi and his organization has unequivocally backed the need for the NRC in Assam has also lost him some support outside the state.
People like Nomol Roy, however, do feel that the ruling party is scared having seen Gogoi lead the anti-CAB sentiments in the state for the last two years and winning back the sympathy of a considerable chunk of the caste-Hindu Assamese population. His appeal to the people in upper Assam districts and among the minority population across the state is still very strong, and many believe that the ruling party does not want to take a chance by letting him roam like a free man.
PRO-POOR, AND PRO-NRC
Gogoi amassed a considerable following, especially among farmers — despite them hailing from distinctly different ethnic and caste identities — because his work spoke for the poor. Gogoi’s father was a farmer, who died soon after he was born and the knowledge of his roots also helped the disenfranchised connect with him more easily.
In Assam, the stir against the CAA is distinctly different from that of what many Assamese call “mainland India”. It is anti-CAA, but also pro-NRC. This stance basically speaks to the anxiety experienced by the indigenous people of north-eastern states about being outnumbered by Bengalis, and therefore losing identity, political hegemony and livelihoods to a foreign ethnic group in their own land. The roots of this anxiety can be traced way back to the British rule in India, when Assam was made a part of the Bengal province and Bengali declared the official language of communication, leading to a gradual dwindling in jobs for the Assamese and also a struggle to keep their language alive.
“We expect him to raise his voice against the harassment of genuine Indian citizens in the processes of NRC, Foreigners’ Tribunals etc. He has not taken a strong stand in these things so far.””
While Gogoi’s politics has been mostly pro-poor, his stance on the NRC ― which has affected the lives of thousands of poor, Bengali speaking residents of the state — has confused both his critics and admirers.
Abdul Kalam Azad, a PhD scholar at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam and a Bengal-origin Muslim who lives in Assam said that his community — referred to as the ‘miyas’ — continue to support Gogoi’s politics, but when they were faced with widespread vilification and state persecution in the form of FIRs and arrests, Gogoi did not speak up for them. “We expect him to raise his voice against the harassment of genuine Indian citizens in the processes of NRC, Foreigners’ Tribunals etc. He has not taken a strong stand in these things so far,” Azad said.
Azad comments that the ‘mixture of Left and Assamese nationalist’ politics that Gogoi has been trying to perfect, may have actually worked against him. “If people have to support Assamese nationalism, they will join and back AASU (All Assam Students Union), right?” he said. AASU plays a powerful role in northeast India’s politics and drives conversations of migrants and refugees in these areas. All-powerful Assamese politicians have begun their careers at AASU.
When mass objections were filed against poor Muslim applicants to the NRC, Gogoi did not make it an issue like he usually does with cases of oppression. “When the Supreme Court passed an order in favour of conditional release of those who have spent more than three years in detention camps, Akhil Gogoi opposed the SC order. This immensely hurt the community. One’s own people... detained under inhuman conditions for years... finally, the SC spoke of some relief... why should he oppose that?“Azad asked.
However, Ashraful Islam, the KMSS leader and also a Bengal origin Muslim from Barpeta, said that their organisation is merely sympathetic to the demands and ‘insecurities’ of various linguistic and ethnic groups.
“It is the only organization that represents all communities and ethnicities in the state. We are a progressive organization,” Islam told HuffPost India.
On September 13, 2017, Akhil Gogoi was put under preventive detention under the National Security Act, 1980. “The FIRs filed against him have been under sections that cover sedition, provocative statements, etc. That was intended as the reason for his detention. We filed an application for habeas corpus and the court ruled the detention as illegal and ordered his release,” said Santanu Borthakur, counsel who represented Gogoi in the case. The Gauhati High Court order for his release came on December 22 the same year.
The BJP government did not stop at that. Gogoi’s politics has been frustrating and confusing to many, but in the wake of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, he is perhaps the only political figure who appeals to a wide demographic of people, both pro-NRC and anti-NRC. This makes him a curious headache for the BJP.
If the action of the police in this episode is anything to go by, the party and the government is also acting on this. Gogoi was picked up on December 11 from Jorhat and booked under Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, 1984. The Director General of Police said that ’the pattern of violence during the anti-CAB protests matched with theirs (Gogoi’s organisation’s) and hence they arrested him.
Two days later, on December 13, at 11.15 in the night, an FIR was registered at the Chandmari Police Station accusing him of being involved in various Maoist activities in the region since 2009. The FIR is teeming with unsubstantiated claims about his alleged Maoist links. In his decades-long political career, this is the first time Gogoi has been accused of having links with Maoists.
The document, interestingly, is based on the statement by one Pallab Borbora, an approver in the NIA Court in 2014, a certified copy of which is in my possession. Pallab makes the only reference to Gogoi when he mentions a meeting attended by many people including him. Gogoi’s involvement, contribution and role are not discussed. It remains to be seen how the agency gathers enough evidence to substantiate the approver’s claims.
ESTRANGED COLLEAGUES AND LOST FRIENDS
“We began with the dream of changing the system... "”
Most of the people who populated Gogoi’s political past do not actively work with him anymore. Some deserted him because of pronounced political differences, some others blamed his autocratic way of functioning within the organization and many left because of what they called ‘personal reasons’ when contacted.
One such person is Kamal Kumar Medhi who remained Gogoi’s closest aide and, as many claim, his lieutenant for activities in lower Assam from the late 1990s until he left KMSS to join Congress soon.
“We began with the dream of changing the system, and it all began in 1996 with the Cotton College Study Circle (CCSC),” Kamal tells me as we sit in his car outside the veterinary college playground in Khanapara where Rahul Gandhi was getting ready to address a gathering. The people who know Gogoi from that period trace the roots of his political journey to the study circles he formed across Assam. They studied a lot of Marxist literature.
Satrobarta, the magazine that the CCSC brought out is now remembered for various reasons, including the fact that it published some of the most popular pieces of Assamese literature from those times. Pranab Kumar Barman wrote Sagarika Bordoloi, hands down the most popular love poem in modern Assamese literature – one where he chides his girlfriend for her love of Pepsi and reminds her of how many others still drink cholera every day – on the pages of Gogoi’s Satrobarta. Later, disillusioned with Gogoi, Barman wrote a not-so-flattering treatise on his former friend, titled Who is Akhil Gogoi.
An acquaintance of Gogoi told me that he met his wife Geetashree at one such study circle in upper Assam. “I actually met him at a book fair in Guwahati,” she, however, told me when I met her. Geetashree, an Assistant Professor in Assamese at Guwahati’s B Borooah College, greeted me with a smile when I turned up at their house for an interview. “It was in 1999. I needed an appointment with Dr Hiren Gohain (Assam’s most iconic public intellectual) and someone told me that this boy could help me fix a meeting with Dr Gohain,” she smiled reminiscing about the young man she met decades ago.
I asked Geetashree, a college professor if the constant run-ins with the government make her weary. She laughed and said, “If he wasn’t this firebrand, I would not marry him at all!”