A Firebrand Plays With Fire

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With an eye on the Lok Sabha polls, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi announced that his government would distribute pattas to downtrodden and landless families who had been squatting on government land for more than a decade. In the first phase, around 500 families were supposed to get pattas.

Social activist Akhil Gogoi, who leads the peasant rights group Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), was irked by the decision because he wanted the government to give land rights to those who had encroached upon forestland and wetlands as well. Akhil demands that people who had settled on the hills, wetlands and government land even for a day until 22 June 2011 should be given pattas.

But the state government has made it clear that it can allot pattas only for non-agricultural or wasteland that belongs to the government and not on forest and wetlands and that too only to those who have been living there for at least 10 years.

On 22 February, Akhil gave vent to his anger at a press conference at Guwahati. “We will not allow Rahul Gandhi to enter and hold his meetings here as Tarun Gogoi has betrayed the indigenous people,” he said. “The government has not kept its promise… our supporters will go to any extent to block Rahul’s visit to Assam.”

timeline_agitationDespite the warning, Gogoi went ahead with the distribution of pattas to a group of landless people on 24 February. Akhil and his supporters were not allowed to take out a protest rally in Dispur.

Pranab Boro, a landless labourer from the hills who has been part of Akhil’s movement for some time, set himself on fire in front of the state secretariat in full public display. Boro was rushed to the Guwahati Medical College Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.

The incident shocked the entire state. The KMSS called for an Assam bandh the next day when Rahul flew in for his rallies, perhaps marking the beginning of yet another political fiasco in Assam.

The police registered a case under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and 306 (abetment of suicide) based on three FIRs lodged against Akhil and the KMSS, accusing them with inciting Boro to immolate himself. Meanwhile, Boro’s family has lodged a complaint against the chief minister for not keeping his promise of giving land to the landless families.

On the afternoon of 2 March, Akhil threatened to intensify the stir against the Congress. At midnight, Akhil and five senior KMSS members were arrested for abetting Boro’s self-immolation. On 3 March, a local court sent them to four days of police remand. Their arrest has led to statewide protests with KMSS members blocking roads, stopping trains and courting arrest in every district of the state, including the Barak Valley, where the KMSS did not have much presence earlier.

Over the past three decades, an estimated 65,000 landless people have migrated from the rural belts of Assam. The people, who lost their land and livelihood to a series of massive floods and sustained erosion in the Brahmaputra Valley, have occupied government land mostly in the hills that surround Guwahati. Since 2011, Akhil and the KMSS have been the flag-bearers of the agitation asking for land rights for these landless people.

While more and more landless people encroaching upon government land posed a challenge to Gogoi, Akhil accused him of helping private players illegally acquire a huge chunk of agricultural and non-agricultural land.

Last year, the government constituted the Bhumidhar Barman Committee to look into the issue. This came after several rounds of talks with civil society members and agitators. The committee has already tabled its recommendations and the Cabinet has accepted it, but the revenue department is yet to issue a notification. Thus the government’s decision to distribute pattas to 62,000 landless people, while denying it to 3,000 people who have encroached upon forests, wetlands and agricultural land, was seen as a political gimmick ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

The stakes were high on both sides. According to insiders, backroom negotiations were held between Gogoi and Akhil on 23 February. The Congress was under pressure to make Rahul’s visit a grand success as Narendra Modi had addressed a record turnout of more than 2 lakh people in Guwahati last month. Akhil asked the chief minister not to go ahead with the land deed distribution event and hold talks with the KMSS on the Congress’ longstanding commitment to rehabilitate the landless in Guwahati on the plots they were occupying.

Gogoi felt that Akhil was trying to hold the party and government to ransom. He believed that if he gave into Akhil’s demand, then he would appear weak in front of the KMSS leader, while boosting the latter’s image. Since Akhil has expressed his desire to form a political outfit ahead of the 2016 Assembly polls, the Congress saw him as a political rival as well. As a result, an adamant Akhil and an even more adamant Gogoi broke off the backroom negotiations, the sources revealed. The very next day, Pranab Boro’s self-immolation took place.

Another source in the police confirmed to TEHELKA that the chief minister’s office had sent missives to arrest Akhil only after Rahul’s two-day visit was over. The police feared that if Akhil was arrested straightaway, KMSS supporters will create trouble and the law and order situation could get worse. Apart from Akhil, five KMSS leaders — Deben Sharma, Ibrahim Ali, Nurul Islam, Haren Kalita and Gajen Baishya — were also arrested.

“Several cases have been slapped against the KMSS and Akhil Gogoi, but this is nothing new,” says KMSS publicity secretary Kamal Medhi. “Ever since we started the resistance movement against the government’s corruption and nepotism, this is how they harass us. Thousands of poor people who have lost their land and livelihood to ethnic conflicts, floods, erosion and insurgency have migrated within the state. They are landless. The government has been illegally handing over land to private firms and land mafias are minting money under political patronage. Our fight is against them.”

Akhil has been arrested in the past, but the charges had never been so grave. This time, it seems the police will leave no stone unturned. “We are not doing anything above the law. A case has been registered and the investigation is on,” says Guwahati City SSP AP Tiwari.

The key to the arrest was a red Tata Nano and an empty bottle smelling of petrol that were seized from the house of Deben Sharma, one of the arrested KMSS leaders. “We got a tip-off about the car,” reveals a police officer overseeing the investigation. “We raided the house and seized the car. We found a plastic bottle and a gamusa (traditional scarf ) on the seat. We suspect that Boro was picked up from Gorchuk in this car. He might have been greeted with the gamusa and the other people inside the car might have had helped him douse petrol on himself. All the material have been sent in for forensic tests.”

Akhil’s arrest has sparked widespread protests and the KMSS has approached the Assam Human Rights Commission for relief. “Many serious cases are pending against Congress MLAs, but they were never arrested,” says Medhi. “Sonai MLA Anamul Haque is accused of abetting the suicide of a former irrigation department employee in 2012, but he was never arrested. Last year, Mariani MLA Rupjyoti Kurmi was accused of assaulting a police driver on duty. He was also never arrested.”

Rajen Kalita, a tea seller in Guwahati’s posh Lamb Road locality, also smells a conspiracy. “Akhil is the only person in Assam fighting against corruption,” he says. “The Opposition don’t say a word and the government tries to muzzle his voice, but the people are with him.”

Ever since the KMSS started fighting for land rights for the dwellers of Doyang Tengani reserve forest in 2005, Akhil became popular among the aam aadmi in Assam. But he has also attracted criticism for the manner in which he went about his agitations. So much so that the state government branded him a ‘Maoist’ in 2010.

His provocative speeches have acted as a double-edged sword. During a visit to flood-hit Dharmapur in Nalbari district in 2012, he was physically attacked for using “unparliamentary” language against Agriculture Minister Nilamani Sen Deka at a public meeting.

“Akhil certainly has a lot of influence, especially among the peasants,” says journalist Partha Prawal Goswami. “Most of his demands are genuine but they are far too many. Agitations and protests to voice his demands are alright, but the way he holds the government and the entire state to ransom is not correct. Hooliganism should never have been a part of his protest. He tries to forcibly impose on the general public what he thinks is correct.”

Akhil shot to fame when he was awarded the Shanmugam Manjunath Integrity Award in 2008 for his fight against corruption. He also got the National RTI Award from the Public Cause Research Foundation for his role in exposing the Rs 1.25 crore scam in the Sampoorna Gram Rozgar Yojana and the Rs 60 lakh scam in the Indira Awas Yojana in Golaghat district.

Akhil has donned many hats and was a core member of Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement. “At times, he acts like Robin Hood, trying to snatch away the legal rights of the poor people from the ruling class,” says Ruma Saikia, a supporter from Golaghat. “He often comes across as arrogant and self-centred. Like him or dislike him, no one in Assam can ignore Akhil Gogoi.”

The latest incident underscores the intense fight for land in Assam. There is no land rehabilitation policy in place although the state has lost 4.2 lakh hectares to erosion since Independence, enough to signify the immense pressure on agricultural land and even on forestland.

“These settlers migrated from various parts of the state to seek a better livelihood in the urban space but the political class always uses them as a vote bank,” says Rakesh Soud, an ecological researcher at IIT-Guwahati. “No one is concerned about their rights. They were never taken seriously, neither by the political class nor by the legal machinery. I presume that such incidents can be prevented only by a legal and rights-based approach.”

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