Assam’s moral compass



Akhil Gogoi has proved to be a thorn in the flesh of the state government. Kunal Majumder profiles the activist who has been put behind bars

The face of dissent Akhil Gogoi has been instrumental in unearthing many scams
The face of dissent Akhil Gogoi has been instrumental in unearthing many scams
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

DURING A press meet at the state secretariat in Dispur, Health and Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma was asked what he thought of RTI activist Akhil Gogoi. “Every time before elections, such individuals crop up and try to make baseless allegations,” Sarma had said. Just weeks after the Assembly poll, which the Congress won handsomely, Gogoi laid siege to the secretariat with more than 20,000 tribals evicted by the government from the hills surrounding Guwahati. Gogoi demanded the Congress keep its pre-poll promise of returning the land. As the government remained silent, the protesters blocked the main road leading up to the secretariat. The police was called in to remove the blockade. What followed was utter chaos — a street fight between the protesters and the police in Dispur and Guwahati, in which buses and police vans were burnt, teargas shells were fired and three died, including a nine-year-old boy.

News Live, controlled by Sarma’s wife, showed non-stop footage of bleeding cops and burning vehicles, while rival channels raised questions about the police atrocities. “But nobody cared to talk about the Youth Congress activists who forced the shopkeepers and rickshaw pullers to work on the day when we had called an Assam bandh,” says Raju Borah, an aide of Gogoi. His supporters allege that it was the Youth Congress activists who infiltrated the crowd and indulged in violence.

Four FIRs were filed against Gogoi, 35, for inciting violence, destroying public property and rioting. The man whom the Congress called a nobody before the election had suddenly brought a major crisis on its head. On 24 June, the police arrested Gogoi at the Guwahati Press Club as he was addressing journalists. After three days of interrogation, he was consigned to 14 days in judicial custody. He is undergoing treatment at Gauhati Medical College for a slip-disc and leg injury

This is probably the first time that the rest of the country is hearing about Gogoi. However, in Assam, he has been a regular newsmaker. For 13 years, he’s been exposing corruption, raising questions about big dams on the Brahmaputra, talking about peasant rights. He has been a sort of one-man political force.

Courting arrest Akhil Gogoi is dragged away from the Guwahati Press Club on 24 June
Courting arrest Akhil Gogoi is dragged away from the Guwahati Press Club on 24 June
Photo: Ujjal Deb

The opposition parties, which have failed to highlight the Congress’ follies, have no option but to support Gogoi. “Gogoi’s arrest is politically motivated. It proves that the state government has a nexus with the land mafia,” says AGP leader Prafulla Kumar Mahanta. When asked why his party has failed to play the role undertaken by Gogoi, he says, “Gogoi is doing his work on the streets and we are doing it inside the Assembly.” However, political commentators disagree. “There is no doubt that Gogoi is the real opposition in Assam. The political opposition has failed,” says Dilip Chandan, editor of Asom Bani.

HIS FRIENDS from Gauhati University remember Gogoi as an active deputy editor of Natun Padatik, the progressive magazine that he launched under the editorship of famous Assamese intellectual Hiren Gohain. The magazine soon became the launch pad for Study Circle, which acted as a student base for movements against a fee hike in the university and the rise in bus fares. In 2002, members of the Study Circle, under Gogoi’s leadership, became involved in a campaign against a forest eviction drive launched by the government in Golaghat. Three years later, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) was formed with Gohain’s help.

Years later, Gohain publicly criticised Gogoi’s leadership style and called it “populist”. “I have little sympathy for the government, but believe that popular movements must be well thought out and properly guided even when the issues are explosive,” he says. “Gogoi has a tendency to rush into any situation where he can stoke passions already running high, without any idea of a general plan of action.” Arupjyoti Saikia, a historian based at Guwahati interested in contemporary Assam and a friend of Gogoi, looks at the issue as a clash of personalities, apart from ideological differences, between a mass leader and an intellectual. “The tension has been apparent in the past few months. Gohain believes that KMSS is wrong in criticising the Congress as it has done good work,” says Saikia.

‘There is no doubt Gogoi is the real opposition in Assam. The political opposition has failed,’ says Chandan of Asom Bani

What started as a mass movement fighting for the land rights of indigenous people, soon diversified into issues like corruption and environment. In 2006, Gogoi used RTI to uncover a PDS scam worth Rs 300 crore in Golaghat. Later, he went on to expose corruption in the Rural Development department. The biggest expose came earlier this year with the Rs 1,100 NC Hills scam. In recent times, his favourite target has been Sarma, who has been accused of financial misappropriation in many cases, including the NC Hills scam.

Gogoi made headlines in 2008 when he received the Shanmugam Manjunath Integrity Award for his fight against corruption. In 2010, he 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 Yojna and the 60 lakh scam in the Indira Awas Yojana. He also raised the issue of big dams on the Brahmaputra, which was later picked up by political parties. “We will not allow big dams to come up on the Brahmaputra,” Gogoi told TEHELKA last November. “The Northeast requires only 750 MW of power against the 70,000 MW planned from the dams in Arunachal. Damming the river will create big problems.”

Such high commitment to citizenship has its price. Gogoi seldom makes time to visit his four-year-old son Naushiketa. “Initially my son wouldn’t even recognise me,” admits Gogoi. His wife is an associate professor at a college in Guwahati and the sole earning member of the family. “I miss my family a lot. I know I’m not a good father, husband or son. But I have to make this sacrifice for the benefit of thousands of Assamese,” says Gogoi.

IN GUWAHATI, comments about Gogoi tend to be caustic. “He asked the people to take up arms against the government”, “He asked the people to pray for the chief minister’s death when he was undergoing heart surgery”, “Why did he bring 20,000 tribals inside the city?” are common refrains. Step out of the city limits and you will hear more favourable comments such as “He is working hard for us” and “He wants to get our rights back.”

‘I know I’m not a good father or husband. But I have to make this sacrifice for the benefit of thousands of Assamese,’ says Gogoi

Gogoi’s supporters are clearly not suave city dwellers. His base is among the peasants and tribals. “We went to the secretariat because the indigenous people in the hills wanted us to help,” says KMSS president Raju Borah. “The government is spreading all kind of rumours to portray us as a violent outfit.”

In April 2010, a secret intelligence report of the Assam government alleged that Gogoi had close connections with the Maoists. He had challenged the government to prove its allegation. Major social activists like Sandeep Pandey and Medha Patkar came out in his support. The government had to drop the charges. What added fuel to the fire was a press release issued by exiled ULFA leader Paresh Baruah, who likened Gogoi to Martin Luther King Jr. This prompted Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to paint him as an ULFA sympathiser.

“I’m a non-political Leftist who draws inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Jaiprakash Narayan,” he says. For his part, Gogoi maintains that he is apolitical. “We are clear in our objectives. We are fighting for the rights of peasants and farmers. We have no plans to enter mainstream politics but will try our best to influence polices.” He quickly adds that the KMSS will take its next major decision in 2015. Whether that would be political in nature or not is something he is not willing to talk about. Like a typical neta, Gogoi says, “Only time will tell.”

Kunal Majumder is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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