In Assam that has a history of many ethnic movements, Akhil Gogoi, 44, has made a name for himself by leading several agitations in the past one decade or so. His words and actions on issues such as big dams, land rights, corruption, unauthorised toll gates did increase his mass appeal, but not without inviting the wrath of the ruling class.
The present government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been particularly harsh on him, and has ensured that Gogoi, 44, remains behind bars for a long time. The peasant leader and anti-corruption activist is currently facing charges under the stringent Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019 for allegedly instigating violence during the protests against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act in coordination with Maoists, last December.
Gogoi, who tested positive COVID-19 along with 54 other inmates of Guwahati Central Jail earlier this month, has been shifted to the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital following a massive public outcry. The state government was accused of dilly-dallying over his test report even as he kept complaining about his failing health.
Civil society groups and opposition parties have been long demanding the release of Gogoi, citing the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 12 and 13, hundreds of Assamese students from the across the country, as well as the writers’ community in the state wrote separate letters to Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonwal, demanding the release of Gogoi and other political prisoners who were arrested during the anti-CAA agitation last year.
The signatories belonged to Delhi University, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, IIT-Guwahati, NEHU Meghalaya, Banaras Hindu University, Gujarat Central University, Cotton University, Guwahati, among others.
Leader of the Opposition Debabrata Saikia said the Congress would provide legal assistance to Gogoi and others during their future bail hearings at the Gauhati High Court.
Swimming against the tide
Gogoi, who graduated from the prestigious Cotton College (now Cotton University) in Guwahati in the 1990s, redefined the form of democratic protests in Assam. He picked issues which were largely untouched by other civil society organisations, and started working on them. In 2005, he formed Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a peasants’ rights organization, amid a forest rights movement in the Doyang-Tengani area of Golaghat district.
Gogoi’s crusade against corruption fetched him the Shanmugam Manjunath Integrity Award in 2008. The award was instituted in the honour of Manjunath Shanmugam, an Indian Oil officer and alumnus of the IIM, Lucknow, who was murdered while investigating reports of oil adulteration.
He used the Right to Information Act to unearth a Rs 1.25-crore scam in the Sampoorna Gram Rozgar Yojana (SGRY) and another Rs 60-lakh scam in the Indira Awas Joyana in Assam’s Golaghat district. For this, he bagged the first National RTI Award instituted by the Public Cause Research Foundation in 2010.
Gogoi also joined Gandhian Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption movement, but later parted ways because of his differences with some of the activists.
The KMSS-led came to limelight for its campaign against the construction big dams in the ecologically fragile regions of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In 2011 when Congress was in power, the KMSS put a massive resistance to shipment of turbines meant for 200-MW Lower Subansiri project of NHPC, a state-owed hydro power company.
The movement gained momentum in the following years, as other civil society organisations also raised concerns that big dams could increase the chances of natural disasters such as floods, something Assam has been battling for years.
Soft on celebrities, hard on activists
Gogoi was among several activists from across India who were jailed for mobilizing protests against the new citizenship law. The CAA grants citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, a provision that activists and rights organisations see as anti-Muslim.
It is not just the students and activists, but Bollywood celebrities also spoke out against the controversial law. Farhan Akhtar, Anubhav Sinha, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Anurag Kashyap, Swara Bhasker were some of the prominent figures from the entertainment industry, who took part in a protest at Mumbai’s August Kranti Maidan on 19 December.
Interestingly, the government chose to target only the activists and detained them under various laws. Last month, a group of independent experts from the United Nations called on the Indian government immediately release 11 activists, including Safoora Zargar, Devangana Kalita and Akhil Gogoi. Zargar was finally granted bail on humanitarian grounds in her sixth month of pregnancy.
‘Crime’ and punishment
The anti-CAA agitation in Assam was different from the rest of India. In Assam, indigenous groups are opposing the new law because it tends to nullify the very concept of National Register of Citizens meant for the northeastern state. Updating the NRC, aimed at weeding illegal immigrants irrespective of religion, was one of the highlights of the historic Assam Accord of 1985.
A number of cases were registered against Gogoi for mobilising protests in parts of upper Assam. He was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for allegedly instigating violence in the anti-CAA protests using his Maoist links. The anti-terror agency booked him and three of his colleagues under UAPA 2019, under which an individual can be designated as a “terrorist” if the person is found to be committing, preparing for, promoting, or being involved in an act of terrorism.
In its chargesheet, the NIA alleged, Gogoi used to read the ‘Communist Manifesto’, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Lenin’s works, Mao Zedong’s life, and call his friends “comrade” and greeted them with “Lal Salaam”, among others.
Claiming that he has never been a Maoist, Gogoi had said in an interview that it was a ploy by the BJP government to “delegitimise the people’s upsurge and derail the (anti-CAA) movement”.Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in Delhi. He writes on issues related to India’s Northeast. The views are personal.