New Delhi: At a time when powerful youth leaders are challenging traditional politics, particularly by standing up to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and questioning its Hindutva ideology, peasants’ rights activist from Assam, Akhil Gogoi, suddenly seems to have gained a renewed significance – not just in Assam but in the national political landscape as well.
On January 9, he was in New Delhi to participate in the Yuva Hunkar rally which was led by Jignesh Mevani, the young firebrand legislator from Gujarat. The protest was organised by several young and independent leaders against what they called the Narendra Modi government’s “anti-people” policies. The rally was also said to be a preparation for a political alternative for governance, keeping the 2019 parliamentary polls in mind.
Gogoi, president of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), has recently been released from jail after having been charged first of sedition and then under the National Security Act (NSA) by the Assam government. In an interview with The Wire during his Delhi visit, he answered a range of questions, including on the imminent foray of his organisation into electoral politics.
The interview was conducted in Assamese and translated into English.
You were kept in custody for 105 days – from September 13 to December 27. Was this your longest [time in jail] since you began your public life?
Yes. Till now, I have been sent to jail 14 times between the Congress and the BJP governments in Assam; this was the longest continuous period I was kept in jail.
Also, unlike before, the charges against you were of sedition and then you were rearrested under the NSA. How different was it this time in terms of your jail stay? Also, what was your mental state considering two serious charges were brought against you by the state in quick succession?
In the last 13 times that I have been to jail, I was kept like any other undertrial. But this time, it was different. I was not allowed to meet anybody from outside. An order was passed stating that not even my lawyers can meet me. There is a rule under NSA that an undertrial can meet family or friends twice a week. But the deputy commissioner of Nagaon (he submitted a report to the local court in Dibrugarh saying Gogoi should be charged under the NSA) issued an order that no friends would be allowed to meet me. That was how I was kept away from most people. Any contact with the outside world was snapped by the state. When I was presented in front of the NSA advisory board, I pleaded that I should at least be allowed to meet my lawyers. The board agreed and issued an oral order which was followed by a written order by the Dibrugarh jail superintendent. What I mean to say is, even to access legal advise, I had to try for about a month.
Inside the jail, I was kept in a separate chamber. Two jail policemen and two senior convicts were assigned to stand in front of the chamber to prevent any undertrial, detainee or convict from meeting me. So I was not allowed normal human contact even within the jail.
Is this not your second time in jail after the BJP-led government came to power in Assam?
Yes. During the Congress regime whenever I was arrested, I would be taken to a guest house etc., shown some iota of respect as a political rival, given at least a bed to sleep on – because most of those cases were of a political kind. But in the BJP’s time, the government used lock-ups both times. You have to see the police lock-ups in Assam to understand their pathetic condition. When I was arrested on September 13, I was not even allowed to wear a shirt or change into my trousers. A bunch of policemen covered my mouth, lifted me and dumped me into a police vehicle and whisked me away. This time it was a deliberate attempt at nastiness.
Also, what I want to point out here is that when I related to the court the treatment I was meted out by the state police, it didn’t record it. Even the fact that when honourable Justice of the Supreme Court Ranjan Gogoi, along with the Chief Justice of Gauhati high court (Ajit Singh) and Justice Hrishikesh Roy (of the HC) were to visit the Dibrugarh jail on December 16 to inaugurate a digitised legal cell there, the state made an attempt to keep me out of the jail that day. Even though the scheduled date for me to present myself in person at the local court as per the NSA was December 19, the secretary of the state’s home department arrived in Dibugarh from Guwahati to request the court to bring it forward to December 16, fearing that I might relate the treatment meted out to me to the visiting justices. So the date was brought forward.
However, when the undertrials and the convicts of the jail came to know about it, they got together and revolted against, threatening to break the jail if I was forcibly taken to the court on December 16. On December 17, they began a fast in protest, also demanding jail reforms such as clean drinking water, better food, better living conditions, etc. I lent my support to their movement for their rights.
So what I understood was that a typical day in the jail this time was mostly of confinement within a chamber.
Yes. Since I was not allowed to meet anyone, I made a plea in the court that I be allowed to read some books. Then, some titles like Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era by Anthony D. Smith and Ernest Gellner’s Nationalism were sent from home for me with permission. Also, I am writing a book on Assamese sub-nationalism. During my jail term, I could finish writing the introduction to it.
KMSS leaders told the local media that you were not allowed access to health facilities in detention. Was that true?
When I was kept in the lock-up for four days, I was given a very dirty blanket to use. You have to see the lock-ups to believe in what state they are in and the kind of blankets given to the detainees. There was a professional thief also along with me in the lock-up. Both of us were given extremely dirty blankets to use. In those four days, small boils broke out on some part of my head. Within the next 15 days, they covered my entire head. The police wouldn’t take me to the doctor. The in-house doctor was not a specialist, he had no idea how to treat them. So he kept writing in his report that I should be sent to the hospital, but this was not done by the district administration under the excuse of a security problem as I was detained under the NSA.
After over a month had passed, a specialist was brought to the jail but he didn’t have the required equipment to treat the boils. Then, I had to give a prayer to the court of the chief judicial magistrate in Dibrugarh seeking permission to get adequate treatment. Even after the court permitted it, I was not taken to the hospital for over two weeks.
Who from your family visited you in jail?
My mother and my wife. I have a school-going son; I didn’t see him during the period of my stay in jail.
In the first interview you gave to an Assamese news channel after coming out of detention, you said that your son was affected a lot by your stay in jail this time.
Yes, he was. Since the day I was taken to jail, he stopped going to school. He is in sixth standard. He underwent a lot of trauma this time. There was so much police pressure on my family; then the relentless reporting by news media – particularly when he saw the clippings showing how I was dragged out of home by the police. He was traumatised by it all. He not only skipped school but also didn’t appear in two of his exams during that time. He began to suspect people, began getting easily emotional. My wife was alarmed by it. She took him to the doctor. He has begun going to school only after I have returned home.
Both my mother and my wife are my huge support. My mother lives in our village home. A KMSS colleague stays with her. But this time, she too spent her time in a lot of anxiety. I have not been able to visit my village home yet but she came over to Guwahati to see me after I was released. Once I return from Delhi, I plan to visit her at her house.
I am also very grateful to my wife. I don’t know how to thank her for all the support. I don’t earn anything. It is she who runs the house, looks after the family.
Now that you are out of jail, have you chalked out any immediate plan for your organisation to take forward the issues that it has been raising, such as the Modi government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016?
The first duty of KMSS now is to fight the fascist forces in the state. We have observed that it is becoming very difficult for traditional people’s movements which speak of socio-economic issues to resist the fascism of the BJP by only raising questions on the economy. Simply because the BJP has glossed over the economic issues. When we raised class issues earlier, they had a certain sharpness about them, certain meaning, but the BJP, mostly through media hype and other tools, succeeded in creating a general environment across the country which downplays those economic questions. So much so that however relevant they may be, they don’t quite stir the common man at once, such as issues like rising prices of food, cooking gas, fuel, etc. Even demonetisation was glossed over as a public good. Take the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which broke the back of the country’s federal structure. The autonomy of the state (the power to formulate its own tax structure) was demolished by the GST. And yet, there was no protest coming from the states. Instead, states like Assam competed with other BJP-ruled states to be the first to pass the GST Bill in the assembly.
It is particularly unfortunate for a state like Assam to be the first to implement it, considering it has always withstood the exploitative tactics of the central government on its economy and supported more and more decentralisation of power. Even in the constituent assembly debate, the basic demand stated by the eight representatives of Assam was for more power to the states. That same Assam now says we will be the first to mention in our textbooks about the implementation of GST.
So at a time when economic questions are being glossed over, questions on caste, ethnicity and sub-nationalism have become far more significant in the Northeast. The biggest injustice the BJP government at the Centre has done to the Northeast is the removal of the special category status that we had in 2015. But we couldn’t resist it. Only KMSS did a few meetings opposing it but it was not effective. The public was not stirred by it. Simply because the economic questions have been successfully glossed over by the BJP.
Still, questions like those of farmers’ rights, about giving Scheduled Tribe status to six communities, more autonomy to the tribals, protecting the rights of Muslims who are increasingly facing eviction and primarily the question about the rights of the indigenous people are becoming quite significant in Assam. The biggest question of them all, which has pushed the people of Assam to unite against the BJP government, is based on the indigenous one, against which the party is trying to bring an amendment to the Citizenship Act, 1955. It is trying to create a ‘Hindu rashtra‘ by getting as many people as possible from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan by inserting a sub-section in section 2 of the Act to change the definition of the illegal migrant. The BJP-RSS is openly saying that if anybody from Bangladesh enters Assam with a Gita in hand and not a Quran, he/she will have the right to settle in the state.
The argument of the BJP-RSS that the Muslim population is rising in Assam and, therefore, they will bring Hindus from Bangladesh, is based on their policy of making a Hindu state and thereby creating an immigrant Hindu vote bank, like the Congress’s immigrant Muslim vote bank. This plan is not good for the Assamese community. We will finally lose our electoral voice. So this game plan of the BJP has become a challenge for the survival of the Assamese people, our language, our culture. That is why the indigenous question, the jatiotabad (sub-nationalist) question, has rattled the Assamese people.
That is why people like us who believe in class struggle will have to engage beyond the economic issue. Along with it, we will have to engage with the question of sub-nationality, ethnicity, religious atrocities; we will have to club all these questions along with the political and economic questions. That is what we are trying to do now.
Recently, you appealed to the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) to break its alliance with the BJP and form a government of its own with support from regional parties like the Bodo People’s’ Front (BPF) and the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) with outside support from the Congress. What was the thought behind it?
Since some time, the AGP has lost its significance as a strong regional force in Assam. Simply because it only concentrated on elections and didn’t raise its voice on regional issues as it should have. It didn’t take any clear stand on people’s issues. Therefore, the BJP gobbled up its space, forcing the AGP to go with it in the May 2016 assembly polls. People voted for the cause of jati, mati, bheti (community, land and existence). However, now the BJP is clearly attacking the regional interests by trying to facilitate 1.92 crore Bangladeshi Hindus to settle in Assam. It has attacked the very reason that AGP was born – the Assam Accord based on the foreigners’ issue. If the BJP succeeds in bringing those Bangladeshi Hindus to Assam, the Accord itself will get nullified.
So I strongly feel that it is a great chance for the AGP to revive itself. If they have the courage to resist BJP, stand up to it, it can yet again become a strong regional force. The Assamese people have given AGP a lot, it is the time for the AGP to give something back to the people. So I suggested that it should break the alliance and form a new alliance with regional parties and demand that the Congress gives its outside support. AGP will have to lead now. We should give some space also to Ganasakti, the political party that represents the Mishing tribe. The AGP can stop BJP’s communal agenda and the attempt to tarnish our social fabric and communal harmony. It is an appeal to the AGP.
You have made a similar appeal to the All Assam Students Union (AASU).
Yes, not just AASU but we have appealed to all the sub-nationalist organisations such as the Assam Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chhatra Parishad (AJYCP), the tribal and ethnic groups, students’ bodies, the anti-imperialist forces, the anti-feudal forces, minority students organisations such as the Bengali Students Federation, etc. to come out against the attempt at the social engineering by the Sangh parivar.
KMSS’s basic difference with AASU is that we believe in class struggle, speak about the rights of the poor, the farmers, and AASU, as a jatiotabadi organisation, represents the middle-class voice. However, now that the Assamese sub-nationalism is under attack from Sangh parivar, which AASU too espouses, it is the clarion call of the time for everyone who believe in jatiotabad to come together.
That is why we think that we need to bury all our petty differences in order to save the Assamese community. Otherwise, our dream for a good future for our state will be over, our communal harmony will be lost forever, we will lose our voice in ruling the state. Together we will have to resist this covert plan on us by the fascist forces.
KMSS is said to have a strong hold at the grassroots level. But its popularity among the middle-class is not quite the same. How do you plan to appeal to the Assamese middle-class?
As much as 20% of Assam today comprises the lower middle-class, which is not a small percentage of people. The basic problem is, since the modern Assamese community is a newly created one, the middle-class is pretty fragile; they are greedy, hungry. As there is no great industry in the state and it is dependent on central funds, the middle-class is weak. They try to run their lives by having an understanding with Delhi and Dispur as much as possible. They usually don’t challenge the state unless they are in real trouble. Also, if the middle-class realises that the state is more powerful, it tends to not stand with people’s movements. The same has been happening in Assam.
However, now that the BJP has created such a state in Assam that the Assamese sub-nationalism is about to be demolished, is in danger, I feel that the middle-class will come together with the working-class people, such as the farmers, the tea garden and other labourers. If they can’t, then the independence of the Assamese people as a community, their dignity, won’t be protected. Their voice will vanish forever. There has to be a united front now.
There has been a signature campaign conducted by an organisation, Prabajan Virodhi Manch, in Assam demanding constitutional safeguard for the people and their families named in the 1951 National Register of Citizens (NRC). Its argument is, the ongoing update of the NRC as per the Assam Accord wouldn’t fully help protect the rights of the indigenous people. Do you support it?
We are opposed to prabajan (migration); we are taking up the issue but if it is looked only from the sieve of religion and as a tool to dominate the genuine Muslim citizens of the state and stems from the RSS-BJP’s communal agenda, we can’t support it.
You were seen taking part in the Yuva Hunkar rally in Delhi, sharing space with popular youth leaders from outside the region. How much will this help to widen KMSS’s scope as an organisation?
In the Bharat varsha, those who have believed in class struggle have always downplayed the sub-nationality question. But the rise of the BJP has undoubtedly proven that only the traditional war of class struggle can’t defeat fascism. That is why the questions of the Dalits, the Patels, the minorities, the youth, the Adivasis, the concerns of the journalists, the litterateurs, the activists, have become significant in the country. For instance, look at what young Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani said: ‘You take the cow’s tail and give us back our land.’
So far, the Dalit question has been one of identity but it has now gone to the question of land. Look at the Bhim Army which spoke of only the Dalits. But its youth leader Chandrasekhar Azad now says Dalits plus Muslims. So you see a range of new nationalist movements being built up against fascism. Through our peasants’ movement, we are trying to get together the youth, the poor, the minority. All progressive and democratic forces will have to come together. That is why taking part in the Yuva Hunkar rally in Delhi is a significant moment for KMSS.
We saw you on a similar national platform during the India Against Corruption movement too. But that didn’t result in a great change in the political sphere.
Through India Against Corruption – led by Anna Hazare – we tried to start a movement for a better political discourse which failed. There might be two reasons for it. One, Arvind Kejriwal was too quick to take the movement to electoral politics. He took many decisions on his own, not in a very democratic manner. It affected the movement. Secondly, Annaji’s political depth was lacking. He is also getting old and can’t concentrate much in terms of the day-to-day dedication it requires. However, now we have got an opportunity to revive that movement, to form a new united front against the BJP’s divisionary politics. We will try, in the 2019 parliamentary elections, and particularly in the 2021 Assam assembly elections to consolidate our efforts.
You too formed a party in 2015 (Gana Mukti Sangram Asom) but it didn’t contest elections. So do we now see you getting into electoral politics in 2019 or 2021?
Many would know that we resisted venturing into electoral politics even though we remained under a lot of pressure. However, at a time when the BJP-RSS is trying to create a fascist state by capturing power, we need to venture into electoral politics. If the nationalist forces don’t unite through people’s movements, it will be very difficult to resist the BJP-RSS from taking over the Indian state. That is why there is a lot of pressure on us to enter politics and contest elections. We are actively considering the question. May be you will see us in the 2021 Assam assembly elections.