The Relevance of Ranjan Gogoi’s Assam-Centric Statements on NRC, CAA

Gogoi's statements on the NRC and CAA are likely aimed at boosting his relevance in Assam, and also to help put past controversies behind him during his second lease of public life.

Guwahati: Early this week, former chief justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, who is now a Rajya Sabha MP, let off a barrage of salvos at a media event in Delhi. Among the points that made headlines were his cautious response to the fiery remarks made by Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra on him (without naming him) on the floor of the parliament, and what Gogoi thinks of the state of judiciary today.

Gogoi’s prominence from coming out boldly in 2018 against the then CJI Dipak Misra along with three other senior-most Supreme Court judges had been reduced to the ignominy of presiding over a sexual harassment case as the CJI in 2019 where he himself was the accused. The case had led many within the fraternity to question the state of judiciary then, and the Supreme Court in particular under Justice Gogoi.

The 2018 press conference by Justices Madan B. Lokur, J. Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, and Kurian Joseph.

In quick succession, he, as the CJI, also famously delivered a string of judgements that worked in support of the government, primarily on the controversial Ram temple construction in Ayodhya in favour of the demolishing brigade of a centuries-old mosque, thereby directly aiding the BJP government at the Centre to fulfil a poll promise to its core Hindutva base.

In December 2018, he, as the CJI, gave a tour to Prime Minister Narendra Modi of court No. 1 at the apex court. No prime minister, in the last 60 years, had ever been invited by a CJI to his court for a jaunt.

Gogoi retired from his post eight days after the Ram temple order. Barely six months later, he joined the Rajya Sabha – becoming the first retired CJI to become a Rajya Sabha member without formally joining a political party.

Barely two months later, his brother, retired Air Marshal Anjan Gogoi, was made a full-time member of the North Eastern Council, the nodal agency for the economic and social development of the Northeastern region under the Centre’s Department of North East Region (DoNER) Ministry. A nominated member of NEC holds the rank of a minister of state. In four decades of NEC history, Anjan Gogoi was the first from the defence background to be nominated for such a post by the Centre.

In total, what we get is a former chief justice-turned MP surrounded by a contentious career curve too close to the government of the day. While he wouldn’t like to be seen as a ‘politician’ yet, he is, however, viewed no less by the opposition. That only some BJP MPs came out in support of him against Moitra’s February 9 speech, by moving privilege motions against her, only firmed up the case of the opposition and his detractors.

Also read: Centre Climbs Down, Not to Move Privilege Motion Against TMC’s Mahua Moitra

But what needs to be talked about are also two other statements that Gogoi had made at the India Today Conclave on February 11. The first was on the update of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, which was carried out under the watch of a Supreme Court bench comprising him. The second was the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Modi government in 2019, violating the Assam Accord of 1985 which had effected the inclusion of a special clause for citizenship in his home state Assam.

Let’s first look at what he had said at the event on the NRC.

“NRC is a big game by the politicians. Nobody wants a NRC. Whether it’s a Congress government or the BJP government. The court can do so much and not further, the court has done it. There are no regrets it is a vision document. It’s a document of the future. Let me tell you NRC is a game. The illegal migrants were told, we will protect you, vote for us. The other political party will say to the indigenous people that migrants are our biggest threat, we will expel them, vote for us. This is the game. One political party protects the migrants for the vote, the other expels them for the vote. This has been going on in Assam for the last 50 years. On November 7 (2020), (Assam finance minister) Himanta Biswa Sarma spoke to the Indian Express, that after the election is over, we will give you a full proof NRC. What is wrong with this NRC? Implement, it’s a court mediated order.”

Before reading anything into his, let’s bring in his remarks on the CAA too in regard to Assam: “CAA has been enacted as a law, no matter how much one feels that this is not necessary is not going to help things. The only way one can get rid of this law is by a repeal or by a court declaration that it is invalid. But there are sufficient cushions to take care of, for example Clause 6 of Assam accord which provides protection to indigenous people (in Assam).What has the (union) government done about it? Nothing.”

File photo of people in queue presenting their documents for the NRC update process. Photo: PTI

How must one interpret these two statements? There is no doubt that what directly hits the mind is that Gogoi spoke about both the NRC and the CAA only from Assam point of view, as an Assamese.

Voter base politics

He, however, took the popular line of an Assamese Jatiotabadi (sub-nationalist) who stands on the right of centre; one who doesn’t mind voting for the BJP (read Modi) if it goes after the migrants – or in other words, the Congress voters in the state (‘The illegal migrants were told, we will protect you’).

A large number of Assamese voted for the BJP in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well as the 2016 assembly polls because ‘the other political party (not difficult to guess which one) will say (did say) to the indigenous people that migrants are our biggest threat, we will expel them, vote for us’.

It turns out that the ‘other political party’ didn’t do it either. The updated NRC that Gogoi would like to take due credit for its delivery, was discarded by ‘the other political party’, primarily because it included a large chunk of its voter base in Assam – the Bengali Hindu migrants. Worse, it brought the CAA in violation of the Assam Accord to possibly protect them.

Additionally, the BJP didn’t protect the Jatiotabadi forces which stood by it till the 2019 Lok Sabha polls on the sole condition that they would be granted ‘constitutional safeguards’ through the Clause 6 of the Accord. A committee was formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the nodal ministry for implementation of the Assam Accord. A report was duly prepared but the MHA is not yet willing to receive a copy of it officially.

What Gogoi said on CAA accentuated the disenchantment of the Assamese Jatiotabadi BJP voter base, “But there are sufficient cushions to take care of, for example Clause 6 of Assam accord which provides protection to indigenous people (in Assam).What has the (union) government done about it? Nothing.”

Nothing it is. So far.

So, why is Gogoi suddenly vocal against a party that is widely seen to have favoured him? With Assam going to polls soon where the BJP is set to face the wrath of its Assamese Jatiotabadi base (not for nothing is the party mascot Modi visiting the state almost every week presently), should we read anything ‘political’ in Gogoi’s statements on the NRC and the CAA?

In August 2020, former state chief minister Tarun Gogoi had claimed to local media that Ranjan Gogoi might be BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in the coming state polls. “I have heard from my sources that Ranjan Gogoi’s name is there in the list of the BJP’s candidates for the chief minister’s post. I suspect he might be projected for the next possible chief ministerial candidate for Assam,” Tarun Gogoi had reportedly said then.

The former CJI is the son of former Congress chief minister of Assam, Keshav Chandra Gogoi. Will he jump into active politics too then?

While Gogoi, again speaking to India Today then, had denied such a possibility; so did the state BJP chief Ranjit Das.

“It is unfortunate that people do not understand the difference between a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha and a nominee of a political party elected to the House. I have consciously chosen to be a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha because it gives me the opportunity to air my views on issues of interest to me while retaining my independence. Does that make me a politician?” Gogoi had defended himself thus then.

Also read: The Troubling Legacy of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi

Nothing is impossible in politics, particularly when the BJP’s voter base in one of the largest communities of Assam, the Ahoms, stands divided today due to the long incarceration of peasants leader Akhil Gogoi without a trial and All Assam Students Union leader Lurinjyoti Gogoi leading the new regional entity, Asom Jatiyo Parishad (AJP). Also, going by the penchant of Gogoi, also an Ahom, to remain active in public life post retirement, one can only wait and watch this space here.

However, there is no doubt that Gogoi’s Assam-centric statements on NRC and CAA are aimed at boosting his relevance among fellow Assamese, so also to reclaim a bit of the lost glory due to the multiple controversies surrounding him. Being the first from not only the state but the entire Northeast to hold that top constitutional post at the Supreme Court, 61 years after Independence, Gogoi had won substantial respect back home.

Supplement it to his authoritative position in the crucial NRC update case. Several in Assam had openly held a hope that he would be of some help for the indigenous people to put their point across, legally, through that case to New Delhi finally. The sentiment among the Assamese and the North-easterners in general, about a ‘step-motherly’ treatment of them by Delhi has been rather strong.

Historic lens

While a section of national media, along with the pro-migrant petitioners from the state, had pointed out that Gogoi, being an Assamese, should recuse himself from hearing the NRC case, he was also soon accused by a section of the anti-migrant lot among the Assamese of not doing enough in the case.

With the delivery of the Ram Janamboomi judgement in end 2019 though, Gogoi, whether he likes it or not, has permanently moved from being a hope for the Jatiotabadi lot in Assam to being a national hero for the Hindutva brigade. In other words, someone who stood by the government of the day.

Being in that position now, history has placed him, by default, alongside two other loyal lieutenants from Assam of yet another powerful prime minister with whom Modi is often compared – Indira Gandhi. Those two Assamese were former president Fakaruddin Ali Ahmed and former Congress national president Devkant Barua.

Also read: Ruckus in House After Mahua Moitra’s Remarks on Ex-CJI’s Sexual Harassment Case

Both Ahmed and Barua, before becoming Mrs Gandhi’s right hand men, were accomplished Assamese in New Delhi, feted for their leadership and acumen. Ahmed, a St. Stephen’s College alumnus and a Cambridge University graduate, was not only the first union cabinet minister from Assam but also the only President of India from the state and the Northeast till date.

Barua, till date, is also the only national president of a national party from Assam and the Northeast. Additionally, he was an accomplished poet in Assamese literature. In noted Assamese writer Homen Borgohain’s compilation of hundred years of Assamese poetry, brought out by Assam Prakashan Parishad in 2000, three poems of Barua had been included in it, while only two from his brother and better known litterateur Navakanta Barua’s oeuvre.

Today though, both Ahmed and Barua are remembered in the footnote of Assam’s political history as only ‘yes men’ of an authoritative prime minister who had put the country through the dark period of Emergency with their active help. Barua’s infamy had long entered history as the man who mouthed the sycophantic line, “India is Indira”. Post Emergency, after she lost the elections, Barua, having gained personally during the Indira regime, had, however, left her side to join the rebel group within Congress for survival.

Modi too is increasingly being seen as no less authoritative, bulldozing over all democratic institutions including the Supreme Court. The ongoing farmers’ protests and the steps taken by the Modi government to crush it have only made his case worse. In the chapter of history to be written about his times, Gogoi’s name, whether he likes it or not, will be etched as a proverbial ‘yes man’ of the regime.

It would be futile on Ranjan Gogoi’s part to free himself from this ignominy by defending his position in the Ram Janambhoomi case, but what he can do is try and ensure that he be not another Ahmed or Barua in the eyes of fellow Assamese. He must try to do so during his second lease of public life.

From his latest statements on the NRC and the CAA, it only confirms that he must be already doing it.