After Assam peasant leader Akhil Gogoi was granted bail by an NIA court on Tuesday – much to the relief of lakhs of his followers – his friends expressed hope that he will soon be set free again.
I don’t remember the year. But it was a talk organised by Mukul Manglik and students at Delhi’s Ramjas College. The room was teeming with people, patiently waiting for the speaker to arrive. Once Akhil Gogoi finished his impassioned speech, a few young undergraduate Assamese students quietly left the venue, gathered back at the tea stall inside the Delhi School of Economics and collectively expressed their embarrassment at how poorly Gogoi spoke both in Hindi and English.
A decade later, I was sitting at my friend’s room in Guwahati asking him how, in those interim years, Gogoi had become the most favourite jailbird of successive governments in the state. “Nobody will speak to you now,” the friend told me as he sipped his tea, “All their numbers are switched off.” He was right. Leaders of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) that Akhil founded in 2005 and its student wing Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti – established in 2012 – were arrested one after the other as protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 gained momentum in the region.
Friends of Akhil Gogoi that had left him after bitter squabbles were, in fact, the ones most desperate to see him come out of jail and lead movements from the front.
Molaan Laskar was expelled from the organisation a few years ago. Or he left of his own accord because he was “growing old and also needed to give time to art and culture”. The exact reason for his departure is now besides the point because when I began speaking to him one wintry evening in Assam, what sounded central was his happiness in being part of an expanding movement for basic rights like land and citizenship in a place otherwise dominated by the leviathanic politics of subnational identity and pride.
The founding president of the KMSS locates his sense of pride in the fact that when Akhil and others started a massive movement against the Citizenship Amendment Bill when it was first introduced, other big organisations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Sahitya Sabha were caught napping. “When a team came for hearing in 2016, we all organised a massive rally. AASU, Sahitya Sabha, Sankar Sangha and others joined only later,” Laskar said, commenting on some of Assam’s most powerful groups.
In a recent video demanding Akhil’s immediate release, Laskar spoke matter-of-factly and said, “Sarbananda Sonowal had got Sourab Bora killed inside Dibrugarh University in 1986. Akhil Gogoi is not like these murderers,” referring to the widely-held suspicion that the current chief minister had a role to play in the assassination of the popular student leader.
In another conversation I had with him, Laskar harked back to police brutalities that had always accompanied KMSS activities. “It was 2011, the Congress government. They evicted hill dwellers around Guwahati and we organised a massive protest against this injustice. Longnit Terang (additional superintendent of police at that time) shot dead the teenager Ruhul Ali in front of my eyes,” said Molaan. “But it did not dampen our movement.”
His eight-year-long association with the organisation ended in 2013. “Xi beya pale (He was offended with me),” Laskar said referring to Akhil Gogoi, “I don’t want to speak directly about those things now. But I wanted to give more time to sahitya-sanskriti. He did not find it agreeable, probably. But I am working from outside the organisation. Particularly in the Nagaon district. In fact, my association with the Indian People’s Theatre Association has helped; we are vehemently opposing the CAA,”
Papari Medhi, a National School of Drama graduate and a well-known actor in Assam recently performed her own adaptation of Antigone in a style that she calls Performed Conversations in Delhi. The play was a hit, despite coronavirus scare, because the story of an individual standing up to a tyrant is temporally super relevant. In a scene that obliquely talks about activists moving towards electoral politics, Papari’s character says, “Jate hai log, mera bhai bhi gaya hai” (People do take that route, so has my brother). Not many in a Delhi auditorium knew it was a reference to her own brother, the KMSS number-two turned-struggling-Assam-Congress leader, Kamal Kumar Medhi.
Medhi, however, is not the only prominent face that Gogoi lost because of his disrelish for electoral politics. Bhaben Handique had been associated with Akhil Gogoi since 1995 thanks to an editorial on the latter published in the weekly Asom Baani. “I had read that an activist called Akhil Gogoi refused a bait of 11 lakh rupees from Hiteswar Saikia (the then chief minister) and this perceived impudence saw him being framed in a case of dacoity. I was a student at Dhemaji College at that time, and was left bloody impressed. In ’97, I joined Cotton College in Guwahati but dropped out soon and thereafter left for Dhakuakhana. When I was back in Cotton the next year, I became a part of the Cotton College Study Circle and its magazine Satrobarta,” reminiscences Bhaben, who brought an end to this association in 2013 and joined the Aam Aadmi Party.
On his way, he worked with many people: Santanu Borthakur, the writer and lawyer who represents Akhil in most cases even today, Joydeep Baruah, now an associate professor at the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development and Arindam Borkotoki, editor of Nibedon and former editor of the monthly Prakash who also teaches English at Anandaram Dhekial Phookan College in Nagaon.
As Handique he mentions these illustrious comrades, he sounds grateful for his agitational journey. When the Tengani eviction happened in 2002, he was one of five people who had travelled there to see and understand what was happening. “We were led there by a romantic, revolutionary surge, did not intend to stay back until we saw how bad it was,” said Handique. The four others who were part of this first batch of activists engaged in rescuing Tengani dwellers were Akhil Gogoi, Soneswar Narah, Manoj Tamuly (also Akhil’s brother-in-law) and Bhasco De Saikia, the current president of the KMSS and then a first-year student in Debraj Roy College in Golaghat where Geetashree Tamuly, Akhil’s wife, taught Assamese.
“Yes, I was baideo’s student,” Bhasco confirms when he meets me after his day’s work at The CrossCurrent, the channel that I call the Assamese version of The Young Turks minus a Cenk Uygur. He also talked about the almost forgotten hunger strike that three KMSS members began and sustained for 19 days in 2016 in protest of the CAA. “This is second only to Mahatma Gandhi’s 21 days,” Bhasco said before adding, “but no media took notice.” When I asked him about so many young leaders getting arrested, the president pointed out that the student body affiliated to the KMSS was raised only in 2012, and the FIR implicating its president Bittu Sonowal and others refers to events in 2009 when these student leaders were teenagers.
Ask Samujjal Bhattacharya, the numero uno in the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) what he thinks of the indiscriminate arrests and detentions of activists from the KMSS and he would artfully descend into whataboutery. “They are many others who have also been arrested. We demand that all be released,” said the leader who holds sway both over the state and the public.
“AASU boys have also been targeted. Just that it has not received as much publicity.” Bhattacharya said, insisting that it is not any particular organisation, but the (anti-CAA) movement that has invited the government’s displeasure. All their leaders are behind bars, could it be because they incited violence, I asked him directly. “Moi najano (I don’t know)” is all he said in response before rising to speak to others waiting for him in the room at Swahid Bhavan where he routinely ministers to people visiting from far-flung areas.
“When Arvind Kejriwal toured Assam to explore a proposed political party born of the movement against corruption where Akhil was a part, he roamed around in my Alto,” said Bhaben Handique, “I had translated Arvind’s Swaraj (2012) into Assamese. I also wanted to start a publishing house.” Handique believes that these decisions contributed to the fissure between him and Akhil.
“I made a mistake actually. If I spoke directly to Akhil-da, things would get sorted. Intermediaries intervened. Anyway, I will not return to the fold, not to the mass organisation. If he envisions a political party, though, I would again be an ally,” Bhaben told The Wire. As we started to wind up, the leader who joined AAP in 2013 and left it on the day Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan were expelled in 2015 decided not to reserve judgment on Akhil Gogoi’s political stands, “He hasn’t walked his steps in tandem with demands of the time. If he took a stand in Assam like Arvind did in Delhi – not necessarily by joining the AAP – we would not be in a BJP-ruled state today. Also, as a political leader, he would not be jailed like this, and the movement would not be tos-nos (destroyed),” he said.
Handique concluded with an apparent reference to how the movement against the CAA was blunted the moment Gogoi was thrown in jail. I was reminded of what Molaan Laskar had said to me earlier, “I think it was with an aim to weaken the movement that the KMSS was sidelined and the AASU was filliped.”
Back in my friend’s room in Guwahati, I asked him to name one thing he had learnt from Akhil Gogoi. “That democratic movements can successfully be carried out in villages far and wide was Akhil’s teaching. I would not imagine a massive movement for people’s ration or a struggle against a hike in city bus fares from one rupee to one and a half under the leadership of the AASU or the AJYCP (Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad). There was a time he struck a chord with all non-elites of the state by doing things like cycle rallies and podojatras (processions),” he says.
Jyotirmoy Talukdar is a writing tutor at Ashoka University. He freelances for various publications in English and Assamese.