Guwahati: The lack of transparency from state authorities in dispensing actual information surrounding incarcerated peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and whether has COVID-19 or not has sent members of his family and the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) into a tizzy. This confusion is coming at a time when two young leaders (also incarcerated) from the peasant rights’ group have already been tested positive for the virus.
Reports that Gogoi, and KMSS leaders Bitu Sonowal, Dharjya Konwar and Manas Konwar, who have all been arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for their participation in the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests in Assam last winter, were displaying COVID-19 symptoms like fever, cough, headache and body ache for more than a week have been circulating across the local media for the past few days.
A little after midday on Thursday (July 9), local TV channels said that Gogoi had tested positive for COVID-19. Both Konwar and Sonowal were found to be COVID-19 positive on Wednesday and were taken to a COVID-19 facility in the wee hours.
Contradictions surrounding Gogoi’s actual health status were further deepened when a local TV channel reported that swab tests from the peasant leader had been sent to New Delhi for the final results. Another TV news channel reported that an official acknowledgement from authorities on whether Gogoi is infected or not was yet to be confirmed.
Speaking to The Wire, Gogoi’s wife Geetashree Tamuly, who a few days ago spoke on Facebook about her present situation and how alarmed she was about her husband showing signs of COVID-19, said, “I reiterate once again that today also I am in total darkness. A reporter from a local television news channel called me up saying that Akhil has been tested positive for COVID-19. The absence of total information from the authorities has made me more miserable. I do not know whether he is still in jail or in a COVID-19 facility. I feel there should be no politics played surrounding his health. Authorities should be clear about its stand and provide me with actual information. I was also informed that scores of inmates in the jail have been tested positive. This is all too worrying.”
Tamuly and her husband’s legal counsel filed a petition at the NIA special court, seeking redressal on the health status of the KMSS leaders. The court on July 7 directed authorities at the Guwahati Central Jail to facilitate COVID-19 tests for the incarcerated leaders. Gogoi, Konwar and Sonowal were tested on July 7. It is still not clear whether Manas Konwar has been tested or not.
Northeast Now, a regional online news portal, on Thursday quoted IGP (Jail) Dasarath Das as denying that Gogoi was COVID-19 positive. He told the news portal, “Reports of the peasant leader testing Covid-19 positive is fake. He has not tested positive for the virus. Media houses saying that he has been mistreated and has tested positive for the virus is fake. We have been monitoring his health and a pool of doctors is looking after him. One should bot indulge in spreading fake news.”
Mukut Deka of the KMSS told The Wire that both Konwar and Sonowal were taken from the central jail at around 10 pm on Wednesday. He alleged that the duo was taken from one COVID-19 facility to another, which continued until the wee hours of Thursday morning. “At first they were taken to GMCH and MMCH, where they were told that no beds were available. Then they were taken to another facility in Sonapur which is in the outskirts of the city. They were again brought to MMCH where they were kept waiting for long hours. It was deliberate; they were taken for a long ride. If Akhil’s swab samples were taken to Delhi I would like to ask how it was taken. It is not just the leaders who are suffering but their families as well.”
The same allegations were echoed by two KMSS leaders who addressed the local media on Thursday from the balcony of a COVID-19 facility in the city.
The Wire spoke to Sonowal’s younger sister Mridusmita, who said, “Our family has broken down at the news that my brother is COVID-19 positive. He has asthma. The worse part is that the authorities were not even bothered to inform us. It is only through the media that we are getting information. This is a political conspiracy. They are being deliberately pinned down. Our parents are old, and they are already reeling under great pressure. We have not been being able to talk to Bitu either.”
Gogoi has been granted bail by the Gauhati high court in a case related to a Chabua anti-CAA protest, and hearings in the NIA case are ongoing. “Yesterday there was a hearing in an NIA-related matter. And none of the KMSS leaders were able to attend the video conference procedure. Hearing is still going on,” one of the leaders said.
It was reported by one of the regional online news portals that Gogoi had to undergo an antigen test. But the state chapter of the Indian Medical Association, who a few days ago strongly disagreed with the state government’s decision to switch to antigen tests in detecting COVID-19. In a statement, the IMA said, “IMA strongly protests the government’s decision to switch to antigen tests. The ICMR has mentioned that this test is less sensitive, and a negative test does not rule out COVID-19. It requires confirmation of the negative status by a PCR test.”
The speculation over whether or not Gogoi has COVID-19 has unleashed a storm of protests on social media. Indigenous groups too are demanding the immediate release of all KMSS leaders.