New Delhi: Hiren Gohain, a leading intellectual in Assam and Sahitya Akademi awardee, has been charged with sedition for a speech he delivered at a rally in Guwahati on January 7, opposing the Centre’s decision to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 in the Lok Sabha.
Arguably the best known public intellectual from Assam, 79-year-old Gohain is the author of several critically-acclaimed books. His articles in The Wire give a glimpse into his thinking.
Gohain has been a staunch critic of the Citizenship Bill for years. In 2017, he wrote in The Wire that the Bharatiya Janata Party is attempting to reinforce and spread Hindutva in Assam by amending the Citizenship Act.
It has taken several decades to settle the differences between Bengali Muslim immigrants and the indigenous Assamese. The Muslim immigrants had long ago adopted Assamese as the medium of instruction in their schools in order to assuage Assamese fears. There are now several well-known Assamese authors and scores of journalists from among them. But the conflict with Bengali Hindus goes back much further. … In 1960, serious riots followed the moving of a bill in the state assembly declaring Assamese as the official language of the state, and several persons lost their lives on both sides in police firing and mob violence. The Bengali Hindus, justly proud of their rich native language, are unlikely to accept Assamese as most Muslim immigrants did. Hence, the citizenship decision sought to be imposed from above is like bringing fire to a tinder-heap.
Read the article here.
While criticising the Citizenship Bill, Gohain has been a supporter of the National Register of Citizens. According to him, many who are against the process have failed to understand its history.
We in Assam acutely feel that some stakeholders in the dispute over the National Register of Citizens in India are getting looked at from the wrong end of the telescope. They are being reviled as brutal chauvinists. Some might fit that description, not everybody.
Read the article here.
The author believes that the NRC could have a positive impact on Assamese society. In a response to a critique of the NRC, Gohain wrote:
In that blood-besmeared fog of mistrust, suspicion and ill-will, the NRC appeared the only sane and tangible instrument for restoring peace and goodwill among communities. It is another thing that the state under its present leadership is trying every possible means to hijack or derail it. By painting it black outside Assam, the detractors of the NRC are only helping those who want to push Assam back into that boiling cauldron from which it had emerged scalded barely a decade or so ago.
In an interview to The Wire in December 2017, Gohain reiterated his views on pre-independence Assam and its fraught journey in independent India. On the NRC, he told Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty:
We don’t belong to the camp of extremists who believe that as soon as some people are found to be non-citizens, they should be unceremoniously herded out as a bunch of cattle. This is impractical, and impossible. So, we are not asking for it. But I want that citizenship should be confined to people who have a legitimate entitlement to it. Those found non-citizens can still be residents of the state. It happens in many societies across the world; people go to those countries to live and work, have certain rights. Such as, they can’t be criminally assaulted, can find employment, etc. If required, why not issue work permits to them? But in order to relieve local anxieties, citizenship should be limited in Assam until March 24, 1971, as per the Assam Accord. I completely believe in it.
Also, once we have an updated NRC, I hope, I believe, that we shall find the exact number of immigrant Muslims residing in different districts of the state. Many Hindu chauvinists keep saying that Muslims are going to be in a majority in the state in coming years. This theory is based on fear. An updated NRC will tell us the exact number and will address that fear factor.
Read the complete interview: ‘Unless Assam Is Allowed to Develop on Its Own Resources, Unrest Will Always Be There’: Hiren Gohain
On Friday, the Guahati high court granted interim bail to Gohain and activist Akhil Gogoi, and absolute bail to senior journalist Manjit Mahanta in the sedition case filed by the Assam police. The sedition charges against three have been widely criticised for being an attack on free speech.