A year after his arrest on terrorism charges for spearheading widespread protests against India’s new citizenship law, a veteran 44-year-old peasant-rights activist faces four criminal charges and remains in jail without trial or bail. Here’s why the State has singled him out for retribution
Guwahati: A slightly built, bearded man in a blue shirt appears to be talking or shouting, a finger raised in the air, as he is mobbed and assailed by policemen in khaki wielding lathis.
As a work of art or graffiti, it is unremarkable, if reasonably striking. As a political statement, it is unacceptable in modern-day Assam.
On 20 November, the police detained four students of the Government Art College just as they were about to finish painting a mural of peasant leader Akhil Gogoi, 44, on one side of a flyover near a crossroads called Basistha Chariali here in Assam’s capital.
As members of the Anga Art Collective, the four artists have been painting political graffiti on public walls since 2011. Their graffiti has included artistic comment on Laxmi Orang and Bodoland, but never before were they detained—or made to paint over their work, as the police forced them to a day later.
“The cops told us that we had broken the law because we didn’t take prior permission,” Dhrubajit Sarma, one of the detained students told Article 14. At the Basistha police station, where they were held for four hours before they were released, the young artists were offered more unsolicited advice.
“We were told that you can paint a flower or a rhino,” said Sarma. “But since Akhil Gogoi has been arrested in an NIA (National Investigative Agency) case, we cannot portray him.” The artists were forced to paint over their labour of love as the police watched, insisting on a second coating to completely whitewash the last remnants of the ink on the wall.
It was here near Basistha Chariali in December 2019 that protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, blocked traffic. For almost a week anti-CAA protests roiled the Assamese-dominated Brahmaputra valley, including the state capital Dispur and Guwahati. In upper Assam districts, Gogoi’s farmers’ rights organisation, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), was leading protests with a call that rang, Joi Ai Axom (Long live mother Assam).
Unlike several graffiti on the tamul (betelnut) stained walls of Assam, this one had no slogans. The mural made no mention of the CAA—which state health and finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma claimed on 14 November was “no longer a part of the political discourse of Assam”—but the police showed anyway.
State anxiety over the mural is a manifestation of discomfort with Gogoi, who, on 12 December, completed a year in jail—without trial or bail—after he was first arrested from Jorhat during a police sweep on protestors; 1,000 were detained and five killed in police firing.
The prolonged incarceration of Gogoi—a graduate in English Literature known for his work on evictions around Kaziranga National Park, Subansiri dam project and the use of the right to Information act— is meant to serve as a salutary lesson for protestors. But on 11 December, as the first anniversary of Gogoi’s incarceration dawned, anti-CAA protests started again statewide, with many demanding his release.
Many Assamese communities oppose the CAA, which eases the path for citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Assamese fear the CAA will naturalise “illegal” Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh, or worse, spur a wave of migration.
Assam has a long and turbulent history of civilian agitations against illegal migration, which gave birth to secessionist militant groups and, eventually, the Assam Accord of 1985, which identified 24 March 1971 as the cut off date for marking Indian citizens in the state. It, also, promised a host of constitutional, administrative and legislative safeguards to protect the social, cultural and linguistic identity of Assamese people.
Unlike the Indian government’s negotiations with farmers—thousands of whom are protesting new farm laws railroaded through Parliament, much as the CAA was—the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) never offered any talks to anti-CAA protestors, either nationally and in Assam (where there were only some backchannel talks with the All Assam Students Union). As protestors involved have been incarcerated elsewhere across India (see Article 14 stories here, here, here, here, here, here and here) to serve apparently as a deterrent, so too was Gogoi.
Why Gogoi specifically?
Unlike other parts of India, where anti-CAA protests were overwhelmingly driven by Muslim protestors, Assam’s movement was broad-based, involving students, farmers, workers and a host of indigenous communities who feared being swamped by a new wave of migrants.
Of all the organisations and people involved—most of whom got away with a slap on the wrist or were largely ignored—Gogoi was, perhaps, easiest to pick out because of his history as a conscientious objector, regardless of who ran the government. One of the charges he now faces is sedition, but he has twice before faced similar charges, both dismissed.
Over 20 years as a crusader, especially for marginalised communities, Gogoi has fought against corruption, for land rights and been arrested several times. But he has never been in jail for as long as he has since December 2019, when the police
A Year In Prison And Counting
Gogoi and three KMSS members—Dhirjya Konwar, Manas Konwar and Bittu Sonowal—face two charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967: sections 18 (conspiracy) and 39 (support to a terrorist group) and four others, including sedition, criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity between groups, imputations or assertions prejudicial to national integration.
Three days later, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) booked Gogoi under UAPA alleging that the protests were part of a larger conspiracy hatched in concert with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
While the others were released on bail in July, Gogoi continues as an undertrial in Guwahati Central jail after the Special NIA Court rejected his bail application in one of the NIA cases in August. Only a few weeks earlier, he had tested positive for Covid-19 while in jail.
For Gogoi’s wife of 20 years, Geetashree Tamuly, a lecturer at B Barooah College in Guwahati, the news was devastating.
“There was no information from the government, police or the NIA despite my attempts to reach them,” she told Article14. “I only got to know [about Gogoi’s Covid result] through the media.” she said. Finally, a public appeal on Facebook ensured medical treatment.
Accustomed to a life where either social work or political activism has kept her husband away from the family for long periods, 2020 has been particularly hard on Tamuly.
“My college work and family members keep me busy,” she said. “Most of my time and attention is taken up by my minor son, who has been suffering from severe depression.”
The son who is “extremely attached to his father” is on medication to deal with the trauma of separation from his father, she added.
While KMSS handles Gogoi’s legal case, people do come up to her to express their concern about a “planned design” against him.
No Stranger To Run-Ins With The State
Gogoi is no stranger to run-ins with the state.
From his early days in the Brihattar Tengani Unnayan Sangram Samiti (Greater Tengani Development Society for), which fought eviction drives in the Nambor Reserve Forest in 2001 to fighting for land rights for those evicted from the Kaziranga National Park in 2016, Gogoi has been steadfast in his support for marginalised communities in Assam.
He has also been an anti-corruption crusader, joining hands with Anna Hazare in the 2011 India Against Corruption (IAC) movement and investigating cases (here and here) against Assam ministers using the Right to Information Act, 2005.
Gogoi was first arrested on sedition charges in September 2017 for his alleged links with the militant group, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), after he delivered a speech at a public rally along with Jiten Dutta, a former ULFA commander. He was charged with sedition for the second time while protesting a government attempt to pass the CAA in January 2019.
In both cases, courts released him within 40 days because sedition charges could not be proven.
But unlike the previous two times, there does not appear to be an end in sight to his latest detention because Gogoi has been charged under the UAPA, under which a person can be detained for 180 days without trial or charges being filed.
According to the police investigation, Gogoi had “several secret meetings with members of CPI (Maoist)”, who they allege had trained KMSS members in their ideology, handling of arms and explosives and “tactics of mass mobilization to carry seditious activities in garb of protest activities”.
The chargesheet said “lawful” intercepts of the cellphones of Gogoi and his associates revealed “their intentions of seditious activities, behind the garb of protests, and for the acts, which were likely to strike terror in section of people in India by using inflammable substance to disrupt supplies essential for life of community in India i.e. paralyzing the Government machinery, causing economic blockade and causing enmity between groups, disruption of public peace and widespread disharmony and disaffection towards the government, assertions prejudicial of religion, race, place of birth, residence and language”. It also mentions two unnamed protected witnesses whose statements have been recorded by the NIA.
In an interview to Scroll.in in December 2019, Gogoi denied the allegations linking him with Maoists, calling it a “ploy to de-legitimise the people’s upsurge and derail the movement”. He accused the police of “physical and mental torture” in custody.
In their appeal, Gogoi’s advocates have questioned the adequacy of the protected witnesses’ statements, which remain uncorroborated and on the basis of which sections of the UAPA have been applied.
UAPA: The Punishment Is The Process
Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show an increasing use of UAPA nationwide, with 1,226 cases filed in 2019 alone, a 33% rise since 2016. The preventive-detention law has been used against a variety of dissenters: from 17 activists, writers, lawyers and academics arrested in the 2018 Bhima-Koregaon protests in Maharashtra to students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia, who led the anti-CAA protests in Delhi.
Leah Verghese, a Bangalore-based lawyer with DAKSH, a non-profit, said that the progress of UAPA cases through the justice system buttresses the claim that the police are invoking this legislation indiscriminately, with charge-sheets filed in only 9% of the cases and a conviction rate at 29.9% in 2019. “This will have a chilling effect on dissent and protest in the country,” Verghese told Article-14.
In July 2019, the India’s BJP government inserted a new clause in the UAPA, expanding the NIA’s role and allowing an individual to be more easily designated a terrorist, with the onus of proof on the accused.
Verghese argued that the government did not necessarily need the amendment to go after dissenters, given that many of the accused are alleged to have links to one or the other banned organization, most commonly the CPI (Maoist).
“It’s an easy narrative with this whole ‘urban naxals’ and ‘tukde tukde gang’ that has been widely circulated by the mainstream media,” she said.
Gogoi And KMSS As ‘Public Enemies’
Unlike the Assam agitation of 1979-85, which was led by the All Assam Students Union, and culminated in a tripartite agreement with the Union and state government, the anti-CAA protests in December were sporadic and leaderless.
Several student-led organisations, civil society groups and political parties participated in the anti-CAA demonstrations, some of which led to the destruction of public property and obstruction of state highways and city arterial roads.
Shrinkhal Chaliha, the organising secretary of Veer Lachit Sena, an ethno-nationalist group mainly rooted in upper Assam, was arrested twice during the protests. The police accused him of criminal conspiracy, attempt to wage war against the nation and provocation to riot along with 10 other sections under the Indian Penal Code, 1870. Although the police arrested him a second time in an older case, Chaliha was released on bail by a Chief Judicial Magistrate the following day.
Describing Gogoi as a “dynamic” man, Chaliha said that the Congress party was the first to accuse Gogoi of a Maoist connection.
Chaliha said that if Gogoi were to be released on 8 December, the state government would come after him. “I already have my bags packed because they (the government) will not want the both of us to be free,” he told Article 14. “I still get threats from BJP minions.”
The action against protestors appears to be selective. Although the AASU led anti-CAA protests in several parts of Assam (here and here), no cases have been booked against its members, after some were initially detained.
Instead, the Assam government has pinned the anti-CAA protests to a “Maoist conspiracy” led by the KMSS. While members of the Congress student’s wing, National Students Union of India, and Popular Front of India were also detained soon after, they were not booked under any of the national security acts.
In an attempt to reach a compromise in December, health minister Sarma said no action would be taken against student and civil society organisations so long as they were “democratic”. Instead, he singled out protestors based on video footage, claiming that “those who had come from places in lower Assam, such as Barpeta, Goalpara and Nalbari districts” were greater in number. These districts in lower Assam, where the scale of the protests was far more subdued, have a higher percentage of Bengali-speaking Muslim communities.
Keeping Gogoi Off the Streets
Pranab Doley of the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha, a farmers’ advocacy group in the western district of Golaghat, said had Gogoi not been in prison he would have participated in Assam’s new protests against the new farm laws passed in October 2019.
“KMSS is among many other organisations in the state that is a part of the farmers’ struggle,” said Doley. “However, if Akhil was out today, all the organisations would have come together and it would have had much more impact than we’re seeing today.”
Gogoi’s innings in state politics has long been marred by a chronic case of failure to launch.
KMSS did not contest the 2016 Assembly election despite Gogoi’s announcement, a year earlier, that the organisation would launch a new political party. On 2 October, KMSS launched Raijor Dal, or people’s party, as a political alternative to the BJP and the Congress-All India United Democratic Front alliance. The fledgling party declared Gogoi as its chief ministerial candidate.
Bhasco D Saikia, president of KMSS, said that by early January 2021, the newly floated regional parties will decide whether or not to fight the election in an alliance. However, he added, the KMSS is still debating whether Parliamentary politics would help them achieve their goals.
“Arvind Kejriwal [who was a key part of the IAC] and his Aam Aadmi party believes that Parliamentary politics will solve all the problems, but for us it is just one of many ways,” Saikia said. “For the kind of society that we’ve envisioned, we’re exploring this as an option.”
For Gogoi’s wife Tamuly, the idea that Gogoi and his organisational aides could fight the elections would mean more time away from his family. “What we have lost is lost forever,” she said. “I’m not saying I’m dissatisfied with the time and commitment he’s given to people’s issues.”
Tamuly said electoral politics was not “the right platform for a hardened activist like him (Gogoi), given the compromises involved. Ultimately, the decision is his”.
Whether Gogoi will fight this election behind bars, or have any sway over voters in the 2021 election in Assam remains uncertain. What is clear is that he’s Assam’s fall guy for every season.
Since the violent anti-CAA protests in December, peaceful protests against CAA have continued in Assam through January’s Bihu festivities, until the coronavirus pandemic hit and a nationwide lockdown was announced in March.
Between then and now, the BJP government has vilified the Left Front and Muslims for conspiring violent protests, villainised Tablighi Jamaat returnees for bringing Covid-19 to the Northeast and denied representation to the Miyas (Bengali Muslims) in the Srimanta Sankaradeva Kalakshetra, an arts and cultural centre in Assam.
For ‘indigenous’ Assamese communities, the government has promised that the new assembly will act on the recommendations of what is called the Clause-six (constitutional safeguards for the indigenous Assamese with 1951 as the cut-off date) committee.
When asked about the future of the anti CAA movement, after his arrest in December, Gogoi appealed to the people of Assam to not be a part of a “state-sponsored movement”.
Much less an appeal, it looks like he left a warning.
(Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati-based journalist covering India’s Northeast.)