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Assam's New Voice of Dissent

Akhil Gogoi's Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti represents a pared-down, manageable voice of dissent in Assam. If the state government fails to engage him and continues to detain his kind under dubious charges, they will be left with a violent political abyss in due time.


minister for health and family welfare, Assam’s New Voice of Dissent was singled out for criticism by the organisation. However, the minister is a formidable opponent, not least because he con-Sanjay Barbora trols the omnipresent 24-hour news chan-

Akhil Gogoi’s Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti represents a pared-down, manageable voice of dissent in Assam. If the state government fails to engage him and continues to detain his kind under dubious charges, they will be left with a violent political abyss in due time.

Thanks are due to Sanjib Baruah and Dolly Kikon for their comments. The usual disclaimers apply.

Sanjay Barbora ( is a sociologist and independent researcher, associated with the human rights movement in north-east India, especially Assam.

n 22 June the news media in A ssam reported the events that occurred during a rally organised by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a peasant-based organisation, with growing support amongst the intelligentsia and sections of the middle class in Assam. The KMSS had called the rally to protest the Assam government’s renewed attempts to evict poor tribal and non-tribal workers from the hills that surround the state’s largest city, Guwahati. The organisation was reminding the government that these actions were illegal under the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. In their protests, they alluded to the fact that much of Guwahati has been built on lands that belonged to the Karbi, Rabha and other indigenous tribes of Assam, who are now ironically being evicted, along with workers of other ethnicities at the behest of a land mafia. Scathing media reports point to the hypocrisy of the newly elected government, as it seeks to evict poor people from areas that are being cleared for big, multinational construction companies who aim to build luxury apartments and hotels.

‘Professional Agitationists’

The participants of the rally were rebuffed when they sought to present their case to the authorities in Dispur. In fact, government spokesperson Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also a cabinet minister in charge of the department of education later mentioned that the administration would not engage with “troublemakers and professional agitationists” on the issue of the evictions.1 Sarma, though speaking as the government spokesperson, has never been very fond of the KMSS and its articulate general secretary, Akhil Gogoi who is also a prominent Right to Information (RTI) activist. Prior to the state assembly elections in 2011, Gogoi and his organisation had held several press conferences, where they highlighted cases of corruption pertaining to the Congress (I)led administration. Sarma, then the cabinet

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nel, News Live and its affiliated entertainment channel, Rang. Detractors of the channel point out the convergence of its editorial views with those of the ruling Congress (I)-led government. It routinely covers significant events related to the minister and his adversaries are just as regularly pilloried and hectored by its aggressive anchors. It is therefore easy to see why the minister will not speak to Gogoi, though his position does not hold water.

The political history of contemporary Assam, since the 1980s, has been marked by ruling governments striking an understanding with professional agitationists be they members of the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) in the 1980s, or the different armed opposition groups currently engaged in ceasefires and suspension of operations with the state and central governments today.2

The KMSS rally was, by all accounts, a massive gathering of thousands of people. The organisation is used to staging such massive political campaigns, and has done so on other occasions in order to demand a moratorium on the building of big dams in the region, to provide rehabilitation to persons displaced by natural calamities and other matters that highlight the failure of civic governance in the state. In all their events, the police and administration have taken an adversarial position to their demands and Gogoi and his comrades have been roughed up on more than one occasion. However, there have been no reported deaths during earlier campaigns and demonstrations. The KMSS usually employs stewards from amongst its members who are able to ensure a degree of discipline and also protect members of the rally from police violence. The agitation, with its attendant sloganeering, is also a disciplined affair that usually happens in the presence of media persons. This is the first time, however that a KMSS rally has led to the damage of property, injuries to police officials and subsequent deaths of four people.

In a press conference in Guwahati after the event, the organisation claimed that the police first fired on the crowd provoking the participants into throwing stones


at them. The organisation also claimed that a police official shot a child with his service revolver and that the protestors had no role in setting fire to buses, which they claimed, was the work of miscreants hired to tarnish the image of KMSS. In a reportedly linked incident, a worker who was to be evicted by the administration was found dead under mysterious circumstances outside her shanty in Guwahati. None of this is good news for the administration and the police force that is trying to pin down KMSS and its general secretary. The bullets that killed the protestors, including the young boy, came from service weapons allotted to policemen. The identity of the dead, including the woman killed under mysterious circumstances highlights the class and ethnic composition of the victims. In a society that is increasingly polarised along religious, linguistic and ethnic lines, it will be difficult for the administration to sustain its current campaign against KMSS on the basis of this event alone. Hence, the administration has backtracked after Gogoi’s arrest and the chief minister has constituted a commission of inquiry to look into the allegation of police excesses committed during the rally.

The Phantom Police in Assam

In a state like Assam, where political dissent is directed at the other arm of the Indian state – its army – the police remain a formless, less tangible target of ideological ire. It is, after all, still subject to civilian authority and control. Unlike the army, local people man its ranks and they are deployed within the state. However, the Assam police have an unenviable record of human rights violations. Like most police forces all over the world, they transgress rights and act with impunity with alarming regularity. They typify Walter Benjamin’s depiction of the pre-second world war police in democratic countries in Europe, as a spectral mixture of two forms of violence (that which exists outside the law and that which exists as part of the law) within the institution itself. The “law” of the police, he says, “…marks the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain” (Benjamin 1978). So it is, with disturbing consequences, in Assam.

As an institution of state surveillance and control, the Assam police have a habit of conjuring up ghosts and spirits at crucial moments of political strife in the state. One remembers the arrest of human rights activist Lachit Bordoloi, on 11 February 2008, when he was charged in a conspiracy to hijack an aeroplane from Guwahati airport. The details of the hijack plot were bizarre, involving an alleged crew of Afghans, Assamese rebels and planes that were to fly a picturesque route to Rawalpindi (Pakistan), via Thimpu (Bhutan) and Kathmandu (Nepal). However, Bordoloi was not the first human rights activist to be arrested under strange, mystifying circumstances. In the 1990s, at the height of the Boro movement for autonomy and self-determination, the Assam police decided to kidnap Anjali Daimary and film director James Mahaliya. Both were prominent Boro persons residing in Guwahati, with the former being the sister of Ranjan Daimary, the founder of the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB), an armed opposition group that is currently engaged in a ceasefire with the government. The police kidnapped and kept them as collateral, following the abduction of Bolin Bordoloi, an executive of Tata Tea, by suspected members of the NDFB in 1993.

In addition to these selective instances of transgression, the police feature in acts of violence and intimidation against people of the neighbouring states. The media in the neighbouring hill states continue to document the manner in which their citizens are subjected to indignities by A ssam’s powerful police force. In 2010, the Assam police killed several Khasi persons who were protesting against the alienation of their swidden fields by settlers from Assam, thereby bringing into focus the state’s border problems with neighbouring states. Similarly, in the same year, the police featured prominently in a border dispute involving business interests and organisations from Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Such incidents are coupled with innumerable acts of bribery and bullying that Assam’s policemen subject travellers from the hill states to, when they pass through. This is not documented officially but it has become a humiliating narrative for the tribal people from Assam’s neighbouring states. Indeed, at times like this, the Assam police’s interests seem to converge with an ugly, chauvinistic tendency in a public sphere dominated by corporate mass media. Time and again, television anchors and otherwise sombre political commentators in Assam have risen to the occasion in defence of the police when it comes to border conflicts with neighbouring states. Considering the fact that the Join us, speak out for human rights: MOBILIZE GLOBAL RESOURCES PROGRAMME DIRECTOR, INTERNATIONAL MOBILIZATION £COMPETITIVE | GLOBAL SOUTH We lobby, protest and mobilize all over the world in the fight for human rights. And we’ve grown hugely. By increasing our influence in countries where we’re already represented, as well as those where we’re not, you’ll make sure that growth continues. Creating strong programme-wide operational plans, you’ll make sure teams all over the world work together to support in-country managers. Expect to have budget responsibility, juggle competing demands, and give strategic and political advice all whilst overseeing staff performance. An expert in movement development, mobilization and social change, you’ll also have experience of organizational development, governance and structures in an NGO setting. You’ll know how to develop innovative strategies and put them into practice. And you’ll have proved you can lead in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment. If you’re also passionate about human rights, you could soon be adding more people and more countries to our campaign for justice, fairness, freedom and truth wherever they’re denied. To find out more and apply, please visit Closing date: Midnight BST on Sunday 24th July 2011 LIBERATE FROM INJUSTICE

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state has contentious borders with every other state in the region, it is easy to see how a dispute between traders in a border market makes its way to a newsroom in Guwahati. The local reporter, underpaid and seldom trained, finds a ready-made story of Naga/Khasi/Mizo “miscreants” causing trouble in Assam in a police report and sends it across to the news desk, which then forms the basis of political posturing for sections of civil society. Thus, one is unable to distinguish points of divergence in political narratives emanating from civic organisations and the police version of political realities in Assam.

However, the police are not friends of civil society activists, as the current spate of plots against the KMSS shows. Gogoi has to face complaints against him filed by individuals with dubious credentials, who most often act on instructions from the police. Yet again, civil society in Assam is angered by such obvious manipulation of the truth. There are facebook campaigns and appeals to sign online petitions – quite unprecedented in Assam’s contemporary political history. This is significant in a place where more than 10,000 people have died since the beginning of army

o perations in the early 1990s. In addition to the dead, thousands still live in makeshift relief camps, as a result of ethnic conflicts in different parts of the state (Hussain 2007). However, these events never elicited the kind of emotional empathy from other citizens that one sees now. The deaths and displacements were events that seemed somewhat unintelligible to the outsider and those who spoke about them did so in a language that relied on descriptions of the particular and minutiae of political events. It is partly to the KMSS’ credit and partly due to its ability to connect to a wider audience that one sees a renewal of discussion against state hubris in Assam.

Activism and Political Dissent

Gogoi represents a new phase of political dissent in Assam. He is both combative and comfortable during press conferences. More than anyone else in the world of contemporary dissenters in Assam, he knows how to deliver a sound-byte to the waiting camera crews. He frustrates and charms his detractors at public meetings. This a uthor was present at a public meeting, o rganised to debate the construction of dams by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), on 10 September 2010 in Guwahati. The central minister for environment Jairam Ramesh was the special invitee at the meeting. Gogoi constantly heckled the minister, who is normally able to hold his own under adverse conditions. There were times when it seemed that the minister would take offence but Gogoi managed to placate him with the odd kind word and loud, mischievous asides that defused the tension and elicited laughter from the crowd, as well as the minister. On other occasions, he has used the dais to belittle policymakers and well-paid consultants when he disagrees with their political positions, especially on matters pertaining to privatisation of natural resources. He does so without rancour or personal malice. He is armed with just enough information, provided by a looseknit network of friends and associates, to be able to hold out in press conferences and public meetings. What helps his cause is the fact that he is above reproach in matters pertaining to personal wealth and power.

In 2010, he was given the RTI award by the Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF), in a televised ceremony where the film actor Aamir Khan selected his name from thousands of other nominees. He is a prominent invitee of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) in India and has been involved with movements led by Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare, who have spoken at various places in Assam on his invitation. His organisation is based along old-fashioned party lines, reminiscent of communist parties of yore, but it eschews the conspiratorial secrecy that marks clandestine organisations. The KMSS has full-time activists, who are from the state’s rural areas. It also has many well-wishers among the middle class in Assam. It raises funds through public appeals and donations and much of it is spent in campaigns aimed at probity in governance and public life. As demonstrated in the rally against eviction, the organisation’s core work has to do with land rights for landless agricultural workers and for farmers who have been displaced by natural calamities (Saikia 2008). These struggles, when seamlessly combined with issues of good governance, transform Gogoi from being a local peasant leader to a national activist and whistle-blower.

In this, he is markedly different from other political dissenters in Assam. Radical activism in Assam has been inward looking and subjected to periods of unintelligibility that are emphasised by a lack of communication with other, analogous movements within the region.3 This is especially true in the case of political mobilisation following the Assam agitation (1979-1984). Since then, the state has been in ferment, with demands for the right to self-determination that led to unprecedented political mobilisation through the 1990s and 2000s. However, for reasons beyond the purview of this note, these movements have not had the kind of national visibility that Gogoi and KMSS have managed. While the human rights movement started by the late Parag Kumar Das and his colleagues (in the early 1990s), has made efforts to connect with a wider audience, they have not managed to shake off the self-absorption and melancholia associated with radical dissenters in Assam (Brown 1999).

It is difficult to imagine any of the persons connected with this melancholia receive an award for their kind of activism. If anything, they were poignantly ignorant of the need to cultivate the media, or to gain acceptability outside their own, conspiratorial constituencies. Their appeal was directed at the revolutionary, perhaps violent potential for change in the status quo and fostered a deep distrust of the state and all its o rgans. When multiplied across different districts and appropriated by numerous communities, this revolutionary ideal might have sounded inchoate and bewildering to the world outside Assam, for it was difficult to keep track of its multiple visions.

Gogoi has shaken off some of the melancholia associated with revolutionary transformation of dreams of justice in Assam. He looks for reform within an imperfect system and hopes that the powerful will heed his warnings. He has sections of the media and intelligentsia rooting for him. His notion of justice is intrinsically linked to constitutional provisions and appeals to progressive law. When he demands something, as he has done with the moratorium on the construction of dams, he threatens agitations and blockades, not

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bombs and violence. He represents a pared down, manageable voice of dissent who the state can talk to, if not appropriate. If the Government of Assam fails to engage him and continues to detain his kind u nder dubious charges, they will be left with ghosts, phantoms and a violent political abyss in due time. This would be disastrous for a land and people seeking to emerge from three decades of untold brutalities.


1 This quote was attributed to him in a news report: “Govt Firm against Wetland Encroachers”, The Assam Tribune, 24 June 2011.



2 Insurgents in Assam began to turn in their guns for a share of political power around 2001. The Boro Liberation Tiger Force (BLTF) were among the first, as they signed a memorandum of understanding with the Government of Assam in 2003, allowing them to secure power in a newly created Boro Territorial Council in western Assam. For more details see: states/assam/documents/papers/memorandum_ feb02.htm (Accessed 27 June 2011). Other groups like the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), Dima Halam Daogah (DHD), National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and a section of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), have expressed their desire to engage in peace talks with the government.

3 I exclude the particularly rich phase of left radicalism that blossomed after 1947 and had an organic connection with the cultural revival of left wing activism in other parts of the former British Empire in south Asia. It included luminaries such



as Bishnu Prasad Rabha and Jyoti Prasad Agarwala, who were responsible for the growth of a radical leftist tradition within the Assamesespeaking people of Assam.


Benjamin, Walter (1978): “Critique of Violence” in Walter Benjamin, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (translated by Edmund Jephcott and edited by Peter Demetz) (New York: Schocken Books), pp 277-300.

Brown, Wendy (1999): “Resisting Left Melancholy” in Boundary, 2, 26.3, pp 19-27.

Hussain, Monirul (2007): A Status Report in Displacement in Assam and Manipur (Kolkata: Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group).

Saikia, Arupjyoti (2008): “Forest Land and Peasant Struggles in Assam 2002-2007” in Journal of Peasant Studies, 35: 1, 39-59.






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