Will Anti-CAA Protests Give Assam Its Next Set of Leaders?
Land rights activists Akhil Gogoi, Pranab Doley, and AASU’s Lurinjyoti Gogoi are likely to contest Assembly polls.
In the Bokakhat constituency in Assam's Golaghat district, there's a unique kind of election crowdfunding initiative underway. The local farmers have set aside one harvest of 100 acres of agricultural land to fund the campaign of a prospective candidate — Pranab Doley of the Anchalik Gana Morcha.
The harvest – which will mostly comprise coriander, carrots, peas and a few other vegetables – may raise about Rs 1 lakh. Though not enough to fund an entire Assembly election campaign, it bears testimony to the support and goodwill 36-year-old Pranab Doley enjoys in the local community.
Doley is among many young activists involved in popular agitations who have now decided to take the political plunge in the upcoming elections in Assam.
The most prominent names in this category are Asom Jatiya Parishad president Lurinjyoti Gogoi and Rajior Dal chief Akhil Gogoi. More such young activists could also join their ranks as polls draw closer.
What makes Lurinjyoti Gogoi, Akhil Gogoi, and Pranab Doley important is the fact that they are trying to carve out an alternative political space, instead of joining any of the mainstream parties of Assam such as BJP, Congress, Asom Gana Parishad, and All India United Democratic Front.
Unlike them, former All Assam Moran Students’ Union leader Arunjyoti Moran, who led the protests demanding Scheduled Tribe status for the Moran community, joined the BJP.
Incidentally, all these young activists were involved in the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act agitation that rocked Assam in 2019-20. For them, the CAA protests were a natural culmination of their work as activists.
Many of Assam’s indigenous communities fear that the CAA would lead to Bangladeshi Hindu refugees will be given citizenship rights, which in turn could affect the local communities' control over land, jobs, educational facilities, etc. Therefore it is being opposed both by land and farmers' rights activists like Akhil Gogoi and Pranab Doley as well as Lurinyoti Gogoi, whose background lies in the All Assam Students' Union (AASU).
The Assam agitation of the 1980s created a generation of leaders who dominated Assam politics. Will the anti-CAA protest create a new generation of Assamese politicians?
Pranab Doley, Anchalik Gana Morcha
An alumni of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Pranab Doley is the founder of the Jeepal Krishak Shramik Sangha and works extensively with local communities near the Kaziranga wildlife sanctuary. When it comes to locals' rights over land in this part of Assam, the biggest threat is the sanctuary itself. Doley says that every expansion of Kaziranga has inflicted brutal evictions on the local people.
For instance, two people were killed during the Bandar Dubi eviction of 2016.
Even on a day-to-day level, locals often face attacks and harassment from forest officials.
"Forest guards are given rights to shoot at sight. Though it is supposedly aimed at controlling poaching, it often gets used against local residents," says Doley, who has even led protests against the shoot-at-sight permission given to forest guards.
Besides land rights, Doley has taken part in several protests on a variety of issues — from corruption in the distribution of rice to demanding better healthcare facilities and of course, the Citizenship Amendment Act. He has also been arrested by the police for one such protest against an alleged rice distribution scam, in 2020.
However, jail time and regular intimidation by the police hasn't deterred Doley. But he has felt the need to enter mainstream politics while continuing with his grassroots’ activism.
Doley's aim is to use his grassroots' connect in the seat to forge a social alliance between two communities deeply tied to the land — the indigenous tribal Mising community and the tea garden workers who are originally Adivasis from Chhotanagpur brought by the British as tea plantation workers.
“We are trying to bring together two communties — Misings and tea tribes. Both are involved in farming and growing, and are also the most vulnerable to displacement,” says Doley, who himself belongs to the Mising community.
Doley claims that efforts at intimidating him have increased after he decided to contest the elections. He alleges that armed cops barged into his house late at night on 3 February, a claim which Golaghat police has denied.
The activist has an uphill battle ahead of him as in the Bokakhat constituency, he is up against Asom Gana Parishad chief and minister for agriculture and veterinary affairs Atul Bora.
Doley’s party, the Anchalik Gana Morcha led by journalist Ajit Bhuyan, is part of the Congress-led alliance that also includes the AIUDF and left parties. The seat-sharing between the parties is yet to be decided, so it is not clear if the other alliance partners will support Doley's candidature.
Akhil Gogoi, Rajior Dal
Few activists in India have had to face the brunt of the police as 44-year-old Akhil Gogoi, founder of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity. He has been booked under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and has been in jail since 12 December 2019 in connection with the anti-CAA protests.
A Marxist, Gogoi began his activism with the left-wing United Revolutionary Movement Council of Assam (URMCA) but later broke ranks with them.
Gogoi formed the KMSS in 2005 amidst a forest rights movement in the Doiang Tengani area in Golaghat district, with its main aim to protect the lives and livelihoods of peasants by securing land and forest rights, exposing corruption and opposing the construction of big dams.
In the late 2000s Gogoi focused his protests against big dams in the areas adjoining Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In particular, his organisation demanded a halt to the construction of a mega hydel project in Lower Subansiri.
In December 2011, a large number of anti-big dam protestors led by Gogoi stopped trucks transporting parts of turbines to the Lower Subansiri Hydro-electric Power Project site in Gerukamukh, Lakhimpur district.
He briefly became part of the ‘India Against Corruption’ movement in 2011 but soon distanced himself from them.
Even during the Congress' period, he was accused of being a "Maoist". However the crackdown intensfied after the BJP came to power in Assam in 2016.
He was arrested under the National Security Act in 2017, after he made a speech against the government’s then proposal to amend the Citizenship Act to grant citizenship to minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
The seeds of Akhil Gogoi's confrontation with the BJP had already been sown. It was only to be expected that he would be at the forefront of the protests against the CAA, when it was finally passed in 2019.
Gogoi's KMSS along with 70 other civil society outfits have come together to form the Rajior Dal, with him as its president.
The Rajior Dal has sealed an alliance with the Asom Jatiya Parishad and the alliance has the support of the Bodoland People's Front, a BJP ally till recently.
Gogoi is likely to contest from a seat in Sivasagar or Jorhat districts in Upper Assam.
Lurinjyoti Gogoi, Assam Jatiya Parishad
Unlike Doley and Akhil Gogoi, who are both land rights' activists, Lurinjyoti Gogoi is a students' leader and was secretary of the All Assam Students' Union (AASU), that has lakhs of members and former members across Assam and a vast network cutting across the state. Several leaders holding top positions in Assam are from an AASU background — from current chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal, former CM Prafulla Kumar Mahanta and current AGP chief Atul Bora.
AASU prides itself on being a vanguard organisation defending the interests of Assam’s indigenous people. However, the body’s current rank and file accuse some of their senior former members like Sonowal and Bora of “betraying the people of Assam”, particularly given their support of the CAA.
“It is due to their failure that the Asom Jatiya Parishad was formed. Those who claimed to fight for Assam were compromising its interests, therefore a new organisation had to be created.”Abani Kumar Gogoi, Dibrugarh district secretary of AASU
In a short span of time, Lurinjyoti Gogoi and the Asom Jatiya Parishad has captured the imagination of many Assamese speaking voters, especially in Upper Assam.
They see the BJP as being a major threat to the indigenous people of Assam, especially after the CAA and they also accuse the Congress of not being vociferous enough, though of late the party has been aggressively raising this issue.
"The Congress became aggressive on CAA because of Lurinjyoti. They realised that this is the way to win votes in Assam," says Raja Bolimora, Tinsukia district president of AASU.
Lurinjyoti has claimed that he will not align with any national party because the Jatiya Parishad's moto is "Assam first".
He is likely to contest from a seat in Upper Assam. Two of the possible seats doing the rounds are Naharkatiya and Duliajan, both in Dibrugarh district.
Though with different trajectories and political choices, all three activists have a common adversary — the BJP government in Assam.
Many of their supporters do admit that BJP is a bigger threat than the Congress because at least the latter didn't criminalise protests to the same extent.
For all three of them, the rights of Assam's indigenous people are at stake in this election, including one right that has been fundamental to Assam's politics — the right to protest.
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