Dissenter-in-action: Akhil Gogoi’s leap from activism to assembly

Akhil Gogoi speaking to media after release. Credit- The Indian Express

Akhil Gogoi’s release is set to revive opposition politics in a region that has become a stronghold of the BJP and proving-ground for new citizenship rules in the country. But will his ascendancy as an MLA hold grounds as he fights rising Hindutva while asserting that no foreigner will be allowed to settle in Assam.

On July 1, Akhil Gogoi walked out of imprisonment in his classic blue shirt, donning the traditional Gamosa. His arms were up in the sky, fists closed as he posed in front of the media. “It’s a historic verdict,” he said, “a huge day for India’s judicial system.”

Gogoi was released after a National Investigative Agency (NIA) court quashed all pending charges against him including those of Sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The court observed that the “ambit of sedition does not get stretched beyond permissible limits.” It added ordinary bandhs, blockades, shutdowns as part of protests, unaccompanied by incitement to violence could not come within the ambit of ‘threatening the economic security of India’.

His release is set to revive opposition politics in a region that has become a stronghold of the BJP and proving-ground for new citizenship rules in the country. But will his ascendancy as an MLA hold grounds as he fights rising Hindutva while asserting that no foreigner will be allowed to settle in Assam.

Gogoi has been a prominent voice of dissent in Assam and the most formidable voice against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). He was first put in preventive detention and later two cases of UAPA were slapped against him for his alleged involvement with Maoists during the anti-CAA protest in the state. In its charge sheet, NIA said it had seized incriminating documents including books on ‘communist ideology’, the ‘Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Lenin’s selected works’ alleging that the accused followed the ideology of the banned CPI-Maoist organisation.

This is not the first time Gogoi is framed under charges relating to having a Maoist connection. In 2010, under Congress’ rule in Assam, he was accused of having a Maoist connection. The charges never materialised. However, he was arrested 14 times under various charges from 2005-16. Since BJP’s victory in 2016, he has been framed and booked on several charges including those under Sedition, National Security Act (2017) and UAPA (2019).

In 2005, Gogoi founded the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a peasant organisation whose grassroot presence has buoyed his political ambitions and played a crucial role in making him the sole victor from the Raijor Dal. He has been successful in building resistance against theft in the Public Distribution System, non-implementation of NREGA, dam projects, land policies and the recent CAA. In 2011, KMSS halted the construction of the 2000 MW Subansiri Lower Hydroelectric Power Project of the NHPC along Assam-Arunachal Pradesh boundary. The political benefits of which he accrued during the Assembly elections.

As a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements, Gogoi has also been articulate against dam projects in the rest of the country. His dissident nature got him many followers and gathered about 100 cases over the years, making him the most favourable jailbird of successive governments in the state. A day before his release, the NIA had submitted another chargesheet, which was seen by his supporters as a ploy to keep him in jail.

KMSS supported a huge protest campaign that sprouted in Delhi- Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption (IAC) in 2011. However, Gogoi sided away once the campaign turned to form the Aam Aadmi Party. “The public support which IAC had received was only for building up a strong and sustained mass movement against rampant corruption, and not for a political party, ” he said in an email to the IAC in 2012.

In 2020, Gogoi formed Raijor Dal, People’s Party from prison. His decision came at the behest of rising anger amongst KMSS and 70 other organisations over BJP quelling anti-CAA protests. He ran for the 2021 Assembly elections from Sibsagar, a centre of anti-CAA protests and an area identified with the indigenous population, becoming the only leader in Assam to win an election while being imprisoned.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, after release, he said, “this time the agitation will not just be on the streets, it will also reverberate inside the state assembly” about the future of anti-CAA protests. Immediately after, he met the family of a teenager who was killed during the protests and visited his constituency where he was welcomed with the traditional Ululudhvani, signifying prosperity. The same month, he met Abhishek Banerjee, TMC’s leader looking after Tripura elections. In August, he met Mamata Banerjee, Bengal’s Chief Minister and indicated hopes for a united opposition front against BJP in the 2024 General elections. In the recent Assam Assembly, he along with other opposition members staged a walkout over passing of the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill, slamming it as a ‘communal bill’ and stating a ‘black day for Assam.

But can Gogoi keep the political momentum? Akhil Gogoi’s win was historic but his party could not secure any other seats in the Assembly. His stance against ‘foreigners’ is not reassuring for many Bengali-speaking Assamese, many of who are also Muslim. His election campaign sustained on public sympathy but how long will it keep the party afloat, only time can tell.

Despite all of this, Gogoi has managed a positive limelight in the media. Several academics and students from around the world campaigned for his release. His win in the legislative elections is attributed to the mutual respect between him and the media. Hundreds of digital media platforms sprung up before the elections with a narrative against the ruling BJP, giving Gogoi a household name.

Gogoi represents a new phase of political dissent in Assam, according to Sanjay Barbora, professor at TISS, Guwahati. He knows how to deliver a sound byte to the waiting camera crew. His struggles when seamlessly combined with issues of good governance transform him from being a local leader to a national activist.