On May 2, 2021, peasant leader and RTI activist Akhil Gogoi created history by being the first person from Assam to win an assembly election while being imprisoned. He took his oath as a Member of the Legislative Assembly from the constituency of Sivasagar on May 21 under special arrangements. He was taken to the Assembly House in a police vehicle under the strict scrutiny of the National Investigative Agency (NIA) from the Guwahati Medical College Hospital (GMCH), where Gogoi has been under treatment for a few months now.
Gogoi has been incarcerated since December 12, 2019, on accounts of accusations including charges of sedition, terrorism and violence under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) which, as believed by many, was a response from the BJP-led government against the mass protest led by Gogoi against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Assam.
The CAA was approved by the Parliament on December 11, 2019. It grants citizenship to the people of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan that belong to six minority religious communities and entered India by 2014. Many opposed the controversial amendment due to its exclusion of the Muslims, but in Assam, it took a different turn due to the fear of ‘outsiders’ swamping the indigenous communities. Two days after the CAA was approved, Gogoi was arrested by the Assam Police for allegedly leading and encouraging a violent mass protest.
In October 2020, Akhil Gogoi -still imprisoned- was declared the President of the newly floated regional party Raijor Dal (RD).
Raijor Dal was one of the prominent regional parties in Assam which were formed in the aftermath of the protests against the CAA. The other newly-formed regional party expected to dent the electoral polls this time was the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP)- formed under the leadership of former All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) President Lurinjyoti Gogoi.
But neither Lurinjyoti Gogoi nor the other candidates from AJP or RD played a pivotal role in reducing the seats of the BJP in the Assam elections, as they speculated. The failure of these two regional parties despite leading huge rallies and planting strong candidates have posed many questions regarding the relevance of a progressive regional force, which was considered to be the only political alternative by many following the mass protests against the CAA a little over a year ago.
While AJP lost in all the seats they contested, RD managed that one seat which was Akhil Gogoi’s. And while Akhil Gogoi did not have strong opponents either from the BJP or Congress in Sivasagar; both the parties did try to balance it out through rigorous campaigning for their respective candidates by flying in their national leaders.
This is where Raijor Dal stood out from their contemporary, the AJP. The new party strategically worked on the political campaign of Akhil Gogoi alone with all its might. Unlike the AJP, they didn’t divide their time, effort or manpower much between the other party candidates. With three letters being written from jail which stirred controversies in the state and amidst the party itself, many were left wondering how Gogoi managed to win the elections in Sivasagar with a margin of over 57000 votes against BJP’s Surabhi Rajkonwari who albeit was not the strongest of candidates from the BJP but lost the previous term to the Congress candidate Pranab Kumar Gogoi only by a small margin of 542 votes.
But was Akhil Gogoi willing to contest electoral polls which might potentially pull him away from the life of activism that he had been involved with for over two decades now?
“Akhil Da was not very keen on contesting in elections at the very beginning. He was proposed with the idea of Rajya Sabha membership by a prominent national party too. He denied it. But we realised that we needed representation in the Assembly. We needed him to represent us and fight for regional progressive forces which have been a victim of many atrocities of the ruling party ”, said Lakhyajyoti Gogoi, Vice President of Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti (SMSS) and a close aide to Akhil Gogoi.
SMSS is the student wing of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) – a peasant organisation that was formed by Akhil Gogoi and has been his foundation of political activism since its inception in 2005.
An Electoral campaign without the candidate
Lakhyajyoti Gogoi further explained how he and hundreds of others including workers from KMSS and SMSS campaigned in Sivasagar for their candidate Akhil Gogoi.
“Sivasagar was never our stronghold if I have to speak from a party’s point of view. It was a stronghold of Congress and BJP. And KMSS and SMSS work on a cadre basis. Working in rural areas is our expertise and Sibsagar town is not the kind where our organisation has previously worked. We had a huge challenge in front of us. Moreover, we didn’t have our candidate with us. He is still imprisoned. Now imagine that,” said Lakhyajyoti.
But Raijor Dal opted for the most obvious and accessible strategy – door to door campaign and leaflet distribution.
“We didn’t have many other options. The election dates were declared so suddenly which left no time in our hands. We asked our district-level leaders (both KMSS and SMSS) from all over Assam to come and camp at Sivasagar and join the campaign,” said the vice president of SMSS.
Polls at Sibsagar were to take place on the first phase of elections, which was on March 27, 2021. Election dates, on the other hand, were declared by the Election Commission of India on February 26, 2021, leaving a month in hand for the workers of the newly formed party to campaign for their incarcerated party President.
The party workers divided themselves with a group leading each Panchayat of the constituency. Booth committees were formed immediately and everyone was asked to get into work immediately. Market places, homes, colleges – every place that could potentially attract voters became a spot for election meetings.
And with the presence of activists like Medha Patkar, Akhil Gogoi’s election campaign not only saw the voluntary participation of leaders and activists from all across the nation but funds were reportedly donated in large amounts to assure the party’s win for Gogoi.
“The Expenditure Agent was shocked to see the bank statement of around 25 lakhs which was donated by the people”, said Lakhyajyoti. He further reflected, “We were confident about the manpower but the money had to be helped out with. We had no money to fight elections. Certainly not enough. Many of our election offices were built by the people.”
Gyanashree Bora, a PhD candidate from Dibrugarh University was one of the most visible and prominent faces for the incarcerated Gogoi during the election campaigns. With articulate speeches in campaign meetings where she spoke on behalf of Gogoi, Bora helped carry an equally engaging campaign for Akhil Gogoi on social media.
“After CAA, we wanted an alternative option and after the arrest of Bitu Sonowal and others, we were more than sure that organisations like KMSS were in danger. Helping Akhil Gogoi win the election was a manifestation of many things that have happened since December 2019.”, she said.
Bora along with many other young women campaigned amidst the first time voters of the constituency.
But the KMSS or SMSS members were not the only ones who joined the campaign for Akhil Gogoi. Many others gradually joined in as they considered his victory in the elections as the only alternative response to the killings of five protesters during the protests against the CAA.
“18-year-old girls would organise poem recitations in colleges to spread the word of Akhil Gogoi and we were asked by them to join them. We didn’t have helicopters to use as a means of mass attraction or to fly in national leaders from Delhi. Most of these campaigns were voluntarily organised by the people and we were just asked to join them. We as workers on the field, would forever be thankful to the people of Sivasagar”, said Bora with gratitude.
Other regional forces joining hands
Sivasagar might not have been a stronghold for the KMSS, SMSS and the newly floated party Raijor Dal, but it has certainly been home to many other strong voices and leaders of other regional forces. Srinkhal Chaliha being one of those many names is the leader of another regional organisation called the Bir Lachit Sena, who actively participated in the electoral campaigns for Akhil Gogoi.
Chaliha too was arrested by the Assam Police during the CAA protests but was not imposed any charges under the UAPA. Similarly, the old guards of regionalism in Assam – All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Asom Jatiya Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) who have had their stronghold over regions like Sivasagar for many decades had not caused any hindrance to the campaigns of Akhil Gogoi, which were mainly led by members of KMSS and SMSS.
“AASU and AJYCP didn’t join us outrightly in the election campaigns. But we don’t doubt their participation”, said Lakhyajyoti Gogoi.
Mutual respect between Akhil Gogoi and the Assamese media
Akhil Gogoi has been a frequent name in the news headlines in Assam for more than a decade now. In 2010, his press meets that claimed to have found the missing case diaries of many powerful leaders of Assam, including that of Assam’s current Chief Minister Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, cemented Gogoi’s name as a media favourite. While the then Tarun Gogoi led Congress government considered Gogoi an anarchist, many hailed him as the sole crusader for exposing corruption scams of the government.
Gogoi was arrested many times under the Congress-led government as well, and most of the media reports – if not in favour of his arrests – were never against his idea of activism either. But the majority of the media in Assam took a staunch stand in favour of Gogoi after his last arrest in 2019 following the CAA protests.
Another reason behind the huge media attention that Akhil Gogoi received during the elections was the recent boom in the emergence of digital journalistic platforms in Assam. Hundreds of media houses sprang up – many right before the elections with a narrative against the ruling party BJP and one in favour of regional progressive political parties like RD and AJP. These media platforms, alongside the popular satellite media houses, made Akhil Gogoi an everyday conversation in Assamese households, giving them easy access to the cause of his fight.
Lakhyajyoti Gogoi said, “There was mutual respect between the cause of Akhil Da and the media of Assam. We never asked for their help but they didn’t fall for any conspiracies either. They reported the stories on him as they were and that helped us in the long run.”
Voters of Sivasagar
The most important factor behind the victory of Akhil Gogoi which superseded all others were the voters of the constituency of Sivasagar. It was the people of Sivasagar who placed their faith in a person who is still behind bars – expecting him to carry on working towards development as they voted for a change – like responsible voters of every democracy.
“We went to every household and humbly requested everyone to vote for change. We didn’t mind if some households were traditionally Congress voters or BJP voters, we spoke to everyone regardless.” – said Lakhyajyoti.
Akhil Gogoi also took the initiative of writing letters to the people of Assam to convey certain messages to those who would be voting for him. The first of his prison letters requested everyone to reject the communal politics of not only the BJP but also of the Congress-led alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF). While the Congress had also allied with other parties (ethnic, regional and national alike), Gogoi believed that its involvement with the perfume baron turned politician Maulana Badaruddin Ajmal of AIUDF was indeed communal as the AIUDF is accused of catering to and targetting Muslim voters in particular, similar to that of the BJP targetting Hindu voters.
Gogoi’s disagreement over the alliance of Congress with Ajmal led AIUDF was also one of the reasons behind RD’s non-participation in the Mahajot alliance.
And since the BJP had inundated their campaign rallies with statements on the Congress-AIUDF alliance as a ‘threat’ to the Assamese culture, the timing of Gogoi’s letter made the Mahajot alliance and its supporters accuse Gogoi and Raijor Dal of playing “B-Team” to the BJP. His letter stirred a huge controversy which led many to question if it was Akhil Gogoi who not only aided the accusations of the BJP but also put himself on the wrong foot and made himself come off equally communal.
“We thought we would lose the elections after the first letter he wrote. Akhil da is nowhere an anti-Muslim person like he was portrayed by Congress and AIUDF after he wrote the letter to the people. But despite knowing that it might harm the election campaign, he chose to stand his ground. He did not want to be a part of any political narrative which included any party with an inclination towards a particular religion,” said Lakhyajyoti Gogoi.
But the fears of the party workers did not necessarily turn out to be true as thousands of people came out and joined the rally the day he submitted his nomination papers. A narrative has however prevailed outside the constituency of Sivasagar that the first letter written by Gogoi did not only harm the Congress-led alliance but rather helped the BJP in strengthening its communal narrative.
Gogoi has five years ahead of him to prove either of the two assumptions right.
He wrote a few more letters addressed to the people of Assam where he urged the people to vote with a conscience. His letters were printed out in thousands and distributed in the houses of Sivasagar voters along with other party leaflets.
“His letters were of huge importance. We were on the ground no doubt but people at least got to know what their candidate had to say, directly from him”, said Lakhyajyoti Gogoi.
Akhil Gogoi was escorted back to Guwahati Medical College Hospital after his oath-taking ceremony as an MLA from Sivasagar on the first day of the assembly session.
His last bail plea was rejected by the Supreme Court on February 11, which was a petition filed by Gogoi himself against a High Court order regarding the case of protests against the CAA. He still awaits bail on charges of sedition. And the people of Sivasagar await their elected leader to not only come under the free skies but also be the representative that they are hoping him to be; for they gave him a place in history.