Guwahati: Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma’s first couple of weeks as Assam CM have been anything but uneventful. While the overwhelming focus has been on COVID-19, for obvious reasons, the BJP government has not taken their eyes off political opponents.

Even as Dr Sarma was criticised for his comments that the jailed anti-CAA activist and MLA Akhil Gogoi is ‘a patient of mental disease’, the Assam Police was acting against his organisation, the KMSS, and other affiliate organisations. 

On May 25, 2021, the Assam Police picked four political activists – Manas Konwar (Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti), Chitu Baruah (Bir Lachit Sena), Jintu Mech (Asom Chatra Yuva Sanmilan) and Padmakanta Das (Raijor Dal)- from their homes at Sivasagar, Assam. The police also knocked at the homes of other activists, including Dharya Konwar, General Secretary of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and Srinkhal Chaliha, President of Bir Lachit Sena. 

However, they couldn’t be detained as they were not present at their respective residences. 

“We are not scared by any threat or any arrest. We are committed to fighting against a fascist government and will continue to do so. This is the beginning of a dark chapter in our democracy and it will only get worse in the next five years. But we are prepared”, said Manas Konwar who was released after being detained by the police for over 10 hours.

The sudden arrests and midnight raids by the Assam Police have been suspected by many as a preventive measure from any protest emerging against Dr Sarma’s comments on May 24. In his statement, he referred to Akhil Gogoi to have been suffering from “mental problems” and “emotional imbalance”. Dr Sarma also mentioned Gogoi to have been extremely careless regarding the spread of COVID -19 as he interacted with almost everyone at the assembly after his oath-taking ceremony as an MLA on May 21, 2021.

“How can a person who has been undergoing treatment for the past four months at a paid cabin in Guwahati Medical College Hospital be fit to attend the assembly where he has been specifically told that he is mentally ill? He is suffering from psychological issues and he is going through some emotional imbalance”, said CM Dr Sarma in his Motion of Thanks. This was in response to Congress MLA Bharat Narah’s request to allow the imprisoned MLA Akhil Gogoi to attend the assembly sessions.

CM Sarma’s statement received immense criticism on social media and beyond, followed by a press release by Akhil Gogoi as well as an official statement by his party Raijor Dal (RD). Both Gogoi and his party described the CM’s statement as “disappointing” and “unparliamentary”. 

Raijor Dal asked for a legal inquiry into the matter for discussing an individual’s ongoing medical treatment on the floors of the assembly.

“The Home and Political Department has asked Akhil Gogoi to approach the NIA court as his case is sub-judice. But the CM has stated that there is no problem for Akhil Gogoi to attend the assembly from the law and order perspective and that he cannot attend the assembly because he is mentally unsound. Whose statement do we consider to be true in this regard? The Home and Political Department or the chief minister’s?” asked Bhasco De Saikia, working President of Raijor Dal in their official statement.

Dr Sarma responded to the criticism for his statements against Sivasagar MLA Akhil Gogoi on Tuesday.

In a statement to the media, he said, “Firstly, the Chief Minister never lies in the assembly. The Chief Minister always speaks the truth. Secondly, everyone will react to whatever someone else says. Every action has a reaction and we are not scared of reactions. Thirdly, this is a democracy, we respect law and order and political actions should be responded to politically. Police should not interfere in this matter. But whatever a Chief Minister says on the floors of the assembly is always based on evidence and never untrue”.  

Midnight knocks are back: We are being reminded of the 90s

While four activists from different organisations were detained by the Assam Police around midnight on May 24, Assam Police also reached out to several other activists to prevent any reactionary or untoward incident as a response to the CM’s statements. 

The other activists who could have been potentially detained if they were found in their homes by the police include Debajit Dutta (Sangrami Yuva Chatra Parishad), Pronoy Hazarika (Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti), Parashar Konwar (SMSS) and Ritumoni Hazarika (SMSS). While almost all the district committee heads of SMSS and KMSS received calls from their police stations to prevent any protests, many others from Sivasagar also mentioned having sighted police patrolling throughout the night outside their homes.

“We are used to such arrests and intimidation. We won’t have taken out any protest in the light of the second wave of Covid-19 anyway. But if we have to go to jail for raising our voices or questioning the government, then so be it. Almost 57 of us have been charged by the police for various false accusations in the past few years. But we can’t stay silent.”, said Lakhyajyoti Gogoi, Vice President of Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti.

Members of the KMSS and SMSS in the Barak Valley too, reportedly, faced a similar ordeal. Many of the committee Heads received phone calls from the Officers-in-Charge of their nearest police stations, asking them not to come out on the streets to protest.

“We have thousands of members in Hailakandi. We were the ones to lead the protests from Assam during the border dispute with Mizoram a few months ago. So they already know how strong our cadre over here is. We were told by the police yesterday that we would be arrested if we came out to protest against the CM’s statements”, said Johir-Ud-Din Laskhar, a member of the KMSS Hailakandi unit. 

“KMSS has a strong foundation all across Assam. Raijor Dal being its offshoot holds a similar reputation to a great degree. In Sivasagar, at least 1,000 people would have immediately come out on the streets if a protest was called for. The police were probably suspecting a mass protest in favour of Akhil Gogoi following the CM’s statements. So they tried to prevent that by detaining these many activists”, said Rasel Hussain, Vice President of Raijor Dal and former Advisor of SMSS.

Some political activists believe this is a silent and planned crackdown by the government for being Akhil Gogoi’s allies. Others say they are being reminded of the 1990s in Assam when secret killings of the youth by the armed forces for their alleged involvement with the banned rebel outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) had become a regular affair. 

“This is a reminder of chaos from the 1990s. But we are at the heights of fascism in Assam right now. This is of course a planned conspiracy to not only scare us but also discourage youth from joining these organisations. They woke my parents up at around 11 pm, and did not leave till 12.30 am because I was not home. But we are certainly not scared or discouraged”, said Dharjya Konwar. Assam Police visited his house under Sivasagar’s Rupohibam Gaon on May 24.

Dharjya Konwar was arrested previously in December 2019 alongside Akhil Gogoi, Manas Konwar and Bittu Sonowal and slapped with sedition charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Konwar tested positive for Covid-19 on July 9, 2020, while imprisoned and was released on July 14, 2020.

COVID-19: Different protocols, different parametres   

Dr Sarma, in his speech, also accused Akhil Gogoi of being a potential COVID-19 career and spreading it in the assembly since he did not maintain any social distance with anyone at the assembly, and shook hands with almost everyone.

However, COVID protocols went for a toss when detaining the dissidents. “I was inside a police van with so many personnel. There was no COVID-19 protocol, no hand sanitiser insight, no social distancing. We had already made sure that there won’t be any protest amidst such a crisis of the virus spreading. Yet they arrested us. They came to my house at around 11.45 pm. I told them I would cooperate with their inquiry and go to the police station tomorrow. But they picked me up regardless,” said Manas Konwar.

Detainment of political activists during the COVID-19 lockdowns is not new. Pranab Doley, a political activist and leader, was arrested during the beginning of the pandemic a year ago. He had protested against the disappearance of around 850 quintal rice from the Public Distribution System, which never reached its beneficiary during the first phase of lockdown in 2020.

“A fellow activist and I were asked to come to the police station at Bokakhat to discuss the matter. But they had dug up a few false accusations from the past and arrested us immediately. We were in jail for 14 days, and there was absolutely no COVID-19 protocol once we stepped inside the police station. We stayed for 14 days with 30 inmates”, said Pranab Doley. 

Doley further reflected, “All of this is a political vendetta where they try to cover the voices against the government. But people are fighting for their basic survival right now. If the government imposes a subtle threat to them that they would be cut off from even their basic food supplies, why won’t people be scared? But we will have to continue with our activism regardless.”

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