This interview by Amrapali Basumatary & Bonojit Hussain was taken in 2016 December, just two days after Akhil Gogoi was released from his 78 days of imprisonment by The Assam Government. For various reasons the interview couldn’t be published during that time. However, with the recent re-imprisonment of Akhil Gogoi under the National Security Act (NSA) in September 2017, we feel that it is important to bring this interview to public domain.
We are thankful to Mayur Chetia and Biswajit Bora of Delhi Action Committee for Assam (DACA) for their valuable help in transcribing and translating the interview from Assamese.
You were in jail for 78 days. You were in jail before as well. Tell us about this experience. Did you find anything different this time? Tell us your general experience in prison and if there was something different about this stint in jail.
AG: I had surrendered myself for arrest on 2nd October, regarding the 19th September eviction case in Kaziranga. They had slapped three cases against me: one from the police and administration, another from a fake RTI activist, yet another by an advocate who has a thing for such dramas. So there were three cases against me.
Then they kept me in the Nagaon Sadar Thana before taking me to the Nagaon Central Jail soon. The behavior of the police was usual, not bad as such. But something interesting happened in the night. Earlier when they would arrest me, they would consider me as a political prisoner and treat me accordingly. For instance, earlier they would send me to the hospital whenever I was kept in the police remand, or send me to a battalion camp and keep me in a battalion guest house and accord the respect that a political prisoner deserves. This time they took me directly to the police station and kept me in lockup; not in hospital, nor in any battalion camp. This was the first difference I noticed this time.
What happens is – usually in the night time, you are not kept inside the lockup but somewhere within the thana. Sometimes it is a bench, sometimes it is a bed on the floor and so on. But this time, at around 11 in the night, the ASI in charge came and grabbed my hands. He said, “I am sorry. But I have to give you a bad news”. I said, “Well, tell me. What bad news can there be inside a thana?” I was trying to humor him, but he said, “Well, they have asked us to put you inside the lock up”. I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I said “well, don’t be so sorry. It’s not a big deal”.
Ultimately, a very old and dirty blanket was put in the lock up and I went inside. Inside the lock-up, they don’t allow you to use mosquito net or mosquito coil. There are no fans as well. The condition of the lockups in Assam is pathetic. There was a toilet inside the cell and the water there was so dirty that you couldn’t use it.
Later, they shifted me to the Nagaon jail. There too the condition of the jail was very bad. The additional SP come and instructed the jail authorities not to allow me more than one visitor per day. It was ensured that no information reached me or went from me from inside the jail. They put a net in between me and my visitors, unlike the other prisoners.
The food of the jail was very bad. I have seen poverty but the kind of rotten rice which was used there – well, I had not seen anything like that before. The cells were really cramped with inmates and there were no proper toilets. On the second day, I talked to all the prisoners and under-trials in the jail. All the prisoners said – “you must do something; we are living under horrible conditions”. We subsequently demanded a meeting the Superintendent, Mr. Malakar and we gheraoed him inside the jail itself. Many demands were put before him: better quality rice, improvement of condition of the toilets, clean water and so on.
Later I was taken to the Lakhimpur jail, because I had three cases on me there from 2011, 2012 and 2013. All of them were related to the protest movement against Lower Subansiri Hydro-electrical Project of NHPC in the Assam-Arunachal border, the Gerukamukh Project. From 16 December, 2011 onwards, KMSS had halted all construction of the dam by organizing a people’s mass resistance. For around 6 months, we had imposed a road blockade; created people’s check gates and stopped the supply of all construction materials to the project site. It was because of that resistance that such a giant power project of 2000 mw is still not complete today; the work has not started again.
You were then taken to Golaghat Jail?
AG:-Yes. Golaghat Jail was for a case of 2006. What had happened was – the local Congress cadres had beaten up and attacked our local unit of KMSS, in Golaghat district. That time I was not there, I was in Guwahati. But since Congress was the ruling party at that time, they had filed a case against us instead. That was a very old case and nothing turned out of it. The final report was never done. Actually it was a FIR level case. The Investigating Officer told me – the present government literally unearthed the case from obscurity just to harass me.
The Congress government had not pursued that case?
Absolutely. It was very minor; in fact it was just a fake case.
Since everything began from Kaziranga evictions recently – first Kaziranga happened, then Mayang happened, yesterday Sipajhar happened. The Kaziranga eviction was done in the name of the High Court order, Sipajhar was done with the allegation that they were illegal settlers. Different organisations of BJP and their supporters have been ideologically mobilised for these. Legally they say these are government land, but politically they say these are all Bangladeshis. So given such a climate, what is your view about the entire eviction drives?
AG: What happened in Kaziranga, Mayang and Sipajhar is actually a deliberate and organised attack on minority by the BJP government. In each of the cases we can see a pattern. The high court case regarding Kaziranga was filed by BJP MLA Mrinal Saikia from Golaghat District and their main claim was that the people who were currently residing in these villages, Bandordobi, Palkhuwa and Deochur-chang, are illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh.
But interestingly that land wasn’t asked for either by the Forest Department for the purpose of extension of Kaziranga, nor by any other department like the Revenue Department for any developmental project. No one had asked for that land. Nor do these places fall inside Kaziranga. These villages don’t even fall under the areas that have been added for expansion of Kaziranga. So the eviction orders by the High Court – in fact the very petition from the start was a communal affair. That is the first issue.
Secondly, the affected people had land pattas. They are people registered under the 1951 National Register of Citizenship (NRC). They have land patta from 1950. In 1952 the village school became a government school. So these are full-fledged revenue villages. The various provisions laid down under the Indian Revenue act clearly states that anyone whoever has legal document cannot be evicted; their land may be only acquired and for that there is the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 of Government of India and nowadays we have the Fair Compensation and Rehabilitation Act 2013. So while implementing the eviction order of the Court, there was one scope which the government could have easily explored; to offer compensation before eviction and open up the process of acquiring those lands. The administration and the Government had very strategically highlighted in their statement that Kaziranga is the pride of Assam and this place of pride and glory has been occupied by illegal Muslim immigrants. So the attempt is to give it a colour of political conflict.
Our demand was for two things mainly –
1) For us, the first outstanding issue is that they are peasants. And by not applying the existing provisions of Land Laws in case of these people, the administration and the government have done a great injustice. So we are raising our voice against this injustice. We are saying that if that land is required for the extension of Kaziranga, these common people have no problem vacating their land. Their only demand is – before they move out of their place, they should be provided with proper compensation and rehabilitation. It is deplorable that these affected people have been wrongly labeled and insulted as illegal immigrants. Their dignity should be protected and they should be given enough time to peacefully leave the land as per proper constitutional provisions. So our objective there was to protest the government’s use of illegal, violent and fascist methods to appropriate the land of the poor farmers without providing any proper compensation or rehabilitation.
2) Secondly, our concern was that the government was turning it into a communal issue. The Court order had directed complete eviction of people residing in the areas falling under 5 addition areas (for expansion of Kaziranga) – from 2nd addition to 6th addition, apart from the 5 addition areas the Court order also mentioned these three villages. While carrying out the Court order the government completely ignored the large tracks of land falling under the 5 addition areas. They merely picked up these three Muslim villages, so we had reasons to believe that the choice of these villages was an organised attempt at communal polarization and violence and nothing else. This whole affair of eviction is inhuman and fascist, and we stand against it.
Since the formation of the BJP government in Assam, how do you characterise this government and what are the anti-people steps that you witness today?
AG: The foremost fact is that the BJP government has initiated a very serious anti-people onslaught. It is a well organised, planned and fascist onslaught.
When we look at the modern political history of Assam, we can notice that from the early decades of the 20th century to the recent times, Assam’s politics has revolved around the migration question. From 1937 to 2016, parliamentary politics in the state has always been influenced by the very complex and layered issue of migration. You can say that migration is a very important and unfinished chapter in the modern history of Assam. Now the BJP is trying to embed its own fascist and communal agenda with this chapter.
The role that the Assam Congress played between 1937 to 1947 – evictions, eviction and eviction of east Bengali immigrant Muslims – now the BJP government has started playing that role, they are replaying that history.
With the intention of keeping the regressive sections of Assamese nation in good humour, the BJP government has turned the eviction of Muslim farmers into a weapon. And they are propagating this fascist and communal agenda all over Assam and presenting it as nationalism and patriotism.
This, I think is the basic politics of the BJP government in Assam today.
Assam government is now actually run by the RSS. Whichever issue is discussed in the secret meetings of the RSS, the ministers of the Assam government take great pain in addressing them and project them as issues of utmost importance, even if they are very superficial and have nothing to do with the interests of the Assamese people.
Even in symbolic terms, we see that in government meetings, Ram Madhav the RSS leader sits on the chair reserved for the Chief Minister. It is apparent that the current Assam government is totally controlled and directed by the RSS.
The basic aim of the RSS is to strengthen Hindutva and turn democracy into “for the Hindus, with the Hindus and by the Hindus”. They say that the corporates, capitalists and the state apparatus are not the enemy of the people. Instead, the enemy of the people is the Muslims or the so-called foreigners – Muslims are the enemy of the people – this is the foci of their propaganda.
For decades Assamese middle class had a conflict with the Indian state – the little nationalism or regionalism of the Assamese middle class has historically been in conflict with big Indian nationalism, and we can see this clash during the Indian freedom movement, during the Assam movement and ULFA’s movement for sovereignty. If you read the Constituent Assembly debates, you will see that a number of discussions took place on the question of federalism. You will also see that those who argued the most in support of federalism or that more power be invested in the hands of the provinces, were the representatives from Assam, Odisha, and the southern states. All the eight representatives of Assam Congress passionately argued for decentralisation of power and autonomous rule for the tribes. Now the RSS is trying to turn that old centre-state conflict into a singular hatred for the Muslim immigrants. By doing so, they are trying to weaken the struggle of the Assamese nationality.
The RSS is trying to kill our tradition of struggle against the central government, and turn it into something else. It wants our energies to be turned against the Muslims only. Therefore, RSS and BJP want to pass the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The central core of this proposed amendment is that it will grant citizenship on the basis of religion for the first time. This proposed amendment is against the fundamental structure of the Indian Constitution which upholds the values of equality, secularism, socialism, and democracy. You can say that the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is an important element of the larger agenda of the BJP–RSS i.e. the agenda to transform India into a Hindu Rashtra.
We should also keep in mind that Assam is a primary target of this Bill. Through this amendment what they really want to do is to suppress the Assamese little nationalism, to weaken the struggles against the Indian state apparatus, to further fuel anti-Muslim sentiments among people of Assam, and to wipe out the political and economic stakes of the indigenous people by changing Assam’s demographic pattern forever by bringing Hindu Bangladeshis from Bangladesh. So, the struggle against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is a large constituent of the struggle against Hindutva.
It also offers Resistance movements like ours, a window of opportunity. Since this Bill is opposed by almost all strands of Assamese little nationalism, this opposition could become a weapon for us in the fight against Hindutva. The very mention of Hindutva nowadays dilutes many issues, because many people, including many tribal and indigenous people of Assam, have been affected by this virus. Even a section of the Muslim community has been affected by this virus.
Therefore, we may say that movements like us have received a secular weapon in the form of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 to fight the fascist ideology of Hindutva. We have got an opportunity to go to the people, to organise them to resist the BJP–RSS’s agenda without even necessarily talking about religion.
How do you define ‘the indigenous populace’? For example, those who migrated from East Bengal before 1947, or as per the Assam Accord, those who had migrated from East Pakistan before 1971, are already citizens of India. So, would they too fall in the category of ‘the indigenous populace’, or are there any other criteria?
AG: We consider 1971 as the base year for defining ‘the indigenous populace’. We believe that all those who came to Assam before 1971, deserve to be called ‘the indigenous populace’ of Assam. On the other hand, those who have migrated to Assam after 1971, even if they are from other Indian states, I think they should not be considered as ‘the indigenous populace’.
In many interviews, you have said that you are a Marxist. You also talk about the nationality question of Assam and how the left needs to fashion a left wing progressive nationalism in the state. Can you tell us something about the ideological orientation of KMSS? Also, what kind of vision KMSS has for Assam?
AG: The basic programme of KMSS includes issues like land rights to the people, peoples control over resources and so on. We have built strong movements for land titles to the peasants; we have led movements against big dams, corporate takeover of the public oil sector etc. We have tried to anchor all these movements with the nationality question of Assam. For us, the nationality question is essentially a question of the working people, who constitute the majority of the Assamese nation. For us, the movement against corporate encroachment and the nationality movement are not two separate movements; rather both are part of the same movement. We have tried to combine both the elements and constitute a progressive movement of the Assamese nationality.
I certainly believe in the classic idea that class struggle is the motor of history and only through class struggle transformation of the society is possible. But I am against a narrow and mechanical focus on class struggle. Such narrow focus has led to repeated defeats of the left and we all know them too well. Take for instance, the question of migration in Assam and how the left has historically tried to deal with it; it has always been hesitant to take a clear and bold position about the issue of foreigners. We on the other hand take a very clear and categorical position that unregulated migration of foreigners to Assam is not sustainable. We declare that 1971 should be the base year for identifying foreigners in Assam, as per the Assam Accord.
We certainly believe in the essential unity of the working people worldwide and we strongly support the exploited and oppressed everywhere but we also believe that un-regulated migration and the resultant demographic change will only brew further social disorder and communal frenzy in the province. So it needs to be regulated, it needs to be controlled.
In the modern world, no nationality can afford to sustain such massively un-regulated and un-restrained migration. Some comrades say that migration of working people in all circumstances should be supported, no matter what. I find such statements too general and thus problematic. The specific historical context should always be kept in mind.
When we look at the history of the communist movement in the third world, we find a very interesting relationship between class struggle and nationalism. Take for instance the example of the Chinese revolution or the Cuban revolution. In both countries, class-struggle was anchored with a progressive nationalism. But when it comes to theorization these experiences, the role of nationalism is altogether ignored. The Left needs to understand its own practices and take appropriate lessons. It needs to theoretically appreciate nationalism’s possibilities as well as dangers. It just cannot go on declaring that class struggle can have no element of nationalism.
What we are trying to do here is to anchor our struggles within a national-popular framework; we have framed the issue of land rights to the peasants, the working masses and the indigenous communities as the issue of a little nation (i.e. the Assamese nation). We have gained some success in the anti-big dam movement because we framed the issue as a matter of life-and-death for the whole Assamese nationality.
We have opposed the auctioning of the oil fields of Assam to the private corporations with the slogan that the Assamese people should have the final say in deciding the way its natural resources are used, because these resources belong to the entire Assamese people, not just some greedy private corporations. We appreciate the fact that as a little nationality, the Assamese people have long been demanding a proper federal structure for the country; that’s why we also stand in opposition to excessive centralization.
Corporate encroachment of common resources has been a central plank of our struggle. Big dam essentially mean corporate control of our river bodies. It is nothing but a sort of transfer of control of water resources from the people to the corporations. We view it as a site of class struggle. But when we take this struggle to the people, we frame it as a constituent part of the nationality struggle. We tell the masses that the Assamese people have already lost its control over so many resources; our oil, our coal, our limestone and our tea have already been appropriated by the corporations, and we have gained nothing from these appropriations. Thus we must oppose the appropriation of the remaining resources, oppose big dams, auctioning of oil fields to the private corporations. When we frame the issues in this way, it garners a wider appeal; wider sections of people come to understand the significance of the struggle.
I don’t know how the orthodox Marxist tradition would view this, but we have always tried to frame our struggle in a popular idiom; we extensively use local symbols, figures and sentiments in making our point. We combine regionalist sentiment, little nationalism and the spirit of working people’s struggle to drive home the point that the working people must seize all the resources because they are rightfully theirs.
What you have said is that you are trying to merge class struggle with the nationality question, thereby trying to give the ‘nationalist’ spirit a progressive push. How much danger do you think is there of nationalism overlapping/circumambulating the class struggle?
AG: There is definitely a danger of nationalism overpowering the class struggle, and the only way to overcome this danger is to build a strong cadre based organization. The question of organization is the most basic one; you cannot practically apply any of your ideas without an organization. If the organization manages to build a strong army of cadres, who are rigorously trained politically, who understands the significance of class struggle, then I think that that danger can be kept in check.
Secondly, communication is also very important. How much our cadres have been able to communicate our ideas to the people is of paramount importance. We often think that the social media, print media and electronic media are the main mediums to take our words to the people. But these media can never be the primary medium, when it comes to taking our ideas to the larger masses of people. Rather, we at KMSS try to communicate directly with the people; our cadres mix with the general masses, they take cognizance of their everyday concerns, they help them in farming and harvesting paddy and through these processes they pick up conversations with them.
We share labour with the working people, we share their everyday lives and we try to make sure that we are in continuous dialogue with them. Whenever we get time, we organize small meetings, we share our ideas over a broken microphone, we distribute pamphlets on various current issues – these ways have proved to be much more effective.
A big challenge in educating people today is that most of the communist parties no longer use these techniques to educate people. Now contrast this with RSS. One observes that a RSS pracharak does much more mass contact work than a communist party member. In contrast to the communist party member, the RSS pracharak wakes up at four in the morning and organize shakhas. He meets and physically trains people and pick up conversations with them. We the Leftists on the other hand, wake up at around 8 or 9 am! By the time we get ready to talk to people, it is already work time or office time! We also do not help them with their work and so the people also do not want to listen to us.
I feel that the Left is undergoing an ideological-theoretical crisis as well. Today the state structures in most of the countries are liberal-democratic. In the earlier era, this was not the case. Take for instance the peoples’ war strategy of the Chinese CP, which was devised in conditions of Japanese occupation and warlord rule in the countryside. How do we view such strategies in today’s world? What modifications do they require? How do we formulate Mao’s mass line in this era of bourgeois-democracy? So these ideological-theoretical questions remain.
Nonetheless, I believe that these questions cannot be answered in the theoretical realm alone. Unless practical work is advanced among the masses, we cannot find satisfactory answer to these questions.
So far, I have not yet come across any satisfactory solution to these questions. I have read the documents of different communist parties, including the Maoists, but nowhere have I found some solid answer. Perhaps the reason for that lack theoretical development lie in the fact that apart from certain pockets of the country, the mass line and mass struggle has not emerged fully in the areas with multiple or complex class structures. Perhaps the answer will begin to emerge only in conjunction with advancement of mass work with the working people.
Therefore, despite the fact that we at KMSS are aware of and give importance to these ideological-theoretical questions, our present aim at this moment is to build a basic brigade of cadres -constituting the backbone of the organization – a brigade that would move among the people like fish in the water. This force will work among the people, learn from the people and would educate the people. Only this way the movement will advance and this is the single most challenging task in today’s consumerist culture.
So what is your next plan of action against the onslaught of Hindutva in Assam?
From next week we will launch a sustained campaign and resistance movement against Hindutva politics in all the villages and tea garden labour lines all over Assam. It will be a movement against Hindutva, and against the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2016.
KMSS being one of the largest progressive mass based movement today in Assam, do you have any expectations or message to the left forces in the country, since any such politics cannot happen in isolation?
AG: Today, in India, we see that students and intellectuals are at the forefront of the resistance against Hindutva politics and corporate forces. The mainstream Left political parties have become more or less obsolete among the people. So for the Left parties to become relevant again among the people, I feel there is a need for introspection on part of the parties.
Resisting the aggressive onslaught of Hindutva should have been a central task in front of us. But we don’t see any large scale organised resistance movement against Hindutva forces by the Left parties. So I think these parties should engage more closely with the students and intellectuals. And on the other hand students and intellectuals should also help in overcoming this impasse of the Left parties.