Akhil Gogoi, the leader of the peasant organisation Krishak Mukti Sangram Samity (KMSS) has once again been in the headlines during the assembly elections in Assam. He is now a MLA from Sibsagar, in Upper Assam, as a candidate of Raijor Dal. One of the three new prominent political formations that emerged from the massive anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) mobilisation in the state. Akhil was booked under UAPA for protesting against the CAA and ‘waging a war against the nation’ (2019). He thereby was forced to lead the electoral campaign from the prison.
Positioning beyond the opposition politics of Congress led front, do Akhil’s Raijor Dal carry the potential to herald a new era of politics in Assam? It is perhaps contingent upon several factors, the immediate of course rests on its electoral outcome but beyond, rests more on its ability to negotiate the structural contradictions that lay embedded in the politics of the Brahmaputra valley. Looking back at the KMSS, the organisation from which Raijor Dal was formed may generate interesting insights.
Born (2005) out of the land rights movement in and around the forest villages in Doyang and Tengani in Golaghat district near the ‘disputed’ Assam-Nagaland border, the organisation spearheaded the protests of the marginal and landless peasants at the grass roots across Assam. Its vision lay framed in mobilisations for land rights of the poor and marginal, the demand for ‘peoples’ right over access, use and custodianship of resources (anti-dam) vis-à-vis the state/State, along with exposing corruption associated with beneficiary schemes of the state. Creating an inclusive space for mobilisation, protest and dissent, KMSS kept alive the question of peasantry and its quest for land rights in Assam.
Historically, the Brahmaputra valley bequeathed the spirit of Raij Mel, a form of sustained peasant protests and uprisings during the colonial period. In a way, the Ghiladhari protest (1950) against large scale land reclamations by the state shaped the narrative of resistance against the post-colonial state acquisitions in Assam. Peasantry was not only vocal against the state, issues of rent and taxation, but transformed the demands for equitable access and redistributive justice subsequently.
Gradually, however, in the changing milieu of ethnicised polity, the narrative started revolving from the axis of ‘control of resources’ to ‘ethnicised control of resources’. This led to an inherent contradiction within the peasantry between the all-encompassing identity of a peasant engaged to land vis-à-vis locating them solely through identarian lenses of being ‘indigenous; and ‘non indigenous’ souls. This contradiction gradually got embedded through the governmentality of the state and the politics surrounding it through political parties.
The peasant struggle in Doyang Reserve forest is a unique case in this direction. Through a process of sustained struggle, the peasants succeeded in securing their rights as citizen’s e.g. access to basic healthcare, education and means of communication, electrification, yet their basic demand for land rights and patta continued as mere slogans for mobilising ‘people’. The allurements from the state agencies was made to work in such a way that it ‘facilitated’ to weaken the peasantry’s demands over land, camouflaged under identarian visions. Interestingly, Raijor Dal, which owes its origin through KMSS in the Doyang Reserve Forest, has important lessons from this experience.
It is argued that under neo-liberalism, the concept of the peasantry in Southeast Asia has undergone rapid transformation and there is an urgent need to locate the peasantry question with its diverse aspects at various levels, including Assam. The ongoing farmers protest in India and their mobilisation in the national capital, as well as the participation of peasant organisation in electoral politics suggests that peasantry has undergone changes from being reactive agents to state policies to an autonomous entity with an understanding to demand and negotiate with the state. In this background, the transformation of KMSS into Raijor Dal seems to have the potential to influence contemporary political scenario in Assam.
Emerging as a peasant organisation, KMSS carved out a niche for itself in the public domain, mainly by the efforts of Akhil Gogoi, the RTI activist who mobilised peasants, as well as, succeeded in garnering the attention of the middle classes in urban areas. The Doyang-Tengani movements included a series of grassroots level protests by marginal, poor and landless peasants primarily demanding land rights, fair provisioning of publicly provided goods and services, and in the case of Doyang, the settlement of the border dispute with Nagaland. The Raijor Dal seems to aspire to replicate the experience of KMSS, where over a period, the local demands morphed into the idea of a mass organisation, lending a strong voice to everyday politics in the state. Theoretically, it can serve as a platform, which sought to address grievances of the ‘people’ against the state. These grievances, emerged out of the failure of progressive politics of the Left-leaning and Congress parties. KMSS thus is a social coalition that employs political coalition through its definition of ‘identity’- somewhere at the intersection of ethnicity and class.
In praxis however, Raijor Dal wishes to converge the category of ‘jaati’ into ‘raij’. While the latter means ‘people’, the former roughly translates to ‘nationality’. It must be remembered that ‘people’ is an inclusive term, constituting a multitude of backgrounds – social, economic, political; on the contrary, ‘nationality’ is shaped through exclusivist tendencies, of shaping the ‘us’ with respect to the ‘other’. The dominant narrative of the ‘jaati’ in Assam revolves around the Assamese nationality, which is often showcased in a way as if pitted against the perceived ‘illegal’ immigrant, mainly the Muslims of East Bengal (Bangladesh) descent. Thrust within this forked reality, how does one comprehend the politics of Raijor Dal– through the spectrum of ethnicised ‘jaati’ or the amorphous ‘raij’? Will it choose to capture political power by retaining the idea of ‘nationality’ over ‘raij’? Does the agrarian question thereby get diluted and subsumed by the question of ‘jaati’ within this nebulous agenda of the party? What is interesting to note in this collapse is the tendency to fall back on policy of exclusion, and yet the attempt to champion a new form of progressive politics to challenge the earlier forms.
Ideally, the manifesto of the Raijor Dal suggests to bridge the chasm what Partha Chatterjee (2008) identifies as the civil and political society, mainly revolving around management and organisation of corporate capital in urban areas and unorganised non-corporate capital in the rural areas. The Dal thereby seeks to thrust amoral imperative on the state to stagger the adverse implications under neoliberalism by acting as a ‘negotiator’ of the people with the state. The state, on the other, intentionally distributes its allurements, in such a way, as if to weaken the ‘people’, where the unorganised poor electorally become the consumer under a regime of fragmented benefits.
Raijor Dal needs to understand this dialectical relation between state, people and resources without obfuscating itself by missing the adversities of the fragmented state policies in the redressal of the grievances. Interestingly, BJP’s recent distribution of land deeds to one lakh indigenous peasants in historic Jerengar Pothar in Sivasagar district is one such example of playing by trumping out the ‘forked’ indigeneity card ahead of the elections. The Dal, in this regard should not shy away to consider the plight of the Muslim peasantry, particularly those with East Bengal ancestry, who as a group consistently face social and political discrimination in the Brahmaputra valley.
Left otherwise, identifying the raij in an extremely heterogeneous milieu of jaati in Assam will be certainly more romanced but less realised. In this regard, we are reminded of a narrative by a Kachari woman in the Doyang Reserve Forest, sharing her insights in 2019
“….our community’s Students Union asked us to specifically not involve in the activities of KMSS or any such organisation….otherwise the government authorities will not provide us ration….instead we must approach the Union with our problems, and they will collectively put the demand forth to the government….”
The narration suggests, converging jaati into raij for an alternative vision of politics will remain an uphill task for Raijor Dal.
This piece has pointed towards a few aspects of Assam’s polity. A deeper analysis would be welcome. One thing is for sure- Akhil Gogoi is an institution, built by himself with help and cooperation from some. Except for the elites and some sections of the middle class he is a widely acceptable figure across communities. However, as pointed out in the article some ethnic organisations may not like to accept him.
Every thought and deed of Akhil Gogoi’s is inspiring, except one. Why is he against dams? Just one example. Dams provide electricity. Electricity helps the young to study. I have been traveling in the remotest areas of the NE, and learnt that soon after electricity came more youth studied more and started doing well- for themselves, families and their villages.