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A New Edge to People's Protests in Assam

The major protests in Guwahati on 22 June against the Government of Assam's attempts to evict settlers on the hills around the city reflect a much wider and deeper sense of insecurity amongst the masses arising out of land alienation in the region. The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, led by activist Akhil Gogoi, has emerged in the past few years as a major plank of mass protest. The KMSS has added a completely new dimension to the politics of protest in the state, but can the organisation translate the mass support into an alternative political platform?

COMMENTARY

A New Edge to People’s Protests in Assam

Udayon Misra

The major protests in Guwahati on 22 June against the Government of Assam’s attempts to evict settlers on the hills around the city reflect a much wider and deeper sense of insecurity amongst the masses arising out of land alienation in the region. The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, led by activist Akhil Gogoi, has emerged in the past few years as a major plank of mass protest. The KMSS has added a completely new dimension to the politics of protest in the state, but can the organisation translate the mass support into an alternative political platform?

Udayon Misra (udayon_misra@yahoo.com) is national fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research.

T
he election euphoria within the ruling Congress Party in Assam is yet to die down and the state government is displaying a new sense of c onfidence verging on arrogance about the absolute majority it now commands in the legislature.

One of the first steps that the administration took within a month of the swearing in of the new ministry was to clear settlements in the hills all around Guwahati. These settlements had started in the 1970s when Meghalaya was formed and the capital of Assam shifted to Dispur in Guwahati. Ever since then, poor people from the villages who have been migrating to the city in search of a livelihood have been progressively settling in the hills, affecting the natural ecology of the city.

Successive governments have accepted the presence of these settlers who have been provided with approach roads, electricity and even water connections and a large section of them have been regularly paying taxes to the municipal authorities. During the recent elections, the Congress went out of its way to woo the settlers and promised them land documents if they voted for the party. And vote they did, leading to a resounding Congress victory in all the seats in Guwahati and its suburbs. But once in power for the third term, the Tarun Gogoi government decided that evictions had to be carried out in some of the settlements. Though the stated reason for such evictions was to bring back the ecological balance of the city, the actual reason seemed to be to help some private firms set up multistorey housing complexes and hotels near the settlements.

But the administration was caught offguard by the intensity of the resistance from the hill residents who chased away the demolition squads with sticks and spears. Though they had been organising themselves for quite some time under the banner of the Brihattar Guwahati Mati Patta Dabikaran Samity, but the real catalyst to

july 9, 2011

the resistance movement was the arrival of the Right to Information (RTI) activist and peasant leader Akhil Gogoi on the scene. Gogoi of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), who was recuperating from a bout of illness at the Guwahati Medical College, decided to stand up for the

rights of the hill dwellers who consisted largely of people from the lower rungs of society engaged in daily labour and odd jobs.

Power of KMSS

The fear of displacement from their land because of big dams and the entry of global capital had for the past few years been a major issue in the state and the KMSS was seen by many as the only organisation which stood up for people’s rights. Hence, once Akhil Gogoi and the KMSS joined the fray, the people were galvanised into a ction and on 22 June thousands of settlers marched to Dispur to demand a stop to the evictions and the grant of land pattas. The protesters led by Akhil Gogoi demanded that an official of the rank of the deputy commissioner receive their memorandum but two hours passed with no response from the administration. Instead, the p olice carried out a lathi charge and fired tear-gas shells to disperse the demonstrators, many of whom were seriously injured. When this failed, they fired into the air and one particular police officer is reported to have fired directly at the crowd, killing three persons on the spot, including a nine-year-old boy. Once this happened, the rally turned violent, police officers and their men were beaten up, and several vehicles were burnt or damaged allegedly by KMSS supporters.

During the melee three government luxury buses parked at a distance from the rally were also burnt, though the organisers and a section of the media have been insisting that this was done by supporters of the ruling party with the aim of discrediting Akhil Gogoi and the KMSS, whose earlier mass rallies and protests have been known for their peaceful, disciplined character. What has led credence to the involvement of Congress supporters in the burning of the buses was the fact that though the Dispur Fire Brigade station was just a few hundred metres from the scene of the arson which was leisurely carried out for almost an hour, not a single

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

fire engine was sent to douse the flames, despite repeated calls. Nor was there any attempt by the police to stop the arson.

Once electronic footage made this clear, doubts began to surface about the administration’s role in the incidents which were initially viewed merely as a failure in crowd management by the law and order machinery. Not anticipating the change in people’s perception that would occur through subsequent media exposure, the government started devising means to shift the entire blame for the violence and the mayhem on the KMSS and its leader Akhil Gogoi.

Civil society and media reaction to the incidents of violence was largely one of condemnation of the violence and failure on the part of KMSS and its leader to keep the crowd under control. Hoping to cash in on this, the chief minister retracted the assurance of talks with the KMSS which had been given by the Kamrup deputy commissioner the earlier day and declared that the government would not hold talks with the KMSS but was prepared to negotiate with other civil society bodies and was seriously considering giving land pattas to those who have been living in the hills for 15 years or more. This was followed by the arrest of Akhil Gogoi on 22 June as he was addressing a press conference at the Guwahati Press Club. The RTI activist was not shown any arrest warrant and several bailable and non-bailable changes were slapped on him and he was remanded in police custody for three days.

State Government Panic

The KMSS called for a statewide bandh to demand the release of its leader but, significantly, even before this announcement, spontaneous protests in the form of road and rail blockades took place in different parts right across the state. Added to this was the highly successful bandh on 23 June which brought life to a complete standstill in both the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys. Attempts by the National Students Union of India and Youth Congress activists to break the bandh failed miserably.

The people’s response to the bandh call and the support extended to the KMSS and its leader by the local media clearly unnerved the government and even before the three-day-custody period was over, the police produced Akhil Gogoi before the Chief Judicial Magistrate on the afternoon of 26 June. Surprisingly, there was no request for extension of police custody. On the contrary, the police produced a bunch of medical reports, on the basis of which the magistrate ordered that the peasant leader be kept in judicial custody and sent to the Guwahati Medical College Hospital and that he be produced only a fter complete recovery. But the police bandobast that took place while Akhil was being produced in court clearly showed how unnerved and panicky the administration had become. Barricades were set up on all the approach roads to the magistrate’s court and movement of people strictly prevented. Despite this, hundreds of KMSS supporters turned up and kept shouting slogans from behind the bamboo barricades for the release of their leader.

The preventive measures taken by the police clearly surpassed those adopted when the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) leaders were produced for the first time in court. Initially, the press too was kept at a distance but after the magistrate’s orders, Akhil Gogoi was allowed to make a brief statement in which he called upon the people of the state to fight not just for his release but against the big dams, corruption and price rise. The message had gone to the government of Tarun Gogoi that public opinion was against the arrest of the KMSS leader and was unwilling to accept the government’s version of the events. In securing this, the local electronic media played a leading role by exposing the government’s authoritarian tactics. Suddenly, the new-found confidence of the government following its recent election victory was beginning to ebb.

Clearly, the arrest has boomeranged on the government. While Akhil Gogoi is recuperating in hospital in judicial custody, the KMSS has gone ahead with its protest programmes which include a jail bharo in which hundreds of KMSS supporters have been arrested throughout the state. Support for the KMSS demand for the release of Akhil Gogoi has also come in from civil society organisations in the neighbouring states and there has also been a demonstration in New Delhi and other cities. But what is significant for the political scenario of the state is that several indigenous o rganisations including those belonging to the tea tribes such as the Asom Sangrami Chah Shramik Sanstha have expressed their solidarity with Akhil Gogoi and the KMSS.

False Allegations

The chief minister during a press meet has accused the KMSS and its leader of having links with both the Maoists as also with organisations like the Asom Chatra Yuba Sangha and the Chah Janajati Suraksha Samity which he alleged were backed by the Paresh Baruah faction of the Ulfa. When questioned by journalists, he tried to backtrack, saying that although he had no direct evidence of such links, yet he inferred that such links were there. He even refuted Union Home Minister Chidambaram’s recent statement that there was no notable presence of Maoists in the state. Akhil Gogoi, however, has been consistently maintaining that his organisation has never had links with the Maoists, though on occasion he has referred to his Marxist convictions. In an interview given last year to an Assamese daily Akhil Gogoi had even dismissed the Maoist path as a “shortcut” and said that the Maoists did not pay much attention to mass struggles. In the same interview he declared that the parliamentary Left was constricted by middle class ideology and that it was inappropriate to term these parties as communist parties. This disdain for the parliamentary Left has been a spanner in the forging of a united platform of struggle of the peasants and the working classes of the state.

While it is true that the fortunes of the Left have been on a decline in the state for quite some time now and it was virtually decimated in the recent elections, leaving it with no representation in the 126-member house, yet support from the Left sections would certainly add significantly to Akhil Gogoi’s struggle which initially began with the exposure of the public distribution system (PDS) and district rural development agency (DRDA) scams through RTI interventions. It was from local issues that Akhil Gogoi would soon move to wider issues relating to the rights of people over their natural resources which in turn began with the rights of the forest dwellers to their land.

Economic & Political Weekly

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july 9, 2011 vol xlvi no 28

COMMENTARY

History of KMSS

The birth of the Krishak Mukti Sangram, Samiti in July 2005 was preceded by a three-year struggle by the peasants of the Doyang-Tengani region of the Golaghat district against eviction by the forest department. With a population bordering 1.5 lakhs, Dayang and Tengani were parts of two reserved forests bordering Nagaland. People from different ethnic groups have been settling in those areas for decades. It was in the 1960s that the Assam government started carrying out eviction drives against the peasants, most of whom had come from flood and erosion-affected regions. The evictions reached their peak in the early 1970s when a college girl died during the eviction and several people lost their lives in police firing. Initial protests against these evictions were led by the S ocialist Party, with the CPI(ML) and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) too joining in at a later stage.

When the Janata government, of which the socialists formed a major chunk, came to power in the state in 1978, the Dayang area was declared as de-reserved and public facilities were introduced. The story of the Tengani region which forms part of the Nambor Reserve Forest area is slightly different. Though here too people displaced by floods and erosion have come and settled for decades, the situation took a different turn in the early 1960s when thousands of flood-affected people from the Majuli i sland started settling in the reserve forest area. Repeated government attempts to evict them failed. However, the government insisted that the settlers were encroachers and refused to de-reserve the area.

When eviction drives reached their peak in the Tengani area in 2002-03, the settlers formed the Brihattar Tengani Unnayan Sangram Samiti. Soon, the peasant organisations of the Dayang and Tengani areas came together and the Dayang Mukti Sangram Samiti and the Brihattar Tengani U nnayan Sangram Samiti were born. Thus began the Dayang-Tengani peasant movement led by Akhil Gogoi and it soon received widescale support throughout the state.

In April 2005, the Assam assembly finally adopted a resolution to give land settlement to the pre-1980 forest dwellers of the Dayang-Tengani region This was followed by the setting up of a special task force to expedite the land settlement. L ater on the KMSS extended the movement for land rights to the Nagaon, Dhemaji and Golaghat districts of Assam which had the highest concentration of forest dwellers. It also extended the scope of the movement to demand land for the landless peasants, land pattas to all peasants, distribution of wasteland and land belonging to absentee landlords to the landless and the implementation of the Assam Adhiar Protection and Regulation Act 1948.

Soon the KMSS further extended its movement by organising mass protests against big dams, floods and erosion and corruption at the highest levels of government. In the absence of an organised voice of the opposition parties, the KMSS was filling the vacuum and Akhil Gogoi was emerging as the rallying point of many a mass struggle. He was clearly building on a long tradition of peasant struggle in the state and it goes to the credit of the KMSS that it has succeeded in building its movement cutting across ethnic divides. Some of the factors which have helped the emergence of the KMSS may be said to be the virtual marginalisation of the Left parties, the setback to the trade union movement consequent to the rise of ethnic divisions, the disillusionment of the Asamiya masses with the Asom Gana Parishad and its brand of regionalism, and the failure of organisations like the AASU to espouse causes affecting the masses. The capitulation of the main body of the ULFA and its appropriation by the State has added to the overall sense of defeatism of the people. Thus, Akhil Gogoi and the KMSS may be seen as an alternative voice of protest in a situation where neither within the legislature nor outside the opposition has much of a voice. But it remains to be seen whether the widespread public support on issues that directly affect the masses can be translated by the KMSS and its leader into an alternative political platform with a clear agenda of its own.

Many believe that if the KMSS, with its loose organisational structure and dependence on a single leader, moves away from its main plank of peasant struggle and keeps on expanding the parameters of its movement, then this might ultimately prove to be a hindrance. But for now, Akhil Gogoi-led KMSS has added a totally new dimension to the political scenario of the state, not only by challenging the hegemony of the ruling Congress Party but also by giving a completely new edge to the politics of mass protest.

References

Dutta, Akhil Ranjan (2009): “Troubled Trajectory of a Struggle for Life and Livelihood: Narratives on the Dayang-Tengani Forest Dwellers’ Movement in Assam”, unpublished seminar paper.

Interview given by Akhil Gogoi (2010): General Secretary of the KMSS, to the Dainik Janambhumi, G uwahati, 6-7 April.

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