Hiren Gohain is the angry old man of Assam. A literary critic and winner of the Sahitya Akademi award in 1989, he never hesitates to speak out.
In the build-up to the assembly elections in Assam, for which voting took place earlier this month, Gohain and 42 other “concerned citizens and intellectuals” had issued a statement urging people not to elect the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The Assembly Elections 2016 run the risk of ruining the age-old communal harmony and brotherhood of Assam and divide people along communal lines. BJP’s failure to get a stronghold in Assam, which is home to multiple ethnic groups, has instigated its mother organization, RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh], to incite communal conflicts among various groups. If the BJP comes to power in the ensuing elections, there is a high possibility that communal violence will erupt and consume the state.
Since the statement was released on April 7, Gohain has been singled out on social media for his “vituperative” attack, with people suggesting that the septuagenarian’s hands be cut off or acid be thrown on him.
Speaking to Scroll.in in his Guwahati home in a room filled with mementos and memorabilia, none of this vitriol appeared to have shaken his equanimity. He explained in measured language why he felt the statement was essential and important in the context of Assam’s future.
Gohain said that when the BJP was in the opposition at the Centre, “it did not make itself out as a highly reactionary group”. But since coming to power in 2014, he said, the party had shown its “intolerance, its indifference to fundamental rights". This, he said, “fills our minds with apprehension.”
The decision to go public with these apprehensions, Gohain said, was based on several factors.
One, despite the party’s “tall claims of economic development”, the signatories to the statement had seen that these were hollow as the poor had not benefitted.
Secondly, he felt the BJP had been exposed as a “communal and fascistic party that suppresses freedom of expression and would destroy communal harmony in Assam”. Recalling the terrible massacre in Nellie in 1983 in which more than 2,000 people were killed, Gohain said he was worried about the fallout on Assam.
“It is important for us intellectuals to take sides,” he said.
Gohain has never shied away from taking an unpopular stand. At the height of the Assam Movement in the early 1980s, when most Assamese intellectuals supported the campaign to check illegal immigration into the state, Gohain criticised the movement for allowing minorities to be harassed and was pilloried for speaking out.
This time, when the statement on the BJP was issued on April 7, one of Assam’s leading television channels, Pratidin Time, ran a one-hour programme on it the same day without inviting any of the signatories. The anchor accused them of being Congress agents, among other things. And while the print media in Assam was also critical of the statement, it allowed people like Gohain to tell their side of the story.
Gohain admits to the possibility of the BJP emerging as the winner when the election results are declared on May 19.
“People assume that the BJP is a clean party, especially the middle class and the youth, many of whom are not political,” he said. “All they want is change, “Paribartan”. This is a reaction to 15 years of Congress rule that was marked by corruption, incompetence and scam after scam.”
Should the BJP come to power, the manner in which it does so would also be important. In the event of a fractured verdict, the All India United Democratic Front led by Badruddin Ajmal could play a key role.
In the last Assembly elections, the AIUDF successfully mobilised a cross-section of Muslims and won 18 seats in the 126-member House. While the party is not expected to do as well this time around, Gohain feels the AIUDF could do just enough to make a difference.
But would Ajmal be willing to align with the BJP? Gohain said the prospect of being in power could well sway Ajmal.
While the AIUDF’s vote bank largely comprises Muslims, Gohain said Ajmal’s politics cannot be equated with that of Asaduddin Owaisi of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. “Ajmal seldom makes a communal statement and does not harp on Muslims being oppressed,” said Gohain.
Even so, wouldn’t an unlikely post-poll alliance between the BJP and AIUDF affect Ajmal’s future prospects?
Gohain thinks it would but also feels a tie-up would serve as a restraining influence on the BJP, which would not be able to be “rabidly communal”.
Apart from fears of heightened communal tensions, Gohain said that a BJP government would be able to push several large infrastructure currently stuck for various reasons.
Among them is the Lower Subansiri hydroelectric power project that is being opposed by environmental groups because it is located in a highly seismic zone. An expert panel also made critical comments about the project.
According to Gohain, during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, even Narendra Modi stated that he would not take a decision against the will of the local people. Gohain doubts, however, whether such sentiments will determine the future of this and other infrastructure projects.
There is an uncomfortable impasse in Assam as it waits for the election results. Gohain and the other signatories have put their reputations on the line with their statement. They may have well exposed themselves to more attacks should the “Paribartan” that the BJP has sought to sell ends in victory. Even so, Gohain has no second thoughts about his statements.