The crackdown began on the evening of December 11.
Manas Konwar and Lakhyajyoti Gogoi, the working president and vice-president of the Chatra Mukti Sangram Samiti, the student wing of the peasants’ rights organisation Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, were the first to be picked up from the house of an acquaintance in Jorhat in Assam.
In the police records, they had not been arrested – only detained. They were released the next afternoon.
By then, however, a case had been lodged in the Jorhat police station. Apart from Konwar and Lakhyajyoti Gogoi, it indicted two other people: Dibjyajyoti Sarmah and Akhil Gogoi. While Sarmah is a senior leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, Akhil Gogoi is the group’s founder, advisor and face. The left-leaning peasant organisation was founded in 2005. Its activism centres largely around securing land titles for the landless but in recent months it has been part of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
A total of 14 sections were slapped against the four activists in the First Information Report filed on December 12. They ranged from criminal conspiracy to rioting to unlawful assembly to public nuisance to promoting enmity between groups and more.
The previous day, protests against the Citizenship Act had exploded in violence in Guwahati, Assam’s largest city that functions as the state’s capital. Agitators had brought the city to a standstill and marched menacingly towards the state secretariat. The administration responded by clamping a curfew and shutting down internet services.
Yet, the violence spread. On December 12, in Dibrugarh’s Chabua town, protesters obliterated almost all state-run establishments including the railway station, the local post office and the circle office. They even torched the local legislator’s house.
Not too long after that, Akhil Gogoi, Dibjyajyoti Sarmah, Manas Konwar and Lakhyajyoti Gogoi were arrested while heading out of another protest meeting against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Jorhat.
This was just the beginning.
Around an hour before midnight on December 13, a sub-inspector by the name of Manoranjan Majumdar filed a fresh FIR in Guwahati’s Chandmari police station.
“A source input has been received,” claimed Majumdar, that Akhil Gogoi had “secretly merged” the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti with a Maoist outfit called Revolutionary Communist Centre in 2009. This outfit was then merged with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). Ever since, Gogoi had arranged several meetings and “visited several parts of India including Delhi…to further the activities of the proscribed organisation”, the FIR alleges.
Then the charges get graver. “As part of the larger conspiracy of CPI (Maoist), he and others have knowingly abetted, conspired, advocated, incited the acts preparatory to commission of terrorist acts,” the FIR goes on to say.
In the penultimate paragraph, the FIR accuses three other people of being party to the “conspiracy”: Manas Konwar, Dharjya Konwar and Bittu Sonowal. Dharjya Konwar is the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti’s general secretary and Sonowal, the president of its student wing.
All four of them, the FIR finally concludes, used the “passage of the CAB [Citizenship Amendment Bill] as an opportunity” to foment trouble “endangering the security and sovereignty of the state”, threatening “national integration”.
Apart from criminal conspiracy and unlawful assembly, this FIR adds another charge: sedition. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act – usually reserved for terrorism-related matters – was also invoked.
The next day, December 14, the Ministry of Home Affairs would step in directing the National Investigation Agency – a specialised central counter-terrorism unit – to take over the case “considering the gravity of the offence and its state and national ramifications”.
Why the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti?
Many organisations in Assam have hit the streets to protest against the Citizenship Act, which expedites Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from the three neighbouring countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While protests against the Act in the rest of India have revolved around the law’s discrimination against Muslims, ethnic groups in Assam and the North East fear they will be physically and culturally swamped by migrants from Bangladesh.
Yet, few senior-level leaders of any of the other outfits have been arrested. Both the All Assam Students’ Union and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Chatra Parishad – the two most influential civil society groups in Assam that have been at the forefront of the protests – confirmed that none of their high-ranking functionaries has been arrested by the police so far.
The police maintain the affiliations of the arrested people were incidental. “We have arrested over 500 people in connection with the violence so far,” said Assam police chief Bhaskar Jyoti Mahanta. “We are not going after groups. We have arrested people against who we have found evidence of participating in or instigating violence.”
However, not everyone is quite willing to buy that. Many discern a special animosity towards the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. The organisation has long been a source of annoyance to governments in Assam. Under the previous Congress regime, it rallied for land rights for the landless and led the resistance to big dam projects in the North East.
But after the BJP came to power in April 2016, the confrontation with the state government turned more acute, partly because the Samiti had exhorted people to not vote for the BJP. Gogoi was repeatedly arrested: he spent 70 days behind bars in 2016; in September 2017, he was charged with sedition and jailed for more than two months; in January 2019, the government invoked sedition charges against him once again.
Hiren Gohain, a veteran political commentator who is seen as Akhil Gogoi’s mentor, pointed out that Gogoi was not even present at the spot where violence took place during the Citizenship Act protests for which he stands accused.
Gogoi “does not have that much influence” to trigger such a “spontaneous explosion of popular anger” that the state witnessed on December 11 and 12, said Gohain.
A string of arrests
Besides, it is not just Gogoi who has been arrested. Ever since the protests of December 11, in district after district of Assam, a whole gamut of leaders of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti have been kept behind the bars. Most face multiple cases with similar charges – if they are granted bail in one, they are arrested in another almost immediately.
For instance, Guwahati police slapped another case on Dharjya Konwar and Bittu Sonowal on December 14, accusing them of being the “main instigators” of the December 11 violence in Guwahati. They were charged with unlawful assembly, rioting, defying curfew, endangering life or personal safety of others, and assaulting a public servant – a total of nine sections under the Indian Penal Code.
On December 16, the two activists were released on bail, but only to be arrested minutes later in yet another case. It mirrored almost the same charges but was filed in a separate police station in the city.
Weeks later, on January 7, the National Investigation Agency took them in custody. Manas Konwar, who had been granted bail in the Jorhat case, was also arrested on January 23 by the agency.
These arrests are of a pattern. Away from the state capital, in Lower Assam’s Bongaingaon, three leaders of the outfit’s district committee, Mahidhar Ray, Nanda Deb Nath and Sailen Das, have been in jail for over a month now. Nath is implicated in four similar cases, where he is accused of almost identical charges that range from rioting to “promoting enmity between different religious groups”; Ray and Das in two cases, again with similar charges.
The outfit’s Dibrugarh unit leaders Sashi Sensua and Debojit Baruah, currently in jail, face five cases each. While Sensua was arrested on January 20, Baruah has been in jail for several weeks now. While he got bail in one case on January 10, he continues to be in jail for another.
Another of its leader from the same unit, Biju Tamuli, is also in jail. One of the ten sections he has been charged is non-bailable: it pertains to “putting a person in fear of death or of grievous hurt, in order to commit extortion”.
The list goes on.
‘A greater militancy’
The real reason why the KMSS has been targeted, insisted Gohain, who was charged with sedition along with Gogoi in 2019 for opposing the Citizenship Act, is because it represents “a greater militancy than the other [agitating] organisations”.
“The KMSS’s ideas represent a much wider base than narrow indigenous ethnicity. In the long run, therefore, the organisation poses a much greater threat to the power that be,” he said.
Social scientist Sanjay Barbora agreed. “The KMSS is talking about land and resources and that is greatly disturbing for the government,” he said. “Less radical organisations will hold on to the letter of the law and that is in some ways more manageable dissent for the government to deal with.”
A 10-year old confession surfaces
Members of the organisation say the accusation that it adheres to the Maoist ideology is “totally baseless”. “This is what governments do – brand people,” said Bhasco De Saikia, the outfit’s co-president and one of the few senior office bearers to not be arrested yet. “Because as it is people get suspicious when they hear the word communist, and when it is Maoist, it is just plain scary for the average person. The Congress did it earlier; the BJP is doing it now.”
In fact, this current FIR too seems to draw from the same report, which is based on a 2010 confessional statement of a former National Investigation Authority approver, an erstwhile Communist Party of India (Maoist) “part-timer”.
In his confession, seen by Scroll.in, the approver refers to a meeting in 2009 in Middle Assam’s Golaghat which he organised between some Communist Party of India (Maoist) functionaries and members of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti. After the meeting, according to the approver, some members of the peasants’ rights organisation joined the proscribed group.
However, the confessional statement does not identify those members by name. The nine-page confessional letter only mentions Gogoi’s name once.
Senior officials in the police machinery concede privately that while Gogoi may have met Maoist leaders a long time ago, there is little evidence to suggest he was involved with them currently or even in the recent past.
What then was the basis of the FIR that resulted in the NIA getting involved? Why did it cite information from a 10-year old approver statement as a new “secret input”?
Majumdar, the sub-inspector who filed the FIR, said he was not at liberty to talk and directed the query to Putul Baishya, the officer who had led the investigation for Assam police.
Baishya, however, claimed he could not work on the case as it was transferred to the National Investigation Agency in less than a day. On being asked about the FIR’s details, he said, “Why don’t you ask Majumdar who filed it?”
The National Investigation Agency superintendent of Guwahati, Bibekananda Das, did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
Another senior state police official, who requested anonymity, was more forthcoming. “The government wanted Akhil in and that was decided on [December 11] itself,” he said. “There is little point doing a technical dissection of the FIR.”
Role in the violence?
The officer, though, was convinced of Gogoi’s role in the violence. “We have call recordings that are incriminating – we will release them when we deem necessary,” he said. “And everyone has heard his speeches exhorting people to come out to the streets and disrupt the system.”
In terms of publicly available records, there is a brief interview that Gogoi gave to local television reporters on December 9, the day the Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha. In it, he makes a fervent case for civil disobedience. “Block the highways, the railway lines in front of you,” he can be heard saying. “Try and paralyse the state administrative machinery. That is the only way out now from preventing the BJP government from passing the bill in the Rajya Sabha.”
On December 10, he updated his Facebook status – the last time he would do so before the internet was shut down. He wrote: “Organise a total shutdown; all you people come out to the streets.”
His associate Saikia dismissed police claims of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti being involved in or orchestrating the violence. “That is simply untrue,” he said. “People had poured out to the streets on their own. It was for everyone to see.”
Down and alone
Akhil Gogoi’s arrest has gained some national attention, with calls for his release being made at several protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act across India. But a popular movement demanding the release of Gogoi and his associates is yet to build up in Assam.
This may have something to do with the fact that Gogoi’s popularity with Assam’s middle class has been on the decline for some time now. Observers claim that one reason for this is Gogoi’s perceived sympathy for Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, whom the Assamese middle-class view as a threat to their majority status in the state. That sentiment gained currency when Gogoi defended people facing eviction in Kaziranga in 2016. The local media widely claimed that these people were illegal migrants squatting on forest land.
Even groups like the All Assam Students’ Union and Asom Jatiyatabadi Chatra Parishad have not been particularly vocal in expressing support for him, beyond making perfunctory calls for his release in a few protest rallies. “We have said repeatedly that we demand the release of everyone arrested during these protests,” said the All Assam Students’ Union’s Lurinjyoti Gogoi. “But the focus of the protests has to be the abrogation of the Act, not the release of one particular person in my opinion.”
In private, other Assamese nationalist leaders are less charitable. “He is perennially calling us agents of the Indian state,” said a senior leader of an Assamese nationalist group. “Why should we stick our neck out for him now?”
Indeed, Gogoi’s somewhat abrasive brand of politics has meant that he and his group stand isolated. For instance, during the wave of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the winter of 2018, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti was part of an alliance of 70 ethnic outfits.This time, though, most of those organisations have instead rallied around the All Assam Students’ Union instead.
A leader of the Samiti said they had called for at least two meetings to work out a coalition once again, but “only a handful of organisations” participated in it. “Maybe the government doesn’t want it to happen,” he said.
Palash Changmai, general secretary of the most prominent of them, the Asom Jatiyatabadi Chatra Parishad, however, scoffed at the suggestion that it had anything to do with government pressure. “It was an executive decision that we should start the movement on our own this time and nobody knew then it was going to turn out like this,” said Changmai.
The Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti is alone in its darkest moment. Most of its members are keeping low and have not switched on their phones for weeks. “The atmosphere is such that we are wary of even addressing the press,” said Saikia. “We have been marked as the enemy by the BJP.”