The release of Assamese activist and MLA Akhil Gogoi with his colleagues on Thursday must be celebrated. Any design by the state to wrongfully punish its opponents must be resisted. One who is at the receiving end must get our support, irrespective of their ideology.

Gogoi’s release after being in jail since December 2019 under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has been hailed by human rights groups and activists. Many had campaigned for his freedom on national and international platforms.

Now has the time come for all of them to keep a watch on the path Gogoi seeks to walk as a politician. They must ask him whether his freedom will mean freedom for everyone, at least in Assam, whether all the people of Assam have gained a friend, irrespective of which language they speak, which religion they belong to, which dance they dance.

One of the first statements Gogoi made after coming out of jail was that the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act would resume. In the same breath, he asserted that he would not allow any foreigner to settle in Assam.

This is not very reassuring for Bengali-speaking people living in Assam, especially Bengali-speaking Muslims. “Foreigner” is a loaded word with a sinister meaning for Muslims. Muslims are potential foreigners until proven otherwise.

In fact, Gogoi’s statement sounds like a threat, a threat that Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders have been making for the last seven years.

Assamiya nationalism

Over the past six years, the life of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam who can also speak other languages has become precarious. It has never been easy for them to live with various strands of Assamiya nationalism, some seemingly benign and some very aggressive. Apart from this, other ethnic movements could easily be turned against Muslims. Their Assamiyaness is something they would need to prove again and again – and yet it would remain suspect.

By using a religion-neutral term like “foreigner”, “indigenous” leaders try to conceal their xenophobic, (even anti-Muslim) politics and ideology. Gogoi’s politics has a tendency to fall in this category. In the campaign for the recently concluded elections, Gogoi relentlessly attacked the Congress-led alliance. He did so in secular language, in the guise of opposing the communalism of both sides, Hindu and Muslim.

It was this guise of the religion-neutral secular that he donned to vehemently oppose the All India United Democratic Front led by Muslim businessman Badruddin Ajmal. Gogoi claimed that Ajmal’s party was a Muslim fundamentalist, communal party. He knows this is untrue but that his words appeased the majoritarian instinct of Assam.

He had no qualms doing so despite knowing that taking this position could result in the defeat of the secular alliance. He is not so naïve as to fail to understand what another term of a BJP government would do to Assam’s social fabric, especially to its Miya community – Muslims of Bengali origin, most of whom identify as Assamese.

This prompted Hiren Gohain, the respected public intellectual, to part ways with Gogoi and their newly formed Raijor Dal party. Gohain told that Raijor Dal had swallowed the BJP’s deceptions about Badruddin Ajmal.

Gogoi has supported detention centres for people who are fail the convoluted National Register of Citizens criteria. The only secular defence he can take is that he has also supported identifying Bengali Hindus since he doesn’t want them in Assam. In his public speeches, he has claimed that there are more than a crore Bengali Hindus in Assam and they need to be thrown out.

In 2014, Gogoi’s organisation lent support to the BJP in some constituencies while supporting the Left parties and the Asom Gana Parishad in others. By doing this, he tried to show that he was ideology-agnostic and all that mattered to him was the well being of the Assamese people. He would support anyone who would bring benefits to Assamiyas, he said.

But who defines who an Assamiya is?

Assamiya anxiety

Political leaders and intellectuals will tell you that there is no easy answer to this question. They know it well that Assamiya anxiety is being continuously manufactured. Since all parties feel compelled to participate in this crime, they cannot utter this simple truth.

The last seven years have been tortuous for Muslims in Assam. But the situation has taken a turn for worse after Himanta Biswa Sarma staring his innings as chief minister in May. He has, on a daily basis, been twisting the dagger of anti-Muslim ideology into the body polity of Assam. He blithely tweets the names of people accused of crimes if they are Muslims, thereby demonising the whole community. He has called for the revision of the National Register of Citizens to ensure that undesirables are marked and evicted from Assam. Sarma has made his intention to target Muslims very clear.

Assam is living a life of self deception. The exercise of preparing the National Register of Citizens revealed that. The process was used to manufacture foreigners in order to keep xenophobic politics alive. Everyone knows that the story of continuing largescale illegal immigration from Bangladesh is a fiction. They also know that no one can be deported to any other country and no Indian leader can even talk to Bangladesh about this.

But they are living this lie wilfully, creating insecurity in the minds of the Assamiya people of various identities that resources are being stolen by infiltrators – obviously Muslim.

Being arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act gave Gogoi the badge of being a warrior against this vicious regime. He is automatically assumed to be a fighter against injustice. This helped him win his election from jail.

He should use this momentum to search for the meaning of justice, of law, of togetherness, of compassion, of equality. Not to fall prey to the easy and lazy emotion of ethnic sub-nationalism. Above all, not to lie to himself.

One hopes that Akhil Gogoi realises how precious freedom is. Will this freedom be a source of freedom for all persecuted people in Assam? We should not be told that it is a complicated question and that a political person in the business of electoral politics should not be expected to offer a straight answer. If that should happen, we would know the answer. This in itself is an answer.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi in Delhi University.