Nineteen-year-old Barshashree Buragohain loves the orderly and logical world of math. She dreams of becoming a math professor, but she is instantly recognised as a poet. A poet whose verse got her arrested and jailed.
The police tracked her down on 17 May and picked her up for questioning over a poem she had posted on Facebook. The lines were interpreted as an endorsement of the banned insurgent group, United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I). She was arrested the following day under two sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and spent 64 days in jail till she was granted bail on 21 July. The case is underway, but according to her brother, the next court hearing will only be decided after the police files the chargesheet.
The nightmare has left her extended family shattered and her parents in debt, while she still tries to make sense of what she did wrong.
Buragohain is now back at home with her parents in Banai Katarikham village, about 5 km from Jorhat’s Teok town. But she doesn’t talk about her time in prison. The memories are a blur.
“I was really sad. I only got arrested for writing a poem…now it is scary to write poems in my diary. I was also scared for my career,” says Buragohain.
An uneasy dawn
It was the sun that got the police to train their gaze on Buragohain.
“They [the police] said that because I had used the word ‘sun’ [in my poem]. I was referring to ULFA,” says Buragohain, a Bachelor of Science student at DCB Girls’ College in Jorhat.
These were the lines in question, which have also been quoted in the FIR:
“Swadhin xurujor dixe akou ekhuj, Akou korim rastro druh”
(One more step toward the sun of freedom, Once again, I will commit treason).
The rising sun is often associated with revolution, one that will herald a new day, a better future. It’s a prominent symbol on the ULFA-I flag as well: The red sun against a yellow and green backdrop.
With reports of recruitment drives among separatist groups on the rise, the police are leery of the sun symbol.
Buragohain says she was picked up by the police while she was visiting a friend’s house at Jaya Pathar village in the neighbouring Golaghat district. “I had gone along with a friend to visit her grandfather’s house. The police came and started asking people in the area if they had seen two girls…They then asked which one is Barshashree Buragohain and if I had written the poem on Facebook,” she says.
The police made her take out her phone and open her Facebook account. “I was made to scroll through my Facebook till I got to the poem. Then they asked me why I had written it.”
In a black T-shirt teamed with pink pyjamas, she looks like any other 19-year-old—one with a preference for deep red lipstick. Her shoulder-length jet black hair hides a pair of studs. Apart from the earrings, a heart-shaped pendant on a silver chain is the only other accessory she has on.
Buragohain is more careful with her words now, almost as if she’s worried they’ll get her arrested again. Though she’s been writing poems from the time she was a child, the 19-year-old sees poetry as a hobby. It is math that sustains her dreams and fuels her ambition.
Homecoming after 64 days
The road to Banai Katarikham village is a small, raised grassy patch through farmlands. According to Buragohain’s older brother Arindom, 26, it was built by the Ahoms during the 17th-century war with the Mughals.
Buragohain took this road on 21 July after she was granted bail by the Gauhati High Court earlier in the day. Under the evening sun, the mud and brick houses with their thatched or tin roofs cast their lengthening shadows on the green paddy fields – a familiar, calming scene for her since childhood.
For the young woman, it was a homecoming after a long and hard battle.
Relatives, friends and neighbours came over to welcome her. As Buragohain approached home—a small mud house with a thatched namghar (prayer house)—and saw the gathering, she burst into tears.
For the moment, her parents put aside their financial troubles. Their daughter was home. Barshashree’s father, Ajit Buragohain, who farms the family land, has taken loans to pay the legal fees and other expenses. She’s my daughter. I had to do whatever I could even if it meant borrowing from others,” he said.
She was relieved to be back, but Buragohain brushed aside questions from curious family members.
“My relatives had gone to meet Barshashree. I was told that she seemed physically fine, but mentally she was shaken. She would keep asking why something like that had happened to her,” said a family member.
A poet from the start
Her family and friends always knew about Buragohain’s hobby of writing poetry. But they insist that it was never political.
“Barshashree never grew up in an environment where there were any such discussions (about politics). I don’t believe that she could be involved in something like this,” the family member added.
Arindom, who works for a local newspaper in Guwahati, doesn’t quite agree. When they were young and she took to poetry while in Class IV, her verse reflected the innocence of their childhood days. “Earlier, Barshashee would write about natural things like mountains and flowers, but later the nature of poetry changed. She started writing on societal issues, for instance, when the CAA movement was happening. But I wouldn’t say they were very political.”
He shares some of her poems, where love—and loss—are the predominant themes:
“I saw an ocean of love in his eyes/ But little did I know /That I’d be seeing him for the very last time/ I was left alone,/ With the only witness of our love in my womb.”
Barshashree is not part of the conversation. She has already slipped quietly into the living room. In one corner, a pink chart with derivative formulae is pasted on the wall above a study table laden with math and English textbooks. The doors to the two other rooms in the house are shut.
I like reading the works of Hiren Bhattacharya and Bhabendra Nath Saikia,” she says softly.
Saikia, a novelist and short-story writer, and poet Hiren Bhattacharyya, popularly known as ‘Hiruda’, are stalwarts of Assamese literature.
Since her return from jail, Buragohain has sought refuge in math and college coursework. The poems on “social issues” have been deleted from her Facebook profile since her arrest. Her notebook of poems is in her hostel room at Jorhat.
And she hasn’t written any new poems. Not yet. She will not let the experience kill the poet in her, but her muse may no longer be social change and justice. “I will still continue to write poems, but not ‘unconstitutional’ poems.”
According to the FIR based on a complaint filed by the police, the Facebook post indicated that the “girl is involved in criminal conspiracy” by endorsing the proscribed ULFA-I and has “tried to wage war against the Government of India”.
It’s a charge she vehemently denies. “Just because I used the word rashtra druh (traitor), doesn’t mean I meant it literally. As a poet, I just felt like writing that at that point in time. Also, there’s no such thing that only ULFA can use the sun,” she says.
The high court, while granting her bail, stated that the college student had “expressed her feeling without reference to any organisation.”
The Assam police has been scanning social media recently for any “suspicious” posts or comments related to ULFA-I. And Buragohain’s post showed up on their radar.
“It was based on the Facebook post…If there’s any suspicious activity the headquarters passes on the information,” SP Golaghat Sumeet Sharma told ThePrint. But the chargesheet hasn’t been filed because it is “pending for prosecution sanction from the government”.
Buragohain’s father doesn’t believe she was involved in any political activity either. “She just has a flair for writing poems, that’s it,” he says.
The real dream
Over the last few months, the Assam police have been particularly active. There has been an uptick in recruitment with over 40 young men and women reportedly joining the insurgent group in months between August 2021 and April this year, according to police.
In June, Maina Chutia, a 23-year-old resident of upper Assam’s Moranhat, was arrested for allegedly supporting ULFA-I in a comment on a Facebook post. Maina Chutia, a Wushu player and boxer, was released on 6 August after her parents appealed to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma so she could take part in the All-Assam Inter-District Senior Wushu Championships.
Then in July, 22-year-old Pramod Kalita, a student of Tangla College in Udalguri district was arrested over similar allegations.
Police officials say the “new recruits” were primarily unemployed youth mainly from Upper Assam who had been “lured” by social media.
But Buragohain does not fit the profile, say her friends, neighbours and teachers. “She has been a meritorious student since her school days…her career will be bright,” says Krishna Gogoi, an associate professor at DCB Girls’ College.
In fact, all her teachers describe her as a “good student” with “good grades”. “She attended classes very regularly last semester. Apart from this, she writes well, I’ve read it in her FB status, she is politically and socially aware,” says Kukila Goswami, an associate professor at the college.
Buragohain’s classmates, however, say that she would seldom discuss these issues. “I’ve known her for one year, she is my friend, after classes we would go to the canteen and talk about mostly classes and other things, like a normal college student,” said Barshashree’s classmate, on the condition of anonymity.
Even in her worst moments in prison, Buragohain never lost sight of her end goal: To become a math professor.
She couldn’t afford to miss a single examination. While in judicial custody, she filed a petition in a local court seeking permission to appear for her exams, scheduled to begin on 16 July. “I was taken to another room in the jail compound where there was an invigilator. It felt a little strange,” she says.
Almost as if Buragohain is afraid to give words to her ambition, she quickly adds: “My dreams [to be a math professor] haven’t come true yet, there’s a long way to go.”