Sivasagar: One electoral hopeful whose posters and cut-outs greet people in Sivasagar town of eastern Assam, which goes to the polls Saturday, is jailed activist Akhil Gogoi, dubbed the “cylinder candidate” by a resident after his poll symbol.
Akhil is the founder president of five-month old Raijor Dol (People’s Party), formed by 70 organisations who were opposed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. However, the party failed to register itself with the Election Commission of India, meaning its candidates will vie for seats as Independents. The Raijor Dol is contesting in alliance with another new party born out of the anti-CAA movement, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP).
The 46-year-old former chief of peasants’ organisation Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) is known for his fiery speeches using brutal, crude language against the government, and not just during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests. He had also been rallying for land rights of farmers, against construction of big dams, closure of toll gates among other issues.
Akhil Gogoi was arrested on 12 December 2019 on charges of sedition and inciting violence during the anti-CAA movement. He is currently under treatment at the Guwahati Medical College and Hospital. His affidavit lists 56 cases — including two pursued by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) — ranging from illegal assembly, abetment to suicide, involvement in terrorism, rioting and sedition.
In the absence of the incarcerated activist, his 85-year-old mother Priyada, other family members, as well as Raijor Dol workers and KMSS activists are holding the fort.
Significance of Sivasagar
Akhil Gogoi hails from neighbouring Jorhat district, but his choice of Sivasagar as the constituency for his poll debut is rooted in history.
‘Ujani Asom’ or Upper Assam, which included the present-day district of Jorhat, Golaghat, Sivasagar and Dibrugarh, was under Ahom rule for 600 years. Sivasagar was the major centre of Ahom power — it was the dynasty’s capital in the 18th century, when it was known as Rongpur.
A symbol of the glory of the Ahom era, its art and architecture, Sivasagar also saw the birth of United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), which was officially formed in April 1979 at the historic Rang Ghar Bakori.
But modern Sivasagar is a sleepy town where development has not been as rapid as in neighbouring Jorhat district, 50 km away.
The Sivasagar constituency has been represented by the Congress and the Communist Party of India for the last 12 terms.
In 2016, it was not an easy win for the Congress. BJP’s Surabhi Rajkonwari lost the seat by just 542 votes to Congress’ Pronob Kumar Gogoi, a former assembly Speaker, who represented the constituency since 2001. The seat fell vacant after his death in February 2020.
This time around, the key candidates apart from Akhil Gogoi in the fray are Congress’ Subhramitra Gogoi, BJP’s Rajkonwari, NCP’s Ajit Hazarika, and two other Independent candidates, Rupa Borah and Hemanta Boruah.
How Akhil Gogoi is perceived
Political observers like former Assam DGP and now public intellectual Harekrishna Deka call Akhil Gogoi an “enigma”, with short-term vision.
“Akhil Gogoi is a fighter but loses steam after some time. He takes up issues and organises protest with zeal, but then suddenly veers from course. He can build up agitation but his political vision is short,” Deka said.
BJP’s candidate Rajkonwari said of Akhil: “As a contestant, he deserves respect. He has his own agenda, we have our own — which is that overall development was denied during Congress’ four terms holding this constituency.”
However, Congress’ newcomer Subhramitra Gogoi is confident Akhil is no threat, and hinted that the fact that he’s not a local from Sivasagar will work against him.
“I am confident we are winning. People are always with the Congress. In 2016, when there was a Modi wave, people still voted for the Congress here. I don’t think Akhil’s a factor because he’s not a resident of Sivasagar. Like others, I too have sympathy for him,” he told ThePrint.
Residents too bring up the same issue of Akhil not being a local from Sivasagar.
“Akhil is from another town. I doubt he will be able to do much. If BJP forms the government, where will he get the funds to do anything? Will he be released from prison?” Anurup Kalita from Arjunguri asked.
“The Congress has done nothing in 20 years; we want development. When Himanta Biswa Sarma campaigned here, he promised that the BJP would prioritise tourism and beautification of the town. In Sivasagar, voting is more out of habit than good sense. Some Congress votes will go to Akhil on sympathy grounds,” he added.
Vote-cutter, could be in with a shot
Hindus constitute 78.49 per cent of the total population in the constituency, while Muslims make up 20.22 per cent. Of these, Assamese Muslims can play a decisive role in the electoral outcome.
Many Assamese Muslim voters have tilted towards the BJP in the past few years, on its promise of development, and thus, for a month now, Assamese intellectuals have been campaigning in favour of Akhil Gogoi in areas dominated by the community.
Mustaqur Rahman, a local resident, predicted that the support from the community could harm the Congress’ prospects.
“Sivasagar is a Congress stronghold and BJP is trying to capture it. All BJP leaders are campaigning here. Akhil should have contested from Teok, his home constituency. He finds some support in Assamese Muslims, and these votes will weaken the Congress,” Rahman said.
Another resident Joyjyoti Gogoi believes Akhil will be a factor. “If he wins about 12,000 votes, Congress will benefit, and if he gets about 15,000, he will be good for BJP. And if he wins over 42,000 votes, he can win from Sivasagar,” he said.
Joyjyoti said the anti-CAA sentiment “still runs strong” among ethnic tribal organisations that had taken part in the movement, and the BJP might face the consequences.
On the fact that Akhil is not from Sivasagar, Joyjyoti added: “(Assam cabinet minister) Himanta Biswa Sarma is not from (his constituency) Jalukbari, and (Chief Minister) Sarbananda Sonowal is not from Majuli. Raijor Dol has tried to explain these questions to the electorate.”
‘Maa’ leads campaign
On Wednesday, the Raijor Dol claimed about 25,000 people, mostly from Sivasagar, carrying flags and standees of their jailed leader, rallied through the main thoroughfares of the town, chanting ‘Akhil Gogoi zindabad’ slogans. Social activists Medha Patkar and Sandeep Pandey also joined the campaign.
Akhil’s mother Priyada, who is from Jorhat, has moved to Sivasagar to campaign for her son, and has been living in an accommodation arranged by local residents at Phukan Nagar. She is being taken care of by family members, Raijor Dol and KMSS members, who call her ‘Maa’.
She led Wednesday’s rally along with Akhil’s teenaged son Nachiketa. Akhil’s wife Geetashree Tamuly has returned to Guwahati to continue teaching at a government-run college, where she is an assistant professor.
Speaking to ThePrint, Priyada said she is overwhelmed and filled with gratitude for the support.
“Akhil has not been with me for one and a half years. The government has held my son captive for no reason; they couldn’t even give any evidence. The mothers, brothers and sisters of Assam are his own, like his family, I appeal to all people to vote for him and help him get out of jail,” she said.
“I have got a beautiful response from people, so far. They have really given me strength; they shed tears for my son. I have been patient; I pray for him,” Priyada continued.
“I have diabetes and high blood pressure. My medicine stock has to be replenished, it will last only for today,” she added, recalling how Akhil had hoped to get cataract surgery for her when he was arrested.
Nachiketa, 14, fought tears as he spoke about how much he misses his father.
“I have been going to different places seeking votes for deuta (as father is addressed in Assam). People tell me they are hopeful my father would come out of jail soon. I last spoke to him in November,” he said.
Raijor Dol vice-president Bedanta Laskar added: “We have ventured to all villages to understand what people want. We led padyatras (foot marches) for 15 days. Akhil Gogoi campaigned against the CAA, it was a people’s movement, but the government handpicked only KMSS activists and sent them to jail. It was their strategy before polls.”
(Edited by Shreyas Sharma)
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