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Assam unrest

Battler by the Brahmaputra

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Akhil Gogoi uses a potent mix of RTI, grassroots activism and stoicism to fight corruption and discrimination in Assam.

Akhil Gogoi laughs a lot and has a lot to say. In fact, the 36-year-old Guwahati-based activist laughs gently even when discussing memories that would unsettle most others - being brutally beaten up for protesting and then being incarcerated for months on end.

Over the past decade, Gogoi has been on the frontline of the mass movements for land rights, community ownership over resources, clean governance and environmental issues - especially those involving dams on big rivers. His weapon of choice as he wades into one battle after another? The Right to Information Act (RTI).

Ten years ago, Gogoi was doing what would be expected of most middle-class Indians - prepping for a master's degree, in English in his case, and looking forward to landing a good 9-to-5 job somewhere. A big and controversial forest eviction drive in Assam in 2002 changed all that.

"Some of us went to see the eviction (of forest-dwelling people) and were shocked. All houses were destroyed and people rendered homeless. Five of us decided to stay with them for a day but we ended up staying for a month. We went to all the houses and organised meetings. With that we started the movement for land rights on July 17, 2002. I was a young man then. And after that we got stuck in this, " says Gogoi, with no trace of regret. He never went back to university though. Instead, Gogoi and his friends founded the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) in 2005.

Over the years, KMSS and Gogoi have exposed numerous scams in government schemes, taken officials to task, and mobilised people across the state. And for a man who has also been a core committee member of Anna Hazare's team, nothing riles Gogoi more than corruption. "From 2006 onwards we did a series of anti-corruption drives - in Golaghat district, focus-ing on PDS and rural development schemes. We used RTI and social audits to nail corruption. Local cops beat us up. They sent six of us to jail after a cycle procession, saying that we were starting an arms struggle. I went to jail for six months, " he says.
Plaudits for his work have not been long in coming. Gogoi has received a clutch of significant awards for his RTI interventions but takes the greatest satisfaction from his investigation into a Rs 100-crore PDS scam in 2007, which hugely helped build momentum for his anti-graft juggernaut. "I got good results in this;some officials were sent to jail, some suspended and some were transferred. After this, for the first time, PDS beneficiaries got salt under the quotas which they never received before. Bhari achha result mila thaa, " says Gogoi, who keeps flitting between Hindi and English in his conversation, unintentionally it appears, with a little bit of Assamese thrown in.

KMSS, which began with a staff of five, has over 300 full-time staff members and a membership of 900, 000. Gogoi's friends and associates say that his core strength lies in going beyond ethnic politics and his ability to mobilise a diverse set of people on a single issue. Arupjyoti Saikia, a professor at IIT Guwahati and a close friend of Gogoi, says, "His key achievement, as general secretary of KMSS, Assam, in the last 8 years, is primarily to recover the stage of peasant politics in Assam. The space for peasant politics had lost out to the politics of narrow nationalism or ethnicity. KMSS, under Gogoi's leadership, did try to recover this space in an era of extremism and terrorism. "

In fact KMSS has successfully mobilised poor peasants across most Brahmaputra valley districts, while it has also got the Assamese middle class to extend issue-based support to its politics. No wonder his movement has also had a limited but significant impact on the working of Assam's lower bureaucracy.

But for a man who tirelessly works on issues that often take decidedly political turns, Gogoi swears off politics. He says he has distanced himself from Team Anna after its decision to form a political party was announced. "I believe this decision is a historic mistake and IAC (India Against Corruption) could be destroyed because of this. We were not born for elections. We were born to change the system. We were born for movements, " he states.

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