Updated: March 23, 2021 9:05:53 am
On a hot Saturday afternoon, about 70 people have gathered in a field in Kopohua Gaon in Upper Assam’s Duliajan constituency. For a political rally, it is a small turnout, but almost everyone has a reason for being there.
44-year-old Mompi Bora says she has come for the “parthi (candidate) and not the party”. Standing next to her, Sabita Konwar, is looking for someone who will “protect indigenous interests” because she fears the BJP will “privatise everything, bring in foreigners and endanger the Assamese jaati”. Elderly Bijoyalakshmi Gogoi recalls a memory from the December 2019 anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) protests when she clambered on to the back of a truck, shouting slogans till Tinsukia, 20km away. “At the rally there, I realised the need for an alternative, the need for someone of our own,” the 65-year-old says.
For this small-but-vocal group which is deeply passionate about the Assamese cause, the answer lies in the smiling face of Lurinjyoti Gogoi, the president of the newly formed Asom Jatiya Parishad (AJP), whose rally they have come to attend. Gogoi is contesting from Duliajan and Naharkatia constituencies, both of which go to polls on March 27 in the first phase of the Assam elections.
When he arrives, almost two hours behind his schedule, the crowd spontaneously bursts into applause. “We need to protect ourselves, our identity, our land, our community,” Gogoi begins his speech. “And only a jaatiyotabadi (Assamese nationalist) party can do that,” he says.
With the passing of the CAA, as regionalist sentiments reached a crescendo in Assam in December 2019, so did the popularity of Gogoi, who emerged as one of key faces of resistance to the amended law. In November last year, when Gogoi resigned as the general secretary of the influential All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and took the plunge into electoral politics, his emotional farewell speech in Duliajan had touched the hearts of thousands.
Later in an interview, Gogoi, 39, explains why he took the step. “When do people become leaders? When there is a social or political crisis. And that is exactly what Assam is going through right now,” he says, “As an activist, I may shout slogans on the street but… a law can still be passed overnight in Delhi.”
Gogoi was referring to the passing of the CAA — the controversial law that accelerates Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Assam — where politics have long been shaped by identity — it is feared that the law will lead to an overhaul of the state’s culture, language and identity.
Born to a humble family in Tinsukia district’s Laipuli — part of a belt of villages in Upper Assam known for its sub-nationalistic sentiments— the seeds of resistance were sown in Gogoi’s mind at an early age. But it was only later when he was a student at Dibrugarh University that he got actively involved with the AASU. For youngsters in provincial Assam, affiliating oneself with the AASU — the group that led the anti-‘foreigners’ Assam Agitation of the early 1980s — is almost like a rite of passage and Gogoi’s story is no different.
Working his way up the organisational ladder, Gogoi became the general secretary of AASU in 2015. It was around that time that two notifications to amend the Foreigners Act, 1946, and Passport (Entry into India) Act, 1920, essentially enabling members of specific minorities (except Muslims) to continue living in India, were passed, paving the way for CAA in its current form today. “We started organising andolans (protests) back then itself,” says Dipanka Nath, president of AASU. “That’s how Lurin gradually grew as a leader.”
These protests came to a head in December 2019, when Gogoi led numerous rallies, particularly in Upper Assam. “In a Dibrugarh rally, where around 1 lakh people had showed up, Lurin stole the show. He was young, with the right amount of aggression and had superb oratory skills,” Nath says.
At Kopohua, Gogoi talks not just about the CAA, but urges people not to be taken in by BJP’s populist schemes.“You may be getting free grains now, but the money you would have spent on grains, you are now spending on inflated costs of potatoes and onions,” he tells the crowd. With the elections knocking on the door, Gogoi holds at least 15 such meetings in a day — hopping from one to another from about 8 in the morning to 11 at night.
“What makes us different is that we have chosen the hard path,” he says, “We are fighting this alone. If we had to do opportunistic politics, we would have allied with the Congress by now. A true Assamese party cannot ally with the big players. What is the point then of having individual ideologies?”
The AJP had announced its alliance with Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dol, another party that owes its origin to the CAA. While together, the two are described as the “third front”, traction on the ground is less as is evident from small crowds at their rallies.
But Gogoi’s staunchest supporters are aware of this reality. “It’s okay if any other party wins, but at least we must try to help him win here (Duliajan),” says Bijoyalakshmi. In Naharkatia, he is up against Taranga Gogoi, the young protege of BJP’s Himanta Biswa Sarma and in Duliajan, BJP MLA Terash Gowalla is looking to retain power.
“I may win one, or I may lose both (seats). But I am not stressed about that,” says Gogoi. “Right now, we need to establish the ideology. Only after you the lay the foundation, can you build a house.”
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