Akhil Gogoi, president of Raijor Dal, was released from prison on July 1 after a special NIA court acquitted him of all charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). Gogoi was arrested in December 2019 for his alleged role in the anti-CAA movement in Assam. In an interview with Outlook, Gogoi shares his future plans, why he thinks UAPA should be repealed immediately, and more. Excerpts:
Q) You have described the Special NIA Court's judgment of acquitting you as a ‘path-breaking one’. Do you think various criminal provisions like the UAPA and sedition have been weaponized by the agencies to silence political dissent?
I said it was a ‘turning point’ because of the political and judicial merit of the case. The judgment made it clear that NIA is not doing its main job, which is to save our country and citizens from terrorists. We all know how the present government has misused the UAPA against those opposing its anti-people policies. Putting someone inside jail for no crime is a great act of crime itself. Such numbers are increasing across India. In the last few years, these laws have been brutally used by the BJP-led government to crush dissent and political critics. Is the government so worried that students at JNU had to be charged under these laws? Our colonial masters used these laws of sedition. We are no more a colony of the British. India should be proud of its democratic values.
Q) Human rights activist Stan Swamy passed away in hospital Monday after a prolonged wait for bail. The 84-year-old was arrested under the anti-terror law for his alleged involvement in Elgar Parishad-Bhima Koregaon violence. How do you react to this tragic news?
Today will be remembered as a tragic day of human rights violation in the history of Indian democracy. Criminal charges should be filed against all responsible for Stan Swamy’s tragic and unfortunate death including the jail authorities for failure to provide proper medical support and against NIA officials for neglecting his deteriorating health. All others who are culpable should also be booked under appropriate sections of IPC. The death of Stan Swamy reminds us how black laws are used as a political weapon against human rights defenders and activists. UAPA should be repealed immediately.
Q) Do you think your release will have a positive impact on other cases involving anti-CAA activists and Bhima Koregaon political prisoners who are languishing in jail?
While lawyers will be the best people to answer this, our governments must stop using draconian, black laws. The NIA court’s judgments on me and my colleagues are vindicative of people’s rights to non-violent democratic movements.
Q) You were away for 18 months in jail. How has the political landscape changed over these months?
People have learned to take more nuanced views on politics, now. This may not have helped to defeat the BJP government. But people know well the difference between political promises and jhumla. Assam’s politics is undergoing transformations too. The new government led by Himanta Biswa Sarma is increasingly gearing up for communal politics. Without communal colour, it looks like our chief minister cannot make any political statement. It is a matter of great worry.
Q) Some reports quoted you as saying that the NIA had offered instant bail if you agreed to join the RSS or BJP. Do you believe that you are a victim of political vendetta? You have been denied medical treatment in jail. What was your experience in prison?
Why should I tell the wrong fact? I said this earlier too. The condition of prisons in Assam is bad. No one can expect good medical care. Thousands are imprisoned without any proper legal or medical support. I have stayed in jail several times. I have seen how people are made to suffer for years inside jails. I always tried to learn from the experiences of general prisoners. Their extreme poverty pained me a lot. No one will be able to describe jail unless one stays there. Sometimes I feel that I should write about my jail experience.
Q) You have pledged to revive the anti-CAA movement. However, the government has been cracking down on protestors across the country. Do the protests still have momentum? BJP claims that its victory in Assam was a vindication from the public on CAA. Your comments
Winning an election is a different game altogether. Do we know how much BJP has spent? Our resources are small. How about the use of the state machinery during the election? How about millions of beneficiaries that the BJP government has created before the election? How about the false promises of instant relief from the micro-finance loans if voted to power? These promises can win elections but not the mind and hearts of people. I have already said that our party will oppose the implementation of CAA, politically. Others have filed petitions which are pending in the Supreme Court. We will reach out to all opposition parties both within and outside Assam in this regard. People of Assam will continue to oppose this Act till it is scrapped.
Q) You have now severed ties with Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP). You also criticized the Congress for allying with Badruddin Ajmal's (AIUDF). Though you call AIUDF communal, they deny such allegations. Don’t you think a broader coalition in Assam could have helped in defeating BJP?
In weeks preceding the election, we appealed to the Congress to read the slogans on the wall, listen to the ground realities and take appropriate strategies. Alliances were needed to defeat the BJP. Like in different parts of India, Congress still believes in politics of alliances in its own terms and condition. Ground realities have changed.
Q) Some people even accused you of being ‘BJPs B team’ and dividing votes. Your comments
Both Congress and BJP have punished us. BJP has put me behind bars for 18 months. Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma also claimed that our party and Assam Jatiya Parisad is BJP’s own creation. These trolls should be ignored.
Q) There are talks of an anti-BJP coalition of opposition parties at the national level. Will you be a part of such a coalition?
Yes. There are already various attempts to bring the anti-BJP coalition together. In the next few months, these processes will surely gain momentum. My only message to the opposition is that it cannot afford to allow a BJP-led government to come back to power in 2024.
Q) Uttar Pradesh and a few other states are going to polls next year. Opposition parties seem to be in disarray. Attempts of coalitions didn’t have an impact on earlier elections too. How should the opposition go about fighting a mighty BJP?
I am sure all anti-BJP opposition parties now agree that India has never faced such an extraordinary crisis in its polity, economy, and other spheres. This worrying crisis is because of the BJP government’s wrong, communal, and anti-people policies. Appropriate election strategies will surely emerge out of this realization.
Q) Like the anti-CAA movement, ongoing farmer’s protests are also a political statement against the BJP government at the Centre. Being a peasant leader, what will be your contribution to the future of the movement?
The farmers’ movement is a remarkable political achievement. Farmers of India have shown how deeply committed they are to a cause. They have shown us a path. My salute to them and to all who are associated with the movement. The farmers have realized how bleak their future is. They do not want to sacrifice their hard-earned wealth to the Indian corporates. History will remember their extraordinary political will. My party and I extend our moral support to them. I will soon reach out to the movement and seek their advice on how we can be of help to them.
Q) You are the first person in Assam to win an assembly election from jail. Did it come as a surprise? How do you envisage the future of your outfit Raijor Dal?
The day of the election result was truly a great day for all of us. The voters of the constituency, our party workers, public intellectuals, well-wishers of our party, men and women, youths, children all extended their moral support and worked tirelessly to ensure my win. I was truly humbled. Many donated their small savings of Rs 100 or 200 for the election campaign. The Raijor Dal was formed only months before the election. We are working every single second to remain a true political party of Assam. After my release from jail, I have been sleeping only two or three hours. So much work is to be done.