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How Tarun Gogoi lost the Assam Congress bastion?

The slide began with the scrapping of the IMDT Act by the Supreme Court


Guwahati, Nov 24: Former chief minister Tarun Gogoi, who passed away on November 23, 2020, following prolonged illness, is often credited with ushering in peace to Assam after over two decades of unrest, but the senior statesman himself had to all along live with armed guards around him. The central armed forces still continue to man the streets of rural Assam.

Assam came under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) three decades ago and the gun-toting men in battle fatigues became part of life of almost an entire generation that saw its rights and freedom curtailed in their own homeland. The Unified Command, a pyramidal structure comprising the chief secretary, police and central forces, for all purposes became a part of Assam’s administration structure and things haven’t changed much even today.Despite the law and order situation returning to normal, as Gogoi had claimed many times during his 15-year regime in Assam, his government failed to impress upon the Centre to withdraw the AFSPA from the state and save public resources being spent on the central armed forces for decades together.Many innocents have either been harassed or “framed” under the purview of the draconian Act. Some even lost their lives for no fault of theirs.When the state police could manage to bring rebels to the negotiation table, the Gogoi governments had ample opportunities to impress upon the Centre for withdrawal of the Act from the state. Going by what strategists have to say, the government did neither have the attitude, nor the convincing capability to establish the point against the Centre’s ‘let’s not take a chance’ attitude.

 Border disputes persist

Another major promise Gogoi could not fulfill was to resolve border disputes with neighbouring states such as Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.

He was greeted with black flags and anti-Assam government slogans by the Khasi Students Union when he went to IIM Shillong to inaugurate a 50mw solar power plant in July 2012. He promised that his government would resolve all the border disputes but refrained from declaring a timeframe.The disputes continued even now with the latest being with Mizoram in Cachar district of south Assam and with Nagaland in Jorhat district of upper Assam early this month.

Disputes with other neighbouring states continue to persist.

The loss of trust

The scrapping of the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act by the Supreme Court had a dominant effect on the Congress losing ground in Assam. Badruddin Ajmal, a perfume baron who had both the money and the men, seized the opportunity to launch a new party, created the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) blaming the Gogoi government for not fighting the PIL that led to repeal of the Act by the apex court.

And, with the tea workers community convinced that their long standing demand for Scheduled Tribe status would remain a dream, the Congress began to lose the vote of the “Kuli and the Ali” which in its heydays ensured victory for the grand old party across Assam’s tea gardens and immigrant dominated districts of lower Assam.

The scrapping of the IMDT Act by itself was enough to turn the petitioner Sarbananda Sonowal into a Jatiya Nayak (national hero). Assam’s political history would soon after see Sonowal move from the Asom Gana Parishad to the BJP. With Congress defector and rebel Himanta Biswa Sarma joining the ranks of the saffron party in the state, the fate of the Congress would be sealed. Sarma, who yesterday informed the state of Gogoi’s passing away, would despite a shift in political loyalties continue as education and health minister of Assam, while Sonowal became the state chief minister.In the land of the furious Brahmaputra, the scrapping of the IMDT Act, which the Congress had once carefully crafted to protect its interests in Assam, turned into a political erosion point that Gogoi could never seal.

While Gogoi couldn’t handle Assam’s border disputes, a new movement that almost led to the dismembering of Assam yet again began to grow in what was to eventually become Bodoland Territorial Region in Assam. Ethnic clashes between Bodo and Rabha people on one side and the migrants on the other led to a steady growth of the AIUDF influence.

Antagonising the indigenous

Added to that was the rise of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) that opposed big dams in the state and demanded for land documents for landless indigenous communities of Assam.

 In July 2011, three persons lost their lives in police firing when a land rights demand protest turned violent in Dispur, while another protester, Prabin Boro, self-immolated in front of the Janata Bhawan in February 2014. The agitation has been contained to an extent  by the present BJP dispensation in Dispur keeping leader Akhil Gogoi in jail under various charges, including preventive detention Acts. Sarbananda Sonowal’s government meanwhile has used this ‘window of opportunity’ to distribute land documents to buffer the party’s ‘jaati mati bheti’ slogan.

The trickle down from Delhi to Guwahati

As Assam goes to polls again in 2021. As Rahul Gandhi and Gaurav Gogoi become instrumental in the Congress’s style of politics, what will be interesting to watch is if Gogoi’s passing manages to turn into what has in Indian politics been called a sympathy wave.

Hence, as the Congress which once made much of the Northeast its domain will only continue to flaunder.

Imtiaz Ahmed comes with over 22 years of experience in print journalism. A former special correspondent with The Telegraph, he is a veteran sports journalist, but enjoys writing on politics, law and order and current affairs concerning north eastern India.