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Alankar Kaushik
Date of Publish: 2019-01-22

From Assault to Mass Support: A metamorphic turnaround of support towards Prof. Hiren Gohain


In the midst of mass protest on the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019 in Assam since last few weeks, one issue that is trending in public discourse is the recent charges of sedition on Prof. Gohain and other comrades. Prof. Hiren Gohain is at the center of discussion and debate through out the country and nobody can deny his intellectual contribution towards the state of Assam. This man has seen tumultuous protest against him during the Assam movement of the 1980’s. And today, the metamorphic turnaround of the support towards him by the people of Assam is something to ponder upon.

Prof. Hiren Gohain, the renowned critic and intellectual launched the newspaper titled Kalakhar in 1979, during the Assam Movement. He displayed extraordinary courage by exposing the negative aspects of the movement, for which he was even physically assaulted in the streets of Guwahati near to his residence. From that sort of a setting to a crowd cheering for him in his residence to support him during the present protest against the Bill is a dramatic change in the mindset of the popular. Kalakhar continued till 1982. Earlier Hiren Gohain edited two magazines, namely Natun Prithivi (jointly with others) and Padatik (1974-77). Kalakhar was instrumental during the movement in giving a counter opinion; where Prof. Gohain brought to light many news items which were either suppressed or published with many distortions in the daily regional press. He through his writing tried to expose the chauvinism of the Assamese ultra nationalists and the weakness and mistakes committed by the leadership of the Assam movement. In his publication of academic writing in the Economic and Political Weekly (Feb 23, 1980, page 418-20), Prof. Gohain expressed doubt on the rationality of the movement and finds a class character in the movement leadership.

Photo- Ratna Bharali Talukdar

There were also regular attempts to dismiss his public image by the popular regional media starting from the pre-election press meet in 2016 till the recent Madani controversy. Prof. Gohain, who is now 80 years of age, faced charges of sedition for opposing the settlement of Hindu migrants from neighbouring countries of India. Latasil Police station registered a sou motu case (15/19) under the sections 120 (B)/121/123/124(A) of the Indian Penal Code against the trio for allegedly advocating the secession of Assam during a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Bill early this month. In a written statement to journalists, Gohain insisted he had only said “In truth some younger elements at the rally in their indignation at the attitude of the government mentioned relevance of “freedom” of Assam. I intervened to state that such a demand can have relevance only if and when all democratic resources have been exhausted and if the state and all democratic parties and organizations reject the legitimate demands of the people of Assam”. Section 121 relates to waging or attempting to wage war, or abetting waging of war against the government.

This bill seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan if they have lived in India for six years, irrespective of their possession of the required documents. The sentiments attached to the Assam Accord of 1985, which ended the anti-foreigner agitation that mandates the expulsion of all foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 is the entry point of the huge mass protest against the mentioned bill. But more recently, he was found to be very vocal on the updation of the National Register of Citizens and also he explained his position in an interview with Al Jazeera. Unless it is settled, you cannot go forward.”

The state of Assam has invested lot of energy and time on community building since the Assam movement. There was a lot of violence, bandh, social tension and disruptions that the state witnessed during these years. The opposition to the Bill brought the people of Assam to the streets where they see the bill as an existential threat to their identity. Demand for recognition of one’s identity is a master concept that unified much of what is going on in world politics today. Because human beings naturally crave recognition, the modern sense of identity evolves quickly into identity politics, in which individuals demand public recognition of their worth. Identity politics therefore encompasses a large part of the political struggles of the contemporary world, from democratic revolutions to new social movements. Philosopher Hegel argued that the struggle for recognition was the ultimate driver of human history, a force that was key to understanding the emergence of the modern world.

In an open letter to Indians about NRC issue in Assam, Prof. Gohain wrote ‘does anybody care that people here who are indigenes also have a serious problem with the Indian ruling classes and the so- called national media?’ In his expression in the letter, he was very disappointed with the development challenges that the youth are facing everyday in Assam. Indeed the unemployed youth of Assam are in search of employment and better opportunities leaving their homeland and backyards full of resources to find blue collared jobs in the places, which are not as resource rich as Assam and wish to surrender themselves in the midst of anonymity. He also admitted that, the young force does not even possess the skills that are required to meet the demands of the modern society.

Photo- Ratna Bharali Talukdar

Assam is boiled with anger by knowing the fact that if the bill becomes law, it will be a major step for the citizenship regime from being based on birth in a territory to one based on blood and ancestry. The walk out of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the political ally with the ruling party, formed two years back, also did not stop the ruling party to slap sedition cases on the known and respected personalities of the state for articulating their dissenting views on the bill. This sedition case has become a part of the grand narrative on the question of nationalist versus anti-nationalist discourse.

Prof. Gohain, who is one of the most revered intellectual of the state, was actually trying to warn the Centre that its refusal to respond to the tide of fury of the Assamese and their fear of existential threat may lead to the birth of a new era of secessionism in the state, which can be more dangerous for the entire nation. And we cannot deny the return of this history of secessionist ideals creating a new form of revolt due to coercive activities of the government. More than that there are chances of breaking down the social fabric where the Assamese society used to live in harmony with the other communities.

At this critical juncture, when the people of Assam have seen Prof. Gohain being very consistent and being opposed to any kind of chauvinism in the state for a long period of time, all stood with him and gave him the applause for his act of exemplary public courage. This act unquestionably proves him not only as a ‘public intellectual in Assam’ but a true ‘hero’ who is committed to democratic values. It is high time the ruling party should consolidate the youth force of the state in productive engagement rather than dividing communities by placing a bill that goes against the interest of the majority.

Alankar Kaushik

( Alankar Kaushik, PhD is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, The English & Foreign Languages University, Shillong Campus. He can be reached at alankar@eflushc.ac.in. The views expressed in this article are author's own.)


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