I have never tried to write something solely based on my own feelings till now. Neither did I ever felt like writing one; nor am I a public figure with huge number of followers. But, last evening when I heard of the demise of Mr. Tarun Gogoi I could not resist myself from penning down my reflections as part of public memory and my own thoughts. This might be a bit clichéd as there will be hundreds of floating tributes from every corner. But if I do not write his piece, probably this will leave a void forever within me for not biding adieu to my chief minister as the way I wanted. His political journey as chief minister of Assam was very much parallel to we growing up as school students since the beginning of the year 2001. Since then what we know as ‘chief minister’ is the calm, smiling and always soft-spoken person named Tarun Gogoi. A lifelong dedicated congressman, Gogoi appeared to me as a people’s chief minister with less sophistication and ability to talk and behave in an ordinary manner. I am here not to romanticize him as an ideal chief minister, nor am I associated with the Indian National Congress. Like all, as a politician, he too is not beyond criticism in several aspects; but perhaps today is not the day to only criticize him considering I could never see him using the language of hate in politics.
Being born in Assam in the early 1990s, I grew up hearing stories of previous ‘dark days’ and “secret killings”. I was too young to understand those phrases or what they actually meant. Till 2002, we used to live in village where electricity (without television), radio and the daily newspaper were the only sources to get a sense of the rest of the world. In the weekends I used to wait keenly for the hawker to deliver the newspaper at our home (which comes late almost at noon) where along with many literary columns I started to follow socio-political issues. There used be news pieces related to aspects and consequences of political killings previously, which in Assamese was referred to as ‘Guptohoitya’. Not understanding much, those news of killings and violence became kind of normalized in newspapers coupled with recent past’s narrative of harassment in the name of witch hunting of ‘insurgents’ by armed forces in different households across Assam. Pathetic roads, unemployment, withheld of government of salaries for many months was nothing less than normal which even led to suicide of many government employees, particularly a few teachers working without salary. Gogoi became chief minister with all of this counted during 2001 and I had no clue about politics then.
‘Bringing peace’ to Assam was something we have been hearing since then and Gogoi as a chief minster with a relatively efficient bureaucracy tried to did some justice to it. The situation since 2001 till today is far better where incidents of occasional bomb blasts with severe causalities in few cities of Assam including Guwahati was perceived to be normal. If one looks at closely, incidents of political violence has reduced significantly during his time which affected lives of lakhs of people who lives at the margins of the state. There has been a bit of sigh of relief among a few people; be it oppressed ethnic- linguistic group, religious and linguistic minorities, tea garden laborers etc. Governance of a state like Assam has been easy where politics of ethnicity and ethnic assertion for political representation is multiple and enduring. It could be easily understood factually as Assam today has 3 Autonomous Councils, 6 Statutory Autonomous Councils and more than 30 development councils; all based on separate ethno-linguistic identity. Establishment of Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) in 2003 under the provision of the amended Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India is thought be the first formal step towards peace in Bodoland ending more than two decade’s long episodes of killing and bloodshed for separate Bodo people’s council. However, this was peace process was questioned when in the same BTC area, in several parts, acts of ethnic cleansing of 2012 and 2014 of Muslims and 2014 violence on Adivasi villages in several other districts are seen to be significant failures of law and order during his time. During my visit to few areas of Bodoland in 2018, I could still find displaced people living in temporary shelters of government lands. Fearing for live, they could never go back to their previous place, now allegedly sabotaged completely. Even Gogoi’s secular stance is critiqued for not completing and initiating the task of NRC (National Register of Citizen for Assam) at an early time during his 15 year long tenure form 2001 to 2016. He also bears the popular criticism of Congress using Muslims as mere vote banks like elsewhere.
In an already neoliberal economy Gogoi could place recourses in relatively efficient way to divert issues from conflict and violence to employment and developing urban centric economies. In my view, Guwahati as a city grew in terms of present infrastructure and facilities during his tenure. Probably it won’t be exaggerating to say that the present day Guwahati bears the testimonies of his time and work in many ways. Introduction and appointment of thousands of teachers through a common exam broke the notion among people that one can get a government job without a huge bribe or no bribe at all. However, there were allegation of several cases bribery in state civil services jobs and many other departments.
There is ideology in politics and there is politics of ideology. However, in modern neoliberal democracies realism as ideology seems to be more appealing to many leaders than just being mere ideal. Gogoi, probably caught in between the two, never used language of hated and revenge in his political career. It is a tricky task to manage the governance of a post-colonial, multiethnic, multi linguistic and multi religious society with every groups have their own complexes. He publicly always claimed his secular stance in any sort of political situation in the state. A lawyer by profession initially, Gogoi appeared in Supreme Court of India along with former central minster of P Chidambaram to argue against communally motivated Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) after 36 years of last appearance in court. Probably his greatest strength was to laugh away at all the abuses and hate comments hurled at him from his opponents.
His forever smiling face will always be missed.
Shofiul Alom Pathan completed M.Phil from Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University and has a keen interest in socio-political issues of Assam.