He first gained national recognition in India for his use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act to fight corruption. Mr. Gogoi, whose parents were sharecroppers, has also worked as an activist for peasant land rights. In 2005, he formed the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), an organization of farmers in the northeastern state of Assam with more than a million members.
India Ink spoke to Mr. Gogoi at the KMSS office in Guwahati, the capital of Assam.
Q.Why are you protesting against the construction of large dams in northeastern India?
A.The rivers have flowed down from the hills from the ancient times to give us life and livelihood. Our farmers are hugely dependent on the river. Dams will destroy this critical relationship between the river and the people. The ecology of Assam is part of the ecology of Arunachal Pradesh. Assam bears the cost of developmental projects in Arunachal Pradesh.
One big dam is enough for all the people in the Northeast. But the dams in Arunachal Pradesh are not being built to supply power for local people. They are being constructed to supply power to corporations. This is corporatization of water. Water should be a community resource.
Before constructing a big dam, we should have a very proper, genuine scientific study on the river and the ecosystem. No such study was conducted.
Q.Your anti-dam campaign has largely focused on the 2,000 megawatt Lower Subansiri Hydroelectric Project on the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, which is now roughly 50 percent complete. In 2011, you led a protest movement to block the turbines from reaching the construction site. How did you do that?
A.KMSS, along with other organizations, succeeded in mobilizing the farmers and middle classes on the dam question. Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in the process. We chopped down huge trees on the road. We dug a trench. We blocked roads with electricity poles. All the roads were blocked. The government accused us of being Maoists, Naxalites, and carrying on an armed struggle. But we are not. Ours is a ferocious resistance and we have put all our energy against this dam.
Q.Recently, there has been an increasing presence of Maoists in upper Assam, especially in the tea garden communities. Your leftist ideology and reverence for Maoist revolutionary ideas is very similar to theirs. How is your struggle different?
A.Our politics is mass people politics and their politics is based on weapons and violence. We have no weapons. We do not do extortion. We collect money through voluntary donations.
Q.How do you use Right to Information requests to fight corruption and why is this method so important to your movement?
A.First we get all the information we need for using the RTI and then we start to fight.
The base of our popularity comes from the use of the RTI Act as an instrument of social mobilization and our anti-corruption movement. The anti-corruption movement made KMSS possible. This is why the middle class has accepted us.
Q.Last year, KMSS opened “fair price” vegetable stalls in Guwahati, the capital of Assam. What does this achieve?
A.We tried to address two questions. The price of vegetables is high for customers, but the farmers get very little for it. A farmer gets only get 1.5 rupees per kilogram for tomatoes but the customer has to buy it for 30 to 40 rupees. The profit goes to the brokers, not to the producers. We wanted to establish a market that directly connects producers and customers.
We understand that this is a temporary experiment. But it shows that price control as well as profits to the producers can be provided by sincere state effort.
Q.You recently announced plans to start a political party in 2015. Will you be contesting elections?
A.We are going to form a party, but not fight for parliamentary elections. The issue has been continuously debated within the organization. The party is for social and democratic reform and revolution. Till now, KMSS is a mass organization, and no mass organization can bring about serious change. Only a strong political party can achieve this.
Q.The movement you led in 2002 against the forest department’s eviction drive launched you as an activist beyond student politics. What happened?
A.There was a massive eviction drive by the Forest Department throughout Assam. I was one of the five students from Guwahati University, who went to Tengani area in Nambar Reserve Forest in Golaghat district. We found many houses burned and others demolished by the Forest Department’s elephants. We held a meeting and formed an organization to resist the eviction drive and my real movement was started.
On Aug. 7, 2002, we led a protest from Tengani to the district headquarters in Golaghat 40 kilometers away. We went on foot, 10,000 to 15,000 people, starting at 4 a.m. In Golaghat town we fought against the police. After quarreling for an hour, the deputy commissioner came and he gave an assurance that no eviction drive would happen in Tengani area before discussing it with the people. It was the first time I spoke about land rights.
Q.How was KMSS formed and what issues does it care about the most?
A.After two years in Tengani, we had an intense confrontation with the government. The police and the ruling Congress party were strongly opposing us. We could not resist the government in such a small area, so we decided that we must spread the democratic mass movement all across Assam.
On June 28, 2005, we began a bicycle procession with 200 people, split into two teams. One went to lower Assam, and the other to upper Assam. We met many flood-affected people and people living in the forests in every district of Assam. This was a big source of learning for us, and we connected with many local organizations and NGOs throughout the state. After one month, we gathered in Tezpur town and formed the KMSS.
We demand land reforms in Assam. Land must be distributed to peasants and farmers. Our second demand is for community rights over natural resources. And third is to find a solution to problems of flooding and erosion. Also, we want 100 percent irrigation in paddy fields.
Q.What’s the hardest part about being a leader?
A.It is a lot of stress. People think Akhil Gogoi will stop dams. They have such big expectations. KMSS has 300 to 400 full-time workers and 30,000 volunteer workers who are all my responsibility. Recently the police registered a case against one of our workers in Barpeta District. I went to his house and his father said, “My son has been sent to jail and is living in terrible conditions. When will he come home? What are you doing about this?” Now I have to figure out how to get him out of jail. Just today, 30 members of our organization are getting bail.
(This interview has been slightly edited and condensed.)
Brian Orland is a freelance journalist.