By Atul, Sandeep Pandey*
Akhil Gogoi, a peasant leader and Right to Information (RTI) activist from Assam, has been in jail since December 2019. His crime is that he exercised his fundamental right of speech and expression by protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The police took him in custody on December 12, 2019, and since then he has been continuously kept in jail on one pretext or the other.
Whenever the court grants him bail in one case, the agencies dig out some other case and get his custody extended. In this way, this chain of him being shifted from one jail to another and sheer mistreatment therein continues. This not only militates against the established constitutional principles but also the value system and vision of our freedom fighters.
Before his arrest, Akhil has been involved in a number of campaigns to secure the rights of peasants, poor and tribals. Probably so much that the powerful state got afraid of the rising popularity of this mass leader from modest background. He is the founder and leader of Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS).
It is a peasant rights organization that has been a frontline organization in defending the rights of landless peasants, rural and urban poor. It campaigns to protect the lives and livelihoods of farmers, including those from indigenous Adivasi communities, by “securing land and forest rights, exposing corruption and opposing the construction of big dams that could forcibly displace peasants and threaten the lives of thousands and destruction of flora and fauna” says Amnesty International.
Akhil Gogoi is also a renowned RTI activist in the country. In 2008, he was awarded the Shanmugam Manjunath Integrity Award for his relentless fight against corruption. He has been honored with the National Right to Information Award by Public Cause Research Foundation in 2010 for his role in exposing a Rs 1.25 crore scam in Sampoorna Gram Rozgar Yojna in the Golaghat district of Assam. In 2014 Akhil initiated a campaign against the land Mafia that had appropriated thousands of acres of agricultural land in the rural Kamrup district of Assam.
Akhil Gogoi is not just a fighter. He has also demonstrated the constructive aspect of his personality by undertaking development of extraordinary Kaziranga National Orchid and Biodiversity Park over four hectares of land.
And the state seems to relish in harassing and torturing this crusader of RTI and peasant’s rights and an exceptionally talented person. He has been falsely labeled as Maoist and Naxalite and booked under various draconian laws including the infamous Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) that preclude the possibility of bail.
He has also been booked under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code including but not limited to sedition (section 124 A), the punishment of criminal conspiracy (section 120 B), unlawful association (section 153 A) and imputations, and assertions prejudicial to national-integration (section 153 B). Indeed, Akhil has paid a heavy price for his relentless advocacy of people’s rights.
Furthermore, this was not the first time Gogoi has been charged and arrested under such draconian laws. In 2017, the government of Assam had him arrested and charged under various provisions of the National Security Act, 1980 that allows authorities to detain a person up to 12 months.
Akhil Gogoi is also a renowned RTI activist in the country. In 2008, he was awarded the Shanmugam Manjunath Integrity Award for his relentless fight against corruption
Thankfully, the Guwahati High Court had intervened and ordered his immediate release by holding that the detention violated his fundamental rights under Article 22 (5) of the Constitution. Over 100 criminal cases have been registered against Akhil.
Akhil got arrested again in December 2019 in relation to the anti-CAA protests when Guwahati police registered a suo moto case against him under various criminal provisions. It subsequently handed over this case to National Investigation Agency on December 14 and Akhil was booked under the stringent provisions of the infamous UAPA. The special NIA court, however, granted him bail on March 17 after the investigating agency failed to file a charge sheet within the stipulated 90 days. But the NIA filed a criminal appeal before the Gauhati High Court against this bail. The Gauhati High Court, thereafter, stayed the bail.
Subsequently, the NIA was successful in getting his custody extended. It filed a charge sheet that rests overwhelmingly on certain books on communism seized from his home. It is indeed farcical to impute such grave charges and Maoist links on the basis of the discovery of some books from one’s home.
Moreover, these books are not even banned by the government and even if they were banned, reading them in and of itself does not constitute any crime. The same has been held by the Supreme Court on numerous occasions including in the famous Meesha book case.
These sham accusations and trials to keep the activists under incarceration flies in the face of several leading Supreme Court judgments wherein the apex court has held that arrest could not be made by police in a routine manner. The government and its instrumentalities refuse to free him despite appeal from the United Nations and human rights watchdogs including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
These oppressive actions are also a reflection of the current political climate in India, in which the harassment and arbitrary arrests of activists have become commonplace and a shadow of gloom looms large over the basic civil liberties and human rights.
Whereas the father of the nation enjoined upon the Indian State to strive to bestow freedom and Swaraj to the poorest and weakest, the current dispensation is doing the opposite. It is not only depriving them of their freedom and liberty but also harassing those who raise voices against it by arresting them arbitrarily and throwing them in already crowded dungeons, exposing them further to the threat of coronavirus.
This is certainly not the characteristics of the Swaraj that Gandhi and other freedom fighters dreamt of during the freedom struggle.
*Atul is 4th year LLB student at National Law University (NLU), Delhi; Sandeep Pandey, a Magsaysay award winning social activist, is visiting faculty at NLU for this semester