April 18, 2010
By Debarshi Das, Sanhati
Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, in many ways, is an anomaly in Assam. This is a land which finds national attention only in times of blasts, floods, massacres. KMSS breaks the media orientalism and manages to make news. KMSS launches agitations on patently non-exotic issues such as Public Distribution System thefts, construction of big dams in fragile seismic territories, non-implementation of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Rights to Information Act etc. Aside from these issues, the other feature which sets KMSS apart in the political landscape of the state is its non-alignment. KMSS is not close to any political party. And more importantly it does not swear by any tribal, linguistic, religious group. This is something of a miracle in a region almost balkanised by identity politics.
This surprise package is putting the powers that be in jeopardy. They are used to dealing with sundry armed outfits which fight holy wars in the name of blood kinship ties, and are routinely silenced through distribution of State handouts to the leadership. In order to pigeonhole this unwieldy customer the state intelligence has theorised KMSS has links with the biggest internal threat of the country, namely the Maoists!
On March 30 2010 thousands of ordinary unarmed people marched to the district deputy commissioner’s office in the remote, eastern district of Dhemaji. Mega dams numbering as many as 168 are being constructed in Arunachal Pradesh flouting environmental clearance norms. Dhemaji is the place where the Brahmaputra enters Assam from Arunachal. Farmers fear that the dams are going to lay waste their source of livelihood. The Bogibeel bridge over the river had allegedly devastated one-fourth paddy cropping area of the district. There are apprehensions that earthquakes, which are pretty regular here, by breaking the dams may send a apocalyptic flood down the Assam valley. Indeed a house committee appointed by the Assam assembly had submitted an interim report to halt construction of the dams until the final report comes out. But the decree of Capital overrides the will of the people. Then there are issues of mal-implementation of NREGS and PDS which the KMSS wanted to draw the attention of the administration to.
It was raining incessantly that noon. Thousands waited patiently to hand over their memorandum to the DC. The DC did not oblige to step out. The crowd became restive. Perimeter gate was smashed. The police was sent. Lathicharge, tear gas, rubber bullets, blank firing followed. Scores were injured and hospitalised, including a few onlookers. The district secretary of KMSS has been arrested and is still in custody. There has been a arrest warrant issued for Akhil Gogoi, the general secretary of KMSS.
Of the aftermath of this incident, there was an uproar and walkout in the state assembly the next day. In towns of the province, farmers have demonstrated against the police action. KMSS plans to organise more demonstrations against big dams, for implementation of NREGS, PDS. The question is, who is listening?
We attach the memorandum the KMSS sent to the chief minister after the incident and the appeal from the NAPM to the chief minister.
“This Awakening of Masses is Totally Political” – An interview of Akhil Gogoi which appeared in the Assamese daily Dainik Janambhumi in two parts on April 6 and 7, 2010.
Interviewer: Tridib Neelim Dutta. Translated by Debarshi Das, Sanhati.
Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti is one of the most powerful organisations of present day Assam. Through granting pattas to landless peasants and using Right to Information Act it has exposed several loots of funds by the administrative personnel. Thereby it has acquired the role of a principal opposition to the government. We met the general secretary of the KMSS, Akhil Gogoi, to know the past, present and future of the organisation.
While building a peasants organisation what kinds of roadblocks did you face and how much have you been successful in overcoming them?
We started out with the struggle of distrbution of land rights to forest dwellers. On June 9, 2004 we were on a dharna in Golaghat on the rights of forest dwellers. The police beat us up severely. Then for the first time the government announced that forest dwellers would be given land rights. On April 8, 2005 a proposal was passed in the assembly to give lands in Doiang. While we were on a march from Guwahati to Doiang in March, 2005 the government announced that forest dwellers would be granted patta. Subsequently the movement picked up and on July 10, 2008 the chief minister sat down for a meeting with us. After this it was because of our goading that the Forest Act got implemented to an extent. In Kamrup and Dhemaji districts some lands were distributed. In a part of Doiang patta distribution has started. These works tend to be sluggish because our politicians and bureaucrats are concerned more with serving the entrenched interests. It was because of our protest that the water policy law was amended five times. Even the present draft is not to our liking. In spite of the pressure from the Asian Development Bank and the centre, it is due to our intervention that the state water policy has not been implemented. The chief aim of the policy is to hand over water to private companies and exact water use tax from people.
You have received support from all over the state. But how far is the movement political?
We believe this awakening of the people is totally political. The movement you are witnessing is a consolidated and organised expression of the political aspiration and thought of the people of Assam. The people are dissatisfied, trouble ridden. Take the case of Dhemaji. Bogibeel bridge was to be constructed there, for which boulders in the riverbed of rivers coming down from Arunachal Pradesh were carted away. As a result the river sand came down and drowned the farm lands. Bogibeel bridge construction, excavating boulders from river bed, making way for big capital – all these are political decisions. These decisions are oppressing the people. They don’t have any platform to resolve such problems. No nationalist organisations, no leftist parties, no opposition parties [are there]. We have gone to the people, we have tried to understand their disgruntled state. We have tried to politically project their anger. But the ruling classes which are incapable of people’s welfare and who have lost their wherewithal to the big capital are getting more autocratic by the day and are attacking the very people who have elected them to the office. On the other hand, schemes which were designed to tackle people’s dissatisfaction such as NREGA, PDS have become a farce. At this juncture, the movement which has been built by the people is completely political. The peasant workers who are at the forefront are politically educated and are men shining with the dream of a new society.
Do you think that the people will be with you after they are subjected to police repression?
The people are not with us. We are with the people. As long as there are problems, there will be the struggle. And as long as there are programmes to take the struggle of people forward, people’s struggle will advance. When we back stab them, people will leave us.
What is the source of political inspiration among the people?
All over the world masses have been facing challenges of the extreme form of capitalism and extreme state apparatus. But there is a counter tendency as well. Notice the support the US president Obama has been receiving from the people. They were compelled to support Obama for the practical solution of their day to day problems. In doing so they overcame racism. In return Obama had to support the health insurance scheme. The source of the political inspiration is the aspiration to freedom from the extreme form of imperialism, from backbreaking exploitation of capitalism, from the day to day deprivations.
You have declared that you would form the government in Assam by 2016. Can it be inferred that the programmes of your movement have tended towards the capture of political power?
This is not true. Our primary aim is to raise political consciousness of the people of Assam. But by political consciousness most of the people mean consciousness of parliamentary democracy. We are talking of elevating democratic consciousness. In democracy the main means of ensuring participation of greatest number of people and to eradicate poverty is mass movement.
In the present political and economic structure if Akhil Gogoi or any other leader of KMSS fights elections that would not solve the problems. Neither can these be solved by forming a government. There are two reasons for this: (a) constitutional and (b) recent international economic policies. The constitution has given the rights over minerals and main sources of income to the centre. Deliberations over a federal state structure [in India] has also veered towards greater centralisation. Therefore no fundamental change in Assam is possible through capturing power in Dispur. On the other hand, international capital has throttled the states. This is clear if you look at the current budget document of the state. In section 4.5 chief minister Tarun Gogoi talks of the different reform programmes he has initiated after coming to power. If through the help of RTI, one reads the various deals of his, one finds that the current financial system is presently fully dependent on the international institutions. No department can create new posts. Posts must be scrapped in every department. Public Sector Units must be closed. On the other hand, only police recruitment is open in this budget.
What is your political ideology?
We believe in people’s ideology. Religion was the philosophy of medieval ages. Nationalism is the philosophy of the bourgeoisie and the middle class. On the other hand, Marxism is the philosophy of the people. But we believe in modern Marxism, where nationalism will be given emphasis. The Marxism which is practiced in India has either fallen to revisionism or to anarchism. We are trying to march ahead with a creative ideology borrowing heavily from our tradition, folklore, people’s culture and progressivism.
Do you believe in parliamentary democracy? Do the members of KMSS vote?
Although our members do cast vote, they are not satisfied with it. We try to realise the limitations of the parliamentary system. Our endeavour will be to transform this system creatively. Mahatma Gandhi was the lone Indian who advocated taking up a different economic system in India. But his thoughts were limited by bourgeois philosophy. We seek to influence this tradition through people’s philosophy. Gandhi’s Gram Swaraj was imaginary, an utopia. Within capitalist system real village self-rule is not possible. That is why we need people’s philosophy.
But you often talk of Gandhian socialism.
We have a weakness for Gandhi. In the history of leadership in Indian politics there has been no greater leader than Gandhi. But the historical limitation of his philosophy is unsuitable in the aggressive capitalism of the present day. Alternative to capitalism is not soft capitalism, but socialism which is a form of egalitarianism. Hence while being deferential towards Gandhian socialism we believe in Marxism.
There have been allegations of your contacts with the Maoists. Aside from armed struggle,, there is not much difference between you regarding other social programme. How do you assess the Maoists? Are you sympathetic to them?
Indian Maoists have raised the questions of the tribal and poor people. But the idea of social transformation that they have seems to be a short cut. As far as our understanding goes, Maoists put less emphasis on people’s movement whereas mass movement is the fulcrum of our tactic. Without political assertion, political development and mental transformation through mass movement even if power is captured through armed actions it would not lead to true emancipation of people. We abhor irresponsible, anarchist, gun-centric politics. We aim to establish a non-violent, humane society. In the process of achieving it, there might be application of violence depending on the nature of the enemy. But it can only be in the form as was advocated by Jyotiprasad Agarwala. According to him, all struggles strive for non-violence. But the struggle would change its face according to the nature of the adversary. If the enemy is Mahishasur, the struggle would take the form of Durga. But even then the ideal remains Krisha, who was non-violent. According to the contingency we need to be Krishnarjun. But we have to retain the non-violence essence of our tradition even then.
We believe in this philosophy of Jyotiprasad. We do not seek to be guided by Maoist tradition, but by the tradition of Krishna-Jyoti. The global imperialist war has reached such a pinnacle that a fight which takes along only the hill and marginal people, tribal people and the proletariat cannot be successful. Participation of the middle class in the worldwide revolution has become a serious philosophical question. Imminent collapse of the Maoist movement has become clear as they have not paid adequate attention to such issues.
How has been the support of the Assamese middle class for you?
This is an important question at the present juncture. We believe that the Assamese middle class is passing through a intensely transformative phase. The culture of physical labour which could be found earlier in the rural middle class is disappearing. The new generation is clamouring for income sources which are superficial and not connected to manual labour. The government has introduced mechanisation in farming which has taken farmers away from labour and tradition. This is the reason why our middle class is more dependent, more averse to labour and is moving towards big capital. But only a tiny part of the middle class has been successful in this endeavour. Most of them are dejected and retrogressive in the face of assault by the big capital. An alternative economic programme with a political programme is required to attract them. They would not come forward unless people’s movement crosses a critical phase. Gramsci’s idea of hegemony is relevant here. The middle class gets scared by the militant movement initially. But when it sees this [militant movement] is getting victorious and is able to secure relief from the State the middle class gradually comes forth and participates. We expect the Assamese middle class would be part of the people’s struggle after overcoming its historical limitations.
You criticise the ruling class, but what is your take on the opposition?
Our opposition parties cannot see beyond middle class dreams. Most of the opposition leaders are middlemen, contractors or businessmen. Because of this class base they have been unable to reach the common people. We have seen lack of both progressive ideology and wise leadership which is needed to overcome this hurdle. But in spite of all limitations they have opposed big river dams, big capital. So, theoretically it’s possible to have a consolidated front of struggle with them. But practically they are averse to struggle. Disconnected from labour, the middle class leadership becomes fearful at the prospect of militant farmers’ movement. But they need peasants, they need people. They want to use people, not to radicalise them. Unless able and dynamic leaders come up, the opposition will not have a good prospect. They have not been able to build up struggle based on the biggest problems faced by the common people.
As Marxists how do you evaluate the diffferent leftist parties of Assam? The CPI has supported big river dams. Is there a possibility of a conflict with them?
The leftist parties which have supported big dams are trying to drive the last nail into their coffin. The Assam movement had isolated the left parties from the Assamese national life. By supporting big dams they are seeking to make themselves irrelevant forever. A part of the youth leadership of the left parties does oppose big dams from their heart. However the geriatric leadership of their party tries to obliterate such consciousness. Until the young leaders establish their position within the party and a change of leadership is effectuated, future of leftists is bleak.
Actually the parliamentary left parties of Assam are limited by their middle class mentality. We feel they should remove the word ‘communist’ from their name. The present leadership is burdened with middle class, highly-educated, elites. Urban, labour-averse people dreaming of revolution will never be able to bring about a leftist movement. Leftist historian Eric Hobsbawm commenting on the West Bengal CPI(M) in the New Left Review says that implementing an industrial policy which grabs lands of farmers was a historical mistake.
You have demanded that the states should have full right over their resources so that they get empowered. In this context what are your views on investment by big capital, special economic zone creation?
We are strongly opposed to the imperialist loot. Today capitalism has taken the form of neo-colonialism. Special economic zones are a vivid illustration of this. Medha Patkar has called them a country within a country. All patriotic people should oppose SEZ-like large scale projects, big river dams and the aggressive plans of the big capital. Actually we should all be prepared to fight a second phase of the war of independence.
Do you have any programme regarding conflicts between ethic groups and right of self-determination?
The Congress government of Assam has played with the aspirations of the tribal people. The autonomous councils are in a sorry state courtesy the greedy, corrupt leaders of Congress party. The middle class leadership which has emerged from the tribal people has proved to be weaker and greedier than the Assamese nationalist leadership. All of the leadership in autonomous councils are ready to pay illegal commissions to the government. We feel that only after the dominance of the present group of tribal leadership is eroded, a progressive leadership from tribal communities can emerge. The fate which befell the Assam movement is awaiting the self-determination movement of tribal communities too. They are the most oppressed of all people of Assam. But the leadership, without exception, has not put sincere effort to alleviate their real problems.
Since your peasant movement has presently taken the form of a national movement, what are your views on other national issues such as education in Assamese medium, declining population of Assamese speaking people, illegal immigration?
These are extremely important questions for us. Our main task is to transform the peasant movement into national movement. Lenin said, as the majority of the population is farmers and workers their problems are the true national problems. To this day we have not been able to transform our movement into national movement. But we have started to encounter all the national questions. We have prepared a special programme for solving the foreigner problem. We have decided to work for a national but progressive education policy.
The State is repressing the people through economic, social tools as well as Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Assam is no exception to this. We have not seen any programme of yours in this regard. Do you think such issues are unimportant for peasant movement?
We not only oppose inhuman and suppressive laws like the armed forces special powers act, we abhor them. The government should repeal such acts so that there is no conflict with the people. However even if the government does not withdraw them the people will surely win its own rights.
Besides you no other leader in KMSS is particularly visible. Does it not affect the organisation in terms of spatial and temporal influence?
Leaders emerge out of requirements. How far the peak of a mountain rises depends on how broad is its base. As more and more people join us, leaders will grow numerically and qualitatively. You notice me because of the nature of constitutional responsibility of our organisation. But it is the cadres who actually make our organisation dynamic. Since constitutionally I am the spokesperson you notice me. Tomorrow as the division of duties changes, you will find a new leader.
You are a constituent oganisation of National Alliance of People’s Movement which has social workers such as Mekha Patkar, Arundhati Roy, Sandeep Pandey. Is every such organisation of NAPM under the control of a governing body? Do you need any permission for launching a movemental programme?
NAPM is merely a network where each organisation has its autonomy. But on collective themes, policies and problems, all of them speak out jointly.
Many of your workers are heard to be salaried. A protest forum needs plenty of funds. Could you tell us how and from where you collect the funds?
In a mass organisation the source of fund does to a large extent determine the nature of it. The main source of our fund is the people. We collect an annual fee of five rupees from our members. Last year we admitted about five hundred thousand members. This year we expect it to double. The second source of the fund is productive activity. We generate plenty of revenue through cooperative fishery. This year in Tengani we cultivated mustard in 150 bigha fallow land collectively and generated revenue. Some more we did by fishery in 170 bigha land. The third source of our fund is collection of levy from earning people. Fourth source is voluntary contribution. But we have a constitutional restriction that we do not accept a large contribution from a single individual. The main method for contribution collection is through mass collection. Fifth source is contribution from sympathetic trade unions.
We can claim that we have not deviated from the principle of pro-people funding. We do not want to tarnish the nature of our movement. Therefore we naturally do not take recourse to the easy ways of fund collection. There are self-imposed restrictions on us for accepting contribution from rural development, public distribution system and other such departments. We are promise-bound not to bow down before politicians, bureaucrats and big capital.
Are you going to take up any new programme shortly?
The principal leaders of NAPM including Medha Patkar are going to visit Assam in the first part of May. They are going to take up a protest-programme against State repression and big river dams.
Let us wish that your struggle assists in the establishment of pro-people, non-anarchic, federal, real democracy in India.
We thank you.