RTI activist and peasant leader Akhil Gogoi is no stranger to Assam. Currently in the eye of a storm that began in print media, spilled over onto cybermedia and now, onto the streets, Gogoi’s crusade against corruption in Assam politics is a battle that has been raging in Assam in recent months.
The war of words in the media spawned facebook fan pages that were shut down and another that started almost immediately and culminated in a candlelight vigil in different places in Assam and New Delhi on August 8. The offline protest almost didn’t happen, thanks to disinformation about the campaign deliberately spread on Facebook (not again!). This time, ingenious counter-activists (if there is such a term), launched a virtual vilification campaign and posted information that the candlelight vigil was actually a candlelight cocktail party, in an attempt to trivialize the entire exercise!
But first, some background to the fracas.
Akhil Gogoi has been leading mass movements against social evils for many years now, from fighting to ensure the rights of landless peasants under the banner of the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) since 2005, to protesting against mega dams in the Northeast. He also uses the Right to Information (RTI) Act as an instrument to expose corruption in government sponsored schemes such as the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NGRES) among others.
Not all of Gogoi’s efforts have gone unnoticed either. In 2008, he received the Shanmugam Manjunath Integrity Award for his anti-corruption stance. Earlier this year, he was awarded the national Right to Information (RTI) Award by the Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF) for exposing the Rs 1.25 crores scam in the Sampoorna Gram Rozgar Yojna (SGRY) and the Rs 60 lakhs scam in the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) in Golaghat district of Assam by using the RTI Act.
It is a little surprising therefore, that his latest series of exposés should not be accorded the dignity of being part of his larger anti-corruption agenda and pro-people stance. A section of the media claimed that Gogoi’s exposes are really about one man versus another - a limelight-seeking social activist (albeit an RTI activist and peasant leader) versus a prominent politician, Himanta Biswa Sharma, Health Minister of Assam.
These media outlets were content to label Gogoi’s corruption crusades as a personal vendetta against the minister in question, Himanta Biswa Sharma. And they have been vicious in attacking the former.
One of the three satellite television channels in Assam, Newslive, has been particularly vicious in its attacks of Gogoi. The channel, after all, is owned by Sharma’s wife and Gogoi has also publicly questioned the source of the Rs 100 crores spent to launch the channel in 2008. In 2006, according to Sharma’s own admission, his family’s total assets amounted to Rs One crore.
As the battle between the two adversaries continues unabated, and as each press conference called by Akhil Gogoi to expose one instance of corruption by the minister prompts another press conference by Sharma to counter the allegations and raise new ones against Gogoi, the satellite channel, DY 365, alone has been adopting a non-partisan stance and reporting both sides of the story. Newslive has often treated Gogoi’s press conferences as non-events while playing up Sharma’s press meets, thus bringing into question its credibility as a news channel.
Enter cyberprotests and Facebook fan pages
Meanwhile, as this battle was being played out on ground and given its share of fair and unfair media coverage, a group of young, educated, mostly non-resident Assamese people had started making their support for Akhil Gogoi public through Facebook. Aryama Dutta Saikia, an education consultant based in Delhi, started a Facebook page in 5 May 2010 to, as she says, “inform a close circle of friends about the good work being done by Akhil Gogoi”.
Saikia had no idea that her page would soon attract more than a hundred people, Assamese and non-Assamese, residing in Assam or elsewhere. Soon Saikia’s small project gathered momentum on Facebook with strong sentiments against corrupt politicians and practices in Assam being expressed through the “Supporting Akhil Gogoi” page.
Saikia maintained her dignified stance through her page not to attack any single personality and to extend support to Akhil Gogoi not as an individual crusader but as a voice against the rampant corruption in the political circles in Assam. Despite this, personal attacks and misinformation began flooding the Facebook page. Impersonations of various people - ranging from Akhil Gogoi himself (who has never been on Facebook) to other people who “like”ed the Facebook page - started cropping up. Some pseudonyms and fake IDs were also thought up and were used to post many anti-Gogoi remarks on the page. To every such remark, there would be a spontaneous outflow of vehement support for Akhil Gogoi and his movement.
As the number of people who “like”-ed the “Supporting Akhil Gogoi” page increased and swelled to over 1500 by July 2010, the forces behind the vilification campaign changed track. They began to “report abuse” to Facebook. Now, Facebook policy requires 100 complaints from various users against a particular “page” to shut it down while it examines the truth behind the reports.
In this case, the “Supporting Akhil Gogoi” page was shut down on 4 August, at the crucial time for the group of people who had now mobilized themselves through its medium to translate their online activism to on-ground protests against corruption. The plan was to hold simultaneous candlelight vigils and a number of “mouna xuko xabha” or silent condolence meets to mourn the death of honesty in Assam at various locations in and outside Assam.
August 8 was fixed as the date when the Facebook supporters would use candles and black arms bands instead of the mouse and a keyboard to show that they really cared about their state. The protest demonstrations and vigils did take place despite the fact that the page was shut down just four days ahead of D-day. Saikia and a band of enthusiastic young people put together a Facebook group of the same name the very next day and it is already beginning to gather members.
The candlelight vigils and black arm band events were organized in Delhi, Guwahati, Jorhat and Nagaon on 8 August by Saikia and her group. The vigils held in Assam saw more than 100-150 people attending each event, while more are being planned at various other places around the country and abroad. All this, despite the last minute confusion about the disappearance of the original Facebook page, the subsequent regrouping of the anti-corruption supporters under the new Facebook group started on August 4 with just four days to go before the proposed vigils, and what is more, the creation of a new “Supporting Akhil Gogoi” page by an unknown individual or group on August 4.
This new page started posting a lot of misinformation about the proposed events of 8 August, claiming that the candlelight vigil to would now be a candlelight dinner and cocktail party and trivializing the entire exercise. Scatological language and personal attacks against those involved in the anti-corruption campaign were also made through this page. Despite all these efforts however, the “Supporting Akhil Gogoi” group continues to attract more like-minded and free-thinking individuals and Assam’s cyber space is abuzz with offers of help in this campaign from non-resident Assamese everywhere in the world.
Entire generations of young people have been fleeing from Assam for decades now to escape the spectre of violence, rampant corruption and social degradation in the state. A new trend is now evident - many of them want to go back home. But first, the house needs to be put in order. Efforts like Akhil Gogoi’s from within and that of the “Supporting Akhil Gogoi” group from without are steps towards this. In the final analysis, it is important not to allow one’s voice to be gagged, whether on the ground or in cyber space.