Hiren Gohain, 80, a prominent Assam academic, has been known to speak his mind and not shy away from taking a stand against the popular tide. He is one of the three prominent individuals booked by police for sedition after their comments during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016.
Gohain, a strong opponent of the Bill in the recent past, took the stage at a rally on January 7 on Guwahati and critiqued the Centre and the state governments for bringing the Bill. In his speech, Gohain said, “If the question of independence arises, if no one listens to us, the government, the state and political parties, then it’s a different thing, then we will definitely be compelled to raise the demand for independent Assam. But let’s not get carried away by temporary emotions, as citizens of India, we will fight as long as we can. If that fight is not successful, then the demand for independence will come up.”
Subsequently the Assam Police registered an FIR, charging him and two other speakers at the event with sedition.
Reacting to the FIR, Gohain told The Indian Express that at the meeting he had intervened that such a demand of independence “can have relevance if and when all democratic resources have been exhausted and if the state and all democratic parties and organisations reject the legitimate demands of people of Assam”.
“I had elaborated my stand by further stating that by fighting for the secular basis of citizenship in India and the dignity and rights of Assam in a federal polity, we are fighting for the fundamental democratic state of India and the Constitution.”
A Sahitya Akademi awardee, Gohain was born in Golaghat in 1939. “Dr Gohain graduated from Calcutta University with honours in English literature and took his masters in the same from Delhi University with record marks. Till then an ardent follower of F R Leavis, Gohain went to Cambridge for his PhD, where he came under the influence of the European Marxist circle, he was deeply influenced by Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs. Later he joined Dibrugarh University and in 1998 he retired as professor of English from Gauhati University,” said Prabhat Bora, editor of an anthology of writings on Gohain.
Prof Udayaditya Bharali, former principal of Cotton College, said, “Gohain has been leading the progressive intellectual movement in the state for decades. He has always ensured that his intellectualism translates into betterment of society. Those who accuse him of sedition today must remember that in the early 1990s he (even I was there) was among the first to hold a convention criticising the armed secessionist movement prevalent then.”
Veteran journalist and political commentator Haider Hussain said that during the Assam Movement (1979-1985), initially Gohain was a harsh critique of the agitation. “Towards the end of the movement, the severity of his criticism reduced, when he said that the legitimate causes of the Assamese people need to be addressed,” he said. The sentiment is reflected in Gohain’s piece in Sunday in March 1983.
Gohain wrote, “…I do not support the actual demands of the Assam movement, as I consider them impracticable, inhuman and dangerous. There is no question of pandering to intolerance and aggressiveness. But if peace is to return to this unhappy state, the genuine and longstanding fears of the Assamese people must be set at rest…”
“He has always taken the position that he considered to be the right one for the people,” Hussain added. Advocate Santanu Borthakur pointed out that the change in Gohain’s position during the Assam Movement reflected “intellectual humility”.
Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had met Gohain as a part of BJP’s ‘Jan Sampark’ programme despite the latter being a vocal critic of the BJP and RSS.
On Thursday, as news broke about the FIR, well-wishers and journalists gathered at Gohain’s house in Guwahati. Students shouted slogans against the sedition case and the BJP governments at the Centre and state. They uploaded photos with the hashtag #StandwithDrHirenGohain.