When the boys from the sangathan (organisation) decided to take a shot at a tree in the forest, Moni Manik Gogoi was the last to go. While everyone was on target, Gogoi’s bullet “didn’t even move a leaf”.
A bullet so off mark wasn’t becoming of a cadre of the 28th battalion — at the time, the most dreaded squad of the banned militant group, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). But Gogoi’s attempts were followed by only a smatter of laughter and a round of good-spirited jokes, before the gun-toting men walked away.
“If Moni had done it, it was okay,” one of them said. Because whatever Moni did was invariably okay. Like the time in 1995, the cadres went on a picnic, and he refused to carry a gun. Or how, during the same year, in the thick forests of Myanmar, a hotspot for many separatist rebel groups, he refused to undergo guerrilla training at the camp.
When he was 21, Gogoi, a resident of Salmara Digholiya village in Upper Assam’s Tingkhang town in Dibrugarh district, had first come across the red and white ULFA guhaaris or appeals distributed around their village. The message on the flier was simple: join them in a fight for a free and independent Assam, an Assam without poverty, as Assam with opportunities.
What Gogoi, who always wanted work for the upliftment of society, saw on that guhaari so many years ago resonated. And from 1988 to 1998, he became one of the banned militant organisation’s most enthusiastic cadres, not only joining its most feared battalion, but drumming up its public image and recruiting hundreds. All the while, living like a fugitive, making it through the Indian Army’s fiercest manhunts, getting incarcerated in the Dibrugarh District Jail, while still earning the love and respect of the people in his village.
When almost a year later he was released, Gogoi did something only he could: he didn’t surrender to the police, but neither did he rejoin the ULFA. He came back home to Tingkhang to do what he believes he was born to do: social work.
The militant who loved Gandhi
In the early eighties, when Gogoi was growing up, there was rampant poverty in Tingkhang. Just a few years before the ULFA took wings, Assam’s ‘anti-foreigner’ movement had culminated in a deal with the Central government, not just to rid the state of ‘illegal’ foreigners but also work towards its development. “But nothing was happening. Our village Salmara Digholiya was in the middle of a rich oil town. We had coal, we had tea, we had oil but somehow, we had no any benefits. There were no roads, there were no jobs, we were poor, so poor that my mother had to sometimes beg on the roads,” he says.
The discontentment led many young boys like Gogoi to drift towards the ULFA — an organisation that believed Assam’s progress only lay in seceding from the Indian Union. Upper Assam — a traditional bastion for Assamese sub-nationalism — was a hotbed. In Gogoi’s village, every household had at least one ULFA member. “It was the only alternative and while the activities of the organisation took on a darker colour in the later years, not all ULFA were bad,” says Gogoi. In villages and towns, says Gogoi, the organisation worked for the welfare of the people — busting illicit bootlegging, catching thieves, organising medical camps, and stressing on the need for economic self-reliance and self determination of the Assamese people.
Gogoi was at the forefront of these drives. “All I wanted to do was serve people — that was my aim, to me, back then, it did not matter I was doing it through the ULFA,” he says. Though that did not mean he was relieved from the military aspects of the struggle. In 1994, Gogoi left for the ‘jungle’, an euphemism for the training camps of the ULFA in Myanmar. But even then, he was always known to do things differently. At the camp, he steadfastly put his foot down when it came to learning guerrilla warfare and insisted on sticking only to the basics of gun training.
In the late nineties, frustrated and disillusioned with the way the ULFA was working, Gogoi increasingly felt this was the not the change he had envisioned for Assam. “I believed in the ULFA’s principles of economic self-reliance and socialism, but I began to realise an armed struggle against India was never going to work,” he says.
After he was released from incarceration, the first call he made wasn’t to the militant group he was part of but to local social organisations in his village.
Soon Gogoi raised money to launch programmes that led to a facelift of Salmara Digholiya: agricultural farms were set up, where hundreds of youths, some former ULFA, began working; proper roads replaced kuccha ones; afforestation drives were started and bridges and schools were built.
“The villagers all came together to support me — perhaps it was because that even in my ULFA days, I never distinguished one community from the other. Whether they were Marwaris or Nepalis; Hindus or Muslims,” says Gogoi.
In 2003, he established the Tingkhang Kala Kendra — a space for kids to learn how to sing, dance, act and draw. Gogoi, a keen artist himself, would teach the kids how to paint: a favourite was a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, who he considers his guru.
Today the former Ulfa militant’s depiction of Gandhi adorns the office of the Deputy Commissioner of Dibrugarh, the Oil India Limited (OIL) headquarters in Duliajan and offices of nearly 30 gaon panchayats in the area.
An agent of change
Over the years, Gogoi’s social work percolated to every corner of the village. Soon OIL chose him to be the face of all their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. With him at the helm, dozens of self-help groups were formed which went on to benefit thousands of families.
When Gogoi’s white Sumo crosses villages in Tingkhang, people flag it down, often to express their gratitude or sometimes just to say hello to him and his wife, Dipali. On one such trip, the villagers sought him out to fix the Naharani government-run health centre, the only major hospital that catered to two constituencies of Tingkhang and Naharkatiya. “There was no electricity, no beds, no rooms, no water supply. The villagers asked me to do something about it,” says Gogoi, who later raised money to rebuild parts of the hospital. “The villagers contributed, some gave beds, some built rest halls themselves,” says Gogoi. In 2005, the Tingkhang hospital was built in the same manner, with Gogoi’s intervention.
Perhaps his biggest project is the ongoing Sasoni-Merbill project — Assam’s first big budget eco-tourism project centred around Merbill lake in an area called Sasoni in Naharkatiya. Even that stemmed from a request the villagers had made to him at a public meeting, when they recognised the eco-tourism potential of the area. With numerous stakeholders involved, the work has progressed rather slowly at the site. But it is Gogoi’s credibility and reputation that still brings many villagers to come work there and keep at it.
Today, as the 50-year-old travels around Assam to deliver lectures on change and reform, he is convinced that it is the ideals of love, brotherhood and honesty, which get him ahead. But what did he make of them during his gun-toting days in the ULFA? “I never pulled a trigger on a man. Just because you have the power to use a gun, doesn’t mean you should,” he says.