Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Jagadish Bhuyan speaks about the Dangari Fake Encounter Case, the Bhupen Hazarika Setu and about Assam’s burning problems (Exclusive Interview)

Robin Bhuyan (Editor)

Krishnakshee Sarma (Sub-editor)

Jagadish Bhuyan, who is currently the General Secretary of the Axom Jatiya Parishad (AJP), is a veteran political leader who was associated with the Assam Movement. He had served as an MLA from the Sadiya legislative assembly constituency. He was also the tourism minister of Assam under the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government. He was also involved with the BJP for some time, but he left the party in 2019 due to CAA, and eventually he formed the Axom Jatiya Parishad, along with Lurinjyoti Gogoi.

Other than politics, he is also an actor, having worked in multiple films and serials throughout his career. He is also known for pursuing the Dangari Fake Encounter Case, which he won after more than 25 years. He is also the first person to take initiative for the construction of the Bhupen Hazarika Setu, the longest bridge in India.

You were initially part of the AGP, a regionalist party, which you quit in 2016 and joined the BJP. Later, again, you quit the BJP and joined the AJP, another regionalist party. Can you tell us about your journey and why exactly you changed your political ideology?

Ever since the time of the Axom Andolan, I have consistently supported regionalism. Before entering politics in 1995, I was involved with AASU. Sri Prafulla Mahanta invited me to join the AGP and run for elections after I completed my Masters. It took some time for me to agree, but eventually I joined the party. Parag Dhar Chaliha was the president of the party at that time. Alongside me, Atul Bora, Kartik Hazarika, and Keshab Mahanta also joined the party. Thus, my political career began in 1995, and the following year, at just 29 years old, I contested and won the Sadiya Constituency, becoming one of the youngest MLAs. Two years later, at the age of 31, I became a minister.

In 2001, AGP failed to make a comeback in the elections, but I managed to win in my constituency and remained an MLA until 2006. After the party’s consecutive losses in 2006 and 2011, I attempted to discuss with the party the reasons why the public was no longer accepting us, as we had lost the Assembly elections three times in a row. I offered some suggestions, but unfortunately, the party didn’t pay much attention to my advice. We felt that the party needed some new faces, as the public had seen the same leaders in AGP for decades. Only if people saw new faces would they feel that the party was reorganising. I also discussed this matter with individuals like Homen Borgohain, Dr. Nagen Saikia, Lakhinandan Bora, and others. A seminar was organised where influential figures participated, and they concluded that AGP needed new leadership. However, when the party neglected these suggestions, I made the decision to resign from my position.

What happened after that?

During the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, the party asked me to assist them in their political campaigns. At that time, the Modi wave was prevalent, even in Assam. Narendra Modi eventually came to power. I noticed that many people, even within our parties, started supporting the BJP, although they were reluctant to admit it. The alluring promises made by Narendra Modi were one reason for this change. Due to people’s frustration with the Congress, they chose to align themselves with the Modi wave- even individuals associated with regionalist parties. Previously, the BJP had no presence in Assam, but due to the promises made by Narendra Modi, people began supporting the BJP to oust the Congress from power. At that time, I didn’t see a future for myself in the party. In 2015, I met Amit Shah and joined the BJP. I also believed that changes would be made to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), as promised. Subsequently, I was appointed chairman of Assam Petrochemicals Ltd. However, in 2019, after the CAA was implemented in December, I decided to resign. As someone committed to regionalism, I could not support an act that went against the interests of the people of Assam. I made this decision overnight when the CAA was implemented, and I joined the protests against it, alongside AASU, as a common citizen. Later on, Lurinjyoti Gogoi approached me and asked me to join his new regionalist party, the AJP. I agreed, because going back to AGP was out of the question, as they were in alliance with the BJP government. The party was formed with Lurinjyoti Gogoi as the president and me as the secretary, and within 100 days of the party’s formation, we contested the Assembly elections. And we continue to be the voice for the people of Assam.

You are also an actor. Do tell us about your acting journey and how you were inspired to enter the world of cinema.

I never considered acting to be my profession. But it was my passion, and I acted in multiple films and TV serials. Recently, a friend also asked me to star as a guest in his TV serial, which I did. Even though politics is not my profession, I joined politics to serve the people.   

Do you really feel that the Assamese regional film industry is still lagging behind as compared to other regional film industries in India? If yes, what do you think is the reason behind this?

The main reason is that, unlike most other states, Assam has a small population. This is why Assamese cinema also logically has a smaller audience. This is why if a film runs for just two or three days, it is considered a success. I believe that if we can reach people in all parts of Assam, we can really make an impact. But then there is the problem of a lack of cinema halls. Most of the other cinema halls have shut down since the multiplexes opened up. I believe that this problem needs to be addressed if we want to revive the interest of the people of Assam. When I was a minister, I requested that the minister remove the entertainment tax for movies. Eventually, many producers got back their tax money on the condition that they would use the money to produce more movies. However, Assamese movies still continue to have a small audience, which is why producers are not willing to invest. The rise of OTT has also contributed to the decline of Assamese cinema. However, despite all of this, Ravi Sharma’s Sri Raghupati has managed to be a tremendous success at the box office. He had informed me about this movie around 5-6 years ago. He was confident that the movie would be a huge success. I also had the honour of releasing the trailer, and by then, I was also confident that the film would be a success.  So far, within a few weeks, the movie has earned an amount of 10 crores. I believe that this will give producers the confidence to invest in quality cinema. I feel that both Dr. Bezbaruah and Sri Raghupati have become milestones for Assamese cinema. It is also a source of pride for us that this film has been released in several other parts of India. I feel that in the future we can also release bilingual films. I feel that since there are similarities between Bengali and Assamese, if we dub our films into Bengali, we can gain a much wider audience.

Recently, RRR, an Indian film, won an Oscar, which made it the first time an Indian film had won an Oscar. How important do you think an Oscar is for films? Do you feel that Assamese cinema can also have this kind of honour in the future?

I feel that appreciation gives us confidence to move even further in a particular direction. Whenever I learn about any artist doing exceptional work, I make the time to thank them in person. When someone is appreciated for their work, it gives them the courage to continue. I did watch RRR, and yes, it was a good film, but I feel that there are many other films in Indian cinema that did not get the recognition they deserved. And yes, I am definitely hopeful that an Assamese film will win an Oscar some day.   

What do you feel are the burning issues in Assam at the moment?

One of the major problems that we have always focused on is putting an end to the illegal infiltration from Bangladesh as well as sending all illegal immigrants back to their homeland. Unless this is done, the native Assamese population is in danger of dwindling. Although the Central Government has promised again and again to resolve this issue, they have failed again and again. According to the 1991 census, Assam had a population of 58 percent native Assamese. In 2011, in just 20 years, this declined to 48 percent, which has made us a minority. When we reach 38 percent in the next census, the situation is going to become hopeless. A similar situation has occurred in Tripura, where the native people have become a minority as the majority of the population is now Bengali. Another issue is that non-Assamese have occupied the majority of the lands. Non-Assamese industrialists also occupy 90 percent of our industrial parks.

Are you hopeful about AJP’s performance in the upcoming elections?

Well, in the previous Assembly elections, although our party had formed just 100 days before the elections, we fared quite well. We got 7.5 million votes. In 55 constituencies, we were in either second or third place. If we talk about the BJP, although they have had a long legacy, it took them 10 years to get this many in Assam! However, it is unrealistic to expect a new party like us to perform well in the Lok Sabha elections, and our main goal is to remove the BJP from power.

Most supporters of the BJP give this argument: If not Modi, then who? How would you respond to this?

See, Modi has not always been there. If we can remove the BJP from power, a strong leader will always be there. If you look at the percentage, over 60 percent of people have not voted for the BJP. The problem is that these people are not united. Now, it can be seen that several political parties are forming an alliance against the BJP, and it is possible that we might become a part of it as well.  

You were involved in the Dangari Fake Encounter Case. We would like to hear about it in detail.  

I was not merely involved. I was the only person who continued fighting the case for 29 years. When I first learned that an army officer was holding a young man for questioning, the case began. Soon, I came to know that a total of nine young men had been picked up. After talking to the police and other locals, I found out that they were not involved in any illegal activities. I tried contacting several authorities, including the local SP and even the governor. However, no one could do anything about it. Eventually, the high court granted me a Habeas Corpus, which commanded the army to turn over the young men as soon as possible. However, the army officials got five of them killed and claimed it to be an encounter. After that, I informed the high court about this. The case continued for a long time, and even a CBI inquiry was ordered. The reason they didn’t produce the young men in court was because they had already brutally tortured them, and producing them in court would immediately prove their human rights violations. After a long time, we finally got justice. Both the Army and the Supreme Court found these Army officials guilty. Eventually, the officials responsible for the fake encounter were awarded life imprisonment. The court has also ordered all the families of the young men to be compensated with 20 lakhs. Although the lives of these young men are not going to come back, I believe that they have at least set an example. So, if the police and army commit such acts in the future, there will always be someone to stand up for them.

You were the first person to take the initiative for the Bhupen Hazarika Setu. We would like to ask you: what exactly inspired you to take the initiative?

There was an urgent need for a bridge to cross the Brahmaputra River from Sadia. I realised this when I had became the MLA for Sadiya constituency. In emergency medical cases or when pregnant women require urgent medical care for delivery, it becomes a huge problem. This is why I always wondered why we couldn’t get a bridge built in the area. Although I made various attempts to get the bridge built, people thought that this was impossible. I even went to Delhi in 2003 to urge the Central Government to get this bridge built. It took a long time, but our dream finally came true. PM Modi did mention my name during the inauguration of the bridge, which is the longest bridge in India, not just in Assam.

We thank you for giving us your valuable time, Mr. Bhuyan. We wish you the best in your future endeavours.

Thanks to you guys as well!

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