Living life like a militant to living a life like a good human being. Life of Moni Manik Gogoi is just a story of inspiration. The 53-year-old a resident Shalmari Dighalia village of Upper Assam’s Tingkhang town in Dibrugarh district, had only one objective throughout his life—development for his poverty-stricken people.
An adverse life
Growing up in a small village, the only thing Gogoi saw was poverty. His mother had to beg on the streets so that her family could eat when his father was ill. Shalimar Dighalia village, a place that never knew what the word development stands for. The uncertainty led to the formation of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), an anti-government terrorist community that fought for the freedom of poverty.
In 1987, Gogoi decided to join the ULFA. Pledging not to carry a gun, he chose rather fight legally for the problems in his village. Leading from the front, he became an effective organizer because of his ability to maintain good relations with members of different ethnic, tribal and religious communities. “In 1987, I first came across the ULFA guhaaris or appeals distributed around my village. Their message for an independent Assam free of poverty and full of opportunities attracted me deeply,” he shared with The Better India.
Joining the rebel community was not an easy task, he had to work underground as police had all eyes on him everywhere. “When I joined ULFA, the police were always looking for me. I knew that if I stayed at home, they would catch me. So I was on the run living from one village to another,” he said.
In 1991, he got married in his village but unfortunately, he had to stay in a neighboring village because of the police and military deployments in the region. In 1994, along with 150 people in Assam, he went to the jungles of Myanmar to ULFA’s training camp in the forests of Myanmar and lived there for a year.
“But during the training camp, I was reluctant to take up weapons training – even if my life was under threat. I’m a farmer at heart, live close to nature and working towards social welfare is my only desire. I had no desire to kill, and thus became the only one in the camp without weapon’s training. In hindsight, I couldn’t believe they agreed to my condition for no weapons training.” recalls Gogoi.
Amongst all, villagers to be the priority
By the time he also involved himself in social works. Gogoi helped in building hospitals, agricultural farms and organized self-help groups.
He also started a Tingkhang Kala Kendra, a place where kids could learn how to sing, dance, act and draw. A lot of children learned drama, theatre, dance, singing, weaving, and farming there. There more than 100 kids in his learning school. That’s bot it, after his return from Myanmar, Gogoi also started a music school in his village and a cultural stage as well for locals to perform songs, learn theatre and other cultural activities.
Things never stood hidden for long, the police had located his current position. “All that came to an end in July 1998. Coming down from Jorhat district, I was going to my village for an event. Police entered my home at 3 am and captured me when I was asleep,” remembers Gogoi.
The police took him to Tingkhang Thana. He spent six months in Dibrugarh District Jail. The prison was rough, the jail had bad food, no clean water, and clothes, no proper sanitation.
In 1999, Gogoi was finally released. He had a new vision where he wanted to help his village but without ULFA. “I understood that an armed struggle against India would bring no real benefits for my people,” he says.
A new life
The first thing he did after coming out of jail was restoring a school in his village which was in a terrible state. Gogoi with the help of Oil India Limited (OIL), a public sector enterprise, under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) arm, refurbished the entire school. Various skill development programs for the youth in hospitality, nursing, tailoring, electrician work, etc, were also introduced.
He also helped in promoting the construction of community centers, building toilets, poultry farms, and opening weaving centers as well. He also managed the functioning of a local mobile dispensary.
In 2010, Gogoi had a vision of making his village an eco-tourism place. “I saw so many migratory birds, fish, flora, and fauna, and couldn’t help but notice the potential for this area to become an eco-tourism destination,” he recalls.
His village was home to many species of migratory birds, animals like the endangered Indian softshell turtle, medicinal trees, the extent for activities like trekking, boating, building eateries, parks, and cottages for boarding, was also managed.
The idea that changed his village and his people
He shared his idea with the local Dibrugarh district forest officer and deputy commissioner. The idea was well appreciated by them. They offered funds for the project under the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme and other such rural development schemes. OIL too had joined the project as a partner. Ultimately, Assam Tourism Development Corporation sanctioned an amount of Rs 3 crore for the project.
Gogoi now claims that the project has given employment to more than 50,000 people in his area. People have involved themselves in the area working in catering, boating, construction, guest house cottages, and restaurants.
“I belong to a poor family. My parents always told me to be kind and help others if you’re capable. Their only expectation of me was that I become a good human being. If I do good work, they said I would never be alone. That has come true,” says Gogoi.