‘Boycott’ is one word that is currently doing the rounds in Assam. While students of different educational institutions including the Cotton University – the newest avatar of the region’s oldest college Cotton College – have started or announced boycott of classes to register protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, leaders of one particular organisation have threatened to socially boycott some eminent citizens of the state if they agreed to become members of a Committee that the Government of India has constituted to suggest Constitutional safeguards to the Assamese people in the context of Clause VI of the Assam Accord.
Boycott per se is not a very positive term. If one dictionary describes the meaning of boycott as ‘a punitive ban on relations with other bodies, cooperation with a policy, or the handling of goods’, then another refers to it as a step to ‘withdraw from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest.’ The Oxford Dictionary, which has given the second definition mentioned above, has also said that the word ‘boycott’ originated from the name of Captain Charles C. Boycott (1832–97), an Irish land agent so treated in 1880, in an attempt instigated by the Irish Land League to get rents reduced. The Collins Dictionary on the other hand said that Captain Boycott, who was an Irish land agent for the Earl of Erne, County Mayo, Ireland, was a victim of such practices for refusing to reduce rents. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, while defining ‘boycott’ said that it is an act of refusing to buy something, use something, or take part in something as a way of protesting. Likewise, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary said that ‘boycott’ is an act or move to engage in a concerted refusal to have dealings with (a person, a store, an organization, etc.) usually to express disapproval or to force acceptance of certain conditions.
Boycotting classes is not at all a good practice that students should indulge in, especially in this era of competition. While college education involves a one hundred per cent semester system, with each semester culminating in an examination, even one day’s loss of class can cause huge and irreparable damage to a student’s life. Thousands of people in Assam recall how they had suffered immensely in their academic career, and finally in life because of boycott of classes during the Assam Movement led by the All Assam Students’ Union from 1979 to 1985. The students of Assam in fact lost one complete valuable year because of such boycotts, while the academic calendar got so badly delayed and pushed back that Gauhati University had to write off one academic year in order to make up with other universities across the country. Thousands of people in Assam would recall that while there was no annual examination in schools and colleges in 1980, the same was held only in 1981, thus causing an irreversible loss of one full academic year. It also resulted in Gauhati University delaying post-graduate examinations. For instance, the MA/MSc/MCom final examination of the 1982 batch was held in 1984, and results were declared in 1985. The boycott of classes and delay in holding examinations also resulted in hundreds of students and youth of Assam missing admission deadlines in other universities while trying to pursue higher education, apart from missing various all-India competitive examinations for jobs. Those who suffered were mostly students who came from humble background and interior districts, while those families who had enough money sent off their children to study outside the state. The leaders anyway later became politicians and thus were hardly bothered about such losses. Do our students want such a situation to return?
The second ‘boycott’ that is currently doing the rounds is a threat issued by a group of persons based in Guwahati to those eminent citizens of the state who were nominated by the Government of India to an Expert Committee to suggest Constitutional measures for providing safeguard to the Assamese and indigenous communities of the state under provisions of Clause VI of the Assam Accord. The particular group of persons has threatened to ‘socially boycott’ the eminent persons – former Asam Sahitya Sabha president and eminent litterateur and scholar Dr Nagen Saikia veteran journalist Dhirendra Nath Bezboruah, former bureaucrat MP Bezbaruah, Advocate-General RC Borpatra-Gohain, educationist Dr Mukunda Rajbangshi and another former Asam Sahitya Sabha president and eminent author Rongbong Terang. And, the most unfortunate part of the story is that most of these eminent persons who had initially agreed to be members of the Expert Committee have bowed out, obviously because of the threat issued against them. This would easily remind the people of Assam of such boycotts that were imposed by the then leaders of the All Assam Students’ Union on a large number of people across the state for opposing or criticizing the Assam Movement. One such person who had faced social boycott and ostracization during the Assam Movement among others was Dr Hiren Gohain, who is now in the forefront of the movement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Besides, all political leaders who were opposed to or critical of the Assam Movement – those belonging to the Congress, CPI and CPI-M in particular – also faced social boycott. While these social boycott calls were made by the movement leaders, there are people who would recall that such a decision was taken by the then movement leaders at the behest of certain individuals who had used their influence over the student leaders to even settle personal scores.
Do the people of Assam want to go back to 1979-85 when certain individuals were put under social boycott by some others, which in turn had led to a lot of bitterness within the Assamese community, a bitterness that is now being sought to be brought back by some individuals? The right-thinking section of Assamese society should examine whether social boycott amounts to or is equal to coercion, threat and intimidation. In this context one ought to take note of what Maharashtra had done a couple of years ago. Maharashtra in fact became the first state in India to enact a Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2016 after it received the Presidential Assent on 13th July 2017. Social boycott has been declared as a cognizable offence in Maharashtra under provisions of this Act, with conviction of the offence of social boycott attracting a prison term of up to three years and/or a fine up to Rupees 1 lakh. Abetment by an individual or group will invite the same punishment as well. Is there the need for such an Act in Assam too ?