Sonar Asom. Golden Asom. That was the dream that got Mani Manik Gogoi to join the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) in 1989. Nine years then in the jungles, and six months in jail. But the Mani Manik who came out of prison was a different man.
“The dream was okay, but not the means to realise it,” recalls he, helping some young men fix a net so that the fish they are rearing at Samuktola village, about eleven kilometres from Naharkatiya, do not get washed away by the Dissang-suti river.
For people in the area, life has changed dramatically since Gogoi returned. A self-help group he set up earned a little over Rs 1 lakh last year selling fish. Today Samuktola has six such fisheries, providing regular income to over 100 young men. In Tingkhong Bailungbheti, a handicraft training centre has helped 40 girls set up their own handloom units. Today, there are 18 such training centres covering 26 villages. At Salmari-Dighaliya, a farmers’ group that began with six members in 2000, today has over 200, and owns three power tillers. Gogoi has renovated a primary health centre long neglected by the government, getting every villager to participate in the project.
Gogoi himself teaches village kids to paint, and it’s compulsory for them to draw Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa. “Post ULFA, I read Gandhiji’s life story several times. He dreamt of transforming India’s villages into centres of economic activity.” From clutching AK-47s in the jungle dark to Gandhi has been his long journey to build Sonar Asom.