Bokakhat: The self-help soldiers
In Bokakhat — home to the Kaziranga National Park and arguably Assam's most ecologically sensitive constituency — the famed one-horned rhinos have often taken precedence over the humdrum problems of people…till a former militant and his selfhelp mantra made a difference.
Jiten Gogoi left the Ulfa following "ideological differences" in the mid-1990s. In 1999, he formed the Bokakhat Nirman Gut (BNG) that spawned a few small self-help groups.
The BNG helped the groups with funds to set up food processing units, poultry farms and weaving units. In a few years, a silent transformation was afoot.
In 2001, Gogoi contested the election as an Independent and won. That he had sowed seeds of hope helped.
"Here was someone talking about economic self-reliance, more income," says Firoza Begum, head of a self-help group.
"And we felt we were as important, if not more, than the rhinos."
Today, the number of the self-help groups has swollen to 1,700, and by a conservative estimate, their combined membership is 30,000, almost the number of votes Gogoi garnered to clinch the seat in 2001.
Opponents — Dilip Saikia of AGP and Bhupen Bhuyan of Congress — accuse him of using the self-help groups for political gains and using his clout as an ex-Ulfa muscleman. BNG members rubbish the allegations. "We are not even campaigning," says general secretary Surya Kumar Tamuli.