NOTa Barshashree Buragohain, 11, likes the orderly and logical world of mathematics. She dreams of becoming a mathematics teacher, but she is immediately recognized as a poet. A poet whose verses got him arrested and imprisoned.
Police tracked her down on May 17 and arrested her for questioning about a poem she had posted on Facebook. The lines were interpreted as an endorsement of the banned insurgent group, United Liberation Front of Asom-Independent (ULFA-I). She was arrested the following day under two sections of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and spent 64 days in jail until released on bail on July 21. The case is ongoing, but according to his brother, the next court hearing will only be decided after the police file the indictment.
The nightmare has shattered her extended family and put her parents in debt, as she still tries to make sense of what she did wrong.
Buragohain is now back home with his parents in Banai Katarikham village, about 5 km from Teok town of Jorhat. But she does not talk about her time in prison. Memories are blurry.
“I was really sad. I was only arrested for writing a poem…now it’s scary to write poems in my diary. I was also scared for my career,” says Buragohain.
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A restless dawn
It was the sun that prompted the police to fix their gaze on Buragohain.
“They [the police] said that because I had used the word ‘sun’ [in my poem]. I was talking about ULFA,” says Buragohain, a Bachelor of Science student at DCB Girls’ College in Jorhat.
Here are the lines in question, which were also quoted in the FIR:
“Swadhin xurujor dixe akou ekhuj, Akou korim rastro druh”
(One step closer to the sun of freedom, Again I will commit treason).
In the local culture, the rising sun is often associated with the revolution, the one that will announce a new day, a better future. It is also an important symbol on the ULFA-I flag: the red sun on a yellow and green background.
With reports of recruitment drives among separatist groups on the rise, police are wary of the sun symbol.
Buragohain says she was arrested by police while visiting a friend’s house in Jaya Pathar village in nearby Golaghat district. “I had gone with a friend to visit her grandfather’s house. The police came and started asking people in the neighborhood if they had seen two girls… They then asked which one was Barshashree Buragohain and if I had written the poem on Facebook,” she said.
The police made him take out his phone and open his Facebook account. “I was scrolled through my Facebook until I got to the poem. Then they asked me why I wrote it.
In a black t-shirt paired with pink pajamas, she looks like any other 19-year-old, with a preference for dark red lipstick. Her shoulder length jet black hair hides a pair of nails. Besides the earrings, a heart-shaped pendant on a silver chain is the only other accessory she wears.
Buragohain is more careful with her words now, almost as if she fears getting her arrested again. Although she has been writing poems since childhood, the 19-year-old considers poetry a hobby. It is mathematics that fuels his dreams and fuels his ambition.
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Reunion after 64 days
The road leading to Banai Katarikham village is a small raised grassy patch through farmland. According to Buragohain’s older brother Arindom, 26, it was built by the Ahoms during the 17th century war with the Mughals.
Buragohain traveled this route on July 21 after being released on bail by the Gauhati High Court earlier in the day. Under the evening sun, the mud and brick houses with thatched or tin roofs cast their elongated shadows on the verdant rice fields – a familiar and soothing scene for her since childhood.
For the young woman, it was a homecoming after a long and hard fight.
Relatives, friends and neighbors came to welcome him. As Buragohain approached the house – a small earthen house with a thatched roof namgar (house of prayer) – and saw the gathering, she burst into tears.
For now, her parents put aside their financial worries. Their daughter was at home. Barshashree’s father, Ajit Buragohain, who farms the family land, took out loans to pay legal fees and other expenses. She is my daughter. I had to do whatever I could, even if it meant borrowing from others,” he said.
She was relieved to be back, but Buragohain dismissed questions from curious family members.
“My relatives had gone to meet Barshashree. I was told she looked fine physically, but mentally she was shaken. She kept asking why something like this happened to her,” a family member said.
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An early poet
His family and friends have always heard of Buragohain’s hobby, writing poetry. But they insist it was never political.
“Barshashree never grew up in an environment where there were such discussions (about politics). I don’t believe she could be involved in something like this,” the family member added.
Arindom, who works for a local newspaper in Guwahati, disagrees. When they were young and she took up poetry in Grade IV, her verses reflected the innocence of their childhood. “Before, Barshashee wrote about natural things like mountains and flowers, but later the nature of poetry changed. She started writing about societal issues, for example, when the CAA movement was happening. But I wouldn’t say they were very political.
He shares some of his poems, where love and loss are the predominant themes:
“I saw an ocean of love in his eyes/But I didn’t know/That I would see him for the very last time/I was left alone,/With the only witness of our love in my belly.”
Barshashree is not part of the conversation. She has already slipped quietly into the living room. In one corner, a pink board with derived formulas hangs on the wall above a study table laden with math and English textbooks. The doors to the other two rooms in the house are closed.
I love reading the works of Hiren Bhattacharya and Bhabendra Nath Saikia,” she says softly.
Saikia, novelist and short story writer, and the poet Hiren Bhattacharyya, popularly known as “Hiruda”, are pillars of Assamese literature.
Since her return from prison, Buragohain has taken refuge in mathematics and university courses. The poems about “social issues” have been deleted from his Facebook profile since his arrest. His notebook of poems is in his inn room in Jorhat.
And she didn’t write any new poems. Not yet. She won’t let the experience kill the poet in her, but her muse may no longer be social change and justice. “I will continue to write poems, but not ‘unconstitutional’ poems.”
According to the FIR based on a complaint filed by the police, the Facebook post stated that the “girl is involved in a criminal conspiracy” by endorsing the outlawed ULFA-I and has “attempted to wage war against the government of India “.
It’s a charge she vehemently denies. “Just because I used the word Rashtra Drûh (traitor), doesn’t mean I literally meant it. As a poet, I just wanted to write that at the time. Also, there is no such thing as only ULFAs can use the sun,” she says.
The high court, while granting her bail, said the student had ‘expressed her feelings without reference to any organisation’.
Assam Police recently scanned social media for any “suspicious” posts or comments related to ULFA-I. And Buragohain’s message appeared on their radar.
“It was based on the Facebook post… If there is any suspicious activity, HQ passes on the information,” SP Golaghat Sumeet Sharma told ThePrint. But the indictment has not been filed as it is “awaiting government sanction”.
Buragohain’s father also does not believe she was involved in any political activity. “She just has a flair for writing poetry, that’s all,” he says.
The real dream
Over the past few months, the Assam police have been particularly active. There has been a surge in recruitment with more than 40 young men and women believed to have joined the insurgent group in the months between August 2021 and April this year, according to police.
In June, Maina Chutia, a 23-year-old resident of Moranhat, Upper Assam, was stopped for allegedly supporting ULFA-I in a comment on a Facebook post. Wushu player and boxer Maina Chutia was released on August 6 after her parents appealed to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to compete in the All-Assam Inter-District Senior Wushu Championships.
Then, in July, Pramod Kalita, 22, a student at Tangla College in Udalguri district, was stopped on similar allegations.
Police officials say the “new recruits” were mostly unemployed youths, mostly from Upper Assam, who had been “baited” by social media.
But Buragohain does not fit the profile, say his friends, neighbors and teachers. “She has been a deserving student since her school days…her career will be bright,” says Krishna Gogoi, Associate Professor at DCB Girls’ College.
In fact, all her teachers describe her as a “good student” with “good grades”. “She took classes very regularly last semester. Apart from that, she writes well, I read it in her FB status, she is politically and socially aware,” says Kukila Goswami, associate professor at the college.
Buragohain’s classmates, however, say she rarely discussed such matters. “I’ve known her for a year, she’s my friend, after class we used to go to the canteen and mostly talk about classes and stuff, like a normal student,” Barshashree’s classmate said, under covered with anonymity.
Even in his worst moments in prison, Buragohain never lost sight of his ultimate goal: to become a math teacher.
She couldn’t afford to miss a single exam. While in police custody, she filed a petition with a local court seeking permission to appear for her exams, which were due to begin on July 16. “I was taken to another room in the prison compound where there was a guard. It was a bit strange,” she said.
Almost as if Buragohain were afraid to put her ambition into words, she quickly adds: “My dreams [to be a math professor] have not yet materialized, there is still a long way to go.