Every January during Magh Bihu, the boys of Bangthai Gaon Bihu club in Nagaon district get together to build a bhelaghor — a temporary structure made of dried paddy straw and banana leaves — based on a new theme.
Last year, it was themed around music and featured traditional Assamese instruments such as the dhul (drum) and pepa (flute). The year before, it was adorned by shapes of fishing instruments like the jakoi, khaloi and poloh, important components of Assamese rural life.
This year, however, the bhelaghor looks like the map of Assam, with a message: “CAA aami namanu” or “We won’t accept CAA.”
“We have been involved in each and every anti-CAA protest, so why not continue here?” says 23-year-old Parth Bordoloi, one of the 12 boys who built the 25-feet-tall structure.
While Assam witnessed several waves of anti-CAA protests starting 2018, the December 2019 protests were the biggest, leading to violence, death, a nine-day internet ban, and curfew in many parts of the state.
Since then, the movement has been largely peaceful and sustained itself with protests raging well into the new year. And now, Magh or Bhogali Bihu, the Assamese harvest festival celebrated with much fanfare in mid-January, will not come in the way of the protests. In fact, in many places, it will become a means to protest.
“Where is the joy?”
Not far from Bangthai Gaon in Nagaon district’s Bebejia, a field in Jaamuktol has another bhelaghor in the shape of Assam’s map. Under it are figurines made in memory of the five young men killed in the December protests. “We want to tell the government that just because it is Bihu, it does not mean that our movement is over. We will not stop till the CAA is repealed,” says Ajit Gogoi, 40, the artist who conceptualised the bhelaghor.
In the town of Raha, also in Nagaon district, socio-cultural organisation Saregama Sur Bahini has built seven meijighors (structures of bamboo, straw, and hay that are subsequently burnt as bonfires) and named them after evils plaguing Assamese society: extortion, corruption, and so on.
“But the biggest meijighor will be called ‘CAA’,” says Sunmoni Dutta of the Sur Bahini. “We will burn the meiji along with a copy of the Act in the bonfire.”
The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), at the forefront of the agitation, has also called upon people to burn copies of the CAA while burning the meijighor.
On Bihu morning, meijighors and bhelaghors are traditionally set on fire with offerings of pitha (rice cakes) as a mark of gratitude for a good harvest. “The burning of meijighors stands for different things. In this case, the burning of CAA is a way for people to express their anger against the Act. A form of symbolic protest,” says Digboi-based writer Jayakanta Gandhiya.
In Assam, the run-up to Bihu is usually marked by a week of feverish preparation. Gandhiya (75) — who is a member of Bihu Suraksha Samiti, Asom — says that he has never experienced such a lukewarm build-up to Bihu. “While traditions will be followed, celebrations will be low-key,” he says.
For example, the members of Guwahati’s oldest Magh Bihu committee, the Silpukhuri Bhogali Bihu Committee, have decided on a one-day Bhogali mela (a mela where Bihu food and snacks are sold), instead of week-long festivities — discontinuing a tradition they have followed for 33 years. “On Bihu day, we will burn the meiji and have breakfast, but that is it. No naam competitions or programs. The environment just does not feel right,” says Munin Kakoti, a member of the committee.
In other areas where Bhogali melas are on, stalls are lined with signs and banners against CAA. At Geetanagar locality, where Magh Bihu is celebrated with gusto, the organisers have not yet decided what to do on Bihu day. “In the past years, we would plan weeks ahead. This time we haven’t. We will do the basic rituals, yes, but there won’t be any ostentation nor any furti (fun). A couple of days back, we learned that the CAA has come into effect, despite our protests. Bhogali means the joy of feasting. Where is the joy?” asks Deep Sharma of Geetanagar.
A personal choice
One of the key features of Magh Bihu is Uruka — a feast on the night before Bihu where family, friends and neighbours get together for a meal often featuring meat and fish cooked in traditional style.
In Guwahati, some apartment complexes have decided to hold a “smaller” Uruka celebration, while some have cancelled the feast altogether.
In a housing society in the city’s Beltola area, established in 1996, society members have called off their Uruka celebration — a first since 1998. “Five people have died and it is still fresh in our memories. This is our way of a symbolic protest,” says Pankaj Dev Choudhry, the treasurer of the society.
For the less fortunate, it is the only choice. Ganga Baishya (38), who works as a domestic help in the city, says that for her and her family, Uruka won’t be a grand affair this Bihu.“The andolan has affected us badly. My husband is a long distance auto driver but he rarely gets hired these days. Business is bad for many neighbours too — their small shops selling paan taamul (betel nut) have few customers. Yes, we will make pitha-laru (rice cakes and sweets), but we won’t have a grand feast because we simply can’t afford to this time. Sad, because this is really the highlight of our year,” she says.
No organisation has issued any dictum asking people not to celebrate Bihu. “The resistance comes from within. This is because people have put their heart and soul into the protests,” says 82-year-old Pradip Baruah, editor of Assamese cultural magazine Prantik.
AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya says, “We are not telling the public what to do or what not to do. We do not need to, because they are aware themselves. We have a unique way of expressing protest — by protecting our culture.”
In Jaamuktol, Gogoi says they will have an Uruka feast of duck and chicken by their unique bhelaghor, which people have been visiting to take selfies with. But the meal will be sans the usual enthusiasm and merry-making. “Every person in Assam right now has one thing on their mind: CAA. And yes, some people still might choose to celebrate — and that is absolutely fine. What we are doing is not a political choice, it is a personal one,” he says.