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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

In Assam, artistes are leading demonstrations of discontent through songs and drums

In a country where celebrities tend to avoid government-related controversies, in Assam, protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have largely been led by cultural icons — musicians, actors, and artists. What explains Assam’s long history of cultural protest?

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: December 19, 2019 10:20:29 am
Assamese protestors at a rally against the Citizenship Amendment Act at AEI playground, Guwahati, Sunday, (PTI Photo)

On December 13, two 26-year-old students, David Hazarika and Kalyan Sengupta, were among the 500-strong crowd at the gates of Assam’s Dibrugarh University. “Things were getting tense,” says Sengupta. It was a day after the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) was passed in the Rajya Sabha and violent protests had roiled Assam. 

For the Northeastern state, the opposition to the Act — which expedites Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh — isn’t recent. According to the khilonjiya (indigenous) Assamese, the Act can potentially nullify years of struggle against the “foreigner”, the Bangladeshi migrants, who they believed have swamped their state, taking over their land, jobs, language, and culture.

On Friday, Hazarika and Sengupta, stood in the crowd of University students — a demographic that played a key role in the protests — “peacefully” carrying out a mass hunger strike. “But nearby a vehicle had been set on fire, and the police started a lathi charge,” recalls Sengupta. When the security forces reached the gates of the University, Hazarika says, everyone was on edge. “I could almost sense that violence would break out at any moment.”

It was then that the students spontaneously broke into the National Anthem. “It was amazing. Because the moment we started singing, the CRPF put down their revolvers,” says Hazarika. That afternoon, the National anthem was sung four times, and in the window between each rendition, the security forces would make an announcement for the students to disperse. “But they would stop every time we sang!” says Hazarika.

Not many people have seen the video — mobile internet services in Assam were snapped on December 11 in light of the “law and order” situation. However, according to both Sengupta and Hazarika, it was one of the pivotal moments of the protests that have marked Assam in the past week. 

“I remember, we told each other ‘sing, sing’. If we sing, they can’t do anything,” says Hazarika.

The Assamese ‘nation’ and the cultural world

In these tense times, music is the recourse many in Assam are gravitating to. After two days of violent protests across the state, resulting in deaths of five young men, the voices against the CAA have primarily been led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU), and enhanced by the artiste community, helmed by immensely popular musician Zubeen Garg.

On Monday, at the ‘Concert for Peace and Harmony’ in the heart of Guwahati, celebrities like Garg, actor Barsha Rani Bishaya and Nishita Goswami, among others, took to the stage to address a crowd comprising a cross-section of society — students, housewives, senior citizens — that swelled to thousands.“This is the first time that artistes have come together like this to protest. And we must stand united. Right now this is all we can do: protest,” said Garg.

“I can never ever forgive the state government for what it has done to our people” says Bishaya, who has been at the forefront of the agitation. On Monday’s concert, the 37-year-old acted out scenes from Assamese cultural icon and playwright Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s play Lobhita, a story about a brave woman in the context of the freedom struggle. The audience was reportedly in tears.

“You know, it is very hard for an actor to make their audience laugh or cry. But on Monday, I wasn’t even acting. I was actually feeling it,” says Bishaya, “I am an Assamese first, and an artiste later. Who makes an artiste? The people do. This is only my duty to stand by them.”

Zubeen Garg (centre) at a protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati on December 15. (AP Photo)

In a country where the big actors often shy away from taking political stands or voicing their opinions on controversial matters, what makes Assam’s artiste community so dauntless? Guwahati-based academic Ankur Tamuliphukan says the answer lies in the very nature of Assamese society. “Post the Assam Agitation, Assam’s is a deeply politicised society,” he says, referring to the six-year-long (1979-85) state agitation against illegal migrants. “During the agitation, Bhupen Hazarika had become the voice of the Assamese nation. In the 1990s, when Zubeen Garg emerged as a youth icon, his songs focused on love and romance. But ultimately he, too, had to write a song on the insurgency in the 1990s. In a place like Assam, there is no particular separation between the Assamese nation and the cultural world,” says Tamuliphukan.

A Long History of Cultural Protest

“The Assamese like to express patriotism through song and dance. In the protests last week, the loudest slogans were the ones we had used during the Assam Agitation,” says Pradip Baruah, editor of Assamese cultural magazine Prantik. The 82-year-old cites lines from a Bhupen Hazarika song ‘Aah aah ulai aah, xojaag janta’(Come out and awaken, fellow Assamese)’ and Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s ‘Joi Ai Axom’ (Hail mother Assam), as examples.

Earlier social movements in Assam were also driven by cultural forces. “Cultural doyennes Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnu Rabha composed several songs to invoke patriotism during the freedom struggle,” says Baruah. The 16th-century poet-saint, Srimanta Sankardeva, used music (borgeet), dance (xattriya) and theatre (bhauna) to spread his beliefs.“While Sankardeva’s ‘naam’ or worship songs do not have protest words, they are still sung at protest meets. Here the prayer becomes the protest,” explains Baruah.

In fact, during the protest against the CAA in Assam, groups of women have congregated to do ‘naam proxongo’, featuring drums (dhul) and cymbals (taal). “Every evening, we go around the university hostel with a doba (drum), asking students to participate,” says Dibrugarh University’s Hazarika. “We encourage them to compose songs and poems as an outlet for their anger and frustration.”

Guwahati: College students protest after the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill was cleared by the Union cabinet. (PTI Photo)

Baruah recalls the 1979 Agitation, where hundreds of men and women would court arrest and then be “herded” into a temporary jail — usually a large playground in Guwahati called the Judges’ Field, barricaded by tin sheets. “Inside this ‘jail’, men and women would be found singing, drawing or reciting poems,” he says.

The Rise of Popular Protest Music

The day the CAA was passed in the Lok Sabha, 30-year-old Assamese musician Nilotpal Bora was in his hotel room in Sikkim. “I was frustrated. I messaged my friend lyricist Manash Mahanta, asking him if we should do something.” 

Mahanta said he was already working on something, and a few hours later Bora received the lyrics. Overnight, six singers from Assam — Ambar Das, Arupjyoti Baruah, Nilotpal Bora, Shankuraj Konwar, Sampriti Goswami, Sarmistha Chakravorty (and Bora) — all in different parts of the country, recorded the song. The result, ‘Odhikaar — a protest song’ against the CAA, has gone viral on social media.


“Internet had not been cut off and before daybreak, we had emailed Manash our recordings,” says Bora. “As an artiste, I don’t think I am compelled to take a stand. But the difference is that I want to. I cannot hide the pain the CAA has caused me, and music is the only way I can express it.” Other musicians, too, have composed songs expressing Assamese concerns, the most popular being Garg’s Politics Nokoriba Bondhu (Don’t Indulge in Politics, My Friend); choreographer Uday Shankar has returned two of his State Film Awards, Papon has cancelled his concerts in Delhi and Jahnu Barua has withdrawn his film Bhoga Khirkee from the upcoming State Film Awards.

The Inherent Dangers of Popular Music

While popular protest music in Assam has largely been seen as positive and celebratory, there have been critiques about the latent xenophobia, especially in lyrics of certain compositions. In December 2018, during the first wave of mass protests against the CAA, a rap song ‘Bangladeshi’ did the rounds on social media. “That is explicitly a hate video,” says Suraj Gogoi, a doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore. “In an attempt to eradicate the ‘Bangladeshi’, it calls out to the young Assamese to turn the river Lohit red with blood. These subtle metaphors have double meanings and are blatantly racist.” 

Such lyrics have the danger of further alienating the Bengali community residing in Assam, where because of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the CAA, old faultlines (a past marked by bloody language riots) between the two linguistic communities have reopened. Gogoi, who hails from Upper Assam’s Sadiya, feels that such songs, if unchecked, can do further damage.

Mayuri Bhattacharjee, 32-year-old social worker from Tezpur, agrees. “I’m against the CAA, but I am also against the language being used by the artists and some leaders in Assam. Let’s be careful about using the word ‘outsiders’ because there are Assamese migrants in other parts of India. It’s good to be proud of the culture but the language we use in protests matters,” says Bhattacharjee, adding that “while she was born to Bengali parents, that did not make her any less an Assamese”.

Many Assamese, however, feel that these sentiments — whether latent or active — are not an immediate cause of concern. “We aren’t against Bengalis,” says Bora, 30. “While I haven’t come across such songs, it is unfortunate if someone has really said something like that. This fight is not just about the CAA, or about Bengalis or Assamese, it is also about the entire ‘system’.” Bishaya claims to have explicitly mentioned in one of her speeches that there should be “no provocation to the Bengali community living in Assam.” . 

At a protest, women sing Assamese naam (worship songs). (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

However, Gogoi feels that celebrities should be more cautious. “It is important to pay heed to these kinds of expressions simply because these are popular forms of expression that are shared widely on social media,” he says. He cites examples of how in the past, musicians like Bhupen Hazarika and Hemango Biswas (from Bengal), travelled around Assam in a bid for peace after violent language riots broke out between the two communities. Later, Jayanta Hazarika’s Sur Bahini would go around collecting donations for flood victims in the 1970s. “The call by those artistes was for cultural unity and solidarity. Sadly, in today’s protest music, there is no multi-cultural sense of identity — that is absent in their articulation,” says Gogoi.

But for people like 78-year-old Niron Saikia, part of a group of women singing a naam (worship song) at a protest in Guwahati’s Latasil on Monday, the events today are but a re-enactment of what she did 40 years ago during the Assam Agitation. “We had similar protests then. We will have similar protests now. I can’t fight the CAA in court, I am no lawyer. This is how I protest because this is the only way I know how,” she says, clapping along with her friends.

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