Tezpur — a town in middle Assam’s Sonitpur district — became the venue for an artiste’s protest on Thursday afternoon, as hundreds gathered together to oppose the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, currently facing widespread opposition in the state because of its provision to enable “Hindu Bangladeshis” to seek citizenship.
Attended by singers, dancers, musicians, students as well as local residents, the protest marked the first in the series of “artiste protests” helmed by Assamese singer Zubeen Garg and the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU).
“We chose Xilpi Diwas (Artiste’s Day) to start our protest because this day commemorates the death anniversary of Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwala — one of Assam’s foremost cultural icons,” said Pranjal Barua, 38, a music teacher from Assam Valley School, who was present at the protest. “This Bill needs to be done away with. If there is no jaati,” he said, referring to the indigenous Assamese who fear “extinction” if the Bill is passed, “There will be no artistes. If there are no artistes, there will be no voice.”
The protest was marked by musicians playing traditional folk percussion instruments such as the bordhul, doba, bortaal and the conch shell, xonkho. “We do not want to make a noise — but we will protest loudly and with force,” said Baruah, who is also part of Garg’s Kalaguru Foundation, a cultural platform that promotes economically disadvantaged musicians from Assam.
Earlier this month, Garg wrote a harsh open letter to CM Sarbananda Sonowal asking him to take a stand against the ruling-BJP government, which is pushing the Bill. The Bill is currently pending at the Rajya Sabha. A week later, the musician, known for his outspoken comments, said that he is “ready to refund the renumeration” he got before the 2016 Assembly elections when he composed the BJP Assam’s official campaign song, Sokolure Ananda Sarbananda, (Sarbananda: everyone’s happiness). Both these messages, posted on Garg’s Facebook and Twitter, went viral.
“I helped the BJP then. Now I am ready to return the two lakh rupees they gave me. But will they be able to return the votes I won them?” Garg said to the indianexpress.com after the protest at Tezpur’s collegiate field, located close to Darrang College, an eminent institute of higher education in the state.
The college, like many others in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley, has been vocal in its protest against the Bill in the last two weeks. “At least a hundred of us from college have come for the protest today — no one forced us to come, we have come of our own accord,” said Sovagini Talukdar, 20, who is doing her BSc in Geography. The students admit that Garg’s presence is an undoubtable crowd-puller, too.
“You have brought this government to power, you can bring them down too,” said Garg to the crowd on Thursday. On January 7, the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) announced that they will be breaking ties with the BJP government, as the latter continued to push for the Bill. The move was preceded and followed by widespread protests against the Bill that seeks to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 by enabling non-Muslim minority communities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to seek citizenship in India if they entered the country before December 31, 2014.
While the protest was organised by Garg and AASU, other local organisations such as Kalabhumi Cultural organisation, Baan Theatre, Tezpur Shikshak Sabha as well as the official Zubeen Garg fan club participated too.
Garg, who announced that he will be releasing his new song, “Politics nokoriba bandhu (Don’t do politics, my friend)” composed specifically to describe the BJP’s political agenda with regard to the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, described the protest as “Xilpi’r Diwas’ot, Xilpi’r Protibaad (On artiste’s day, artiste’s protest)”. The musician is holding another protest, with the AASU at Guwahati’s Latasil on January 23. “The BJP should understand that we are not goats or cows who can be herded. Us Northeasterners are different.”
On January 21 and 22, Garg will also use the Kalaguru music festival as a platform to continue the protest.
Other musicians such as Angaraag Mahanta (better known as Papon) as well as Bipin Chowdang, Neel Akash, Kusum Kailash have all made public their views on the Bill. Filmmaker Rima Das — whose film Village Rockstars was India’s official entry to the Oscars 2019 — also took to Facebook to express her opposition to the Bill.
On Wednesday, the AASU and Garg held a joint press conference in Guwahati announcing that they will work together in opposing the Bill. “Zubeen Garg, as an artiste, is showing the indigenous Assamese the way, given us the courage at a time when things are so tough,” said Samujjal Bhattacharya, AASU Advisor. “Artist are always popular — and especially during these situations, they have the power to show us the right path.”
And indeed, many are banking on Garg’s voice. Said Rakhi Chutia, 19, a student present at the protest: “Artists can express what common people can’t.” She said she opposes the Bill as it “puts Assam at risk from Bangladeshis.”
“It’s not like we will see effects of the immediately after it is passed. But it’ll happen slowly and gradually. It will affect our language, our economy, and even our education. I remember in Class 12, we had read a chapter in our literature textbook called ‘The Last Lesson’ by French novelist Alphonse Daudet. It is about how the Prussians, after occupying Alsace and Lorraine in France, ordered the German language instead of French be taught in the schools there. This is what will happen in Assam, too,” fears the 19-year-old.