Later, an actress hit at BJP from the same stage hurriedly made on the backs of two trucks where dozens of prominent Northeast artists gathered to protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, “Congress did politics based on one religion. BJP is doing it on another.”
These two innocuous comments among thousands of others over the last week, indicate the contest unwittingly going on in Assam – between Hindu nationalism and Assamese nationalism, in other words between ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and ‘Joi Aai Axom’.
Also read: The changing fortunes of PM Modi in Assam
Joi Aai Axom till a week ago, was a slogan used only by activists and those with strong overtones of Assamese nationalism in their daily outlook. But since December 11, every speaker on every stage in Assam, has begun and ended her/his speech with Joi Aai Axom. News anchors say it, it’s been plastered on the walls of Guwahati despite curfew and people on the streets have begun addressing each other with it.
Also read: CAB and the unheard protests of Assam
In essence ‘Joi Aai Axom’ (Glory to Mother Assam) is exactly the same as ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (Glory to Mother India) with Assam replacing Bharat. Yet popular phrases do not just carry their literal meanings. Ever pregnant in the wombs of catchphrases are meanings that have been inseminated into them by the context in which they are used by people.
Joi Aai Axom was the phrase that accompanied every one of the 855 killed in Assam Agitation of the 1980s and the five youth killed last week in similar agitations. Those 855 and five are now hailed as martyrs by people here.
Interestingly, the five youth killed in police firing across the state (four in Guwahati itself) give a secular context to the movement. One youth who died in hospital on Sunday, Abdul Ali, is a Muslim while another, Sam Stafford, has a Muslim mother and Christian father. Sam was going to the protest meeting in Latashil on 12th, while another youth was shot dead in Guwahati – Ishwar Nayak was returning from the same protest.
Also read: What keeps rebellion brewing in Assam
This seems in contrast to the project of Hindutva nationalism that has been going on in Assam for decades and patronised by the Sangh Parivar. And from their point of view, why not? Assam has not only one of the strongest percentage of Muslim population in the country, but a strong Hindu devotional movement of both Shaivaite and Vaishnavite lineage that is centuries old.
The many visits of Amit Shah in the state, analysts say, had borne results and besides overthrowing the 15-year-old Congress government in the state, since 2015 many instances of mob lynching and heckling minorities in the name of ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ or ‘Jai Shree Ram’ has been reported in the state which had a history of relatively better co-existence between Hindus and Muslims compared to other states.
This seems to have come to a screeching halt since last week as people en masse have not only rejected the state and central government, but are calling them traitorous and back-stabbers. As Sify.com reported last week, staunch cheerleaders have turned anti-BJP and anti-Modi literally overnight. Offices and homes of RSS and BJP functionaries and leaders have been attacked. And amidst a sea of gamucha (traditional towel) worn over one’s head, not a single national flag was visible in either of the three protests in Guwahati.
And the war-cry under which this massive, unprecedented change has happened is ‘Joi Aai Axom’.
Yet there is a possibility of a darker side to this Assamese nationalism. A group of youth in Dhekiajuli shouting the same slogan and on bikes, waylaid a tanker and set it on fire, killing the driver while the cleaner is fighting for his life in a hospital. Other youths have indulged in vandalism under the shade of the same slogan.
That is where the musical protest held in Chandmari grounds on the 15th, holds significance.
Through the ages, it has been writers, singers and intellectuals who have unwittingly guided nations and states by forming narratives of what was going on around them.
It isn't different in Assam. Since over a year when the protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill has been going on, singer Zubeen Garg – among other artists - has collaborated with AASU - All Assam Students Union, the students' body that has been at the forefront of the protest against both the bill (now act) and BJP. He is the one who organised and led the musical protest on Sunday, December 15.
In the three major public protest gatherings in the last week including the musical one – artists of the state have gotten the chance to shape the narrative of the protest with all three being broadcast live by most regional news channels (except those owned by members of ruling BJP) to the world.
Though the overall messaging has been secular and inclusive in nature, there have been a few that should give any thoughtful observer worry. Let’s take the example of an impassioned speech and performance given by actress Barasha Rani.
Before she enacted two scenes from the play ‘Lobita’ by renowned Assamese writer Jyotiprasad Agarwala – in her emotional, agitated speech, she spoke of harmony and ensuring that the agitation is not given communal tinge by detractors. Post referencing Sam Stafford, she said, “Bengalis who put stones on their chests to go prove their identity in NRC (National Register of Citizens), you will now be instigated by people who’ll say that Assamese do not want to keep Bengalis. But you should not get instigated. We gave you a place in Assam with love and you will always have that.”
This assurance came minutes after she had herself said – referring to the hordes of alleged Bangladeshi Hindus who it is believed will storm Assam if CAA is implemented - “When we become a minority and they a majority, will we go behind them with a stick and ask them to speak Assamese?”
A few moments later she attacked the state and central government when she said, “Do not play Hindu and Muslim communal politics with us. Go and do it in your Gujarat.”
Despite its desire for secular credentials, herein lies the dichotomy of Assamese nationalism. Every nationalistic project needs an enemy (the reason Rabindranath Tagore was against it). Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian nationalism was secular yet was against the British and imperialism. The majoritarian Hindutva nationalism of BJP, has made Muslims and Pakistan the enemy.
Assamese nationalism has had the same enemy for the last fifty years – illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. At times the Bengali living in Assam has been at the receiving end of this.
Now post NRC, the enemy has been simplified still – the enemy is the Bangladeshi – either illegally entered or those who would be given legal citizenship under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
In the earlier two protests helmed mostly by people dealing in politics, the comments were restrained and balanced. But art is about transcending limitations and artists know no boundaries. Thus speaker after speaker spoke emotionally about the issue on stage on Sunday. Zubeen, the organiser, pronounced the bill not by its popular short form i.e. ‘Kaa’ but he pronounced it ‘Kae’ as the audience got his insinuation and shouted back ‘la’. ‘Kela’ is Assam’s most popular swear word.
Another time during the event, he also said, “They are beating and killing us everywhere. Are we retaliating? No. But if we retaliate, hell would break loose. But we won’t. We are the youth. Aami dekh kholabo u paru, jolabo u paru. (We can change the nation and we can burn the nation).”
And therein – in this mixed signal – lies the problem.
Though the request was for restraint and control, the fact that they got so emotional, might speak a different language to people. To the millions of youth watching it on TV, will they hear the words of restraint or imbibe the emotionality displayed by these youth influencers on stage, is a key question.
And in case things do get out of control, who will take the responsibility for the same. There are those who fear a return to the bloody days of militancy in the state where the population found themselves sandwiched between militancy on one side and retaliation by the state on the other. And this despite they having supported militancy in the earlier days for their Assamese nationalism.
Despite these apprehensions and apparent contradictions, these are early days for the movement. Yet there is no denying that it has dealt a devastating body blow to Hindutva politics in the region as ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and ‘Jai Shree Ram’ has hit not just a roadblock, but a mountain. And one thing is certain that no matter what shape this Assamese nationalism of the 21st century takes in the next weeks, months and years, it won’t be anywhere like the BJP and Hindutva nationalists had hoped to turn it to be.
One just hopes the leadership emerging from the agitation right now is extra careful and ensures that the train of democratic protests does not derail and run over the dreams of innocents – be they Indian or Bangladeshi.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications
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