Assam Youth Festival Fails BJP's Nationalism Test, Gets Shut Down

The Metropolis-Urban Winter Festival in Guwahati was shut down abruptly with insufficient explanation after a minister tweeted his objection.

Children watch a mime act at the festival. Credit: Baba M.

Children watch a mime act at the festival. Credit: Baba M.

Guwahati: The Metropolis-Urban Winter Festival is an annual culture, arts and music festival that has been held in Guwahati for the past five years. Organised by a team led by artist Ranjan Ingti, the festival had turned into one of Guwahati’s flagship events, with massive support from the youth, the creatively inclined, the educated and the socially mobile sections of the city.

Metropolis 2017 was held from January 6 to January 8 at the Nehru Park. The festival had welcomed a 72-member delegation from Bhutan, mostly from the Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA) in Thimpu. Supported by Assam Tourism, the North East Zone Cultural Centre (NEZCC), Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) and the Royal Government of Bhutan, the three-day festival saw more than 300 registered participants showcasing their talent, scores of on-spot participants and nearly 100 volunteers. Local artists, creative writers, gamers, adventure sport enthusiasts, hip hop artists and filmmakers set up shop on the grounds – even giving live demonstrations to the thousands in the audience. The Bhutan delegation featured some of the biggest names from the creative field in the country, including actor, director and producer Thsering Phuntsho, DD and numerous other traditional artisans. The delegation was led by Dasho Karma Weezir, the director general of the culture department in the culture ministry, and Kunzang Thinley, principal of RAPA. The organisers of the festival said that they obtained due permits from the authorities – including the police and the GMDA – and the venue was booked for Rs 16,000 per day.

Intolerant Assam?

On Sunday, January 8, senior state government minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted, “Why GMDA allowed Nehru Park for so called winter festival? The park belongs to the children. I will not tolerate atmosphere to be vitiated”.

His tweet set in motion a series of events that clearly shows how the government machinery runs on the whims of a few individuals.

Nehru Park, located before the historic Cotton College was packed with more than 6,000 people when a police unit and CRPF jawans marched onto the grounds and began to shepherd people outside saying that there were orders from the chief minister to stop the event immediately. Some panic ensued but the crowds were soon evacuated. The event was closed down and the gates were locked by the administration and electricity was cut off. Foreign delegates, artists and guests were left sitting in the dark. Organisers, volunteers and participants were asked to take off their identification tags and disperse as rumour quickly spread that those wearing them may be ‘targeted’.

‘Anti-national’ festival

Speaking to the media after closing the park, senior officials of the GMDA and Kamrup metro administration said that the festival was closed down because it was flouting norms. Most of the media houses are either owned by politicians or by business tycoons. Interviews given to the media after the festival was shut down appeared to have been orchestrated. One of the issues raised by the media was the defaced Ashok stambh and Jawaharlal Nehru’s statue. It was evident that the media tried to project the event as ‘anti-national’ – which the authorities were quick to buy. No questions were asked about the specificities of the norms that were violated, or why permission was given in the first place. Most importantly, the media completely forgot that there was nearly a 100-member strong delegation from Bhutan, who witnessed an extreme form of administrative high-handedness.

It would be worthwhile to mention that the deputy commissioner of Kamrup, M. Angamuthu, inaugurated the festival on January 6 in the presence of senior government officials and delegates of the Bhutan government. As per his own submission before various media houses, GMDA chairman Dhiren Baruah said that he had ordered the shut down even before Sarma’s tweet. He added that the approval for the “first day of the event” was given because it was a district administration-sponsored festival. However, full booking fees for three days was collected from the organisers, who were in regular contact with Angamuthu’s office during the days of the festival. As per the organisers of the event, the GMDA collected Rs 62,000 on the first day, Rs 1,08,000 on the second day and Rs 30,000 on the third day of the festival, from ticket sales.

An artist from Bhutan in traditional attire. Credit: Baba M.

An artist from Bhutan in traditional attire. Credit: Baba M.

Meanwhile, the media tirade against the festival had been ongoing from day one of the event. While none of the major channels and publications covered the inauguration, one of the largest vernacular dailies of the region published an article on how Metropolis was closed down by the district administration, specifically the GMDA. The article also goes on state that the park was desecrated, a national symbol defiled and nudism was propagated in the name of culture. Citing the impact of a news item from a few days back, the daily claimed that its articles prompted Sarma to order the immediate closing of the festival. The same line was taken by most news channels operating from Guwahati, who ran breaking news updates of the festival being closed and broken down by police and CRPF jawans. The GMDA had reportedly received complaints from some ‘sangathans’ regarding the event and inspections were made on both days of the festival. Some of these serious complaints dealt with people smoking and drinking inside the premise. The police and the CRPF who were responsible for maintaining security during the event, however, reported no untoward incidents, arrests, detainment or fine collection. Some media houses on the other hand said that the festival was a den of gambling and alcohol.  

Politics and the festival

The political circles in Assam are quite familiar with Metropolis and it is perhaps this familiarity that drew the contempt of certain powerful persons in the state. If sources are to be believed, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal – who was in Bangalaore attending the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas at that time – had no inkling of what had transpired during the day and was informed only later.

Metropolis, as an event, has been closely associated with Congress MP Gaurav Gogoi, son of former chief minister Tarun Gogoi. The 2016 version of Metropolis was in fact inaugurated by Gogoi himself at Nehru Park. The 12th South Asian Games, considered by many to be then union sports and youth affairs minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s launch platform for a successful election campaign, used the event as a massive promotional front.

The political vendetta behind the shutting down Metropolis 2017 is unmistakable. Gogoi, in a Facebook post on the same evening said,

“From day one I have supported the Metropolis festival in Guwahati as a celebration of youth, art and creativity. I would even take the Ex CM Tarun Gogoi to the festival where he would encourage everyone. The youth of Northeast are full of talent and creativity, and their initiatives should be supported and not obstructed.”

 A perspective  

The events that unfolded on January 8 quickly led to protests on social media platforms. Various independent publications, blogs, social activists and individuals came out in support of the event and against the forceful closing. Miguel Das Queah, a child rights activist, in a public Facebook post said,

“I was at the festival last evening myself. I had the most invigorating session on corporal punishment in schools with a host of distinguished guests. After the programme, I met lots of lots of children, along with their parents, who told me that they were absolutely enjoying the festivity. The children I had taken with me, from the community, were in awe of the beautiful decorations and wished to stay longer. The festival had hundreds of vibrant young students, scholars, artists, musicians, photographers, designers, dancers, social workers, activists, actors, couples; each one celebrating the beautiful occasion of childhood and youth. There were no brawls, no misdemeanour. How can such a beautiful thing vitiate the atmosphere? If this decision was taken in the interest of children, I am completely against it.”

As one among two of the public parks maintained by the GMDA in the city, deeming the Nehru Park to be meant for children only is as a careless remark by the GDD and tourism minister. Three slides, two swings, a jungle gym with many memorials and national symbols, immersed between landscaped islands, hedges and tree cover makes it more of a rendezvous spot than anything else. While the media made a big deal about the atmosphere for children, it conveniently forgot that the park is hardly used and that it is in a state of disrepair.

It is quite understandable that Metropolis, with its glamour and liberal promulgation of culture is antithetical to the present political dispensation in Assam. Organised, put together and run entirely by local youth, Metropolis gives a unique opportunity to many talented people from all sections of the society to showcase their craft. No money is charged for performances – registration or otherwise.

The way in which Metropolis was hastily shut down reflects a mindset that caters to a narrow form of nationalism propagated by certain political parties. Divergent thoughts or ideas are suppressed. This was proven before in some of the biggest academic institutions of the country and in the streets of many major cities. Now, it has reached the sleepy but budding metropolis of Guwahati.