New Delhi: January 17 is observed throughout Assam as Silpi Divas (artists’ day). It is to mark the death anniversary of a celebrated cultural icon of Assam, Jyoti Prasad Agarwala (1903-1951).
Addressing a government function held in Agarwala’s memory in Darrang this Silpi Divas, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal urged the people of Assam “in today’s age of science and technology” to be “motivated by reason and rationality instead of being guided by sheer emotions.”
“Emotions do not always help in forging a strong society. I urge the people to use their rational bent of mind and analyze the proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill thoroughly,” said the chief minister. He was responding to the unrelenting public anger directed at him and his party, the BJP, for supporting the Bill.
The Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in the recent session and is awaiting the approval of the Rajya Sabha. The majority Assamese and indigenous communities are of the opinion that the Bill would increase the population of the migrant community, posing a threat to their identity and culture. The Bill aims to grant Indian citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshis, among others, who arrived in India before December 31, 2014, even without proper documentation.
Unlike Sonowal and his party colleagues, the Assamese community has refused to see migrants through the lens of religion. It wants the terms of the Assam Accord to be implemented without dividing the ‘illegal Bangladeshis” into religious groups of Hindus and Muslims. The accord was signed in 1985 1985 to put a lid on the six-year-long anti-foreigner movement in the state.
The irony of Sonowal’s plea
It was ironical that Sonowal chose that day to issue his plea as it went against the core tenets that Agarwala believed and upheld through his writings.
Born to a Marwari migrant family with roots in Rajasthan, Agarwala became a symbol of cultural assimilation in the Assamese society. He not only was the first ‘Assamese’ to roll out a feature film in 1935 (Joymoti) but also strengthened the roots of Assamese literature and culture as a songwriter, poet, dramatist and writer. It earned him the sobriquet of Rupkonwar (loosely, the perfect prince). An inspiration to the likes of Bhupen Hazarika, Agarwala’s songs are popular across communities as Jyoti Sangeet. Every Assamese child grows up singing at least one of these songs.
Agarwala’s most recited poem, ‘Axomiya Dekar Ukti’ (The Response of an Assamese youth), encompasses his beliefs. Widely recited in poetry competitions, academic events and social gatherings, it is an avowal of the composite Assamese identity and its assimilative nature. It denotes the essence of an Assamese collective.
Through this poem – written much before Assam was divided into five states – Agarwala claimed his – and all migrants’ – place in the greater Assamese society through the process of assimilation. He spoke of uniting all the tribes and strengthening a composite Assam, but also located this identity within the imagination of Indian mythology and nationhood. He didn’t differentiate migrants on the basis of religion.
Well-known academic and political commentator Nani Gopal Mahanta in his book Confronting The State: ULFA’s Quest for Sovereignty, called the poem “an excellent reflection of the variegated mosaic of Assam and various communities of Assamese society.” The poem begins with the proclamation that an Assamese youth is Arjun; he is also Gandhi; he is of Assam; he also belongs to India.
It goes on to expound Agarwala’s construct of the Assamese people. In English, the lines would read:
I am Khasi
I am Jaintia, the Dophola, Abor, Aka,
I am the Singpho, the Miri of the plains, the youth of the Subansiri
I will be the victor, I am of the Kachari, the Koch, the Mech, the Rajbongshi, the Rabha
I am the Lalung, Sutia, Lushai, Mikir, Garo
Mishimi, Khamti, the Angami hero
I fight for equality and friendship
I am the one who labours in the tea garden
The Na-Asamiya, the new Assamese
The village Nepali
The skilled dancer of the Manipuri
Of so many hills and plains, of the waters of a hundred streams
I flow, taking all in my path
To be one with the Brahmaputra
Significantly, it is through this poem that Agarwala propagated his idea of ‘Na Asamiya’ (neo-Assamese). He used the term to expand the canopy of Assamese identity to include the ‘Mymensinghia’, the term commonly used for the Muslim migrants from East Bengal.
Though the term gained coinage in Assamese society, it lost much of its sheen during the anti-foreigner agitation (1979-1985). However, the separatist armed group United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) later engaged with the idea.
On January 17, Sonowal prodded the people of Assam not be driven by ‘emotion’ but be practical to accept the Bill and the Hindu Bangladeshis to “save Assam” from “illegal migrants”. His party has taken this line as a solution to the state’s long-festering problem over undocumented migration from across the border. He was essentially upholding the idea of a religiously homogenous Assamese collective, an antithesis of Agarwala’s ideas.