This article was expanded on November 23 at the request of the author.
Nationalism and sports have a very deep rooted connect. Teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting Club had a significant contribution in shaping our nationalistic identity, and in our struggle for freedom. Benedict Anderson talked about a concept called ‘imagined communities’ and sports rightfully helps in the construction of it.
Do you remember any of the celebratory pictures of Hima Das, with medals around her neck or the national flag in her arms? There is another recurring element in all her pictures. It’s the Assamese Gamusa around her neck.
One of the many cultural identifiers of the Assamese community is the Gamusa. It’s not just a towel or a piece of cloth, it’s a representation of the Assamese culture and something that symbolises love and respect and is ideally used by all irrespective of religious and ethnic backgrounds.
In her post-run flash interview, she made sure to explain what the Gamusa symbolised.
It’s not merely a towel or a piece of cloth. It’s the most identifiable cultural signifier of the Assamese community – emblematic of love and respect and used by all irrespective of ethnic background.
But all in all, the gamusa, if not the single most important identifier, is surely the most identifiable cultural signifier of the Assamese community.
But what becomes really imperative here to mention is the fact about the ethnic composition of Assamese society. Apart from the residents who speak Assasmese as their language, the state is comprised of 20 listed tribes.
These tribes have their own language, own attire and some of them have their own equivalent of the traditional gamusa. And all of these cultures, together constitute the greater Assamese society.
Cut to the first ODI of the recently concluded India-West Indies series, hosted at the ACA Cricket Stadium in Guwahati. It was the first ODI following a long hiatus in the state, and naturally, it was a packed house.
As in any cricket telecast, the camera cuts to the crowd shot. Every second person in the stadium had a Gamusa on them.
There is nothing to hold against the use of the gamusa, and no reason for anyone to shy away from it. But at a time when the state and its residents are preoccupied with identity and the threat of having the wrong one, are we, the Assamese community, trying a little too hard to reinforce our identity?
When Hima Das won the gold medal at the IAAF World Under-20 Athletics Championships, she ran on the tracks with the Indian flag and the Assamese gamusa in her hands. And in her post run flash interview, she was seen explaining what the gamusa symbolises. There is nothing wrong with it. You are shining the name of your state on a global platform.
But what is a little bit of a worry is the fact, that this practice of carrying and advertising a gamusa is now a defence mechanism of showing and ascertaining who a true Axomiya or Assamese is. It might be something hard for the Khilongjiya Axomiya (True Assamese) to digest, but this is somehow becoming the reality.
Sports would have been a natural place to make that visible. What is worrying is that the practice of flaunting a gamusa is now a defence mechanism. Especially with the debate over the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC), residents feel the need to advertise profusely who the true Axomiya or Assamese are, and what constitutes their identifiers.
The exclusionary nature of symbols
A few months ago, two young men – Nilotpal and Abhijeet –went trekking in the hills of Karbi Anglong, an area inhabited by the indigenous Karbi tribe of Assam, along with others. In a remote village, they were mistaken by locals as child traffickers and were lynched and beaten to death by a mob.
The incident was recorded on cell phone devices, including visuals of the victims pleading with their attackers to let them go saying, “We are Assamese, we aren’t foreigners, please don’t kill us.” The movement for justice questioned how two Assamese men could be beaten to death by the Karbis.
Whatever happened was a tragedy. What was also problematic was a welling discourse about the incident being an Assamese versus Karbi battle. Are Karbis not a part of Assamese society?
Public posts on social media called for the boycott and even instigated attacks on the Karbi population. There were petitions to rename the waterfall near where attack happened, discarding the local names which it already had.
Why was there an effort to impose a popular notion of Assamese identity on something else that is equally a part of its culture?
It is usually assumed that communities who speak the Assamese language are the Xati Asomiyas (‘true’ Assamese). Yet there are many other tribes within the state that don’t speak Assamese, and have languages and cultural identifiers of their own. They all come together to form the greater Assamese community.
What happened in Karbi Anglong was wrong and yes, the protests were justified. But what wasn’t justified was the hegemonic imposition of the dominant notions of a culture over another. What wasn’t right was the fact that none of these protests happened when the state was reeling or is still reeling under the problem of ‘witch hunting’ or the riots that shook the Bodoland area of the state, another Tribal Belt, twice.
And what is more wrong is the fact that none of these protests every tried to mobilise the greater Assamese identity, but rather focused on imposing and glorifying what these common notions are.
What happened in Karbi Anglong was wrong and the protests were justified. What wasn’t justified was imposing a dominant notion of a culture over another. What is worse is the fact that none of these protests tried to mobilise the greater Assamese identity, but rather focused on imposing and glorifying these commonly held notions.
So, when we see a flurry of gamusas at a cricket ground, should we not be wondering if is that the only Assamese identifier? A Bodo Aronai or a Dimisa Rishhah – an equivalent of the gamusa for the Bodo and the Dimasa community – are equally representative of being Assamese.
The state today is in a race to protect and cement the identity of the Assamese. This effort has subconsciously trickled down to mass media and into the sporting arena. The debate around the NRC has further fuelled widespread insecurity. Recent violence against Bengali-speaking residents, who are equally Assamese, hinted at it once again.
So, when we see a scattering of gamusas at a cricket stadium, or even on a television show like Kaun Banega Crorepati, it triggers a pang of concern. Are we trying too hard to prove who we are? And in the process, are we unwittingly suppressing the identities of some our own?
Hima represented India when she won the gold at the under-20 Asian Games. She would have been the pride of Assam, even if she hadn’t borne the gamusa. There were a few who took more pride in her carrying the gamusa than in her athletic achievement on a global stage.
There would be many red eyes as I conclude this. But these observations aren’t in vain. It’s perfectly alright to be proud and aware of one’s culture. And one should never shy away from it. But when it becomes an over imposition, that’s where people start searching for the weak links and the insecurities. And hopefully the greater Assamese society isn’t heading that way.
An argument might just come in, that for ages we have been repressed and thus it’s imperative that today we need to stand up to our identity. But we also need to have a look at the mirror before we do that; what are we doing to the different other smaller fragments of the greater Assamese society?
Amlan Das is a former journalist and a sports media manager, who has worked with the FIFA U-17 World Cup India, the Indian Super League, and the Dynamos FC team in Delhi.