The Arts

Bhupen Hazarika Has Lessons for Protest Song Writers in Today's Assam

Like in the 1980s, artists have joined Assam's protest movement today – with their own musical spin. Hazarika's message of inclusion, though, is missing.

New Delhi: In the early 1980s, when the students’ agitation against undocumented foreigners broke out in my home
state Assam, two songs, sung by the best known voice from the region – Bhupen Hazarika – became anthems of a sort.

One was “Juye pura tiraxi; nirbasoni bosor; bhaiti nuhuwa hol; janone khobor… (The seared and the charred year of 1983; the year of elections; my brother has (suddenly) disappeared; we can’t find him; do you have any information about him…)”

The other was, “Luitor parore tumi deka lora; tumi ye tu buku pati dila; Bharatir numoli jeek bosa bole; tumi ye tu mrityu borila; swahid pranumu tumak… (You are the youth from the shore of the Brahmaputra; you are the one who stepped forward to take the bullets; to save a young daughter of Bharat, you embraced death; O martyr, we bow to you…)”

I recall those songs being played on loop on tape recorders in several households in my home town. Both by the young and not so young. Those lyrics resonated the times Assam was passing through. Thousands fell to violence, unleashed by both state and non-state actors, even as the resolve to fight the state seeking protection of their rights hardened among the public – the reason why those songs must have had such instant attraction.

Apart from documenting that period of unrest and interpreting the heightened public sentiments around the agitation, those, and some other earlier songs by Hazarika including ‘Aami Axomiya nohou dukhiya (We Assamese will never be impoverished)’ and ‘Biswa Bijoye Naba Juwan (The youth are the champions of the world)’ composed by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala helped remind people at that crucial juncture the universal reality about music as a potent tool of protest. ‘Biswa Bijoye’, particularly, was a song sung in gatherings held in support of the agitation, including at the morning assembly in my school, with students tapping their feet to its bouncy beat.

Four decades after Bertolt Brecht famously said, “In the dark times, there will also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times”, Hazarika supported his community in Assam standing up to New Delhi to do exactly that.

Along with other artists from the state, Hazarika took active part in the six-year-long agitation. When Indira Gandhi, as the newly sworn in prime minister post Emergency, sent her emissaries – Shankar Dayal Sharma and Yashpal Kapoor – to Guwahati in January 1980, he was present when the students representing the All Assam Students Union (AASU) were engaged in parleys with the duo.

Cut to December 2019 in Assam, to the public processions and rallies reverberating with slogans against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), the scale and intensity of which is being compared to protests in the 1980s. This time too, top artists from the state – filmmakers, actors, musicians, theatre persons, poets, writers – have stepped forward to join the sloganeering masses.

In the midst of all this is music, as a tool of public dissent. Old patriotic numbers have returned to fill the air, as have Hazarika’s songs. The state anthem, ‘O mur apunar dex (O Mother Assam)’, can also be heard on the streets.

What is also noteworthy is that, like Hazarika did then, a clasp of local musicians have begun rolling out new compositions too, to envelope the present times and public sentiments against the CAA.

Also read: In the Guise of Protest Music, Assamese Artists Churn out Hate Speech

The first to belt out a number that asked “friends (bondhu)” from the ruling party “not to play politics with common
people who live by dint of their hard work” was the state’s best known contemporary singer and youth icon – Zubeen
Garg. Yes, the same singer who crooned the BJP’s election campaign song in the state in 2016, prodding people then to
choose Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief minister because he “is everyone’s ananda (joy)”.

These days, Garg is holding forth at anti-CAA protests, mainly musically. Laced with a peppy beat in a well-made video, ‘Politics nokoriba bondhu (Don’t’ play politics, my friend)’ was uploaded on YouTube around the time when Assam witnessed the first bout of protests against the then proposed amendment to the Act in early 2019. Since the anti-CAA protests broke out in the state with a renewed vigour in December, he has been singing the song to crowds assembled at various towns besides Guwahati to oppose the Narendra Modi government’s move.

One of Garg’s earlier compositions, Mrityu etiya xahaj (Death is now easy)’ has also been doing the rounds at anti-CAA rallies. Here’s a look at the one such gathering:

Aside from this, at least five new musical compositions, including rap numbers, have been released, hinged on the theme of the CAA and its effects on Assam.

Barely a week after the anti-CAA protests broke out in Assam, I came across a protest song titled ‘Odhikar (Rights)’ on YouTube. A collaborative effort by a group of young singers – Ambar Das, Nilotpal Bora, Arupjyoti Baruah, Shankuraj Konwar, Sampriti Goswami and Sarmishtha Chakraborty, the song was uploaded on December 11. Written by Manash Mahanta, ‘Odhikar’ begins by highlighting BJP’s promise to the public prior to the assembly polls, to protect Assamese people’s “jati, mati, bheti (home, hearth and identity)”. They termed it a ‘tupi’ – an expression informally used to mean conning someone with a false hope). It asks the question that many on the streets of Assam are asking the government: What happened to the promise New Delhi made to us through the Assam Accord?

The song also questions the Hindutva-laced argument peddled by the likes of Himanta Biswa Sarma that the Assamese will have to choose their ‘enemy’ (hinting at Muslims of Bengali origin) and welcome Hindu Bangladeshis in order to
guard their identity – essentially an effort to make the Assamese composite identity a Hindu identity.

Using the popular slogan during the 1980s agitation, “Aah oi aah ulai aah (Come, come all, come out)”, the song gives a call to the public to unite to protect Assam’s identity. Explaining why they got together to sing the song, the singers state on YouTube, “The state has to be protected like you would protect your homes and then welcome guests.”

Here is a taste of the song, for those who understand Assamese:

Yet another young singer, Geet Barua, has uploaded a song titled ‘CAA nelagey amak (We don’t need CAA)’. Barua’s
song emphasises on police atrocities on the anti-CAA protesters of the state, and the old and the young defying the curfew. With subtitles in English, his song, he says, is to help “spread awareness among people from all over the world.”

Aside from Zubeen Garg, another popular Assamese singer, Manas Robin, has also been addressing anti-CAA gatherings musically, mainly those organised by the xilpi xamaj (artists fraternity). Notably, he has come out with ‘a protest song’ named ‘Bodone aanile maan’ encapsulating (or rather endorsing) the public sentiments against Hindu Bangladeshis. Uploaded on Youtube on December 11, its lyrics run like this:

“Badane anile Maan
Bhabisile hobo bhaal
Hol ge moha kaal
Firingik anile maat
Maan khedi boloi buli
Maan golge firing nogolpradhin hol jaati
Akou ekei bhurolei
Punorabiri neki?
Jati mati bheti rakhiboloi
eibar Hindu Bangladeshi

(Ahom general Badan Borphukan ushered in the Burmese, hoping all would be well. But it turned Assam into a hell. (The Ahom king) invited the British (from neighbouring Bengal) to chase away the Burmese. The Burmese left but the British didn’t. The community was thus enslaved. Is this a turn of wheel once again, now that the Hindu Bangladeshis are being welcomed (by the rulers) to protect our community, land and identity?)”

Interspersed with visuals from the huge anti-CAA protests rocking the state, the video opens by underlining the growing feeling among the majority Assamese community that “it is yet again the time to come out of homes mouthing Joi Ai Axom (Hail Mother Assam).” Accusing the ruling BJP of grabbing power in Assam by promising voters that it would chase away foreigners from the state and changing tack thereafter, the song also injects a line in Bengali, asking if the Assamese will now have to learn that language to remain in the state – thus amplifying the old fear of Bengali linguistic hegemony over the Assamese during the British colonial period. Assamese identity is primarily linguistic, consolidated in the colonial times mainly due to the imposition of Bengali on the people of Assam.

Also read: Bhupen Hazarika at 91: A Trip Through His Lesser-Known Songs

Riding on the wave, on December 20, another well-known musician, Bipin Chawdang, uploaded an anti-CAA number on YouTube. Highlighting that in neighbouring states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland , Mizoram etc. the ‘outsiders’ can’t buy land, the wordings of ‘Jati matir gaan’, if translated to English, go somewhat like this:

“Dear brothers, you will lose your home and hearth, your identity too;
Why are you selling your land to non-Assamese;
By calling them brothers, you have lost all;
You yourself have thus dug the death pit…”

A set of rap numbers against the CAA are also doing the rounds on YouTube. One of the first such songs was by Rahul Rajkhowa in English – during the first spell of the protests in the Northeast against the Act. Reminding listeners about
Modi’s 2014 electoral promise to throw out all ‘illegal Bangladeshis’ once he becomes the prime minister, the young singer goes on to say, “God save us because our leader failed us.”

State-based rapper Abhisekh Mukerjee, or Van M, has so far belted out two numbers opposing the CAA – one in Hindi,
another in Assamese. He too accuses the BJP of betraying the public, saying, “Juj dim xex porjonto (Will fight till the end),” He told Guwahati-based news website Northeast Now, “I have come out to protest with my music.” Here is the Hindi version of his number titled, “Atche Din?”

While most of these numbers are getting public attention and turning popular for amplifying the widespread public
sentiment towards protecting Assamese identity from ‘illegal immigrants’, some of the scores are also reiterating the
divisive ‘they’ and ‘us’ binaries, importantly overlapping the crucial dissimilarity between non-Assamese (ona Axomiya) and an undocumented migrant (Bidexi).

Though AASU, spearheading the anti-CAA protests, has been reiterating that the agitation is against the Centre’s decision to settle Hindu Bangladeshis in Assam and not aimed at Bengalis residing in the state, Manas’s song – with a line in Bengali asking if an Assamese would have to speak the language now onwards – fails to make the crucial difference.

At this point, flipping back to Hazarika’s philosophy for the community can be instructive for young musicians of the
state. His patriotic songs – be those written during the agitation or otherwise, beckoning one and all to love and enrich the community – had the resolve to stand up against injustice and take pride in one’s identity. They were devoid of hatred and never indulged in ‘othering’.

It must be remembered that not for nothing did he sing, “Mur aaik bhal pau buli le aanor aik janu ghin kora tu bujabo? (If I say I love my mother, does it have to mean I hate yours?)”