The Covid-19 pandemic may have dulled the economy and everyday life in the country, but in Assam if one goes by the media reports of the last month or so, all political parties are gearing themselves up for the Assembly elections to be held next year.
If the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organized a party conference in Guwahati with online paraphernalia and apparently maintaining physical distancing norms, Congress leaders and activists of other organizations too have not shied away from holding public meetings in pockets and streets.
Congress’ chief whip of the state, Ripun Bora particularly has been scathing while accusing the state government of going easy on the Covid protocols in meetings of their own party while pushing for stricter norms for opposition parties and organizations.
The ruling party, currently, it seems is in a bit of a fix, as it is having to deal with and implement pandemic related policies as well as keeping a close watch on the activities of the opposition and outwitting them to forge and sustain a clear line of contact with the electorate.
Political parties have realized that the effects of Covid-19 may stay for some more time and by the time the elections arrive (whether with Covid protocols for voters in place or not) they may not have much time at their disposal for publicity and voter outreach. Hence, we are witnessing a flurry of activities, rallies and press conferences by the different parties and organizations in the month of August.
It has become very crucial for both the ruling and the opposition parties to create a conducive climate for their messages in the court of public opinion, especially in light of the movement against the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) last year which swung the popular sentiment against the BJP in a dramatic fashion. Sentiments around CAA are a highly inflammable element in the current political arithmetic in Assam and the BJP wants to douse it by any means.
As in-fighting has taken root in the party (media reports highlight a simmering feud between the Chief Minister and the Finance Minister), pressure groups like All Assam Students Union (AASU, which was led by the current Chief Minister once) have become important in the evolution of a new political consensus.
With the compromised stand of Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) in relation to CAA, the AASU knows it could be the answer to Assam’s need for a strong regional party. The fact that firebrand farmer leader Akhil Gogoi, who in the past had spoken about forming a new political party, has been in prison for the last nine months, facing serious allegations like sedition and violation & disruption of law and order during the CAA movement which has paved the way for other alternative oppositional forces to be active in a more pronounced way.
Congress and AIUDF (All India United Democratic Union Forum) have kept their cards close to their chest and announced recently that they are very much together while inviting other like-minded parties for a grand alliance in their fight against the BJP in the coming elections.
In this context, it is worth recollecting the participation of people of Assam from various walks of life in the movement against the then proposed Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which talked about giving citizenship to people coming from neighboring countries where they are purportedly facing persecution.
Apart from Muslims, religious minorities like Hindus, Parsis, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians and Jains were deemed eligible for applying for citizenship in India. While in the rest of India, this sparked off a series of demonstrations for excluding Muslims, in Assam and her neighbouring states, the whole rallying point of the movement was complete rejection of the CAA.
This demand was in alignment with the specific forms of popular political articulations in Assam which have consistently called for detection and deportation of alleged Bangladeshi denizens of all religions living in the region without proper documents.
It is a different matter that the governments in Delhi and Dhaka over the years have failed to frame a workable plan in this regard.
The National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise for Assam, mandated by the apex court of the country, was designed to arrive at the exact number of foreigners living in the state, but the ruling BJP and different pressure groups, which were not happy with its outcome, have called for a fresh round of the exercise in the districts having borders with Bangladesh.
Thus, in an almost hallucinatory way, politics in Assam continues to be driven by this fraught issue which does not show any indication of dying down.
Before the pandemic-induced lockdown, which was enforced since late March this year, politics in Assam was poised to be driven and divided by those who supported CAA and those who were against it.
The artistes and the cultural community of the state had played a key role in galvanizing the public against the CAB. But now, more than four months after the lockdown, things are beginning to get murky again where it is difficult to predict the pulse of the public.
The ruling dispensation is leaving no stone unturned as it is going after the lowest common denominator by announcing one populist measure after another. Just a couple of days ago, the Finance Minister announced that Namghars (prayer houses of the Assamese and their number runs to thousands) of the state would be given 2.5 lakhs each for their development.
Doubtless, it seems like complete election time bait considering the current crunch in the state exchequer for more urgent developmental activities. On the other hand, the principal opposition Congress had been mounting pressure on the government over the missteps in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic and the general dreary picture of the economy. In this backdrop, when things seem to be evenly poised between the two rivals, BJP, it seems, pulled out a trump card by drawing in two of the most popular cultural icons of the state into its fold.
Actor Jatin Bora had resigned last winter from the BJP in the wake of the massive anti-CAA protests and had then expressed solidarity with the people’s movement to halt the bill.
Just when the CAA protests were reaching a boiling point, singer Zubeen Garg had intervened and called to the people for a more thoughtful and restrained way of protesting in light of quite a few instances where miscreants reportedly rampaged public offices and properties in many localities across Assam.
His point, which was also endorsed and reinforced by AASU, was that the law enforcement agencies must not be given a chance for using violence against students and the tone and method had to be more peaceful to create sustained long term pressure on the state and central governments.
All of it came to nothing much as the parliament had passed the contentious bill by then and the movement lost much of its steam early this year before the epidemic took a more sinister turn. With enfant terrible Akhil Gogoi and his associates in jail facing several legal hurdles, BJP, it seemed, was beginning to breathe again and crafting a new political reality out of the rut it was facing just a few months ago.
At this juncture, it is really unfortunate to reflect that Assam lacks visionary artistes like it had in the past where they were able to express real urgent issues faced by common citizens in their creations and through prudent initiatives in times of crisis. One of the most memorable initiatives in this regard was taken by Bhupen Hazarika and Hemango Biswas in the early 1960s when tensions between the Assamese and Bengali community over language deteriorated into riots.
Moreover, throughout their lifetime they were committed to a certain dignified ethic and conscientious social vision which inspired people. This contrasts rather sharply with the present lot who has been unsuccessful in inspiring faith and articulating the anguish of the people. They seem more attuned to be celebrities rather than artistes in the true sense.
For instance, Jatin Bora carries considerable heft in the mobile theatre and film worlds in the state because he is in all probability the most popular and highest paid actor around. His clout and capital obviously transcends culture since he has been associated with political parties: earlier with the Indian National Congress and now the BJP. Under the present regime he even occupied an official position in the Assam State Film (Development & Finance) Corporation. But neither his screen persona nor his politics could inspire confidence and inspiration since it remained strictly within the commercial formula in film/theatre and conventional nationalist political parties. So one may say he has not really used his popularity for the cause of regionalism as many film stars have done in South India to mixed results.
Zubeen Garg, it seems, while being irreverent and caustic to the government in his characteristic fashion during the CAA protests, has now taken more shifty position as he has apparently agreed to be the brand ambassador of the state government’s agricultural department (probably sensing a shift in public perception only today he said in a media interaction that people should not suspect his intentions and he very much remains on their side).
Amongst the influential ones, only musician Manash Robin, can be seen to be consistent in his political stand with his unwavering support for people during the anti-CAA movement and now for speaking out against the draft of Environmental Impact Assessment notification which is a threat to the rich bio-diversity of the region as the proposed new law can allow the government to construct projects without much public hearing at national interest in the border areas which is virtually the entire geographical stretch of Northeast India.
Just a few days ago, popular artistes of music, television, theatre and film of the state (around 40 in number joined Congress while 28 went for the BJP) joined as members of the two leading political parties of the state. This development comes right after Jatin Bora’s return to the ruling party’s fold. This episode is revealing to an extent of the character and nature of both culture and politics in contemporary Assam. One of the misfortunes of Assam in the last thirty years or so are the lack of original popular artists who could express and articulate issues and grievances of the people in a powerful way.
In fact, one may say, the very fractious political reality of the region is one of the factors responsible for this state of affairs in the cultural arena. Insurgency has receded to a large extent, but the youth of the region is still restless and dejected as there are very limited opportunities in the private and public sectors (hordes of young men and women of the region who were working in industrial cities across India came back during the lockdown).
For the flowering of art and culture, one needs a nurturing and stimulating social environment where there is an awareness of both past and present socio- cultural traditions. Successive governments in the state in the last forty years have largely failed to create a robust local political culture oriented towards sustainable peace, literacy and development.
Political parties are more interested in using the star power of artists in election time advertising and artists know this. There is no real inspiration for artists about the policies of political parties and they know they are being used for purely promotional purposes. Thus politicians see almost no value in stars beyond their glitz and artists have no genuine involvement in politics (as Zubeen Garg says: ‘if political parties pay me I do a promotional track for them and that’s it’). Globalization has ushered in a more vibrant commercial culture which has its pitfalls as well as possibilities. But at best, we are getting a Papon who is an adept practitioner of traditional devotional, independent fusion and popular Bollywood music at the same time but falls short in the direction of using art for socio-political commentary, change or observation.
Both Zubeen and Papon’s musciography so far has not really come out of this limitation and remains within the romantic strain in modern Assamese music. It may not be necessary for every artist to be political but for a region which is suffering due to various socio-political issues it almost becomes a moral call for artists to turn political.
A sense of space is linked to a sense of time and they play a role in how we express ourselves. The current social conflicts in Assam are largely related to its land, language and identity. The fractured and scarred nature of these realities and their memories will only heal when the different groups and communities of people living in the state learn to respect each other. Artists can create that much needed space and dialogue because when everything else fails only culture can motivate us to be at peace with oneself and others.
(The author is an Assistant Professor at Department of Mass Communication, Assam Women’s University, Jorhat. He can be reached at email@example.com)