People know Bishnu Prasad Rabha as a cultural Icon, one of the triumvirates of Assam along with Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Phani Sharma, whose death and birth anniversary is celebrated across the state in glittering events.
His thousands of bust and life size statues can be seen in school and collage yards, inside university campuses, and offices premises. Auditoriums and parks are named after him, cultural events and competitions are organized in his name. His visibility in Assamese public life is quite intact even after 51 years of his death.
Rabha’s high visibility in public life, however do not get reflected in making serious efforts toward extensive and intimate understanding of his wide spectrum of work. Rabha’s wife Mohini Rabha struggled enormously till her last breath just to collect and publish his numerous poems, songs and articles, which has been scattered all over, even today. There are even instances of refusing to publish his works by Publication Board, Assam, which is an important literary institution of the government of Assam, established for the purpose of publishing important works.
The first demand for publishing Rabha’s writings was not made by Asom Xahitya Xabha which is considered the guardian organization of Assamese culture and literature, but by a certain left leaning student organization.
On one hand his high symbolic visibility in public life and on the other hand the indifference of Asamese ruling class ,when it comes to engagement with wide spectrum of his works, has made Bishnu Rabha, the ultimate irony of Assamese identity. We can never understand this great irony without trying to understand his politics.
Young Rabha was an idealist. Compositions and articles of his younger days reflected his utmost devotion towards Sankaradeva, and his adherence towards neo-viashnavism. He believed that only through Sankradeva’s teaching and neo-vaishnavism, the society could achieve peace and prosperity.
The young Rabha of 1920’s was fully devoted in practicing neo- viashnavite art and culture .Scholars like Sashi Sarma and Hiren Gohain emphasized that Rabha’s complete surrender to idealism prevented him from understanding the dire condition of the poor farmers in his younger days.
After witnessing ignorance of Nationalist leaders towards the poor farmers and workers during the liberation struggle and influenced by October Revolution in Russia, Rabha was gradually drawn towards Communist ideology.
In 1946 he formally became a member of Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI). His numerous compositions, novels and plays like Kuri Bachar Jail, Sonpahi, Krishak, Banua Panchayat reflect his deep faith in Communist ideology, which he maintained till his death in 1969.
Hemanga Biswas in one of his essays wrote that Marxist – Leninist ideology had transformed a rather restless Bishnu Rabha into a person of stability and in depth political conviction. Rabha completely devoted himself towards awakening of the historically oppressed lot and started living a homeless life travelling every nook and corner of the region.
In Communism, Rabha saw the path of emancipation of the poor Assamese farmers who were continuously oppressed by their feudal lords and abandoned by the nationalist leaders. He was convinced that the freedom aspired by the Indian bourgeois class was not the real freedom that would lead to the total emancipation of the poor and oppressed.
Therefore on August 15, 1947, when India gained the independence from British, Bishnu Rabha led a march holding black flag and shouting Yeh Azaadi Jhootha Hain, Sirf Chamra Ka Badal (This freedom is lie, only a change of skin). Even when the Assam government started crushing the communist revolutionaries with iron fist, Rabha kept on performing his revolutionary duties while living in exile for almost five years. He was finally caught in Kokrajhar in 1952 and was thrown into jail. But that could not stop him from engaging in creative endeavors as he wrote extensively and painted some brilliant portraits during the year in jail. He was again arrested during Chinese aggression in 1962 under Preventive Detention Act and was dragged on the street with chained legs as a mark of humiliation.
Bishnu Rabha was a living embodiment of cultural diversity of Assam. He acquired the cultural and linguistic knowledge of almost all the ethnic groups of Assam through his extensive travels in nook and corners of Assam. He spent numerous nights in tribal villages, learning their way of life. Rabha’s idea of Assam was free from all kind of chauvinistic impulses, and was energized by inclusiveness and cultural synthesis.
He encouraged all tribes and linguistic groups to keep practicing and developing their own cultural and linguistic practices rather getting succumbed to the Assamese caste Hindu and middle class idea of assimilation. He never envisioned a paternalistic assertion of a particular dominant linguistic or cultural group. Here we can see the fundamental difference between Rabha’s idea of Assam and the Assam imagined as unilingual state by the Asamese middle class nationalist leaders.
Many major Assamese middle class organizations that have been playing the crucial role in promoting Assamese language and culture can be seen appropriating and interpreting Bishnu Rabha’s ideology for their own ideological and political interest.
The idea of Celebration of ‘Rabha Divas’ on his death anniversary in glittering events across Assam , labeling him as Kolaguru (the master of arts) by focusing only on his selected songs and poems can defiantly be considered as a strategic move to prevent the new generation from knowing his revolutionary zeal and emancipatory creations . The creation of this Assamese middle class ‘cultural icon’ out of a great working class communist revolutionary leader is the ‘irony’ we are talking about.
Published the occasion of Bishnu Prasad Rabha’s death anniversary on June 20. Debasish Hazarika can be reached at: [email protected]