A few years ago, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) issued a decree prohibiting singers in Assam from singing Hindi songs in cultural nights around the time of the festival of Bihu. While a few applauded this, celebrating it as a revolutionary step towards protecting Assamese culture from being swamped by Indian national culture. Although nefarious designs of the mighty Indian state in its peripheries can not be denied, but what also has to be acknowledged is that organisations like ULFA having any moral or legal entitlement to dictate to people of Assam on how they decide to live their lives. Behind theirdictats lie three decades old mess and crushing of many legitimate voices of dissent.
Debates have started again after when the ULFA chief in his latest notes from underground vowed to register his protest – “that too not in words” – if theatres in Assam decide to take down an Assamese film called Shakira Ahibo Bakultolor Bihuloi / Shakira will be coming to Bakultol’s Bihu in favour of films like Raees and Kaabil.
As figures and viewers suggest, this ‘crowdfunded’ Assamese flick has indeed attracted more audience than usual in the small industry (and even good reviews from the critics). One is optimistic that such works will resuscitate Assamese cinema and its economy. A hum, if not a frenzy, was seen on social media platforms prior to the release of the curiously titled feature. Much of that changed as one saw the open letter written by the film’s director Himangshu Prasad Das to the self-styled commander-in-chief of ULFA asking him to intervene in his film’s distributional travails.
Interestingly, Das began the letter by complementing the outfit for “carrying the dreams of freedom through thick and thin” and equates it with a “cultural war” he dreams to pioneer in order to ensure a strong existence of Assam and the Assamese. “When Assam becomes independent, what will be the self-identity of the community if it cannot live with a sense of selfhood?,” a disappointed Das asks in the letter. One wonders which war of independence Das is talking about. Is it the one that demands bombing dozens of school children? Or is it the one that takes national pride in frequently killing hundreds of poor migrant from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh because some of them speak Bhojpuri, a language from “occupational India”? Maybe it is that war of ‘selfhood’ (to use Das’s word) which reminds each person growing up in villages – and indeed a lot of towns – in Assam in the nineties of gun-toting, motorcycle-riding youths barging into their homes and demanding dinner with chicken curry. And then the next few days would be reserved for Army atrocities. Lives in much of Assam in those years were sandwiched between fear-mongering, extortion, kidnapping, and killing by ULFA and rape and extra judicial executions by Indian Army. We would be lying if we write in our history books that the masses were oppressed and suppressed only by the military, and not at all by the local freedom-seekers.
This is why I have a problem when bodies like ULFA dictate how we should live. Because for long enough they have decided how we should die. Because its report card since inception speaks also of murders, of vivisepulture and of extorted moolah. The least ULFA can now do is be kind and spare us lessons on our taste in art, culture and literature.