The agitation days, and the succeeding army operations to eliminate insurgency, considerably impacted the generation growing up during that time in Assam through a multitude of anomalous experiences. Depending on which community one hailed from, the experiences were varied. The memories different.
I remember the intermittent “black outs,” nights when there would be electricity in my small town—a rarity those days—and yet we studied, ate under the flicker of candles or the dull glow of kerosene lamps because that was the diktat of the agitation leaders. It was to send a symbolic message to New Delhi that Assam had plunged into darkness because of the centre’s failure to proffer a solution to the foreigners’ problem. There was no question of flouting the orders. In fact, the feeling of being wronged only caught on and proliferated.
Neighbourhood elders, older cousins and their friends would repeatedly take to the streets, holding torches fashioned out of bamboo. Their shouts—”Aah oi aah, ulai aah!” (Come, come out all!). “Tej dim tel nidiu” (Will give our blood, not oil)—would pierce through the still of the night. The taal—the bell metal cymbals which are a religio-cultural instrument of Assam—became a symbol of protest. It was “jatir xonkot” (the crisis of the community) and each needed to stand up for its defence, that was the overriding feeling. In that bargain, even kids like us attending English-medium schools were also spurned. I particularly recollect a neighbour once pointing out a bevy of school girls in white and blue mekhela sador, passing by our house, saying, “They are the ones who will protect our jati.” The import of it was, not us but they, who don the Assamese traditional wear to school and had given up a year of study for their motherland, are the true representatives of Asomi Aai (Mother Assam).
I remember a lanky, soft-spoken bespectacled man called Majumdar often visiting our house on a bicycle. He and my father would have long conversations over rounds of khali sah (tea without accompanying snacks) before he would finally get up to go home. Since his house was in Bengali Patty, a short distance from my school, I would also often spot him at lunch break walking by the gate.
One evening, my mother rushed to my study table. Majumdar had been shot. I saw panic in her eyes.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“No, in the hospital,” my father replied before darting out of the house.
Hours expired before my father returned home. Majumdar was stable but had to be shifted to the Dibrugarh Medical College for advanced treatment the next morning.
As soon as my father reached the hospital, the doctor on duty frantically asked for blood. Father called in three youth from the Islam Patty nearby. That night, Bengali Hindu blood mixed with Assamese Muslim blood at the behest of an Assamese Hindu. All this was happening in a communally torn Assam of the times.
The heady days of ULFA (The United Liberation Front of Assam) brought its own share of tribulations to people from several communities. Many non-Assamese traders fell to ULFA fire. The owner of the shop that provided us the monthly provisions was shot dead too. Many petty traders packed up bags and left the state. Several Assamese families also not only had to bear the brunt of army action against ULFA, but were killed by the armed outfit too for refusing to meet their demand for cash to purchase arms.
There was this sprightly young man, the local “Bruce Lee,” the karate champ with a black belt whose distinctive gait many youth in my home town loved to ape. To us, he was our “Sir,” our go-to man for all the worries of the world, not just the issues with English grammar that he came home to tutor us five days a week.
Naba Gogoi was a dropout of the Rashtriya Indian Military College (RIMC), Dehradun. One day, he told his father he couldn’t carry on there as it was never his dream to see himself in uniform. He was more comfortable in Hara jeans and donning a Bruce Lee haircut. He was happy practising karate, listening to music any time he preferred, and teaching children in a small town for a living.
Naba did just that.
Then the army came to town to tame the ULFA. Young men stopped stepping out of their homes post sundown. Naba too hurried home those days.
One day, he didn’t. News soon reached his family that he was taken to an army camp. Some days later, he was set free, but not before being tortured. He never fully recuperated from it, and passed away some years later. His dream of living life the way he wanted died with him. Crushed by army boots which he too would have been wearing had he finished his term at RIMC.
Not far from my house stood the bhoot bangla (horror house). Once called the Barooah Bungalow, it was a massive white concrete structure with a sprawling front lawn surrounded by tall walls and a formidable gate. Owned by a tea planter and an educationist armed with a degree from the venerable Oxford University, the bungalow had certainly seen better days. After many a death in the family, the house descended into darkness. Thieves began to break into it to steal what was inside. Piece by piece everything was taken, till the rooms were empty.
The CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) occupied the bungalow during Operation Rhino and stayed on. It became its detention centre, rather a torture chamber, bang in the middle of a residential colony. Night after night, people woke up to screams of those brought to the bungalow after arbitrary arrest by the security forces.
One night, the screams were especially loud. Some days later, the body of Jyoti Lohar, a young businessman from the town’s periphery belonging to a tea tribe family, was found in a nearby area. The family claimed Lohar was brought to the bungalow after he was arrested along with two others. News spread about residents hearing Lohar’s screams coming from the bungalow. Public anger grew. Some officers were suspended. A case was registered. Justice, however, eluded Lohar’s family. The bhoot bangla is now an ashram, owned by the Manav Uttan Seva Samiti, run by Satpal Maharaj, the former Congress MP and tourism minister of Uttarakhand.
These slivers of my memory only hold up the larger fact that from the agitation days through the period of insurgency, the SULFA (surrendered ULFA) era and the unrolling of the NRC (National Register of Citizens) update process, loss and hurt have been all-pervading in Assam. A common factor that affected the lives of people from all communities.
Excerpted from Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty’s Assam: The Accord, The Discord with permission from Penguin Random House. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.