From mid-April to the end of the month, Assam gears up to usher in a new Assamese calendar year. It is that time of the year when people long to sing and dance at the Bihutolis (fields where Bihu is organised) with their traditional dhol and pepa. Bihu troupes and singers travel almost throughout the state, making this an important time of the year for the Assamese music industry. Days ahead of Rongali Bihu, the banned United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) led by its commander-in-chief Paresh Barua issued a diktat to singers across Assam not to perform in ‘Hindi’ or any other language during Bihu. The outfit claimed that since Bihu was losing its traditional essence, singers must perform only in Asomiya.
Although ULFA is a shadow of its past these days, singers and Bihu organisers adhered to the decree. But on the evening of 17 April, Zubeen Garg, one of the popular singers in Assam, crooned his famous Ya Ali number from the film Gangster at the Latashil playground in the heart of Guwahati, throwing an open challenge to Barua and his cadres that music would not bow to the diktats of militants. ULFA responded by calling Zubeen an ‘agent of Indian cultural aggression’ in Assam and warned him of a ‘conflict’. The singer hit back saying that ‘an artiste cannot be dictated by ULFA’. In this war of words, the music fraternity, fans and the government have backed the singer. Even in the rural areas of Upper Assam, people who sympathise with ULFA are admonishing the outfit for ‘targeting’ their hero.
In 2003, ULFA had ordered a ban on screening Hindi movies in Assam. In a statement sent to TEHELKA by ULFA’s self-styled assistant publicity secretary Lieutenant Arunudoy Duhotia, the outfit says, “ULFA appealed to organisers and artists of the Rongali Bihu function, to refrain from performing Hindi songs, at least during Bihu celebrations. Hindi as a language is creating an aggression on the Assamese language and culture. While all other artists displayed their national responsibility and consciousness by heeding to our appeal, Zubeen Garg willfully violated it. We feel he is an agent of Hindi aggression in Assam. If he continues this way, then our contradiction with him will take the turn of a conflict, and if this happens, ULFA will not be responsible for the consequences”. Whenever anyone has defied the ULFA diktat, Paresh Barua has always made it a point to send out press releases to the media, trying to reiterate the question of Assamese identity and culture and also score brownie points from the general public on its core demand for Assam’s sovereignty.
According to ULFA, their confrontation with Zubeen dates back to the 90s when he behaved in an ‘irresponsible’ manner at a Bihu event in Upper Assam. ULFA claims that Zubeen had ‘verbally apologized’ then.
However, this time Zubeen remains unfazed. Within hours of the fresh warning from ULFA, Zubeen told the media that that he would sing a Hindi song composed by one of Assam’s cultural icons, Jyoti Prasad ‘Rupkonwar’ Agarwala, in his next Bihu appearance. “Bihu is celebrated by all sections of people living in Assam and is not a festival of only Assamese people. It is a festival of the people, without any boundary. Assam is a part of India and Hindi is the national language. We should make the Bihu festival more popular across the country by inviting singers and musicians from different parts of the country who sing in different languages. Music has no boundary and ULFA cannot dictate music,” says the singer who has sung over 15,000 songs in his career spanning 20 years.
An ULFA cadre says on the condition of anonymity that Zubeen’s songs were very popular amongst the outfit. “In our camps we used to keep listening to his numbers in our free time. Even some of our senior leaders are fond of him,” he says.
Meanwhile, the fresh threat to Zubeen has already boomeranged on Paresh Barua. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has reportedly asked Zubeen to be provided with adequate security, while young Assamese youth are openly criticising Barua and his movement on social media. “Why doesn’t ULFA raise the issue of how the indigenous Assamese music industry is suffering from piracy? They should address this first, before questioning a singer,” says Manas Robin, a popular Assamese composer. “Yes, ULFA did have an ideology and it had a cause. We also agree that there has been cultural aggression in Assam, but Zubeen is Assam’s cultural icon and has made us proud. ULFA is losing respect by going against him,” says Ajoy Moran from Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh, one of ULFA’s strongholds.