Citizenship Bill row casts shadow over Bharat Ratna for Bhupen Hazarika
Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal said the 70th Republic Day was very significant for people of the state. But the Congress and several non-political groups said that scrapping the Citizenship Bill which has the entire Northeast up in arms, would have been a greater gift to the state.
The Bharat Ratna for Bhupen Hazarika, one Assam’s greatest cultural icons, was the culmination of a long-standing demand from the Assamese society, but the timing of the announcement has evoked suspicions.
Chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal said that the 70th Republic Day was very significant for the people of Assam. But the opposition Congress and several non-political groups said that scrapping the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill which has the entire Northeast up in arms, would have been a greater gift to the state than India’s highest civilian award for Hazarika.
“Everybody is happy but there is the feeling that this has happened only because of the Citizenship Bill,” former CM Tarun Gogoi said. “If they really want to respect Hazarika, they should scrap that Bill.”
The All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), which is leading the opposition to the Bill, also questioned the timing of the announcement.
“Why now? Why not earlier during Hazarika’s lifetime, considering that this has been a longstanding demand?” asked Samujjal Bhattacharya, AASU’s chief advisor. “The timing of this decision is questionable as the Centre is imposing the Citizenship Bill which is a threat to the identity of the people of Assam.”
Tempers are running high in Assam over the Bill. In Hojai, an FIR was registered against popular Assamese singer Zubin Garg after an audio clip of him abusing the Bharat Ratna went viral, Assam Police said. Garg has been opposing the Bill.
“The announcement has come late. But it is better late than never. Bangladesh awarded him with the highest honour of that country way back in 2011,” said Samar Hazarika, the youngest of Hazarika’s nine siblings as he celebrated the news at his residence in Guwahati.
Some Assamese, however, are thrilled. “It’s such a good day that Bhupen Da has been given the Bharat Ratna, it’s like the people of Assam have been awarded. He was a source of light for society, the soul of Assam,” said sculptor Biren Singha as he sat next to Hazarika’s statue which he had made in Dighali Pukhri area of Guwahati.
Born in 1926 in Sadiya in upper Assam, Hazarika was awarded Padma Shri in 1977, Padma Bhushan in 2001, Padma Vibhushan in 2012 and the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1992.
“He must have been five when he sang at a programme at the Cotton College in Guwahati,” said Samar Hazarika.
At 13, Hazarika wrote a song that translated as “of the fiery age I am a spark/ I will build a new Assam... No place for religion-mongers/ a place where caste pride gets dissolved /I will destroy untouchability, the burly demon with my own hands”.
“At a young age, Bhupen was under the tutelage of Jyoti Prasad Agarwala and Bishnu Rabha, the two great cultural icons of Assam. Leftist ideals germinated in him early,” said Amarjyoti Choudhury, former vice-chancellor of Gauhati University who has memories of seeing Hazarika sit alone at the Brahmaputra riverfront in Guwahati for hours.
Hazarika, popularly known as the Bard of Brahmaputra, sang in many languages including Assamese, Bengali and Hindi for films, many of which he directed himself. His famous Hindi films include Rudaali, Daman and Gajagamini, among others.
Hazarika’s wide repertoire includes songs on the 1975 Emergency, the martyrs of the Assam agitation, the astronaut Kalpana Chawla, tribes of Arunachal Pradesh and many on the river Brahmaputra including Bistirno Parore, an adaption of Robeson’s Ol’ Man River, which he later sang in Hindi as ‘O Ganga tum Behti ho Kyun’.
“He sang for unity, for brotherhood. He was truly secular,” said Samar Hazarika. “If he were alive, he would have sung a song as a solution for the current situation,” he said, referring to the stand-off over the Citizenship Bill.