Bombs and boycott: 'celebrating' Independence Day in the northeast
Just two people dared to attend Independence Day celebrations in my school when I was growing up in Guwahati. Who they were comes later but let's first revisit what happened on Independence Day in Dhemaji in 2004.
A small group of people had gathered on the grounds of a college in the town in upper Assam to celebrate the day but what happened next traumatised the state. At around 9.30am a remote-controlled bomb went off in the playground killing 16 children and injuring 40 other people. The children died because they were celebrating Independence Day though extremist organisations had forbidden it. Five years later, a senior commander of banned separatist outfit the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) claimed responsibility for the blast and apologised.
The ULFA and several other militant outfits of the northeast routinely boycott Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations to register their opposition to the Indian state. This year 11 militant groups, including the ULFA, have called for a boycott of Independence Day celebrations in the region.
Such boycotts and threats of violence reduced Independence and Republic Days, occasions marked with joyous celebrations countrywide, to mere school holidays for me. I was a young boy growing up in the Assam of the late nineties. I live in Delhi now and the pomp, splendour and celebrations marking Independence Day make me nostalgic.
As a child in Guwahati, I remember national days meant watching celebrations in Lal Quila or on the Rajpath, with my grandmother, a partition refugee from East Bengal, on Doordarshan. I remember the monotonous voice of the commentator announcing the marching brigades, stiffly seated dignitaries, a blinking prime minister, and a rendition of Vande Mataram by musicians before and after the telecast of the ceremony in Delhi.
Outside, the streets were deserted — bandh that it was. Holiday was declared in schools and colleges, and shops and markets were all closed. Just like any other public holiday, people retired to the cosy comfort of their homes without any trace of celebration outside.
My school used to organise a small flag hoisting ceremony which was attended by only the physical training teacher and the headmaster. Our parents were perhaps too scared to send us to school on that day. What if there was a bomb blast? What if there was gun fire? What if…
I left Assam at 18 to study engineering in Jharkhand. There, on the streets of Ranchi, for the first time in my life, I came across vendors selling the tri-colour, along with balloons and caps with the same colour code. There, standing in front of those vendors I had felt a little embarrassed, like an outsider, left out of the in-house celebrations.
Years later, as a journalist in Delhi, witnessing the gala preparations for the important day I get a blow to my gut, again. The lightings, the greetings, and the rhetoric of those who cherry-pick from history, make me worry about people in the country's periphery and their feelings.
But then, Assam too, has had its fair share of prominent freedom fighters and nationalists. There were martyrs like Kanaklata Barua and Kushal Konwar, and also political activists like Gopinath Bordoloi, the first chief minister of the state. Unfortunately, though, over the years, separatist movements, regionalism, and Centre's apathy towards the region, have all come together and given shape to a disturbing socio-political situation.
I often remember what Jlip Mawkhiew, the village headman of Krohiawhiar, a remote village in Meghalaya, once told me.
"People in my village don't know what the national anthem is. For them, August 15, is like any other day," he had said.