Zubeen Garg: not Assamese enough for separatist group

April 23, 2013

(Note: paragraph six contains graphic language)

When in Assam, sing like the Assamese do. That was the message from the separatist group United Liberation Front of Assam to singer Zubeen Garg. The 40-year-old singer, born in Jorhat in Assam, irked ULFA last week when he sang Hindi songs at a Bihu festival.

That’s a poke in the eye for the rebel group. Bihu is a major cultural festival in Assam, taking place three times a year. It’s a big deal for the most populous largest state in northeast India, and ULFA didn’t like Garg’s decision to sing in Hindi (check his song “Ya Ali” here) because its leaders consider doing that an erosion of Assamese culture.

“Zubeen is a talented singer but that does not mean he should consider himself an ambassador of Hindi and go all out to promote it. If he continues to do so, we shall not be responsible for any consequences,” the group wrote in a letter to the Press Trust of India wire service.

As a reply, on his Facebook fan page, Garg wrote, “i think assam is a wrong place for creative people. anyway i m gonna skipp all the bihu shows from next year.” (sic) Adding, “no power can dictate an artist.we have our own freedom……my music spoke only love n brotherhood.but some people never understood that.but i will live with my own freedom ….always.” (sic)

As a result, Garg ended up receiving state government security – two bodyguards and a vehicle (not quite what billionaire Mukesh Ambani is getting these days from the government).

He followed this with another update – “ulfa has banned me before in the 90’s.its nothing new forme.i always wrote songs against terrorism n violence.as an artist i cant support these bullshit. Assam is heaven. we only destroying it .it’s a call for everybody.” (sic)

For people unfamiliar with India’s many languages, Assamese is the easternmost Indo-European language, a large family that includes English, the Romance and Gothic languages, the Gaelic languages and the major northern Indian languages including Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya and Bengali. Assam’s history as part of post-independence India has been a troubled one, however, and the people of Assam – ethnically a mix of ancestors that makes them culturally quite distinct from the rest of India – have chafed under what they see as Delhi’s distant, uncaring rule.

ULFA, which has sought an independent state, has fought against the rest of India’s cultural hegemony, before. In the late nineties, it tried to ban the screening of Hindi movies in Assam, but Bollywood’s popularity bulldozed that attempt.

Reaction from other Assamese people has tended to side with Garg, who was born in Jorhat, Assam, in 1972. “Music transcends barriers of caste, creed or religion. It should be allowed to flourish. Music can make the world a better place to live in,” Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi wrote on Twitter.

Dipjyoti Talukdar, a 27-year-old journalist from Assam, wrote: “In the first place an outlawed outfit doesn’t have the right to proclaim or give a mandate. Secondly, it’s an artist whose freedom of expression is at stake here. He can and should undoubtedly sing whatever he wants. Thirdly, singing Assamese on stage or banning Hindi movies guarantee that popularity and viewership will increase… Culture can’t be protected through the views of a fraction that does not connect with the majority of Assamese society anymore. Moreover, they (the ULFA) haven’t come up with any plausible solution for the imminent troubles facing the state and its people.”

Then there was Diganta Choudhury, a 27-year-old Assamese software engineer based in Bangalore: “I feel the ULFA should concentrate more on resolving the various political and social issues in Assam rather than hijacking an artist’s freedom… Language should not be a barrier in music….I’m with Zubeen in this one.”

The dispute appears to have ended on Sunday, according to this message on Garg’s Facebook page: “I m happy that th dispute between ulfa n me got settled. We have the same healthy relation like before. Thanks poreshda fr The understanding n tolerence.” (sic) <http://www.facebook.com/ZUBEENsOFFICIAL?fref=ts>

“Poreshda,” using the Assamese term “-da” as a respectful and affectionate way to say “older brother,” refers to Paresh Baruah, ULFA’s commander in chief. It might be just as well for Garg. ULFA has been implicated in a number of assassinations, railway bombings and other actions, and in the 80’s and 90’s in particular, was a fearsome presence that caused some Assamese families to flee the state. The threat of such violence shows the kind of price that a singer might pay for trying to sing a song.

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Well, it’s understood they are trying to stop the assimilation of North-east into Indian stream. Similar threats are also found in other north-east states of Manipur and Nagaland. There even viewing of Hindi movies in private homes is banned. But what I am more concerned about is the uncaring rule of Delhi. Isn’t it surprising that many regions are up in revolt- Kashmir, parts of northeast, Naxalite-Maoist movements and there is also gradually a revolt like atmosphere growing up in Delhi. I hope our politicians soon shift from votebank politics to politics of governance, before disenchantment with Delhi starts growing all over India :(.

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