North Cachar Hills always had its share of problems ― from the politics of insurgencies to that of underdevelopment. But these have become increasingly internecine and debilitating since this district of Assam was renamed Dima Hasao earlier this year. For the uninitiated, NC Hills is to Assam what Assam is to India ― a vibrant melting pot of cultures. What the rechristening has decidedly done is make things worse for the people living in the area. They are now caught between Scylla and Charybdis. And their discomfiture lies in the fact that the two keep changing all the time. You never know who's going to cook your goose next. Life here goes beyond proverbs.
The recent Jatinga Festival serves as a case in point.
For someone who has been travelling in the Northeast but has missed out on Haflong for one reason or the other, a trip to this hilly town is nothing short of a dream come true. So, when the opportunity came, I wouldn't have kissed it goodbye. The trip began on a promising note, as our vehicle breezed its way from Guwahati at dusk. The woods gradually grew lovelier, darker, deeper. But the euphoria of homecoming, so to speak, did not last. Barely had we entered adjacent Karbi Anglong district, that the bad news came in the form of a call on our escort's cellphone. Someone had called a bandh the following day, October 26. It didn't matter who had called it; what did was that the festival was to get under way the following morning with an exhibition meant to showcase artisans. In other words, the festival seemed a non-starter.
On reaching Haflong, we were given the backdrop to the bandh. The Dima Halam Daogah (Dilip Nunisa) had called for a district-wide shutdown to protest the assault on one of its cadres on October 23 at Gabao village near Haflong. This was not the first time such an incident had happened, but DHD(D) was adamant that it would stick to its bandh call. Of course, it had decided to wait and time its bandh call with the first day of the Jatinga Festival. Requests by the festival organisers fell on deaf ears and DHD(D) stuck to its guns. It doesn't take much to enforce a bandh in the district; normal life was hit on October 26.
The words initially were that it was to be a daylong bandh. As normal life lay disrupted, more words came in ― this was to be an indefinite bandh.
On October 27, the festival was officially inaugurated by Governor JB Patnaik. A thousand or two people from neighbouring villages climbed up to the grounds where the Governor lighted the ceremonial lamp. A few perfunctory speeches and a group dance later, it was all over. A display of traditional games was cancelled. So were a few other items on the agenda. Only a handful of stalls were occupied at the grounds. Disappointment writ large on the faces of most villagers who had risked coming in. The hour-long event was not yet over when more disturbing words trickled in ― four coaches of the Silchar-bound Barak Valley Express had been derailed following a blast on the railways tracks. There were no casualties, for the blast was of low intensity. One waited with bated breath for another bandh call to protest the blast.
The DHD(D), to everyone's pleasant surprise, called off its indefinite bandh. The next day, naturally, was a normal one. No untoward incidents. No protests. No bandhs. It seemed too good to be true, or to last.
The expected bandh, however, came the next day. From unexpected quarters, and with practically no prior notice. The Indigenous People's Forum (IPF) had called for a 24-hour strike protesting the blast two days back. The leaders of the IPF, primarily a ragtag coalition opposed to the renaming of the district, were in no mood to yield to the festival organisers. While the DHD (D) bandh had been a virtual success by the token call itself, this one was enforced by activists. No vehicles were allowed to ply. No shops were allowed to open. The festival had begun with a bandh; it was destined to end with one.
The festival organisers, led by the committee secretary Kulendra Daulagupu, had wanted to showcase all the bright and colourful things about the area. The political undercurrents, the simmering tension between Dimasas and non-Dimasas, among other things, effectively sabotaged all hopes and plans.
This was the first Jatinga festival. It will not be the last, but for the next one can be a success only if the distrust and disharmony among the people of the area recedes into history. Or else, it will repeat itself next time round.
PS: There was some saving grace, though. A number of rock bands regaled the audience at the NL Daulogupu sports complex on October 28. The grounds were jampacked the next evening for the Lucky Ali concert.
People do deserve a break, don't they?