Writings on the wall is a metaphor that emerged from travels across India, particularly, but not necessarily, during elections (for earlier writings, see goo.gl/v83OBh, goo.gl/5lkWMW). Writings on the wall, because, as you drive across the countryside, your eyes open, it’s what is written on the walls that tells you the story of what is changing, and what isn’t, what is on top of people’s minds and what’s been junked. It reminds you of how this changing new India never fails to surprise you. Particularly, how logically people have moved from grievance to aspiration, and now ambition and assertion.
Or, in the case of Assam, from static, lazy sulking to old-fashioned, virtuous migration to where better opportunity might be. Over nearly four days of travel through the Brahmaputra Valley, an old-timer, honorary Asomiya like me, was so utterly astounded by the complete absence of bitterness, talk of injustice, discrimination, of how our resources are being vacuumed by mainland India and how we are treated as a colony. On my second day, however, I do hear some angry complaints. And soon they become a chorus. But wait, this isn’t my Assamese friends returning to their old normal. I, along with Samudra Gupta Kashyap, our brilliant Northeast correspondent for 23 years, are feted by local student activists at a roadside stop on the outskirts of Kaliabor, where Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi’s son, Gaurav, is contesting, or just easing himself into a seat warmed by his father (three times, and his uncle, twice victorious).
The complaint is not about bad roads: we sit next to the newly four-laned national highway (now called Asian Highway, as it is supposed to connect Istanbul with Tokyo ultimately). It isn’t even about exploitation or lack of jobs, which is a problem. Most significantly, it isn’t even about the “invasion” of Bangladeshis. It is about rhinos.
Two more rhinos have been killed in the past week, taking the toll already to 11 in adjoining Kaziranga. At this rate, 2014 will break the record of 48 killings by poachers in Kaziranga in 1998. “Do something about this, sir, ” says Moni Madhav Mahanta, AASU student leader in Kaliabor. “Your voice in Delhi can help. Our government just can’t handle it.” These are leaders of the same almighty AASU (All Assam Students Union) that led the most stirring popular movement in independent India’s history. They blocked crude to the mainland, boycotted an election so effectively in 1983 that one Bhumidhar Barman (Congress, Nalbari) set a world record, winning a hundred per cent votes in his constituency. He polled all the 271 votes cast. His rival couldn’t even cast his own. And when Barman was made a minister in Hiteswar Saikia’s mostly illegitimate government, AASU put up a hoarding in front of his native house: this place reserved for cremating Bhumidhar Barman. Nobody dared remove it for months. The same AASU is back to blockading the highway again. But only when a rhino is poached. And they are angry with their own government, not “India’s”, its CRPF, army or even the Calcutta media, Assam’s oldest bugbear.
It isn’t as if they have no complaints or demands. More colleges, better jobs, English-medium education, more sports facilities. In short, things Indians this age would demand anywhere in this aspirational country. To that extent, the Assamese have also re-joined the national mainstream. Part of the new assurance comes from the state’s growth and improvement in quality of life that makes Tarun Gogoi the Congress party’s most successful chief minister, ahead of even Sheila Dikshit. But a lot also from knowing that boys and girls, “amar lora” (our boys), as our then AASU leaders were proudly described once, are doing brilliantly elsewhere in the country.
There is chatter about how Asomiyas dominate the music and film production and processing industry in Bollywood. And how they are acquiring fame in fields as diverse as medicine to software to banking to, most importantly, media. A dozen smiles lift the staid dining hall from its dim, diesel-generated lighting as we talk about the one and only Arnab Goswami, who scolds the entire country with such panache every work-day evening. What better than a fellow, and young Asomiya, asking the high and mighty what the nation wants to know and then even answering that question. This is progress for a people who complained for decades that India never listened to them, of how Nehru had dumped them in 1962 with his most infamous “my heart goes to the people of Assam”, as the Chinese spilled over the foothills, minutes away as a helicopter flies across the Brahmaputra from where we sit.
Having been a journalist for nearly four decades now, I am at that stage of life where I mostly end up flaunting the fact that I knew most famous younger people because I was friends with their parents. Arnab Goswami is no exception. It is just that I knew his uncle Dinesh Goswami instead. One of the nicest, gentlest, most generous, intelligent, patriotic and soft-spoken (the one quality you wouldn’t accuse his famous nephew of having inherited from him) persons at the peak of the trouble in Assam. He loved us reporters and we dropped by at whim at his modest home in Bharalumukh, just where you enter Guwahati coming in from the Borjhar airport, and he always had some gossip, gyan and words of comfort for you besides, indeed, an endless supply of tea served in tiny white cups, even if the beverage was sheer molasses boiled with tea leaves and cardamom. He was a key supporter of the protest and a moderate, level-headed one.
One adda at his home and you would discount all the rubbish you might have heard about the students movement being secessionist. As the agitators transformed into a political party, Asom Gana Parishad, much like the AAP today, Dinesh became its leading light. He was elected MP and served as law minister in V.P. Singh’s cabinet, none of which even affected him, of course. But in so many conversations, he expressed concern that if the “boys” were not careful, their movement could be hijacked by either secessionists, or, more likely, the RSS. If he were alive today, he would claim vindication, but with embarrassment, not pride.
The “movement” hasn’t been hijacked. It has simply ceded the space it had created for a sub-national, regional, ethnic political force to a more sectarian, ultra-nationalist BJP. To say that this happened because the “boys were not careful” would only be a euphemism Dinesh Goswami would have used. The AASU-AAGSP-AGP leaders’ betrayal has few parallels in Indian political history. They took no time learning the bad habits of “mainstream” politics. Corruption, intrigue, lying, groupism and, even more sadly in the case of many, alcoholism. Bhrigu Phukan, who was to the AGP and its Prafulla Mahanta what Manish Sisodia, Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan together are to Arvind Kejriwal, drank himself to death after Mahanta sidelined him. Digen Bora, another fiery leader, similarly killed himself not knowing what to do with the pile he would make daily as food minister.
On a drive to the distant village of Kampur, as I hop into his bullet-proof SUV after a chance meeting near Nowgong, Mahanta names a couple more like these. And if I don’t detect much pain on his face it is not because the sun sets early in Assam. The light is fading but there is enough for me to catch a streak of satisfaction, if not joy. Better the rest of you than me. The ones who avoided alcohol were consumed by Assam’s roads, including Lalit Rajkhowa, advisor to AASU and transport minister in the first Mahanta government, and Dinesh Goswami at just 56. Nagen Sarma, another key figure, was blown up by an ULFA bomb.
At Kampur, about 15 km on a village road off the national highway, but as beautifully metalled (under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana), Mahanta graciously drags me to join a felicitation and prayer at the quaint Namghar, at the congregation hall where the majority Vaishnavite followers of Sankardeva pray and chant in front of no idol, but the Holy Bhagwat. And even as my cache of gamochas, the hand-made scarf the Assamese present you in greeting and respect much like the Sikh siropa, piles up, Mahanta admits he is in trouble this time. But the important thing is what he rues: that the AGP and the BJP failed to join hands. That “our” vote base is the same and will now be divided. This is not the philosophy on which the Assam movement and the AGP were set up. This is exactly why the BJP has now taken it away from the AGP. Dinesh Goswami would have today spanked Prafulla Mahanta.
Election 2014 will mark the demise of the AGP and the rise of the BJP as the second political force in the state, whether it wins many seats or not. Where the secessionists (ULFA) failed earlier, the RSS-BJP have now succeeded. So many of the key AGP leaders, disillusioned with Mahanta and his intrigues, and also drawn by the “Mother” ideology, are now in the BJP. Its new state president, Sarbananda Sonwal, used to be effectively Mahanta’s deputy after Phukan. He is now the BJP’s candidate in North Lakhimpur against Ranee Narah, Central MoS and wife of Bharat Narah, once a fiery AASU vice-president and its tribal face and then its first defector, albeit to the Congress.
They are a wonderful couple even if the conspiracy folklore would tell you of how Hiteswar Saikia trapped Narah by “getting him to fall in love” with Jahanara Begum, a rather striking member of the Assam women’s cricket team. Most of the rest, however, were bagged by the BJP. Bejoya Chakravarty, its sitting Guwahati MP, was an AGP leading light as well. The AGP’s failure in making a deal will devastate its vote bank in this election. Muslims and Bengalis will never trust it and the Assamese Hindus who backed it have a less cluttered choice in saffron.
Prodyut Bora, the BJP’s young (39) state unit vice-chief, and one of the most articulate younger politicians you’d meet anywhere, however, insists that it was the BJP’s decision to go it alone, inspired by the RSS. Bora tells you he is the first IIM graduate (IIM Ahmedabad, actually) to become a full-time politician, has never been in the RSS or politics of any kind. But the BJP attracts him with its new ideas and he gives the RSS the credit for having decided to risk losing a couple of seats but not going with Mahanta who “continues to betray you all the time”. “The kind of election 2014 is,” he says, super-confidently, “a couple of seats less will not stop Narendra bhai from becoming prime minister. But we will rise as the second party of Assam.”
He may sometimes sound much too organised and measured for a BJP politician, and, frankly, grievance-free for a young Assamese. But my image of the young Assamese is an old, outdated one. Prodyut represents the changing new Assamese who venture out all over the world, make a mark and lead this new march from insecurity to opportunity.
Bora could draw inspiration from somebody equally young, if exactly on the other side of the goal. If Himanta Biswa Sarma, the health and education minister, the most visible and voluble face of the Congress and a dissident leader against Gogoi, speaks English still with the distinctive Asomiya tone, it is because he went to Cotton College, the local St Stephen’s, but not quite IIM-Ahmedabad. He is a most brilliant story-teller, and among the most delightfully candid and articulate politicians you will find. We chat over a lunch of fish tenga (tenga for sour, as the Assamese prefer one of the dishes at each meal to be) and reminds me that Assamese cuisine is amongst the least discovered and most underrated. Beyond that, he would prefer to be totally off the record. But I arm-twist him into letting me use some parts of our conversation and also to leave it to me to decide which ones. So let me choose the one I thought might throw him most off-balance.
“Isn’t it true that you were a member of the ULFA?” I ask.
“At my age, sir, who wasn’t?” Bland denials are not for Himanta who, besides being the most prominent young Congressman in the state, has the added advantage of owning a formidable local media empire, including a premier Assamese TV channel. Or, okay, it is his wife who owns them, he would remind you.
“I was a member of the AASU from class five in school. At Cotton College I was a member of the 32-strong executive. Twenty-nine of them joined the ULFA as that was the fashion those days. I did not, but supported it from outside, I won’t deny that… I can’t, actually…” He speaks with a near-reckless abandon that would suggest Arnab Goswami isn’t just one Assamese of a kind.
“Then how did you come to politics and the Congress?” I ask.
“Because Hiteswar Saikia was coming to our college. He was then treated like an outcast by Assam students. But I realised that if the college had to get something it needed the chief minister’s goodwill, ” he said.
I am not sure you would find that explanation good enough, and he knows it, but couldn’t care less. He loves politics and if he was ever in the ULFA, he was in the wrong place. Besides age, there is one more thing in common between him and the fastest rising young BJP-ite, Prodyut Bora: He also went “out” for education, to the Delhi School of Social Work, in this case.
This new willingness to go out and compete rather than stay back and sulk is the most significant writing on the Assamese wall today. As it usually happens, as a people reach out to the outside world, their smaller neighbours get the confidence to reach out to them in turn. This new Assamese cosmopolitanism has made Guwahati so much more welcome to tribals in the six other smaller states of the Northeast which together send fewer MPs (10) to the Lok Sabha as Assam (14).
The fastest growing businesses in Guwahati are private hospitals, education and, most touchingly, paying guest accommodation for girls as tribals come here seeking medical aid, education and professional training. This is what you read on the walls wherever you look. There are hospitals and schools coming up everywhere, even one residential school, Brahmaputra Academy, under construction on the highway between Guwahati and Nellie, which became infamous for the massacre on a February morning in 1983 that left 3, 500 Muslims dead in a few hours.
In Uzan (upstream) Bazar, overlooking the river, which is always the cultural and philosophical Assamese heart of Guwahati, I see a row of paying guest hostels for girls with names like “Sahayika” (probably because so many tribal girls come to train at air hostess and hospitality academies), “Mili Juli” (can there be a more apt tribute to the Northeast’s diversity) and somewhat more conventional, “Devi”.
No visit to Assam is complete for me without knocking on the doors of two sets of my my most wonderful friends for life. Pradip and Bonty Bhuyan, who gave up lucrative businesses to set up the Faculty High School, one of the state’s finest schools, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra, in front of the IIT, and Vasant and Kiran Bhuyan. Kiran works at a bank and Vasant teaches physics to girls at Handique College. He was an advisor to the AASU in the days of the movement, and is among just a handful of fellow-travellers who drew no gains at all for themselves once their boys came into power. He is disappointed with the way the AGP has gone, but not disillusioned.
With friends, he has also not just set up a school but developed a whole new concept of Jatiya Bidyalays. Before you get any ideas, Jatiya does not mean local or ethnic, but national. These are Assamese medium schools that teach English from the very beginning. More than 12,700 boys and girls study at his trust-run Assam Jatiya Bidyalay at Noonmati on Guwahati’s outskirts, better known for its tiny refinery. At the entrance, I catch hold of a class 7 boy with a T-shirt reading “I know Life’s a Bitch… but” and then, in Assamese, “baaki bhalo? (Is the rest okay?)”.
You can’t ask for a better illustration for the Jatiya Bidyalay model which is now a rage in the state, is being franchised successfully, and has even been supported by contributions from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and earlier Kuldip Nayar with their MPLADS funds. Across the river, at the Bhuyans’ more classic public school that attracts students from all over the Northeast, you find posters that tell you, “the more you speak English, the better you become” and “speaking in English makes you confident and smart”.
If the biggest change in Assam today is this rising confidence that comes from cosmopolitanism, look above the walls. Along the Guwahati-Shillong Road that bisects the city, shopping malls and office towers buzz through the day. Above them loom the inevitable hoardings and a very large number of them have Narendra Modi looking down at you. He has no competition in this election, it seems, at least when it comes to the hoardings. The only one standing up to him, and staring him down as she would a gloved rival, is boxer Mary Kom, the biggest Northeastern star now, selling a cement brand. This is change.