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The Rediff Interview/Bhupen Hazarika

'If they don't meet and talk, in about 15 years the North-East will be in darkness'

In a state ravaged by years of insurgency, composer and poet Bhupen Hazarika has been a voice of moderation. For years his revolutionary lyrics bearing powerful messages of social change have resounded in the hamlets and valleys of Assam.

The 71-year-old Dadasaheb Phalke award winner is a deeply unhappy man today: The situation in his native state troubles him consistently. "Sometimes in the nights I cry for my state," he confesses.

In an attempt to resolve the deadlock, Hazarika offered last month to mediate between the Union government and the outlawed United Liberation Front of Asom. For a man who is deeply respected in Assam, his inclination could hardly go unnoticed.

In a candid interview with Archana Masih, he spoke about the Assam he loves so much, his impressions of the 'angry young boys' and what can be done to save the state from disaster.

What are your best memories of Assam? You have lived in Bengal and Maharashtra, in UP and America, what is it that sets Assam apart?

Yesterday's Assam broke into seven pieces -- seven sisters as they are now called. I was born in yesterday's Assam. In my 9 or 10th year I realised that I was born in an anthropologist's paradise. I was specially impressed with the simplicity of the people There was unity in diversity. Those days I remember with immense happiness.

Then there was a pattern of tunes and rhythms around me. It was very interesting that the same dance that I saw in Mizoram, I saw in the Philippines as well. As far as the composition of the Assamese population is concerned it is more a part of South-East Asia than the rest of India. I thanked myself that this was a haven to know people and thought of myself as a cultural labourer. We had started singing when there were no microphones.

The most significant thing I felt in my youth was that integration could be worked out in Assam. But after sometime when ethnic differences arose, it all became different. I experienced a negative attitude which started hurting me. I don't call myself a cultural worker, I am a labourer.

Is it true that you are willing to mediate between the Union government and ULFA to restore peace to Assam?

The truth is that I was invited by Akashvani Guwahati to inaugurate their 50th year celebrations. I was asked to sing the same songs I had sung 50 years ago. It was also an opportunity to pay homage to the artists of the North-East. One song meant 'I'll kill all the exploiters, I'll kill all the exploiters by making an instrument of the skeletons of the exploiters.' During that time those expressions were more powerful than an AK-47.

I have been writing these kinds of songs throughout my life, where socially deprived people formed my subjects. I did not want to be R D Burman, S D Burman or Mohammad Rafi. Music was my hobby and I did not have any great monetary ambition in my life.

So it was on that evening a professor in the audience asked me about my opinion on the traumatic situation in the North-East. I was asked this question on a purely non-political evening. I replied that I wanted peace and that others also wanted the same.

This was later confirmed by a phone call from Paresh Barua (the ULFA commander-in-chief). "Dada, we also want peace," he said. I was sitting in the verandah of my house with relatives, students and other friends when he called. He congratulated me for coming to Assam after a long time and asked, "Dada, how are you?"

I just listened to him. He asked about the new song I had written. I told him that I still had to set it to tune. The song means "If our destination is sunrise...why are you running towards the sunset." All I said was that I want peace.

During another press conference one person asked me, "Suppose you are called, will you be ready to mediate between the Government of India, the Assam government and the angry young men." So I replied that if the question arises then I'm sure quite a few people would be called. In case anyone wants me to participate then I too could be one of those people.

Has anyone approached you so far?

Nobody has approached me yet. I also told them that my instrument for social change has been my song. I have utilised it and I do not believe that Assam, which is Mahabharat ka mahan ang since the days of Mahabharat, should go anywhere else. I said we are limbs, part of mother India. The trigger alone cannot save society. These are the two objectives I stand for and anyone who approaches me should keep this in mind.

Have you met Paresh Barua?

I met him in 1986 at a Bihu festival. They asked me what I thought about their organisation. I told them that guerrilla warfare could not be successful unless the people knew what kind of society would emerge after breaking the present matrix of society. The people need to know what new changes will take place. I even told them that if some mothers give them milk for three days and nights it did not mean that the entire people were with them.

I used to do many road shows before -- one man shows from village to village. That's how I became Bhupen Hazarika. During those shows I have met many angry young men who have said to me, "Dada gana chod do aur gun le lo," (Leave your song and pick up the gun). I told them that my gaan (song) is my gun. At this age I could not go to the jungles to show that I loved my country. I can't prove that I love Assam by only getting angry.

I am happy about the Nagaland cease-fire. They have come together and arrived at a decision. It is a good sign. Many people have asked me if there were signs of helplessness or anger in Paresh Barua's tone. I say no. He said he also wanted peace.

Do you think like the NSCN, there are possibilities of a similar cease-fire in Assam?

I think there'll be differences... Sovereignty is not negotiable, that too in a third country. First they should decide amongst themselves.

What are the problems affecting Assam today?

Assam is nearer to Hanoi than Delhi. Its geographical isolation and lack of leadership from the East has not brought unhappiness. There has been a constant and intentional neglect. Assamese have had to fight for a bridge over the Brahmaputra... it took an attack from China for a railway track, it was laid the very next day. The broad gauge has not been done yet. Tea and oil have not been respected.

Assam has Nepalese, Bengalis, Assamese. The administrative neglect since 1947 has made this generation angry. I asked a tribal friend of mine, who is a vice-chancellor why did they form Meghalaya. He said it was to protect his culture. I then asked how the situation had changed since and he replied, "Dada, my mother has learnt her own lullaby." So it's not true that if you isolate yourself you can keep your culture alive.

In 1978 they were very angry. They were questioning things that were not happening. In the 1990s the controversies have gone completely haywire. If they don't meet and talk, in about 15 years the North-East will be in darkness.

'The negligence has been so long that people have lost all faith'

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The Rediff Special

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