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I grew up there at the peak of insurgency in Assam. I am often asked about my memories of the experiences of those troubled times.
Who do I support, the government or the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA)? Is the gun culture prevalent in Assam? When you come from Northeast India, you face all such questions. Maybe people are curious to know what it is to be like us.
It’s only now that the world knows us a little, after the electronic media has taken over the northeastern states. I get calls from friends who check if it is okay to land in Guwahati. Will there be an explosion?
Over the years, with exposure, the queries are fewer. Yes, now our friends fly down to Assam for our weddings back home. Not something many would do a decade ago.
It’s strange how I remember the ’90s, when insurgency was at its peak. My first memory of it was coming back from school to see lines and lines of military trucks entering our sleepy town. There was hardly any traffic ever.
Everyone could cross the road. But when those huge trucks came, we had to wait to cross the one street that took us home. As a girl younger than ten, I did not know that military operations were being launched in my town. We would wave at the trucks and the army men would wave back. It felt so good to be acknowledged. We waved as fast as we could from across the street.
It is a small town. Everyone knew everyone else. There was one English-medium school across the street. We studied there, lived with grandparents. Everyday looked the same. Vegetables and flowers were always home grown. We watched Doordarshan. Dad paid the school fees. Newspapers reached in the evening or a day later. We had to pick them up from the shop. That was all we knew about life.
Of course, if your parents were strict they wouldn’t let you watch Chitrahar on Friday; it could ruin you. But we were allowed to. And so it was a good life.
The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) was formed in 1979. I was not even born then. It was only in 1990 that it was declared a terrorist outfit and banned. Till then, it enjoyed a lot of local support.
I still remember the New Year’s Day of 1992. Dad came back from the market and told Maa, “Heerak was killed yesterday.” And then there was silence. I had no idea who Dad was talking about.
But I remember that cold evening. It brought news of death with it. It stung my tongue and I felt bitter. Heerak Jyoti Mahanta was an ULFA leader who had a lot of public support. He hailed from an upper class family, but chose to fight for what he believed in. He was just 30 when he was shot dead in Guwahati by the armed forces.
The time I was waving to the army men in those trucks,’Operation Bajrang’ was launched by the government to hunt down militancy in Assam. I was in primary school and had no idea why so many men came to our town with guns. But they stayed and it became a regular sight.
The worst of all time was when President’s rule was imposed in Assam during the AGP government. Each state machinery was suspended. Every street was taken over by the men in the military uniform.
There would be checkposts wherever one went.
My father was a lawyer, but more than that he was a well-loved man. When our car would pass, the military man would check the papers. It was the first time I saw someone put my father through such a drill. It soon became a norm, until the personnel at the checkposts started recognising dad, and stopped bothering him.
My vocabulary had now added words like, ‘Curfew’, ‘Shoot at sight order’ and ‘raids’.
Curfew meant you stayed home after 5pm – you just couldn’t step out. Shoot at sight meant you didn’t show yourself. It’s emergency, so if they see anyone, they shoot. No questions asked. And raids meant your house would be searched at any time. Again, no questions asked. The irony of it all was that this was a sleepy town far away from Delhi, perhaps many hardly knew we existed until we became a watched town.
The problem was that no one sat with us to tell us what was happening. Why did some elders say we had to stay home after dark? We learnt it through the conversations adults had around us.
It all felt sad and I tried to repress the mounting fear by reading Enid Blyton. In my head, I lived the life of Darrell Rivers, the protagonist of Malory Towers. Books were such a beautiful escape.
The word ‘Lakhipathar’ is still fresh in my memory. It was the base camp of the ULFA, and always made headlines. I had learnt to read Assamese then, and the first word I read was ‘Lakhipathar’ in the newspapers.
It was always there, and it was about military operations. Gradually, we learnt to live with it. So many times, our examinations would be postponed because a bandh was called.
Dad would always know who was caught, because the boys captured by the Army were presented in the courts. Once, when five boys were killed in our town, Dad got the information in the morning. The father of one of the boys came to see Dad some time later and said that his son was returning home and so he must get fish.
Only Dad knew that a body was coming home. He said nothing.
Now that I look back, I wonder what a man like my father – who loved everything in that small town – must have gone through. He was then the only lawyer in town, and so he heard the bad news first. The thought still makes me uneasy.
It was a beautiful day and sunlight flooded our front yard, the trees and flowers were blooming, but we all stayed home. The next day, a bandh was declared. There was a wedding in town that could not be cancelled. So, people who could, walked to the venue to attend it. Mostly with no gifts, because the market was shut. But even at that wedding everyone talked about the killings. It was a heart-wrenching time for us. As if the night wept in silence and we stood bewildered.
As I write this, 22 years have passed. But I remember that night.
Another time, it was raining. Dad came home and told us how a military personnel got a lift in our car. A young man from Haryana, he would stand in the rain for twelve hours and guard the check posts. Dad felt bad when the army man said that he hadn’t untied his shoelaces for 24 hours and his feet were swollen.
He dropped him back to the camp. Dad said that for a man raised in Haryana, standing in the rains of Assam without knowing anything about us, not even our language, must be a very tough job. I felt bad for the army too.
In the summer afternoons, when mangoes would grow in our backyard and we would all take naps, the army would guard the streets. One of the grandmothers on our street would offer them chai. She said it’s inhuman to see someone stand in the sun for hours. So, she offered them food too. As I look back now, humanity never dies. At least no one ever taught us to hate the army. Sure, we had issues, but they never transformed into hatred.
In spite of growing up in a tumultuous time, we did not grow to be hateful humans. That is the wisdom of our previous generation. We were still sent to art schools and education was always the topmost priority.
The human heart can do so much good, my small town taught me.
We then heard about the secret killings that targeted families of ULFA members. The deaths in ULFA leader Mithinga Daimari’s family rocked the state. His whole family was killed, only a four-year-old nephew escaped.
Then we saw mass protests. I saw the resilience of the community. There would be silent marches in the evening. Someone would light a torch and hundreds would follow in silence.
We would be asked to switch off the lights in our front yard, so that the light touched our homes. People marched without a word. This was followed by protests by newspapers. The editorials would be empty – just a blank piece of paper.
I never saw blank editorials anywhere after Assam.
One summer afternoon, the editor of Asomiya Pratidin, a popular Assamese daily, was killed. He wrote fiercely without a trace of fear. He was shot dead by a few men who had surrendered from ULFA, as he went to pick his son from school. His name was Parag Das, a graduate from Delhi School of Economics.
Another sad evening followed. Scores mourned. They protested. 21 years after the shooting, Assam still commemorates the day.
Over the years, most of the top ULFA leaders have surrendered and peace talks were initiated. Military activity lessened. I can’t recall the last time there was a raid in the past decade. It’s okay to drive late on the roads now.
We still sing songs, write poetry, dance and send our children to school. Our town has five beauty parlours now, earlier it had none. New English-medium schools have mushroomed. We have two new restaurants too – both Chinese. Theatre thrives – people go to watch plays in hoards.
May be it has something to do with time: it repairs itself. An MNC that deals with cosmetics across the world found a place in the town and, overnight, thousands of young men were employed.
To commute, they were offered bike loans. Almost everyone works now. A new biscuit factory was opened and mostly women were employed.
With our buying capacity, even the market has expanded. Life has moved on.
We might not have won it all, or have it all, but we have learnt to look forward into the future. May be it’s the human spirit to create something better than what you were handed over.
This time, as I was driving to the airport to catch my flight to Delhi, I looked back at our town. Still small, lush green and silent. And the words of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise rushed to my head. As if our town spoke:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear,
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear,
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
The one thing I learnt about life that no university or book could teach me was that it is okay to be angry but it’s never okay to be bitter.
Anger can be transformed into poetry, music, protests and conversations. But bitterness eats the host. So, there was no room for it. That saved an entire generation.
If you ever want to know why we hope, do travel to the northeast, meet our people and you will get a million reasons to sing and dance.
And yes, at this point, we all seem to be angry at something; mostly we rant on social media. I request you to come home, you will find a reason to write a beautiful poem. I still do.
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Published here earlier.
Image source: By Defense Dept. photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jerry Morrison [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons