Why Rongali festival stands out as a platform for peace and diversity

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Published: April 14, 2019 2:18:34 AM

Focus on lynchings makes Assam’s Rongali cultural festival stand out as a platform for peace & diversity.

Assamese folk dance Husori was a major highlight at the carnival that celebrated the Rongali Bihu harvest festival of the state.

Nilotpal Das and Abhijeet Nath were two perfect models of fellowship that the diverse north-east was proud of. One spread love through music and the other stressed on the beauty of life through his love for animals. Yet one warm Friday last June, it didn’t take long for a mob to brutally end the lives of the two young men, dealing a nasty blow to their dreams of a better world. Now a year later, young people in the north-east are determined to not lose sight of the hopes that they so fervently cherished.

At the fifth edition of Rongali—a cultural pageant coinciding with Assam’s harvest festival of Rongali Bihu—in Guwahati last weekend, one of the main attractions was a creative zone dedicated to the two victims of lynching in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district. The sprawling Sonaram Field, the venue of Rongali on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra river, displayed a massive doodle of Das and Nath with spaces marked for poetry recitations, painting and even a street play. Rappers from the north-east joined in to make a powerful impact among the nearly one lakh visitors estimated by the organisers of the three-day event that celebrates the cultural diversity of Assam and the north-east.

No more lynchings

“The people are protesting against the lynching of Nilotpal and Abhijeet,” says Rongali chief organiser Shyamkanu Mahanta. “It is a fight and a social movement. We are talking about the social evil through art and culture,” adds Mahanta, who programmed the popular event in Assam’s capital during April 5-7 along with folk dances like Assam’s Husori, warrior dance from Nagaland, Dhol Chalam from Manipur, and sword dance and Mishing dance of Assam.

“Any of us can be a victim or a witness of lynching. The question is, will you be only a bystander? We want to put this question to the people to end this evil,” says Ittisha Sarah, whose North East Waste Collective partnered with Rongali to raise awareness about the hate crime among the masses. Sarah’s powerful voice against lynchings borrows the mob philosophy to replace collective violence with collective calm. “Each of us has a fear of coming in and stopping violence by a mob. But if we engage as a group, it will have the impact to save lives,” says Sarah, a Guwahati resident, who holds a master’s degree in design from Ambedkar University, Delhi.

It is an argument for peace that could have saved the lives of Das and Nath on June 8, 2018. The two friends, both nature lovers, had gone to Karbi Anglong on that day to explore its famed abundance of flora and fauna. The Guwahati-born Das, who was based in Goa, had arrived home two days before to celebrate Bihu with his family. Nath, who lived in the Assamese capital, wanted to look for new families of fish. Their visit took a violent turn when a rumour that the young men were “child lifters” led to a mob attack on them. Police arrested 48 people and charged them with murder. A trial is on at the Naogaon district sessions court.

Poetry for peace

Raktim Gautam, a second-year electrical engineering student of Assam Engineering College, Guwahati, was among those at the ‘Abhi-Neel zone’ of the Rongali carnival. “The lynching of Nilotpal and Abhijeet touched the entire country,” says Gautam, whose East India Poets, an art collective, organised a poetry session during the event. “There is a lot of tension in today’s society. Art is the best way to release that tension,” explains Gautam, whose poem Ma, they call me Mogli talks about the hypocrisy of society which looks at people with long hair with suspicion.

Rappers from the north-east, too, performed during Rongali in a tribute to Das and Nath. Assamese rappers Rain in Sahara took on the mob in a powerful song, Haunts Me, that went: ‘What gives you the right, to decide the fate of a life/You were meant to be brothers’. The group’s bass guitarist Rajat Bangia believes music has the power to change people. “We organised a peace jam after the lynching to unite people for justice,” recalls the Guwahati-based Bangia.

Founded in 2015, the Rongali carnival this year emerged as a rallying point for self-expression. Among the participants was Suhan Mallick, a 10-year-old boy from Guwahati, who is raising awareness against poaching of rhinos in Assam’s famous Kaziranga National Park. “I visit villages during summer holidays to tell people not to kill rhinos,” says Mallick, who was given a stall at the carnival to raise his voice against poaching. Visitors to Rongali snapped up the 500 saplings Mallick received from the Assam government to back another of his fights—against global warming.

(The author is a freelancer)

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