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Protest Music
“Why not make peace and not war?
Why not make love and not enemies?
Why not be good for this world’s sake?
Why not be good for your own sake?”


Sings Baba Phu-Ning-Ding in the Karbi language, from Diphu a state in Assam. He has been a fighter in the true sense. In war-torn Assam, his soulful music resonates, trying to get the message of peace and harmony across to the commoners, the militants and the government.

But while for Phu-Ning-Ding coming to a consensus about the situation of his state is of prime importance, there are musicians such as Andrew Ropmay from Shillong who shudder at the thought of even celebrating August 15 as Independence Day. “It’s a complete state of distraught; I haven’t seen any Independence Day celebrations in the past two decades. In fact there’s a strict curfew, people shut the shops early and scamper away home.” The war between the government and the militants in each state remains the same, though the reasons for the clash vary from state to state.

The states in the North East were mostly independent before British annexation in early 19th century or even before India earned its independence in 1947. Trouble started brewing when the indigenous communities who controlled the land and forests lost everything because of integration into the Indian Union.

The people have never been comfortable with their merger with the Indian union. Freedom of India in 1947 meant ‘continued colonisation’ for them. The merger also upset the people there because of the treatment meted out to them. There was a constant sense of ‘neo-class’ created among the people.

Insurgency And The Government
There has been little attempt to clarify the concept of ‘insurgency’ in the context of the North East. The term, as of now, has been applied from one particular angle alone, which is that of a rebellious nature. The Indian army, the second largest in Asia, is still unable to contain the insurgent groups of the region which are smaller in numbers. All northeastern states have shown resentment towards being occupied by the army in one way or the other.

The beautiful hilly terrains of the northeastern region pose their own danger, with dirty politics and unresolved issues that plague the states disturbing the peace and serenity that nature offers. The region throws up a million issues ~ from militancy and ethnic cleansing, to the oppressive Indian Army, alienation from India and so on and so forth. “[The] military is slowly being wiped out, but there are lots of unions fighting for the people. There are always protests and lathi charges happening, though I feel there is more peace here now,” says Andrew Ropmay.

The people are insulated from the rest of India and boiling issues like raping of Assamese women by the Indian army are the only ones that make it to the media and people like us. “What is right with the government anyway? There is a bandh here every other day. The underground group in this area has decided that August 15 will be a bandh and the government seems to be indifferent to the whole issue. If you pick up the local newspaper here, you’ll see a small box buried in the corner of the page that appeals all the people to come and celebrate Independence Day,” fumes Rudy Wallang from the popular rock band Soulmate.

For Lou Majaw ~ formerly part of the popular band Great Society ~ from Shillong, and who has been a crucial part of shaping the music scene in the North East, the situation has gone from bad to worse. “The government is not going in the right direction. For example earlier we used to have late night movie shows, but the army harasses us so much these days that it’s impossible to be out in the night. They misbehave with the people here and we don’t feel free. The law and order [situation] is terrible. There’s no safety anymore and everything the army does is to harass us and pocket some money,” he fumes. Lou has been celebrating Bob Dylan’s birthday every year and is known as one of Dylan’s biggest fans in the North East.

However, musicians such as Makuka, a native of Mizoram, have no grudges against the government. “The people of Mizoram in general do not know their rights and what to expect from the Central Government. The mindsets of the people depend upon the politicians who guide them. I don’t have to tell you about politicians ~ most of whom are opportunists. They almost convert villagers into beggers,” he explains.

There are also many ordinary Manipuris who are growing tired of the rebels’ influence. Several insurgent groups increasingly issue diktats and rulings on moral and social behaviour, enforced with the threat of violence. Schoolgirls must wear the traditional Manipuri sarong to school. Bollywood films are no longer screened in the state because of their allegedly “corrupting Indian influence”.

The bloodshed is made worse by bitter rivalry between certain rebel groups, many of whom represent diverse ethnic groups or political outlooks. Extortion is also rampant in Manipur. Most professionals are forced to pay the rebels regular sums of money that are locally called ‘tax’.

“In Shillong, everyone has experienced first hand that insurgency is futile and thankfully there is some change taking place. Though there is a sense of alienation, I personally think it’s time for us to change this mindset and to really work hard to achieve in whatever sphere we choose because in the end it’s our lives that get affected and not someone else’s. There is definitely growing discontent amongst the youth because of the perceived lack of employment opportunities, though in my view, if we all look hard enough and want to earn a living desperately enough, there are many opportunities available in our land, it’s just a matter of having the dignity to actually work. On the other hand, the education system is geared towards producing large numbers of unemployable graduates. The need of the times is an education system where the youth are inspired to excel in whatever they aim for, be it music, sport, arts, sciences etc,” says Keith Wallang, who is the organiser of Roots Music Festival, which brings together musicians from various countries and tries to promote peace through music. He is a popular figure in the music scene in the North East; networking with various musicians from different parts of the North East, he has brought about a better understanding of the sensitive situation.


You can read the rest of our regular feature Protest Music in the September 2007 issue of The Record Music Magazine available at your local newsagent.

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