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A Day in Barkhola: Memory, History and the Fading Everyday in India’s Northeast

By Rongili Biswas

The Beginning

Hemango Biswas (1912-1987) was one of the founding members of the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) movement, whose impact on modern Indian culture has been momentous. A freedom fighter in the early thirties, he was initiated into the communist movement as a prisoner in British jail. In the forties, he took a leading part in organizing political and cultural campaigns, and became the founder of the Assam wing of the IPTA soon after the organization was established in Bombay in 1943. He won wide recognition as one of the finest composers of the new music created by the movement. He was also a legendary folk singer. He was a unique figure in the leftist cultural resurgence, who left a lasting impact as a political thinker, cultural strategist and creative artist.

During the 1940s, Hemango Biswas was actively involved in the leftist cultural revival in Cachar. His closest companion there was Irawat Singh who was another legend himself. Irawat singlehandedly organized and consolidated leftist political movements in Cachar, especially among Cachar’s Manipuri settlements and tea-garden workers. He was a remarkable orator, dancer, singer, organizer, sportsman and cultural activist. Hemango and Irawat first met in Sylhet jail where both of them were incarcerated (in the late 1930s-early 1940s). Since then, their friendship grew continually because of shared cultural and political interests.

Hemango and Irawat’s collaborative efforts largely contributed to the growing intensity of the leftist cultural and political movements in Surma and Barak valleys in the 1940s. As part of building an archive on Hemango Biswas, I wanted to do some research on his activities in the 1940s and ’50s in Assam. I had already been to many areas of the state in the recent past. A chance event again led me to Silchar in May, 2018. I could stay only two and half days there among which two full days were spent in retracing memories and going to places associated with Hemango Biswas. I wanted to meet those who closely worked with him, although most of his comrades were gone by then, and meet people/families he had written about, sometimes in elaborate terms, sometimes fleetingly. I actually chanced upon one of his close colleagues of the ’40s whose story I hope to write soon. But today let me talk about a different encounter.

An Autobiographical Note: Hemango Biswas

“One incident had left me deeply disturbed. In the village of Bhitorgangapur in the Barkhola region of Cachar district, was the house of Gournitai Singha, the old maestro of Manipuri kirtan. He was a close associate of the IPTA. That in Assam such talented artistes as Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Bishnuprasad Rabha, Guru Kamini Singh, Gournitai Singha could be brought within the folds of the IPTA was not a small achievement. Anyway, in 1953 after a long time, I went to Bhitorgangapur to meet Gournitai Singha again. We discussed a few things. Then I started singing on his request. No sooner had I begun singing, than Gournitaibabu’s wife came running to us like one who has completely lost her senses, and started reviling me intensely, ‘You have come again to sing? You all dare singing after killing my son? Where is the man who had sent him to die? He is happily spending his days. Why haven’t you brought him along?’ I knew the incident quite well and in fact, I went to the village to pay tribute to the martyrs. We would have to continue with our struggle, keeping in mind the ideal of Telengana was what the local party leaders of Cachar suggested as a directive for aggressive land-reclamation struggles. The situation in Cachar at that point was not at all conducive to such encounters. But following the order of a leader, Gourhari, Gournitaibabu’s only son, who had been recently married, went to acquire a segment of land along with four other unarmed Manipuri peasant comrades. The police first threatened to shoot and then actually started firing. Five people were killed including Gourhari. And soon after the incident, Gourhari’s mother (Gournitaibabu’s wife) lost her metal equilibrium. The revolutionary leader who knowingly threw these people in front of a death row, lost nothing, rather his practice in law was flourishing at that time.

Quiet person that he was, Gournitaibabu told me his wife was sick and requested me repeatedly to not mind. I was immensely saddened by this incident. I remember I told him on that day, ‘Comrade, don’t we deserve this reproach?’”

When I first read this account by Hemango Biswas in an article, “My songs in the IPTA movement” ages ago, I had very vague ideas about the exact context of this movement that he referred to. I knew this was definitively linked to the agitational peasant politics in post-independence Assam and did not happen in isolation. It must have been in the backdrop of the Tebhaga movement, I divined, but this dim awareness made me only more unhappy. I wanted to go to Bhitorgangapur. I wished to see the place where five unarmed young people were shot dead because the state willed it and an irresponsible party leadership made a sacrificial offering out of them. I wished to visit the house of Gournitai Singha.

The Day: May 16, 2018

It was mid-May, May 15 to be exact. When I reached Silchar, I heard it had been raining continually for the past few days. Any place outside of the crammed town looked beautifully green. We headed off to Bhitorgangapur the next morning. The day was overcast while we journeyed past grassy fields, tiny tea gardens, wooded patches, tin-roofed ancient village schools, greyed electric poles, farms bounded by wooden palings and ditches covered with hyacinth. We wanted to reach Jarariltala market from where the village was almost no distance. The road became bumpy closer to the market and the car would not move in the muddied road. It was quite some time before we left it at the corner of a tiny road and walked into the village.

It was getting warm now. We saw a straight earthen road ahead and asked a man who was seated in front of his house about Gournitai Singha. He said their house was at the end of the road and he would ask his son to accompany us. While we waited for the man to come, I looked around. It was a leafy shadowy place with a rare kind of tranquility permeating the fresh morning air. True to its name, not far from us, stood a Jarul that had bloomed all over. If I retraced my steps and went to the corner of a ditch at the entrance of the village again, I could see sprawling before me a field still largely flooded, with long stalks of uprooted grass lying on it, beyond which stood a range of hillocks. Many days later, someone told me the hill ranges have names like Puruptila or Bonjyotitila. But for now, I was not looking at anything else but the twisted Jarul full of lavender-hued blossoms amidst a clump of bamboos, a row of Areca nuts and wild flowers. Adib, my traveling companion, went to the rear courtyard of the old man’s house to photograph the household loom that was silent at the moment. He had barely come back when a young man emerged from the side of the loom and introduced himself as Gobindo Singha. He took us to Gournitai Singha’s house down the earthen road that runs through the middle of the village.

The silence was deep. I felt we had reached the end of the village – the house was at the back of a spacious unpaved courtyard dotted with parijat, kundalika and kamini, beyond which after three long sloping, cracked stairs, the structure unfolded. It is a mud, brick and wood structure with netted low windows, and a tin roof. We all sat at a corner of the courtyard – Gobindo Singha,  Shanti Singha and I. Shanti is the wife of Gournitaibabu’s grandson. Her son Michael and Adib stood around us while we talked about Gourhari’s going and the incident. She came across as a quiet, laconic person. She said she heard whatever I had read about the killing. Not more. She said her mother-in-law’s mother, Gournitaibabu’s wife went on living her life with this gaping wound, having earned high blood pressure and occasional illness due to that. She did not say in that exact language, but this was what she meant. Seated on a chair, with the most elementary fadu and fanek on her that one could imagine, she told us she lives with her brother-in-law Ranabir Singha’s family and Michael in that old house. The day was becoming even more exquisite. A white butterfly went about flitting around us, a cuckoo started trilling, the shadows of the trees seemed to be changing their courses. I wanted to see the house. And we all went inside.

The house was commodious and the lay-out a certain pattern I had never seen before. It was an Assam type, but still somewhat different from the usual ones. The rooms seemed seamlessly merging with one another, with blue doors in between. Do not remember how I came to a room whose windows opened to a large backyard with bamboo groves and other vegetation. It was quite breathtaking – the unusual kitchen, the quaint storeroom, the wood-bordered mud walls whose plasters were flaking off, and the coolness of the old house. A dhol hung in the wall reminded us of Gournitai Singha’s original passion. ‘He used to sing very well. There were others who would come and learn from him – his followers and students. He did not leave the party even after that incident and was later elected as gram panchayat president three or four times,’ Gobindo told us.  ‘But now let’s go and see the bridge – the shahid setu.

We came out of the house. The quiet courtyard with its beautifully defiant ball lilies reminded me of something. This house, redolent of a time, felt like a stifled cry. The cuckoo was still calling indefatigably, almost drowning out our voices. Somewhere around here, I thought, sixty-nine years back, perhaps amid a recalcitrant bird’s warbling like today, the two of them sat – Gournitai Singha and Hemango Biswas. In this grief-stricken house, they did not have too many words to exchange. In fact, none. Only a song or two perhaps. But a devastated mother came in their way. Was it a June day? Could be. Was the sky this clear? Did the sun shine so brightly and the occasional wind’s blowing fill them with this kind of longing? There must have been some traces to retrace which I might not have stumbled upon, some trails that I must have missed out on. But it was here, somewhere around here, I tell myself, I could be stepping on the signs of those steps now. This thought both haunted and soothed me.

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The Shahid Setu

Both Shanta and Michael Singha came out with us and left us at the corner of a makeshift bamboo divider. The sight of bamboo in that verdant landscape was the most soothing sight around. We went ahead to see the footbridge that was named ‘the martyr’s bridge’. It was only a few steps away. Built over a narrow ditch that seemed to run along the entire length of the village, it obviously had nothing grandiose about it. At a corner of the ditch, by the side of a young mango planted not long ago, stood a stone:

  • Yamchow Devi
  • Goura Singha
  • Kh Gourhari Singha
  • U. Joy Kumar Singha
  • Sanatan Bauri

I was never aware that there was a woman in the group. ‘Yes, she was there. It’s misspelt here. Ymachaw Devi was her name. She was from Panjigram, where the action took place. Sanatan Bauri was from there as well,’ Gobindo said. With blackened border and moss-ridden steps, the black letters on the amber-white marble were almost shining. A few ferns were unsuccessfully trying to invade the steps already inhabited by other weeds and taro leaves. The hill range called Bonjyotitila, the one that we saw while coming, was clearly visible now, forming the backdrop on the horizon.

Another memoir

“The year 1949 which saw a very wide range of intense activities happening, ended with the unforgettable episode of December 1. That was the climax of the militant resistance we were pursuing…it was the time of harvesting and post-harvest storage of paddy in the house. The question was: in whose granary would the paddy be stored? The peasants were desperate that they would store in their house. While sowing, krishaksabha supervised the activities and tried to engage uprooted peasants in controversial plots. In many cases, therefore, jotdars and the landlords did not even resist. There was, of course, the question of material gain. If they did not allow the sowing, the land will remain unused, there will be no crop. Especially, if the sharecroppers and wage-labourers started getting angry, the ensuing melee would have killed the opportunity to earn profit. So, they were looking for other opportunities. The month of Aghran came. Harvesting started in every land. Krishoksabha took the responsibility of cutting the crops of the controversial lands. The crop of one such land, from where peasants had been uprooted, was supposed to be stored on the last day of November. We were preparing from the night before. At daybreak, a small procession went to that specific land with a red flag – singing, sloganeering. I was there as well. Within noon, the harvesting was done with everyone’s help. The tied-up bundles were stored in a village-house that falls between Bhitorgangapur and Panjigram. Almost immediately, the paddy was threshed and distributed among the uprooted peasants and landless labourers. They became ecstatic and went back home with the crop that had so much of their labour in it.

First of December, 1949. In the morning, Bhitorgangapur local committee called a meeting where all the young leaders were present including Joy, Gour, Gourhari and Sona. Baburam Singha, Chandreswar Singha were the older ones there. Comrade Biswas and I represented the district committee. It was around ten in the morning. A party worker came running to us with the information that loads of police have arrived in a car in Panjigram. Within a moment, all the young leaders headed off to Panjigram. Santan Bauri, the retrenched tea garden worker, accompanied them. He was no longer young, but it was an unshakable loyalty towards the party and his working-class consciousness that led him on. They collected whatever little they could find, and went on to resist – such was their mental courage. As if these were their arsenals, although they knew the police had guns with them. They had not even given it a thought that that fight would be an unequal one. We were running behind, but could not compete with them…Leaving Bhitorgangapur, one had to cut across several fields throughout the distance of three miles, followed by the thick, impenetrable foliage at the back of Panjigram. Nothing could be seen from far. They had reached by then. We were in the middle of a field when we heard gunshots. Our beloved brothers took the bullets and were gone – Joy, Gour, Gourhari Singha and Sanatan Bauri. The paddy field got soaked in the blood of the peasants and the workers. Even that was not the end. Another one was martyred – Ibemcha of Panjigram. Her house was the first one in the village after an empty plot. She was threshing, while her two-year old child was hanging around her…He was a beautiful child with a golden complexion. He wore silver anklets and a rattling waistband. Probably, that was the house the police raided first. In no time, all the men and the women in the village came together and went to the empty plot with sticks and brooms in their hands. By that time, the men who would soon be martyred, reached and confronted the police, standing in the first row. The intrepid Ibemcha also came forward. (After the firing) the police collected the lifeless bodies and rapidly drove towards the city. The agonized shrieks of the injured filled up the village. We could not even reach the spot. Everything ended before that.”

The memorial stone in Panjigram

‘It’s Panjigram. But we also call it Harinchara. In fact, that is the census name,’ Gobindo Singha told us. Our car negotiated the mud stretch efficiently this time, grumbling under its breath, as it were. Past a rain-tree and a small hyacinth-laden pond, where the revolutionaries ostensibly hid and camouflaged in the days of the village raids by the British, we went onto the main street. The sun was high up and the range of hills now a distinct blue. We were going back to Jarailtala Bajar to our north. At some point we turned east. Gobindo Singha asked us to get down after a stretch of one and a half kilometers.

He then took us to an unimpressive tiny field surrounded by brick walls and overlooked by a thick clump of bamboos, where another memorial stone made of black and white marble slabs stood. ‘This is the place where the five of them had been gunned down. It was here that blood spilled. Exactly on this site.’ He said and fell silent. We were on the verge of a small brick-laid walkway. The commemorative plaque had five marble blocks diminishing in sizes as they went up and a headstone. The words etched on them in scarlet had mostly vanished. The headstone contained only the letters te and ga. The next three stones had…Devi, Sanatan Bauri and Gourhari Singha written on them. Everything else had faded into the white blocks. Other names on the rest of the blocks were illegible. The sun was now casting a dizzying spell. I felt weak, my head hurt. Must be the sun, I thought. What else could that be? I looked beyond the boundary wall. I saw a ploughed field, a narrow strip of red gravel road, a cow munching by its side. Closer to the plaque, lush, luxuriant, almost innocuous looking taro leaves would touch one’s ankles softly. Weeds proliferating on the ground and within the crevasses of the brick-way would bow when one tried to make way through them.

Gobindo looked at us.

‘Of course, this is just a very small part of the original field, the man who had bought it did not want to erect even this. We had to convince him, pester him a lot.’

The clouds were passing – white bluish cloud over the top of the mist-ridden hills. We were coming back to Bhitorgangapur again.

‘That is not what the field looked like in 1949, one can understand that. The whole of the neighbourhood was within it. It used to be a large field. It was the first of December. They were preparing from the night before. At daybreak, a small procession went to that specific land with the red flag – singing, sloganeering…,’ Gobindo went on, as if he was memorizing the memoir I had read.

I was thinking of something else. Hemango Biswas wrote about this incident in the context of his songs in the IPTA movement. There he was specifically referring to certain cases where leaders had won the acclaim of launching rebellions while the common people – peasants and workers – who had sacrificed their lives were very soon forgotten. To his friend, the famous poet, composer and activist Nibaran Pandit, he talked about the need for self-criticality.  “…What we need is a proper evaluation, a true looking back at what had happened at the ground level under our party’s direction, and not nostalgic writing of memoirs only,” he wrote.

In one such memoir of another person, however, I came across a personal account of the leader under whose direction the 1 December, 1949 episode had happened. The man Gournitai Singha’s wife, Kunjaboti Devi, was raging against. His remorse, apparently, knew no end. Of course, no one could willfully want this. The death of so many innocents surely haunted him. He had to shoulder the responsibility of choosing war strategies that proved calamitous, almost suicidal. But this act involved poor peasants, tea-garden workers. That was probably the most tragic and the most unforgivable part of it. When I could finally get to speak to Ranabir Singha, Gournitaibabu’s grandson and brother-in-law of Santa Singha over phone, he told me, his grandmother and even sometimes his grandfather would react badly seeing anyone from the party for the next few years after Gourhari’s killing. They could hardly cope with the devastation. ‘That’s what I had heard when I grew up,’ Ranabir said. ‘Things got a bit better when first my elder brother and then I came to stay with them from my parent’s place. They brought us up, kept themselves busy and tried to slowly get back on the groove. Your father came only a few years after the incident, he probably sat in the outhouse that you saw. This house that we live in was built a little later than ’53, probably just after he came.’

I try and remember the portrait of Gourhari that still hangs on the wall of the house. Drawn in pencil, the bespectacled smiling young man in a checkered buttoned-up shirt looked shy, almost introspective. Beyond him the tattered, moth-eaten matting with small patches of burn scars sat within a rigid black frame. A garland made of coloured translucent paper hid Gourhari’s yellowing face.

And then the memorial plaque in Panjigram comes to my mind. The faded names on it. The field where the dead and the injured lay beneath a cold December sky sixty-nine years back. Where the injured were dumped on each other to be carted off like old discarded furniture along with five corpses that had taken countless bullets in them. I can hear the shrieks of the injured strewn across the village in that night that never ended here and whose memory haunts its ploughed fields, earthen roads, riotously colourful flowers and bamboo fences even now.

On the horizon, the lined-up tree-heads, hillocks and clouds formed several distinct layers. We were supposed to be back to Bhitorgangapur to go to Sona Singh’s house. He was ninety-five-years-old at that time – a close comrade of Hemango Biswas and Irawat Singh. Meeting him was one of the most memorable events of my life. But that will require a different space. And time.

I shall write about it, I tell myself. And I tell you as well. Soon, very soon.

Note: I am grateful to India Foundation for the Arts for inviting me over as a resource person to one of their extension programmes in Silchar (May 18, 2018). I reached Silchar on May 15 and we undertook this journey the next day. I am also thankful to the infinitely patient Adib Emon for agreeing to travel with me and to Taimur Raja Chowdhury for helping me sort out certain details. I have used Hemango Biswas’s writings compiled in the book ‘Ujaan Gang Baiya (‘Sailing Against the Stream’)’ in the section titled ‘An Autobiographical Note: Hemango Biswas’ and Anurupa Biswas’s memoir ‘Nana Ranger din’ (The multi-hued days) in the section titled ‘Another memoir’.

Picture Credit: Adib and Rongili.

Bio:
Rongili Biswas
is an economist by profession, and a musician and writer based in Kolkata. She is currently Associate Professor of Economics, West Bengal Education Service. She has published widely in political, development and public economics. She has recently completed an archival project on Hemango Biswas, Bhupen Hazarika, and the 1960s peace initiative in riot-torn Assam with the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). This project is part of a larger collective she has been building on singer, composer and cultural activist Hemango Biswas over the past few years. She is trained in Indian classical and folk music and specializes in Bengali and Assamese folk forms. Her interests include protest music and songs of the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Rongili writes in both English and Bangla. She has a novel and a collection of short stories to her credit and has edited two books. She has been the recipient of ‘Katha’ award and the ‘Bangla Academy Shanti Saha’ award for fiction.

***

For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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