Every April, as Assam gears up to celebrate its springtime festival, Rongali or Bohag Bihu that marks its New Year, a familiar controversy surfaces. Almost inevitably, it features Zubeen Garg, arguably the state’s most popular musician.

Here is how it usually plays out: a leader of the once-powerful United Liberation Front of Assam issues a diktat warning singers not to perform Hindi numbers at Bihu functions held across the state, the organising committees of these functions echo the call by the militant outfit citing an onslaught on Assamese culture, and Garg, who has also sung for Bollywood, defies the ban and sings Hindi songs anyway.

Garg’s impudence prompts an angry column or two in the local papers, but by the time the festive season is over, everyone forgives and forgets and people move on. That is, until next year, when the cycle is repeated.

But this year saw a dramatic departure. After a string of Assamese songs, as Garg embarked on a Hindi number that he had originally sung for a Bollywood movie – at his first performance of the month-long festive season in Noonmati, Guwahati on April 14 – organisers rushed to the stage and interrupted him mid-song, asking him to stick to Assamese numbers. The mercurial Garg refused to relent, cussed into the microphone, and said the show was over. “I love you but I don’t love them,” Garg said to the audience, before coolly walking off the stage.

Bringing together

In a state rife with language politics, an episode that could seem like a harmless skirmish between traditionalists and a free-spirited artist has assumed several undertones. It has divided people across the state, invoking impassioned living room discussions and television debates on the so-called Hindi imperialism – a contentious subject in the region – and the very idea of holding concerts during the festival.

The current form of Bihu celebrations – a cultural extravaganza with dance and music events across the state held on elevated stages, much like a concert, with a large audience – dates back to 1952. That year, Radha Govinda Baruah, one of Assam’s foremost intellectuals and the man behind the state’s longest running English newspaper, Assam Tribune, initiated such celebrations at the historic Latasil grounds in Guwahati.

“The idea was to create a ‘sonmiloni’: a community get-together,” said Ankur Tamuliphukan, an academic from Assam, whose research interests include visual cultures in the state. “The functions became a site of political assertion in the 1970s and ’80s, the heydays of the anti-foreigners’ movement in Assam.”

The Hindi question, Tamuliphukan said, first emerged in the ‘90s as the militarised ULFA’s demand for an independent Assam gathered steam. “By then these stage Bihu events had evolved into a setting for revelry and attracted young people, particularly men, in large numbers,” said Tamuliphukan. “The demand for Hindi songs grew as the primary objective was to have a good time. The ULFA, however, was strongly against it as Hindi songs were seen as symbolic of the Hindi expansionism it claimed to be fighting against.”

During Garg’s concert last week, the first person to walk up to stage to accost the singer was Hiranya Saikia, a member of People’s Consultative Group, a citizen’s group constituted by ULFA to mediate in talks with the Union government. Saikia is also a close associate of the insurgent group’s commander-in-chief, Paresh Barua.

“Bihu is the only thing the Assamese are left with and the onslaught of Bollywood will finish that too,” an agitated Hiranya Saikia told Scroll.in. “It is our national duty to prevent that from happening. Already, we are facing a Bangladeshi aggression with the influx of illegal migrants and if people now insist to sing Hindi songs during Bihu, whatever little we have as a culture, that will go too.”

Tamuliphukan disagreed and pointed out that it was Garg who quelled the demand for Hindi songs in Assam in the ‘90s by devising a contemporary form of Bihu music using contemporary arrangements and instruments, which appealed to the younger generation. “Bihu functions, as they exist now, are essentially get-togethers of the community. So Zubeen singing his own Hindi numbers is but a revisiting of his success at the national stage of Bollywood with the people back home.” That, Tamuliphukan said, was often the point of community gatherings.

Culture vs modernity

Joykanto Gandhiya of the Bihu Suraksha Samiti, Asom, which works towards preserving local traditions around Bihu, said the debate over Hindi songs during the festival was a simple case of respecting people’s sensibilities. “This is not about language politics at all,” he said. “We don’t have a problem if Hindi songs are sung on other days. On Bihu, though, it is just an insult to our traditions.”

Gandhiya said the growth of “stage Bihus” had corrupted traditions around the festival. “These Bihu functions on stage have become ‘cultural nights’ with commercial interests that have very little to do with what Bihu stands for – a celebration of Assamese nationalism and traditions.”

Gandhiya’s is an old complaint and has been voiced in various forms over the years by like-minded organisations. In 2015, the Chandmari Bihu organising committee in Guwahati interrupted the performance of singer Zublee Borthakur and forced her to leave the stage, because she was not wearing the traditional Assamese outfit, Mekhela Chador.

The event triggered mass outrage, with Borthakur shooting back saying that the idea of a dress code was sexist and discriminatory since it only applied to women. Following the fracas, the All Assam Brihattar Guwahati Bihu Sanmilani Samannayrakshi Samitiwas, with representation from the city’s many Bihu organising committees, attempted to codify rules of attire and language in Bihu functions to be held in 2016, to counter their “degradation” of celebrations. “We have also requested the artistes to adhere to traditional dress code,” the president told reporters in Guwahati.

However, last year, male performers refused to adhere to the “traditional” dress code – and nobody was asked to leave the stage for wearing a pair of jeans.

The politics of language

According to Aruni Kashyap, a novelist from the state who also writes in English, the call to avoid Hindi songs did not come from “a deep sense of prejudice” against the language. “While Zubeen Garg’s freedom of speech should be respected, I think people want to listen to traditional Bihu songs during Bihu,” he said.

Academic and social scientist Hiren Gohain from Guawahati echoed Kashyap. He said the reason for the outrage was that Bihu music had been adopted and recognised as a distinctive feature of Assamese culture and the market of the state’s identity from the 1930s, and its perceived dilution was hence worrying for some. “Those who are desperate to preserve a native identity deserve a hearing,” he said. “On the other hand, the Assamese have never objected to learning from and emulating elements of other culture which they find worthwhile.”

But how does one contextualise a call for a ban on Hindi songs even for one day in a state with a turbulent history of language politics? For instance, in the 1960s, state witnessed massive protests by the Bengali community after the Congress government tried to impose Assamese as the sole official language of the state. The ensuing protests, called the Bhasha Andolan, turned violent and led to the death of 11 people. The ULFA too has targeted Hindi-speaking people in the state at various points of time. In a particularly brutal bout of violence, the group gunned down 100 Hindi-speaking people hailing from Bihar and living in the state as daily wage labourers in 2010.

Uddipan Dutta, a social scientist from Guwahati who is associated with the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, said while the fear of Hindi expansionism was valid, it was counter-productive to ban things that emerge from popular culture. “Yes, you resist impositions by the government that are intended to force Hindi down our throats, but when it comes to things like dance and music, you engage with them and come up with an alternative to counter it.” he said. “Only insular societies resort to banning. Today, it is being justified by saying it’s only for the duration of Bihu. But Bihu functions go on for more than a few months these days. It is a very slippery slope.”

Meanwhile, the Assam government has heightened security for Garg – a move that many perceive as a signal to ULFA that the state would not tolerate any attempts at parallel governance. Garg, on his part, sang a Hindi song in another Bihu function in Guwahati on Saturday – this time uninterrupted.