Celebrating Independence Day in Assam

MITRA PHUKAN feels celebration is an important way of acknowledging the idea of nationhood


August is a cruel month. For so many years now, we have seen and heard of things that no people living in a civilized country should have to deal with. The bloodbath that was Partition is echoed, again and again, in our State as we approach the date on which India became free. 15th August, 1947. Reminders of that ghastly time keep coming back, in many forms, in our tormented land. The Dhemaji Bomb Blast in which thirteen people, including ten children, were killed on this day is but one of many grotesque acts that have happened over the many years during which we have been living in this land of endemic conflicts.


The birth of a country, like that of a child, deserves commemoration, and celebration. For a country, this is a time to remember the sacrifices of the many who toiled ceaselessly, in so many ways, to bring a country to its Independence. Even those who have never been under a foreign power in the past, have a National Day to celebrate the fact of nationhood. This in no way takes away from the fact that the idea of a nation is often a work in progress. There are no doubt many problems, many difficulties that will need to be discussed and solved. But for these two days, that is, Independence and Republic Days, celebration is an important way of acknowledging the idea of nationhood.


Humans, for the most part, feel a need to ritualize, in order to honour memories, or ideas, or people. Leaving aside the fact of its bloody birth, the emergence of our nation as an independent entity was after all a successful culmination, of the efforts and sacrifices of a large number of people. Many worked selflessly to free the country from a foreign yoke. Besides, there is the idea of a Motherland, the idea of nationhood, which is commemorated during the Independence and Republic days. The idea of patriotism is such a defining concept, and indeed, is a very important reason why children need to take part in the rituals that have accompanied these two days in our land in the past, and indeed, continue to be observed in other parts of our country with enthusiasm, veneration and reverence. For many of us, our nationality is part of our identity, of who we are. If we are kept from celebrating that, then a part of our identity itself is under siege.


For the past so many years, decades, though, what is happening in our part of the world is in stark contrast to the celebratory mode that other parts of the country have when it comes to marking the fact of our independence. Bomb blasts and threats have woven a net of terror over our land on the days leading up to the fifteenth of August. Railway tracks are destroyed, leading to the derailment of trains. People die, are maimed, and traumatized for life.


In any case, for many years now, life has come to a grinding halt on the two days of fifteenth of August and twenty sixth of January. As a citizen sadly commented, “I was distressed and troubled to see a programme on a local channel in which the interviewer asked a little girl what Independence Day meant to her. Her prompt reply to this question was, “A Bandh.” Is this what we have come to?


Her response was as saddening as that of another young girl, who, some years ago, was watching TV with her grandfather when news of Mother Teresa’s death came on. Her question to her grandfather was, “Who killed Mother Teresa?” Living as she did in a land where deaths due to violent acts were becoming so common, it was inconceivable for her that anybody could die a natural death.


An entire generation in our land has grown up not knowing that Independence day means celebration, not fear. They are not at all familiar with the glorious sight of the Tricolour fluttering proudly from homes and offices on this day. School functions are hurried, if at all they are held. Far from being in festive mode, our land, on this day, is in the grip of dread, worry, and anxiety. There are always bomb threats. Subsequently, a heavy deployment of security forces makes the whole area look and feel like a war zone.


This loss of the patriotic spirit may be the underlying cause of “unpatriotic” behaviour in other ways. The graph of corruptions, large and small, rises in inverse proportion to the sliding down of markers of celebration. People think nothing of littering the land, destroying the environment. This too, in a larger context is unpatriotic behaviour.


What a contrast to the way the day of the Independence of a nation is celebrated in other countries. For instance the US is a country where people are not ashamed to express their patriotism in different ways. Besides the parades, there are neighbourhood fireworks where people gather together. There is a sense of community as people chat, share snacks, and admire the display. The Stars and Stripes flutter proudly across the country, from shore to shore, to celebrate nationhood. Little flags appear a couple of days before the fourth of July in parks and public places, commemorating the patriotic emotion. In any case, in general, citizens are not ashamed to show their love for their country. During summer, the red, white and blue flags are seen in many homes.


Of course the day is commercialized also, with all kinds of Independence Day sales happening. But then every festival, every day that is close to the hearts of people in any country is commercialized to a lesser or greater degree. Think Diwali, think Durga Puja, think Rongali Bihu. In a way, in today’s world, like it or not, commercialism is a marker of the degree to which a festival is close to the hearts of the people.


   There are traditional time honoured rituals that are followed by homemakers. Many, taking advantage of the glorious weather, go for Fourth of July picnics, with fried chicken and biscuits on the menu. There is frequently an Independence Day barbecue held in the patios of the homes, where meats and vegetables are grilled and happily consumed. These are simple things, but they are important as rituals in which people can easily take part.

It is when our children go out of this State, this region, to study in peaceful cities that they realize that celebrations on the anniversary of a nation’s birth are normal. When they see flags fluttering from homes and shops, they realize that it’s ok to feel patriotic. When they stand at attention before a flagpole in their colleges, feeling a lump in their throats and tears sting their eyes as they sing the National Anthem, they realize that this was an emotion that was taken away from them in the land of their birth.


It must be mentioned here that it is not only the young people in our land who have lost this sense of patriotism, for reasons mostly not of their own making. The elders, too, have had the rituals of celebration taken away from them. They mourn this loss, for unlike the young, who have never experienced this celebration, this emotion of patriotism, they have memories of a time when there was an upsurge of patriotic feelings, to celebrate. They took part in parades and flag hoistings, in schools and colleges.


Many senior citizens still remember the times of struggle, of the many sacrifices, before Independence was finally achieved. Many took part in the freedom struggle themselves. It is always saddening to see these senior citizens, frail now and not in very good health either, sitting helplessly, wondering if their struggles were without value, given the current situation all around.


And yet, in spite of all this, there are sparks of hope. There have always been people, even in the darkest days of bans and bandhs, when they, with quiet determination, have put up the Tricolour in front of their houses, with honour and respect. This defiance, at one time, though silent, was not a small one, needing courage. It also needed strength to do something which nobody else, out of fear, was doing.


There are also people who commemorate the day in their own unobtrusive way. They cook a celebratory meal, and sit down with family to have it with joy. For a long time, bandhs prevented them from inviting friends to the celebration. Hopefully, in the near future, this will be become possible also. As a concerned lady put it, “One can celebrate by having people over, eating a special meal, maybe a potluck one to which everybody brings a dish.”


It is these small acts which can perhaps build and bond during these difficult times.

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan

Mitra Phukan is a writer, translator, columnist and classical vocalist who lives and works in Guwahati, Assam. Her published literary works include four children's books, a biography, and a novel, "The Collector's Wife". Her most recent work is another novel, "A Monsoon of Music" published by Penguin-Zubaan in September 2011. Besides, her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. Her works have been translated into several languages. She is the Northeast correspondent of the Chennai-based journal of the performing arts, "Shruti" and a member of the North East Writers' Forum.