A spectacle is going on in Assam – the spectacle of apparently the largest river festival in India, Namami Brahmaputra. The Sanskrit word ‘Namami’ translates as ‘I worship thee.’ Thus an attempt is being made, all of a sudden, to sacralize the Brahmaputra and enroll it into the Hindu(tva) imagination. Since everything in the country now needs to be modelled after the symbols of the Hindus, why not make a Ganga or a Yamuna out of the Brahmaputra too?
I grew up in Majuli, a river island located in the middle of the Brahmaputra river.
The five-day event (March 31-April 4) has been packed with a series of events, including “soulful veneration” of the Brahmaputra, boat racing, indigenous sports, exhibition of traditional handloom and handicraft, exhibition of organic tea and local cuisine, cultural programs, film festivals, business meets and symposiums, laser show, and yoga (of course!). The worshipping of the Brahmaputra remains the essence of it all, however. The Who’s Who at the event included the President of India and the Dalai Lama, no less. While there is nothing wrong in organizing a Brahmaputra festival, the content and the politics of such an event beg some critical reflection.
Worshipping Brahmaputra is ahistorical
I grew up in Majuli, a river island located in the middle of the Brahmaputra river. The people of Majuli share a deep and complex association with the Brahmaputra. On the one hand, the Brahmaputra is vital to the agrarian economy in Majuli, it also supports the island’s rich and diverse ecosystem. At the same time, through the twin processes of flooding and riverbank erosion, the Brahmaputra has also caused enormous miseries on the island on a regular basis. Either way, the Brahmaputra remains inseparable from the lives of the people of Majuli. It constitutes the everyday on the island. Yet the Brahmaputra has not been deified in Majuli. To the people of Majuli, the Brahmaputra is anything but sacred. There have been instances where some sattradhikars (the religious and administrative head of a sattra, a Vaishnavite monastery) have offered bhog to the Brahmaputra for the protection of the island from erosion. However, such rituals have been performed only in times of intense erosion activity on the island. Hence, these are desperate acts and not the norm by any measure. Moreover, such acts are always performed by the sattradhikars and not by the ordinary inhabitants of the island. Hence, these can be described, as it were, as Brahmanic rituals that perhaps help enhance the public reverence for the sattradhikars. They are not part of the local culture and tradition.
Is it then a time for a river festival in Assam? Shouldn’t the state government rather be working on war-footing to repair the dilapidated infrastructures in the valley to prevent another catastrophe this upcoming monsoon?
The case of Majuli – that is, what the Brahmaputra means to the local inhabitants and how the latter treat the river – is illustrative of the Assamese peoples’ relations with the Brahmaputra as a whole. As part of my research on the Brahmaputra, I have conducted ethnographic fieldwork in different parts of the Brahmaputra valley, including Majuli, Rohmoria in Dibrugarh district, and Lahorighat in Morigaon district. All these places share similar crises of flooding and erosion, and like everywhere else in the Brahmaputra valley, these places also depend heavily on the river for local livelihoods. But nowhere have I come across any instances of worshipping the Brahmaputra. Nor are such traditions mentioned in the scholarly work on the Brahmaputra or in popular culture. Did Bhupen Hazarika simply forget to mention the sacred nature of the Brahmaputra in his songs? Well, I guess his songs can be re-interpreted now. After all, re-writing history is BJP’s forte. Perhaps the following picture from the ‘Namami Brahmaputra’ event in Guwahati tells us that a process of re-writing the history of the Brahmaputra has already begun.
Photo source: http://www.guwahatiplus.com/
In Assam, this is time for flood and erosion preparedness and not a river festival
As mentioned above, the processes of flooding and riverbank erosion wreak havoc in the valley on a regular basis. A little statistics can help us understand the scale of the crises facing the valley. Between 1954 and 2012, about 7.4% of the total landmass of the valley has succumbed to erosion, resulting in the disappearance of thousands of villages and dozens of towns. About 40% of the total landmass in the valley is flood prone. Many of these places are ravaged by three to four waves of flooding within a year. This is April now. The flood season is less than two months away. Ask any villager in the Brahmaputra valley what their primary concerns are at this time of the year. The answer, unmistakably, would be: the fear of the upcoming flood season. As various studies have shown, most of the embankments in the state have far outlived their life, meaning they can be breached any moment, putting lives and livelihoods in the valley at serious risk. The Brahmaputra Board’s projects for erosion control remain ever incomplete. Majuli, again, is a classic example of this. The Board still hasn’t completed several of its important projects in Majuli, which were supposed to be completed couple of years ago, thus keeping many villages on the island permanently under the gigantic shadow of erosion.
for the people of Assam, the Brahmaputra is a source of both happiness and sorrow.
Is it then a time for a river festival in Assam? Shouldn’t the state government rather be working on war-footing to repair the dilapidated infrastructures in the valley to prevent another catastrophe this upcoming monsoon? Shouldn’t it invest in building capacities of the local communities and institutions to better adapt to natural disasters? The Water Resources Department (previously known as the Embankment and Drainage department) in Assam is notorious for its last-minute interventions, which has always been a part of the flood problem in Assam. Has the Sonowal government taken adequate measures to address this issue? We don’t know about that, but we do see that an ugly amount of money is being spent on a river festival at a time when the monsoon is just around the corner. All these years, the sattradhikars of Majuli have failed to organize a protest rally or a sit-in in Dispur, let alone Delhi, on the issue of protection of Majuli. But they took a four-day long ferry ride from Majuli to Guwahati to participate in the ‘Namami Brahmaputra’ festival. En route to Guwahati, they apparently halted at three places, one of them being Lahorighat. I wonder what words of comfort the sattradhikars had for those flood and erosion ravaged families at Lahorighat. That the river god will henceforth protect them from flood and erosion?
Finally, the discursive perils…
The Brahmaputra is the lifeline for the people of Assam. But the river has meant various things to various communities living in different parts of the valley – for instance, a Mising fisherman in Majuli relates to the Brahmaputra very differently from a Muslim chapori dwellers in lower Assam, a tea plantation laborer in Dibrugarh, or a Karbi farmer in the hills. Accordingly, a diverse set of socio-political practices have emerged in the valley over the years. The ‘Namami Brahmaputra’ rhetoric tends to erase this diversity and homogenize it all. It is an attempt for the appropriation of the Brahmaputra as a Hindu holy river, thus robbing it off its specific socio-historical context.
The “anti-politics” of the Namami Brahmaputra rhetoric is worth noting too. As mentioned earlier, for the people of Assam, the Brahmaputra is a source of both happiness and sorrow. The latter has given rise to deep social discontent in various parts of the valley, sometimes resulting in social movements (for instance, in Rohmoria, Dibrugarh). Whether this discontent is only with the state, as it often appears, or at times it may also be with the river itself, triggered by the river’s specific behavior in specific time and space, is another matter. But the point is that the Brahmaputra is not considered “holy” by the local communities. They even aim their wrath at the river (I have many anecdotes on this from my fieldwork) when the floodwater does not seem to recede for days to weeks and erosion continues unabated. Namami Brahmaputra takes the Brahmaputra away from the material and elevates (!) it to the religio-spiritual realm instead. Are we to assume that with this newly acquired “holy” status, the Brahmaputra will henceforth beseech only veneration and not any act of resistance on its banks? The government seems to suggest us so.