Tawang, Bomdila… lands of myth and legend, towns of deep spirituality. Places that were far removed from the mind when thinking of war. But they had fallen to the enemy rampaging down inexorably. Fear was in the hearts of the people of these mountains and valleys. Evacuation was the word on every lip. But where could they go? This was home.
“This song is now part of the living history of this land. Bhupen Hazarika himself sang it innumerable times across these hills and valleys, always with feeling. Nobody who remembers those days, and even those who were born much later, can listen to it without a moistening of their eyes, and a prayer for the dead Jawans in their hearts.”
And then, the disbelief.And after that, the Song.
“Koto Jowanor Mrityu Hol, Kar Jibon Joubon Gol,
Xei Mrityu Aporajeyo Tene Mritok Noholu Moi Kiyo…
Henu Himaloy Bharotor Prohori, Tahani Xunisilo Kahini
Pisey Mrito Jowan Xobe Siyorisey Laage Siro Jagroto Eti Bahini
Aji Kameng Ximant oDekhilo Dekhi Xotrur Poxutto Sinilu
Aru Mrito Moun Xoto Jowanoley Mor Osru Anjalee Jaasilu
Koto Pitri Putrohara Hol, Koto Matrir Buku Xuda Hol,
Ronga Xendur Kaar Mosa Gol, Kar Baxona Apurno Rol
Proti Jowanor Roktorey Bindu Hol Xahoxor Ononto Xindhu
Xeye Xahoxor Durjeyo Lohorey Jaasiley Prodigya Joyorey
Aji Kameng Ximanto Dekhilo Dekhi Xotrur Poxutto Sinilu
Aru Mrito Moun Xoto Jowanoley Mor Osru Anjalee Jaasilu”
“So many Jawans lie dead: lives, youths, so many have gone…
This unconquerable death! If only I too could experience that dying.
They say the Himalayas guard Bharat, that’s what I’ve been hearing all along,
But the dead Jawans shout, No! The need is for a vigilant force!
I have seen the frontier of Kameng today, and there, the enemy’s brutality
And to the lifeless, silent Jawans, I offer the tribute of my tears.
So many fathers have lost their sons; so many mothers’ hearts lie empty,
Red sindur wiped off from the heads of many, so many desires unfulfilled,
Every drop of the jawans’ blood is an unending river, a Sindhu of courage
And these unvanquished valorous waves bring the firm promise of victory.
I have seen the frontier of Kameng today, and there, the enemy’s brutality
And to the lifeless, silent Jawans, I offer the tribute of my tears.”
The 1962 war resonates through the lines of this song. Bhupen Hazarika’s voice, rich, sonorous and dripping with feeling, embodies the emotions of a person who saw war for the waste it always is. A waste of human lives, of the flower of youth, the promise of an entire nation being ravaged senselessly. For the people of Assam, and what is now Arunachal Pradesh, this song embodies the reality of a war that was fought at their doorstep poignantly.
What a strange time it was! In the cold sunshine of those wintry days, All India Radio’s news bulletins were the one means of knowing what was going on. Other than that, rumours were rife. The enemy had come right into the valleys. No, it had not. They were being beaten back. No, they were advancing. Arunachal (NEFA, acronym for North East Frontier Agency and still a part of undivided Assam at that time) was in any case a rather remote fastness. Schools, colleges were closed everywhere. In the capital, Shillong, examinations were cancelled, hostels closed and parents told to take their children away. People with homes in other parts of the country left.
But what about us Assamese? Where were we to go, those of us who lived in the valleys and the hills? What about the Nagas, the Khasis, the many tribes of NEFA? With a sense of disbelief, then despair, we heard the Prime Minister speak in a quavering tone that his heart went out to the people of Assam. He probably meant it as a sign of empathy and solidarity. But in the general atmosphere of panic, it was interpreted as a sign that the rest of the country, the Prime Minister himself, was abandoning us. Indeed, it is still interpreted in that way by many. Was that it? Was that all? Was that all we were worth at the end of the day? “Sorry, not much we can do, old chap, best of luck and all that, hope things turn out all right!”
Of course there was nowhere we could escape to. People grimly went around doing the needful but outwardly remained cheerful. Stocking up on food, quietly getting papers in order, putting valuables into separate bundles, packing emergency rations and clothes in cases, ready for evacuation.While men in distant centres of power debated the best course of action, the raw smell of fear permeated all homes here.
Images of visceral terror filled our minds. Tawang, Bomdila…all had fallen. These were places which we knew. There were people we knew there, people whose homes we had visited, shared meals with. And yet we could not contact them, in those days when telecom was a chance thing at the best of times. Nothing seemed to stop the enemy from coming down, inexorably, inevitably. Tezpur, at the foothills, was evacuated. Emergency ferry services were pressed into action to shuttle people across the Brahmaputra to the South Bank. There were scenes of utter panic at the riversides, of people leaving their hearths and homes, not knowing if they would ever return. The homes of people in the rest of the region bulged with the sudden influx of these refugees who were close relatives.
Tezpur was a town that was famous for its culture, and many cultural icons had flourished there. If there was a place that was quintessentially Assamese, tea gardens, sattras and all, it was Tezpur. And it was in danger of falling to the enemy! The symbolism was stark. Added to that, the gates of a lunatic asylum were unlocked, and the inmates set free. The horror of the images that flooded minds, Kafkaesque yet so real, was unbearable. Mentally ill, unkempt people, wandering around the deserted place, as the enemy rushed downwards to that pretty, once vibrant town. The administration had collapsed.
And through it all, the lifeline of All India Radio. Its news bulletins, both the Asomiya and the ones from distant Delhi, were the means by which people could know the horrors. Newspapers lacked the same immediacy. The measured voices of newsreaders gave a sense of calm, even as the worst news came in. BBC of course was also listened to avidly, but it wasn’t always possible to tune into that. In any case, it was reassuring to hear a voice tell us in Asomiya what was happening, even though we knew that this was heavily edited. Still… Guwahati station, aware of the significance of its role in this crisis, continued to function.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, it ended. There was a unilateral ceasefire, and a withdrawal of enemy troops. There was relief, but more than that disbelief. Was it true? Could it be a trick? Could the enemy proclamations be trusted?
Bhupen Hazarika, musician, journalist, writer, politician, and so much more, was then at the height of his fame. He was a bard, a person who documented momentous happenings in the land of his beloved Luit, as he always called this vast river, the Brahmaputra. Tezpur was his home. And his connect with NEFA went back right to his infancy. He was in constant touch with the people he knew, and it was little wonder then that he was one of the first journalists to board an Army truck and go to the war ravaged land to see for himself what was happening in the mountains of his beloved NEFA.He counted the peaceful, laughing people there, many of whom followed the Buddhist faith, as his brothers and sisters.
He was there when the war was being fought; moving along with the Army, sharing what food was available. He saw it all firsthand, the horrors as well as the heroism, the abyss as well as the pinnacles. To say that the sight shocked him would be an understatement. He was a sensitive man, and humanism was always his creed. The inhumanity of the war and its aftermath left him stunned. The politics of it faded away as he saw the way the foot soldiers and subalterns, had placed themselves in front of the advancing enemy, knowing it was hopeless, and yet fighting till they were mowed down. Ill prepared, laughably equipped, poorly clothed and shod in those icy temperatures, caught by surprise, they never paused to blame the leaders in distant, comfortable capitals, for whom they were little more than pawns. It was this aspect of the war that shook his poet’s heart. His was always the voice that spoke about the people, and it was little wonder that it was the Jawans, and their undying spirit, that caught his attention. For him, their deaths were not a sign of defeat. Far from it. Every drop of blood spilled from their bodies spoke, instead, of valour, and a victory that came from the fact of their courageously embracing death.
All India Radio, Guwahati, was ready. As Arun Sarma, noted playwright and writer, who was then the Producer, Programmes, in AIR puts it:
“He came straight from NEFA to our studios, with hardly a pause, except to partake of some refreshment at Tezpur at the house of one of his friends who had refused to leave the town. His eyes were bloodshot, he looked unkempt. We had kept a slot of 20 minutes from 7:15 PM ready for him. This was straight after the news bulletin from New Delhi. Throughout the day, we kept announcing that Bhupen Hazarika would be speaking after his return from the scene of the war.
He came to the studio just about an hour before the live broadcast was scheduled… He spoke of what he had seen. The talk was interspersed, at intervals, by the lines of this lyric. Throughout the valleys and hills of this region, people listened, rapt, to the voice, thickened now with tiredness and emotion, telling them of what had happened. And these lines …not yet set to tune, or even pulled together in a coherent fashion… this was the true tribute to the youth who had stood, valiantly, anonymously, between them and destruction.
The Chief Minister of Assam, Late Bimala Prasad Chaliha, was among those who listened. He called up the Station Director of the Guwahati centre of AIR after the broadcast, congratulating him, and saying that he had been moved to tears as he had listened. Indeed, even as he spoke to the SD, he had wept.
Next day, at eleven in the morning, Bhupen Hazarika was back. This time, the lyric had taken its final form, and was already tuned. It was recorded with instrumental music by the accompanists of All India Radio, music that evoked a martial atmosphere.”
Throughout the coming days, it was aired repeatedly. It was on people’s lips everywhere in these valleys – a tribute to the foot soldiers of the War.
This song is now part of the living history of this land. Bhupen Hazarika himself sang it innumerable times across these hills and valleys, always with feeling. Nobody who remembers those days, and even those who were born much later, can listen to it without a moistening of their eyes, and a prayer for the dead Jawans in their hearts.
Much has been written about the war, much analysis about what went wrong has been published. For the people of this land though, it is this song, not the speeches and the writings, that brought closure, and helped to gradually heal the many wounds inflicted on them. Not just by the enemy, but by their own people as well.