Namami Brahmaputra: Rains, Hindutva controversy inundate Assam festival

Simantik Dowerah

Enormous and enthralling!

Probably these aren’t the best of adjectives to describe a river as magnificent and dominating as the Brahmaputra in Assam that recently captured headlines owing to the Namami Brahmaputra festival held across the valley… or err, due to the controversies attached to it. From allegations regarding splurging of public funds, to accusations of the festival being an ill-planned one, to Hindutva versus the Assamese culture, the controversies were many — sometimes correct, and at times exaggerated.

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal with Union Minister Nitin Gadkari during the Aarti at the Namami Brahmaputra festival in Guwahati on 31 March. Image courtesy Nitin Gadkari's Facebook page

Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal with Union Minister Nitin Gadkari 
during the Aarti at the Namami Brahmaputra festival in Guwahati on 31 March. Image courtesy Nitin Gadkari's Facebook page

Debate as much as one may on what the festival should have been like, but none can take away the fact that Assam is inconceivable without keeping the Brahmaputra in mind. The Brahmaputra is a flowing tale of traditions, a testimony to a riverine culture, a creation of nature to be awed and revered.

The Namami Brahmaputra festival was a five-day event held from 31 March to 4 April to drive the message that the river “is not called ‘lifeline of Assam’ for nothing as this perennial river presents incredible business opportunities” and the entire length of the river through the state from Sadiya in the east to Dhubri in the west “is a bridge to drive economic progress in Southeast Asian markets, as part of India’s ‘Act East Policy’.”

As purposive as it sounds in its intent, the Namami Brahmaputra festival, however, got stuck in controversies as a boat does in shallow water. The message was unclear on the ground on what the festival intended to achieve.

“People were confused about the objective of the festival. Some believe it had something to do with the river linking project. Some thought it was for promotion of Assam as a tourist destination. But where is the infrastructure to entertain tourists? Tourists need basic facilities which we have failed to create. I think the roadmap for all these is not clear at all,” said Chandan Kumar Sharma, a professor in the department of Sociology, Tezpur University.

Even before the festival actually took off, there was a disappointment in many quarters as the theme song featuring Amitabh Bachchan, Shubha Mudgal, Shankar Mahadevan, Zubeen Garg, Papon, Usha Uthup, Shreya Ghoshal among others did not quite capture the ethnicity and rich cultural diversity of the state which the festival ironically wanted to showcase.

This feeling of alienation became even sharper among many when priests from Haridwar conducted aarti similar to one conducted at Dashashwamedh ghat in Varanasi. This was seen by many as an insult to Assam’s Sattriya culture which does not propagate idol worship. The aarti happened when many Satradhikars, the heads of different Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries from all over Assam, were present at the banks of the Brahmaputra, specially invited for the festival.

“There is a perception that this festival was imposed on the people of Assam at the behest of some forces from outside the state. Many people also seem to have felt left out be it the tribals, Christians or the Muslims. Even the act of importing priests from Haridwar to worship the river has not gone down well. There has been a mix up of many things because of lack of adequate planning,” Sharma said.

Surprisingly, the Asom Sattra Mahasabha, the apex body that serves as the umbrella organisation for the Sattras of Assam was unusually reserved in its response.

“We are happy that people came from all over India. The presence of the Dalai Lama and Baba Ramdev added to the gravity of the festival. We are not bothered as to who worshipped the river and in what form, if it ultimately ends up in greater benefit to Assam in the long run,” said Asom Sattra Mahasabha general secretary Kusum Kumar Mahanta.

Many even saw it as a submission of the Bharatiya Janata Party-run Assam government to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh agenda of spreading Hindutva ideology across the nook and corner of the country.

“When pujas are performed at the Kamakhya temple, an offering is always made to the Brahmaputra river. Many forms of worship that are not part of the Assamese tradition like Chhath Puja and Teej are already performed on the banks of the Brahmaputra river. The Brahmaputra is largely a socio-religious platform. We respect the Sattriya tradition a lot but it is for the Satradhikars to consider if they want to object to what happened at the festival. Namami Brahmaputra was more about showmanship than tradition,” said Rajib Sarma, a practicing hereditary Chandipathak priest of the Kamakhya Temples’ Complex in Guwahati.

IPS officer Anand Prakash Tiwari, who was a member of the festival’s publicity cell, rejected criticisms that the festival had anything to do with promoting Hindutva agenda.

“There was a prayer meeting in the festival representing all religions. This whole Hindutva claim is actually irrelevant,” Tiwari said.

Given that the festival premiered this time, it was a logistical nightmare to hold it simultaneously in 21 districts at 27 locations, something that was never attempted before by the state government that too in such a short time.

“A team of officials worked really hard in the first edition of the Namami Brahmaputra festival. The scale was something that was not done before by the state government. Our attempt was to showcase the potential of the Brahmaputra river and to capitalise on it. We wanted to project the composite culture and how the lifeline of Assam can actually be a thriving spot for trade and tourism. But we had a very short time to plan as it was decided that festival should culminate on the last day of Ashoka Ashtami,” commissioner and secretary, Tourism Department, government of Assam, Ashutosh Agnihotri told Firstpost from Guwahati.

Despite the stringent criticism from various corners, the senior IAS officer, who was at the helm of the Namami Brahmaputra, does not think the festival was a fiasco on its debut.

“The biggest challenge was to generate public support and to communicate the objectives properly. There was
coordination among all stakeholders but definitely more time is needed to prepare for an event of this scale. This time we have succeeded in getting the idea established and we hope to build upon it the next year,” Agnihotri said.

He, however, denied that all tribes and their traditions were not given enough representations. “We have tried to represent all the tribes and traditions,” Agnihotri said.

More than the controversies, what ruined the festival was the inclement weather. From the first day itself, the weather was unkind as it rained throughout — finally reaching such a stage that all the original venues were inundated as the water level of the river rose rapidly. Programmes in most locations were either cancelled or had to be shifted to safer locations.

Namami Brahmaputra. Photo courtesy Facebook

“There was a huge participation, support, and enthusiasm from the people. But the weather was a hurdle. The initial forecast was fine. However, due to depression in Bangladesh less than a week ahead of the festival, the weather deteriorated. Since the festival is based on the river, it had to be held on the river bed. But we ensured that no such structure came up that even if it gets dismantled due to a storm casualties won’t take place. We knew the weather might play a spoilsport but we had already reached a point of no return,” said Tiwari.

The IPS officer did accept that few lessons were learned and assured that the second edition would be far better managed.

“The festival would be held on a much larger scale next year. What we have realised is we need much more space for which we will have to reclaim land from the river. We also need to develop the river bed,” he said.

The March-April period in Assam is normally prone to storms, locally known as Bordoichila. When asked why such a turbulent period was chosen for a festival that had spent Rs 14 crore from the exchequer, Agnihotri replied, “Ashoka Ashtami is considered to be very auspicious and so we had to time the festival around it. Any decision on different timings of the year would have to be taken by the chief minister.”

Sharma was highly critical of the manner the whole festival was conducted.

“That little homework was done before hosting this festival was glaringly visible. Even the time chosen for the festival was baffling. The result was the incessant rain and flood in a number of places played a spoilsport,” he said.

The Tezpur University professor, however, did not altogether dump the idea of a festival.

“While I am a great votary of Brahmaputra being explored as a waterway as well as its tourism potential, there are too many other important things to be done before a festival of this scale is being held. There have hardly been any public discussion involving experts and common people on the ways in which important issues and challenges concerning the river should be addressed. There has been a lot of talk on dredging the river. But the challenges and practicality of this, the Brahmaputra being one of the highest silt-carrying rivers, has not been adequately discussed,” he said.

Travelling 916 km through India in its total length of 2,900 km after it emerges in the north of Kailash ranges of the Himalayas, the Brahmaputra has always been a perennial boon of nature waiting to be explored.

“Indeed, the focus should be on the use of the river system along with its tributaries in a sustainable manner for which there has to be a plan for a sustained engagement with the river. Without a proper study of the river system, festival of this nature won’t mean much even if the intent is good,” Sharma said.

There is little doubt a much better attempt is needed to promote the epic grandeur of the Brahmaputra river but for many like me, it would always remain enormous and enthralling!


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