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Waving your identity at the Cricket Ground – Are we over imposing our Assamese Identity

Nationalism and sports have very deep rooted connect. In fact, considering what Virat Kohil said some time back, hyper nationalism and sports now seem to go hand in hand. If we look at Benedict Anderson’s work, ‘Imagined Communities’, a sports team help us shape our identity, it gives a reason to be associated with something that represents us. Teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting Club had a significant contribution in shaping our nationalistic identity, and in our struggle for freedom; precisely what Anderson talked about. All of these clubs were formed out of regional, linguistic or religious identities. So when, Mohun Bagan defeated East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911, their followers saw it as a victory of Indians over the oppressive British rulers and thus making a serious contribution to the ongoing nationalistic struggle.

But what is it now? How has the dynamics changed between nationalism, hyper nationalism and sports? With the significant commercialisation of the sports and the mass media marketing of it, it has evolved to be an entity that grabs millions of eyeballs at a go. Thus, the sporting arena serves as a huge advertising space where you can propagate ideologies and thoughts, and you can have millions influenced in a go.
Hima Das, assuming that all of us know who she is by now. Do you remember any of the celebratory pictures of her, with the medals around her neck or the national flag in her arms? There is one more thing which is very persistent in all her pictures. It’s the Assamese Gamusa, around her neck.

One of the many cultural identifiers of the Assamese community is the Gamusa. It’s just not a towel or a piece of cloth, it’s a representation of the Assamese culture and something that symbolizes love and respect and is ideally used by all irrespective of religious and ethnic backgrounds.

There is no clear historical mention as to where and when the origins of the Gamusa came in from, but there are traces of it which can be found during the time of Ahom Dynasty, who ruled Assam from 1228 to 1826. And if some preliminary research is to be believed, it was the Ahoms who introduced it.

Today, this piece of cloth has become an integral part of the Assamese identity. It serves a variety of purpose in the day to day affairs of the Assamese life. As mentioned, it is something that symbolizes love and respect and is often used for felicitation.

It is an important element in the Bihu festival with it being gifted the family members and guests during Bihu. During the Bihu dance, the female dancers usually wear the gamosa on the waist and the male dancers mostly on the head.  

Gamusa also has a religious significance with its prominent usage in the Vaishnavite traditions prevalent in the state. Muslims in the state too cover the Koran with it and can be often seen wearing it to the Masjids.

But all in all, the Gamusa, if not the single most important identity, but is sure the most identifiable cultural signifier of the Assamese community.

But what becomes really imperative here to mention is the fact about the ethnic composition of the Assamese society. Apart from the residents who speak Assasmese as their language, the state is comprised to 20 listed tribes. These tribes have their own language, own attire and some of them have their own equivalent of the traditional ‘Gamusa’. And all of these cultures, together constitute the greater Assamese society.

Now let us cut to the first India-West Indies cricket ODI which was hosted at the ACA Cricket Ground, Guwahati. The first ever ODI to be held in this new stadium in the city of Guwahati and that too after a long time. Surely a moment of big excitement for the residents of this small city. And no wonder, it was a packhouse at the stadium.

A very common trait of cricket telecast is it’s cut to the audience shot. It has almost become a tradition to have the moods of the audience captured along with the beguiling banners that they carry to catch the attention. And the same was practiced in Guwahati. And unsurprisingly enough, every second person in the stadium had a Gamusa on them.

Nothing is to be held against the use of the gamusa, it’s the pride and identity of Assamese, and one should never shy away from it. But what is of concern is identity threat which the state and the residents of Assam is facing at this point of time. And surely the genuine concern is that, are we, the Assamese, trying a little to hard to reinforce our identity? And sports probably were one of the ways of letting it happen.

When Hima Das won the gold medal at the IAAF World Under-20 Athletics Championships, she ran on the tracks with the Indian flag and the Assamese gamusa in her hands. And in her post run flash interview, she was seen explaining what the gamusha symbolises. There is nothing wrong with it. You are shining the name of your state at a global platform.

But what is a little bit of a worry is the fact, that this practice of carrying and advertising a gamusa is now a defence mechanism of showing and ascertaining who a true Axomiya or Assamese is. It might be something hard for the Khilongjiya Axomiya (True Assamese) to digest, but this is somehow becoming the reality.

Especially with the debate of National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) going on, it has gotten into the residents of the state to advertise profusely who an Assamese is and what are its identifiers.

A few months back, the state of Assam saw the horrific mob lynching of two youth, Nilotpal and Abhijeet. They went on a trek into the hills of Karbi Anglong, an area which is inhabited by the indigenous Karbi tribe of Assam. In a remote village, they were mistaken by locals as child traffickers and were mercilessly beaten to death. A shocking and really unfortunate incident. And this kicked off a movement within the state, to bring justice for the two departed souls.

The entire incident, which was captured in cell phone devices had the victims pleading to the attackers to let them go, and they could be very clearly heard saying, “We are Assamese, we aren’t foreigners, please don’t kill us.” And this movement for justice had this partial undertone as to how ‘two Assamese guys can be beaten to death by the Karbis,’.

Again, whatever happened is beyond unfortunate, but what was also problematic were the series of thoughts that came into the light about it being an ‘Assamese versus Karbi battle’.
But aren’t Karbis also a part of the Assamese society?

Numerous public posts on social media called for the boycott and even instigated attacks on the Karbi population. There are petitions to rename the waterfall, near to which the incident happened, in the name of Nilotpal and Abhijeet, discarding the local names which they already had. Why is there this imposition of a popular notion of an Assamese identity over something that is equally a part of its culture?

The trivia over here is, it is mostly assumed that the ones who speak the language Assamese, are the true Assamese. But there are many other tribes within the state that don’t speak Assamese and have different languages and different cultural identifiers, just like the gamusa, and they all come together to form the greater Assamese community.

What happened in Karbi Anglong was wrong and the yes, the protests were justified. But what wasn’t justified was the hegemonic imposition of the dominant notions of a culture over another. What wasn’t right was the fact that none of these protests happened when the state was reeling or is still reeling under the problem of ‘witch hunting’ or the riots that shook the Bodoland area of the state, another Trible Belt, twice.

And what is more wrong is the fact that none of these protests every tried to mobilise the greater Assamese identity, but rather focused on imposing and glorifying what these common notions are.
So, when we see a flurry of Gamusas at a cricket ground, should not we be asking, is that the only Assamese identifier? A Bodo Aronai or a Dimisa Rishhah, an equivalent of the Gumsa for the Bodo and the Dimasa community, is equally a representation of being an Assamese.

The state today seems to be in a race to protect and cement the identity of who or what an Assamese is. And the unfortunate bit is that it has taken a turn where we are pushing hard for the hegemonic identity, consciously or subconsciously. And surely this race has trickled down subconsciously to mass media and into the sporting sector.

Recently, when NorthEast United came to Delhi to play their Indian Super League away fixture, the official handle of the club posted a video of some its fans residing in Delhi wishing their team. And guess what, all 10 of their fans were wearing Gamusas.

The debate around the NRC has again further fuelled the fight about who a true Assamese is. Recent violence on the Bengali speaking residents of the state, who are equally Assamese, have given us the hints about the insecurity which the society of Assam holds, as a community. And this surely isn’t a great thing.

So, when we see flurry of Gamuas at a cricket stadium, or even at a Television show like Kaun Banega Crorepati, it rings a bell of concern. Are we trying too hard to prove as to who we are? And in this whole race, are supressing some of us our own?

Hima represented India when she won the gold meal at the U-20 World Championships or the Asian Games. She is the pride of the state of Assam, and the residents of the state would have been equally proud of her, even if she hadn’t carried the gamusa, with her. Or is it not? Because there were a few who took more in her carrying the gamusa, at a global stage, over her athletic achievement. And this is where it gets problematic.

Almost every contestant from Assam that goes to a reality show, carries a Gamusa for the judges. It is probably because of two reasons, one it’s a part of our culture and second, maybe it appeals more the residents of Assam that we belong to that state. And if the second reason becomes the primary reason, things might just get a little tricky.

There would be many red eyes as I conclude this. But these observations aren’t in vain. It’s perfect to be proud and aware of one’s culture. And one should never shy away from it. But when it becomes an over imposition, that’s where people start searching for the weak links, the insecurities. And hopefully the greater Assamese society isn’t heading that way.

An argument might just come in, that for ages we have been repressed and thus its imperative that today we need to stand up to our identity. But we also need to have a look at the mirror before we do that; what are we doing to the different other smaller fragments of the greater Assamese society? 


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