‘Don’t mess with Assam’: Zubeen Garg

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on December 27, 2019

In charge: Zubeen Garg believes he is leading a revolution to save the culture, identity and people of Assam

Singer-activist Zubeen Garg on being the face of the stir against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Assam

‘Zubeen’ and ‘Garg’. Put together, Zubeen Garg is not a conventional choice for an Assamese name. But the bearer of the name — the 48-year-old singer, songwriter, film-maker and actor — is now an icon in the state that is witnessing a wave of agitations against the Centre’s controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019. ‘Zubeen’ is a hat tip to Zubin Mehta, the legendary conductor of Western classical music; and ‘Garg’, a nod to the family’s roots in Kannauj, in present-day Uttar Pradesh.

“I have been asked many times about my name,” Garg tells BLink during a phone interview, “but the people of Assam have accepted me for what I am. That’s why, today, I am leading them through a revolution: A revolution to save the culture, identity and people of Assam”.

Garg doesn’t mince his words, and asserts that he chose to become the face of the state’s anti-CAA movement because of the way “political parties have treated the people of Assam”. “Be it the Congress or the BJP — Assam has been taken for granted by politicians for ages. We don’t need politicians any longer,” Garg says. He hints at a “third party” taking charge of the state, but is quick to clarify that he has no “political ambitions”. “I am leading the movement because I have the power to change things, and I will,” Garg says.

He admits that he has earlier sung for political parties such as the Congress and the BJP. “It was a professional decision. They paid me and I sang for them,” he says. But he is clear that those days are behind him.

Since the first wave of protests broke out in Assam earlier this month, Garg’s hectic schedule has become busier with public gatherings and rallies. It’s almost 10 pm when he gets on the phone with BLink, having taken an early flight out from Kolkata to Guwahati, and driven more than 100 km to the district headquarters of Barpeta, where he performed live and addressed a public gathering. Between 40 winks of sleep and back-to-back travels, Garg still manages time for songwriting. He says that his new song — which he plans to release soon — will be a strong message to the Centre. “Don’t mess with Assam. We have had enough,” he stresses.

Garg says the legacy of another Assamese cultural icon — Kalaguru Bishnu Prasad Rabha (1909-69) — inspired him to become an activist. A man who was synonymous with literature, music, painting, theatre and political activism, Rabha, a communist, stood up to the excesses of the British regime during his student days and later preached that liberation from colonial rule was only the first step towards absolute freedom. Garg, who is also making a documentary on Rabha, discovered more about the man during his research. “Kalaguru was a revolutionary. The people of Assam still look up to him. He was against fascism and communalisation. We need to follow his principles and change the course of events,” Garg says. Another influence on Garg’s works — and political views — is Baba Nagarjun (pen name for Maithili author, poet and biographer Vaidyanath Mishra, who died in 1998).

Disturbed by the incidents of mob lynching and the Hindu-Muslim polarisation in India in the last few years, Garg says the country has more pressing concerns to tackle. “Assam for one has serious environmental concerns. Our mighty Brahmaputra River is in danger. There are deadly floods every year and we are losing so much [in terms of] life and property. We need to take care of these problems first, and not do Hindu-Muslim politics,” Garg says.

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Published on December 26, 2019
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