I woke up to the sound of heavy knocking on my door. I thought I had overslept and ran to the door. It was Mr. Lahkar, General Secretary, MASS. He smiled faintly at me and spoke softly, “Get ready in half an hour. Let’s go then!” I nodded before he could complete his sentence and he left right away. On another day in another place, I’d have taken the bed and forgotten about it. Not on my first day in Guwahati when it might have led to interesting things. I tried to recall where we were going but could not recollect having been informed the last night.
In less than half an hour, there was another knock. I was ready this time. I sat pillion on the bike and we slowly rode though the already busy streets. Within a while, we were away from the buzzing town and going towards the outskirts of the city. It was a good time to ask, “Where are we going Lahkar Sir?” He knew only Assamese and very little Hindi and I, Hindi and English. I spoke a mix of the languages I knew and he spoke a mix of what he knew. It was rather bizarre the way we conversed, struggling with vocabulary, diction and interpretations.
In reply to my question, I was informed of what a great man Mr. Mukul Mahanta, the man I was going to meet in a few minutes, was. Before the details could be finished, we were at his gate. A rather green and peaceful bungalow on the outskirts of the city, it could be safely branded as curiously charming. Mr Mahanta came to greet us at the door. The intellectual powerhouse behind MASS, he was dressed in an unmistakably RSS like dress. Blessed with a good physique, he seemed to be too agile and supple for a seventy-five year old.
The next one and a half-hour was one of the most thrilling of my life. I was sitting in front of a man whose opinion mattered. He had even mediated the talks between ULFA and Assam CM Tarun Gogoi about a year back. Mr Lahkar kept nodding to all that he said while I probed him, delicately. An IITian from Kharagpur, he put more force behind his grand ideas than required and gave impressions of being a hardliner. He didn’t think much of anyone and believed a solution to the problems of North-East could be engineered. He had worked for most of his life in America and after having returned, made bamboo-chairs, wonder-tables and wonder-beds. “The greatest failure of humanity has been that we haven’t yet been able to make a truly comfortable chair to sit on,” he declared. His extraordinary ability to analyze and engineer was trying to overpower the relatively invisible mesh of socio-political conflict. I thought he was oversimplifying things when he declared, “When a mother loses her first son to the conflict, she readies the second with even more eagerness.”
He relied too much on ULFA’s gun-power while constantly mentioning what ULFA said to India: ‘You liberate us. We shall liberate you.’ Clearly, he had little regard for softer methods or areas. Also, he gave a glimpse of his ideas by saying that only IITians should be allowed to contest elections in India. Having come from another IIT myself, I couldn’t disagree more. Just as mere bullets cannot win Freedom, mere intellect cannot guide a nation. He was wrong on both accounts, I thought. Yet, what surprised me the most was how he narrowed down the entire conflict of the North-East to Assam’s sovereignty. “You liberate us and we shall take care of our neighbours,” he shot back at the very mention of Manipur. The attitude, if not the opinion, was perfectly in sync with the perception of Assam being a hegemonic state in the North-East.
While on my way back, Mr Lahkar took me to the old office of MASS. The building was designed by Mr Mahant himself and was owned by Parag Das, an inspiring leader of MASS and a prominent journalist who was assassinated in broad daylight while at the peak of Army operation against the insurgency. Later, after his secret killing, his daughter-in-law asked for the house to be vacated and MASS was forced to move to another office. The sight of the building was eerie. The blades of grass had grown too tall. It had been abandoned for quite a while. We stared at the building for a few minutes as if waiting for something. Sound of a gunshot. Or that last shriek before his death. Perhaps, some blood sliding slowly against the walls. But, nothing happened. As we rode off in silence, a video footage of Parag Das’s assassination played in my head, many times over.
It was when we reached the new office that I noticed the photograph of Parag Das, right behind Mr Lahkar’s chair. The portrait that leaned forward was labeled neatly. From that moment on, I always felt Parag Das’s presence in the office. Even when I sat on the roof of the house, alone, to have a good look at the humid city of Guwahati, he seemed to be around, walking beside me, equally alone and equally sad. Yes, what always kept me company in that office was a deep sadness. To be frank, the entire city was sad; a comfortable sadness, however. Like a long time friend who visits you on a daily basis. His arrival doesn’t please anyone. It is too routine to even matter beyond the immediate.
The office comprised of three rooms on the first floor of a two-story house. In the first room was a computer table with only a monitor and keyboard on it. There was no CPU. Why, I asked. “Police confiscated it for their investigation against us,” I am told. There’s another long table on which there are a lot of documents. A few chairs, too. The second room was Mr Lahkar’s office. His table and chair, Parag Das’s photograph and a big banner of MASS behind him, another two chairs for the guests and some old reports and newspapers. In the third room was a library. Quite well maintained, I must say; covered with dust, too. A lady called Lolita had the keys. She gave me many reports and books to read. Also, there were many newsletters that MASS published regularly. Each of them looked, read just the same – in language, style, content, everything. Only, the names changed every time. There were books on North-East, Assam, conflict resolution, various tribes of North-East, their culture and values, and a whole lot of them mere opinion-books by bureaucrats or retired army officials giving simplistic solutions about how all the problems of North-East could be resolved. Interestingly, they always spoke of a one-man solution. A bureaucrat always thought one good bureaucrat could resolve it all. An army fellow would say his servicemen could do it. A committee here, a council there. There was no dearth of advices.
The adjacent room didn’t claim to be a part of the office. It comprised of a bed, a round table and a kitchen. It was the only part of the building that truly mattered though. We would have breakfast in the morning, then go off to sleep in different parts of the building, meet for lunch then, go sleep again to meet for dinner at nine. Not everybody slept exactly, but they did something equivalent.
One fine day, I decided to find things out. Dust the surface to look into the past, enquire about the future, and try to make sense of the present then, I resolved within. “Manab Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS) was a 200,000 men strong organization in the late eighties. We had our men engaging with human rights violations everywhere, in the remotest parts, most importantly in the rather inaccessible upper Assam. We had with us, the best of journalists and activists of Assam. We fought cases for those violated and made people aware of the changing times. ULFA was being chased down by the Army then and impunity was common. They didn’t spare us either. We lost our men, the best of them. Now, we are down to six and a half. Lochit Bordoloi, our leader, has been booked under National Securities Act. It was the last and final blow. Now we are merely trying to stay afloat. The scenario in Assam isn’t rosy just yet. You’d have to go to the villages in Upper Assam to know what it is like. Only, our hands, those that have not been cut, have been tied. How do you think we feel? I have lived through the stormiest of times in the history of this state; and survived, surprisingly. Make no mistake, I am under surveillance. My phone must be getting tapped. For every small gathering, I have to seek permissions. It’s not easy convincing them. They can finish me any time, or book me under some act. You have no idea what it is like here…” Mr. Lahkar was right. I had no idea what it was like there. To see all your men fall one by one cannot be easy on the eye, and heart. More importantly, to see a dream shattered must be tragic. That evening, I sat on the roof watching the sun set with a heavy heart. It was natural to wonder whether there’d ever be a sun rise again.
However, nature has its own uncompromising discipline. It overdoes the inspiration bit, I thought, and could leave you with a faint bitterness. Since then, every time I saw Mr Lahkar smile that tired smile of his, I could sense how much effort it took. Now, MASS for me, had zeroed down to that one man. I studied each layer of his character like a student of the conflict would read books after books. He feeling sorry for his weak English made my heart heavy. When he asked me apologetically at lunchtime whether mere dal-rice would be okay, I wanted to hug him. But I would only nod. He often spoke fondly of his family in the village. Those were few occasions when his smile carried more innocence than exhaustion, more affection than burden of loss. What turned him sad though were his wife’s worries about their future; and his concern for his children’s.
At times, activists and journalists do put their lives in the line of fire. But you rarely think of how their dependents – wives and children – cope with the struggle. We comfortably isolate them from the conflict and see the activists as children of ideology marching ahead for freedom. Interestingly, Mr Lahkar was too simple a man for any ideology. You wouldn’t imagine him speaking of Lenin or Marx. Often he spoke of Parag Das, whom he had known personally. He was a simple man from the village who thought it was his duty to speak out for the injustice meted out to his people. That made him more credible, unlike many others I met soon after. They would attend international conferences but could speak only in that language – of big words and big schemes. Their ideas had little space for a simple man like Mr Lahkar and his simple problems. They spoke of genocide and occupation instead. Not to forget, an indic civilization project and Hindu right-wing nationalism. Those trained in ideological blabber would theorize unnecessarily and refuse to see anything beyond conspiracies.
A conflict – any conflict – means various things to various people. For some it is an ideology put to test; for some it is a war to be clinched militarily; for many others it is an opportunity; for many more it is a study of human nature; for those who can afford it, it means searching for a home away from home; for the most it is an attack on the collective civilized morality and perhaps, a long exhausting march to peaceful times. Surely, not all of them survive. Few survive with dignity; fewer with self-respect; none without scars.
For me, as a student and an outsider, those days gave me a glimpse of the whole universe within a single drop. If you looked closely, you could see every blade of grass, every drop of the oceans, every tear in the eyes of humankind and every smile that appeared and faded; every drop of blood that dripped too, of course. If you looked closely, that is…
That drop was Parag Das’s photograph. That drop was also Mr Lahkar’s tired smile, and that old office of MASS. Even that firm and self-assured formula: ‘You liberate us. We shall liberate you.’ A year has gone by. Time, armed with three seasons, hasn’t been able to destroy it. Sitting on my table-top, it has maintained its surface tension and freshness. I can still see in it all that I saw then. Seeing is not the problem. It has never been the problem. Jose Saramago writes in Blindness, his classic, “I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.”
Yet, not all of us are blind. Not all of us are equally blind, at least. Some of us actually see. It is always upon those lucky enough to see to keep up the sanity. The chaos and violence can always be smelled in the air of our civilization. Liberty and Fraternity are privileges that need looking after. We need those who like planting trees and are committed to watering them regularly, without much fuss. They can only be the ones who still see – for some inexplicable reason – who bother about our collective blindness.
However, what I found most tragic was that those who claimed to see – the sympathizers of the cause of the people of North-East – whether in or out of North-East, betrayed their own blind. They saw neither the agony of living nor the blood on the walls. Misuse of sight was common. And if there is one reason we can all put our fingers on with utmost surety, it is ambition.
Those who can see want to see afar. The immediate, that what can be smelled or touched by all, that what is right next to the people, doesn’t interest them. So they speak of conflict, occupation, liberation and self-determination. Big words go a long way in all ‘businesses’.
Mr Lahkar was special for he saw without ambition. In the middle of a blindness of epidemic order, he didn’t think his surviving eyesight a miracle worth going down straight to the epics. He was Camus’s Rebel – an ordinary man in an endless ordinary struggle with the extra-ordinary absurdity of the world around.
It was somewhat fitting that I couldn’t meet him when I left MASS office. He was in some other part of the city busy with preparations for a big event MASS was doing for the people from far and remote areas. I had to go to Imphal, on a short notice. It was an abrupt end, perhaps in line with the ways of this world.