Monday, January 30, 2012

North East Chronicles 3: Lakwa - the struggle of a small town...

( After couple of narratives around the journey's from mid-Assam to Guwahati, the North-East Chronicles travels to Lakwa, Sibsagar, Assam - the land of the Ahom Empire and birthplace of the Assam insurgency. )

It must be early 1999.   That year, I frequented this oil block for Gas Authority in Lakwa for some IT work.   Our next 3-4 episodes would be around this small, sleepy town.   A place which has been etched in my memory forever.

Lakwa is a small, quiet town in Sibsagar district, Assam, North East India.  It has a small railway station.  It plays host to an ONGC oil block and a gas block from Gas Authority of India.   It is a town created by the oil and gas industry. 
One of the few palaces built by the
Ahoms in Sibsagar, near Lakwa

The majority of the people in Lakwa and in Sibsagar are Ahoms.  Ahom dynasty ruled this region for more than 600 years.   Lot of brick palaces were constructed.   The Ahoms adapted Hinduism around 1700's and moved from their customs of burying their dead to cremation.  

Post the fall of the Ahom empire, the region was under the Burmese rule for a brief period and then it become a permanent annex of the British-Indian Empire.

Post Independence, Assam largely served as a territory to be grudgling defended, an impoverished outpost.   The lure of the Assam tea and the discovery of oil changed from the far-fetched rag-tag state to a lady of the riches.   Slowly the oil companies moved in. 
The mainland people had come in the garb of nationalized oil companies.  They dug the earth and found the riches - large swathes of crude oil and natural gas.  These riches were exported out of the locals' reach.   Further, the promised employment never came.   It was more outlanders who got the better and top jobs.  

The locals had to cope with the situation.  They used to get the low-end jobs, often menial.   The resentment built up to a strong undercurrent.   The broad feeling, which I could infer from my small talk with the local, was around how fate had deceived them, again and again.  

New colonies of the oil-masters came up destroying Mother Nature further.  Huge walls sprung up.   The town settlement of the natives dwindled.   With such a restrictive law, the people had to rely on the oil companies for curfew.  

An effluent disposal site, Lakwa
And then, pollution.  Effluents from the refinery and other human faeces destroyed the beauty of Mother Nature.  It was only getting worse since 1950's.

In the 90's, AFSPA ( Armed Forces Special Powers Act) was in place. Large gatherings, greater than 5 people were not allowed.  Every nook and corner had a gun totting policeman or a soldier.
Any event in this place would be a storm in a tea-cup, for the oil company's head quarters and the Delhi satraps.   Any visit from a Delhi-wala would be to inaugurate some facility in the colony.   The small town would become a fortress a week before the impending arrival.   We used to stay inside the Brahmaputra hotel.

In 1999,  pillion riding was banned in Sibsagar district.   Maruti Gypsy's were the preserve of the Army.  The commute was typically by walk or cycle.   Longer distances were covered through the IOC , ONGC and GAIL buses - which doubled as pick-and-drops for the employees as well. 

Our workstyle used to be somewhat like this.  We used to start early at 6 am, as soon as the sun rose.  After work, we returned around 4 pm.   Nobody wanted to miss the 4 pm bus.  The next and final bus was at 730 pm, but it was too dark and dangerous.  

Aurobindo Rajkhowa, from this
small town led a two decade insurgency
The small town shut shop at the earliest.   The natives kept to themselves.  Largely peaceful in nature - atleast that is what I could see in my six months of stay there.  But everybody was a suspect - under the watchful eyes of the gun-totters at the end of each street. 

The struggle of this small town and its neighbourhood was like a pressure cooker with no contents, but heated by a full flame gas stove.  The pressure valve burst elsewhere.  The governments of the Guwahati and New Delhi have paid only lip service.

No wonder, this very town was the place of birth of insurgency. What outsiders would see as the mindless and illogical path for rights, would be seen as the only way of struggle by the locals.    One of the inhabitants of this land, led an insurgency against the powers-that-be, which is still on.   This is the land of Arabindo Rajkhowa.  His house itself is a thatched and brick settlement, as understated as can be.  

The interdependence of needy natives and the bounty hunters needs to be clearly integrated.   The out of sight, out of mind culture of the world's largest democracy has to vanish.   Else, the very concept of federalism would be challenged.   Like elsewhere, till then, the struggles like the one in this small town will continue...

-The One

( Courtesy pic the Internet)


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