Kidnappings are routine stories for any region under the shadow of the gun. While growing up in Assam, we heard two kinds of kidnapping stories. The first cluster of stories was used by adults to control us and restrict our freedom to the confines of the house. The second variety was seen in the newspapers and heard on radios and local TV channels.
Now, years later, far away from Assam in snowy Minnesota, when I think about Assam’s contemporary history, I feel the story could actually be retold through different cases of kidnappings. The separatist outfit Ulfa came into prominence and gained international notoriety through small and big kidnappings, while also bringing trouble upon themselves by abducting the wrong people (or, as the Assamese would say, ‘brought the crocodile to the courtyard by digging a drain’). If we flip the pages of history, there is nothing surprising about this. It is not just that the Swiss bank accounts of insurgent organisations are replenished periodically with ransoms earned by kidnapping famous people. Abductions play a critical role in running an insurgency.
But where has anyone heard of a kidnapping that reshaped a literary tradition and created a whole body of fiction and poetry and essays? I heard such a story in 2007, from Assamese author Indira Goswami, whose residence in Delhi University was very close to my hostel. I visited her often. Once, she called me to her house. ‘‘I will tell you a story. You probably don’t know that I was once kidnapped by Ulfa,” she said. She spoke to me in Assamese, but she used the English word ‘kidnap’ and laughed mildly. What’s so funny about being kidnapped? I didn’t get it.
On my way there, I thought about the word ‘kidnapped’. When we were young, our babysitters would tell us horror stories of children being abducted for their livers, kidneys and blood. Bulbuli-ba, one of the babysitters, kept my brother and me home by telling us the story of a kidnapper who imprisoned a young boy, fed him apples day and night to extract blood every other day. We were horrified, and never demanded to be let out of our apartment in Chandmari, Guwahati.
Later, I heard stories of the Ulfa kidnapping people. Small and big stories. On 30 June 1991, as soon as Hiteshwar Saikia returned to power as Assam’s Chief Minister, Ulfa militants struck hard by taking hostage 15 highly ranked government officials. KK Mittal, secretary of the home department, TS Raju, a mine engineer working with Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, and Russian engineer Sergei Gritsenko were among them. The high-suspense drama of exchanging hostages and releasing arrested Ulfa members that followed would ensure that the organisation grabbed some big national and international headlines and also forced the Indian government’s hand to launch a strong military intervention in Assam. The government crackdown was codenamed Operation Rhino, in which 16 Ulfa camps were destroyed and 1,000 of its members arrested.
Everybody remembers the story of social worker Sanjay Ghosh, who was taken hostage and apparently killed by a low-level Ulfa member on 4 July 1997. Ghosh, who had come to Assam’s river island of Majuli to work on improving the lives of its people was believed by the Ulfa organisation to be an undercover agent for RAW. His kidnapping created shock ripples worldwide, and eroded the popularity of Ulfa within Assam, as Ghosh was widely seen as a person who, through his NGO, wanted to do something for the people and to save the river island from extinction. It is still not established how Ghosh was killed. Ulfa claimed he died while trying to escape while some other unconfirmed reports held that he was killed the same day that he was kidnapped by a low-level Ulfa member, who had no idea he wasn’t supposed to do that. This suicidal move by Ulfa silenced most voices sympathetic to their cause, both in Assam and the rest of the world. Ulfa, which wanted to establish an independent, exploitation-free Assam, acquired the image of a gang of extortionists.
Goswami’s abduction predated this. It was an experience that completely transformed her, and propelled her towards a decision that would transfigure the modern history of Assam and its literature.
When Goswami decided in 2005 to mediate a peace dialogue between the rebels and the government, the biggest hurdle she faced was the lack of sympathy for Ulfa. The decades-long disinformation campaign in the media, run at the behest of the government, had worked. Unaware of the human rights violations by the Army in Assam’s rural areas, a jingoistic middle class had no inclination to associate itself in any way with Ulfa. Their disenchantment extended to the peace process itself, and Goswami saw this. She decided to do something unprecedented in the state. She launched a determined bid to humanise the Ulfa rebels, to present them in front of the public as complex, multi-layered individuals.
That evening, when I reached her house to hear her talk about how she had been kidnapped, she handed me a copy of Ulfa member Megan Kachari’s poems (Melodies and Guns, 2006, UBSPD, Delhi; translated by Manjeet Barua and Pradip Acharya), which she had introduced and initiated a translation of. “Write a review for an Assamese paper. I don’t believe that a boy who can write such sensitive poems is just a bloodthirsty insurgent. There is more to him. I want someone from your generation to try and understand people like him,” she told me. She noticed my hesitation. After all, it was because of Ulfa that so many students of my generation had had to leave Assam. Why should I like them? Or even try and understand them? “We have to listen to dissident voices. A country cannot move forward otherwise. If you decide not to write a review, I won’t mind. But read the poems, first,” she said.
I wanted to change the topic. “You said, you were kidnapped. When was that?” I asked. She told me how in 1993, she had accepted an invitation to attend a meeting in Darrang district on Bishnu Prasad Rabha, a cultural icon in Assam. It was a meeting organised by Ulfa cadres, of which she had no idea. During the course of the meeting, she started suspecting that something was amiss. Suddenly, one of the cadres came up to her and without any preamble, asked her if she would like to visit their camp. They ushered her into a vehicle and apparently drove without lights for a long time. When they stopped, she couldn’t tell where they were. She saw they had managed to build a library in this remote part of Assam to spread awareness of civil rights among the people. It was late in the night. She had dinner with them. They drove her back the same way. “I can now tell people I was kidnapped,” she joked. (I wrote that review, and it was published in Sadin.)
Goswami’s literary contribution to Assam’s peace process didn’t go uncontested. A politician said, mentioning her close connections with the militants, that Indira Goswami’s real place was in “lock-up”. Writers who I knew personally mocked her endeavour: “When did those Ulfas get time to write these novels and poems? While they were killing people? Another person tried to reason with me, “We don’t need to read stuff written by murderers. There are better things to read.” I think what made people uneasy was not the polarising debate in the press about the peace process, but the renewed interest in militant writing in Assam because of Goswami’s efforts. People knew how to deal with polemics and screeds. They didn’t know how to fight with fiction and poetry.
It was only a matter of time. In a few years, this genre of rebel writing, shunned by people in the beginning, had gained a prominent place in the literary life of Assam. In 2012, Satsori, the prestigious literary magazine edited by Anuradha Sharma Pujari and Diganta Oza, ran a special issue on ‘bidrohee sahitya’ (rebel literature), where former Ulfa cadres contributed across genres. But a lot had happened before this: several former Ulfa members, Megan Kachari among them, had already acquired enviable reputations as writers. Raktim Sharma, Anurag Mahanta and J Dorjee’s novels and Kaberi Kachari Rajkonwar’s poems about life as a woman cadre were received well by readers. This would not have been possible without Goswami’s efforts to introduce Megan to the world as a poet, not a ‘terrorist’. In a telling incident in Raktim Sharma’s novel, Boranga Yan (The Forest Song), Cambridge India, 2006, we read about a militant called Deepkon, whose bullet-ridden leg is swollen and bloated into the shape of a banana tree trunk. When he raises his leg, his comrades see hundreds of maggots crawling in and out of it. The scene disgusts his closest militant friends, but they can’t turn away from it. The stench of death and decay in Assam had been around for too long. Goswami confronted it herself, and then made the people of Assam engage with it through her tireless efforts.
Goswami allowed her ‘abduction’ because she couldn’t turn away from the realities of Assam. She even toyed with the idea of writing a novel set against the backdrop of the Assamese separatist insurgency, but her fieldwork and research had left her completely shaken.
She did ultimately embark on her novel, but the stories of the insurgents couldn’t wait till she had finished. They were demanding the attention of a wider audience. Goswami passed away without completing her novel, but she happily played midwife to many narratives, which saw the light of day largely thanks to her efforts. No wonder she could joke about being kidnapped by militants.
Aruni Kashyap is an Assamese writer, poet and translator. He has translated and introduced Indira Goswami’s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar (Zubaan)