For this Assam village, Bhogali Bihu is a reminder of carnage

In 1998, extremists gunned down 17 people on the night of Urukia, the Bihu eve, at Kekerikuchi

Assam on Wednesday evening rediscovered the unbridled joy of Bhogali Bihu, the post-harvest festival of feasting, after a brief pause. But a village in the State’s Baksa district drowned in sorrow, recalling a massacre 23 years ago.

The people of Kekerikuchi, a village about 80 km northwest of Guwahati, have never celebrated Magh or Bhogali Bihu since January 13, 1998. That night, a group of extremists emptied their automatic assault rifles on villagers as they — like most others across the State — gathered at a field around an Uruka bonfire and prepared for the annual feast.

Uruka is the eve of Bhogali Bihu entailing a night of feasting and congregating at a bhelaghar or hut-like structures that are burnt for seeking the blessings of the deities.

By the time the villagers realised what hit them, 17 people from four families lay in a pool of blood, their bodies riddled with bullets. The dead included children.

“We have abstained from celebration on Magh Bihu since. Instead, we offer 1,000 earthen lamps and organise naam-kirtan [devotional songs] in front of a memorial built for the 17 victims of mindless violence,” said D.J. Kalita, who had lost four members of his family.

No outlawed organisation had owned responsibility for the massacre. The village and adjoining areas in the Tamulpur subdivision had been the haunt of the now-disbanded Bodo Liberation Tigers and the National Democratic Front of Boroland.

The villagers said children born at Kekerikuchi in 1998 and after have not known what Magh Bihu is.

The Bihu of feasting, though, was subdued across Assam in 2020 because of the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act protest that spilled over from December 2019.

The mid-April Rongali or Bohag Bihu was also off the calendar that year because of the COVID-19 lockdown.

“In a way, the festivity associated with Bihu has returned to Assam after almost two years since the Bohag Bihu of 2019,” said Kailash Sarma, an organiser of Bihu programmes in Guwahati.

Bird fights

The traditional bird fights during Magh Bihu are unlikely to be organised this year because of the bird flu scare, although organisers have defied a 2016 ban by the Gauhati High Court on bulbul fights.

A cloud of uncertainty is also over another tradition involving animals, the buffalo fight in central Assam’s Ahatguri but there will be no community fishing in the Kaziranga National Park, officials said.

The park authorities have imposed Section 144 restricting the assembly of four or more people at the Bagori and Burapahar ranges of the one-horned rhino habitat on January 13 and 14,

People from nearby areas and afar have for years been fishing in some specified water bodies of the park but officials noted “this has become a commercial activity” for some.

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