Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Threats against Indian protest song

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News, Tura, Meghalaya


Black Friday tribute song

Three years ago the streets of the quiet and sleepy north-east Indian towns of Tura and Williamnagar reverberated to the sound of rifle fire as police shot dead nine protesters.

They were the single largest acts of violence in the towns since independence from the British. Friday 30 September 2005 became known locally as "Black Friday".

On the third anniversary of the shootings a different sound is being heard through the streets.

It is the sound of the song "Black Friday" by a well-known local rock group, Northwind. The song has rapidly acquired cult following in the western part of Meghalaya since it was written in honour of those who died.

Extremely unpopular

But not everyone is a fan of this particular rock anthem. The band's manager, Dipu Marak, says that he has received anonymous warnings by text message not to distribute the song for broadcast on local radio or TV in the days immediately preceding and succeeding the anniversary.

"The events of that day will forever remain etched in our memories," said Mr Marak.

The band has a cult following in the north-east of India

The students were protesting against the decision of the state government to transfer the education board from Tura to the state capital, Shillong.

Such a move was extremely unpopular in the west of Meghalaya because the area is predominantly made up of members of the Garo tribe - whereas the east of the state including Shillong is mostly inhabited by members of the Khasi tribe.

Protesters complained that the transfer meant that the west of Meghalaya was left with no government departments - all had been transferred to the east.

"I attended the demonstration that was held in a sports stadium Tura. There was a large, confused and angry crowd which the police were poorly trained to deal with," Mr Marak says.

"They panicked and opened fire without much provocation," he says, pointing to bullet marks that can still be seen in and around the stadium.

Bullet holes at the main stadium in Tura
Bullet holes from the shootings can still be seen in Tura

"Some students were shot in the back as they ran away. It was like the killing fields."

A similar protest was held in nearby Williamnagar, 75km from Tura (47 miles) with a similar police reaction. In addition to those killed, 160 students were injured in both towns.

Mr Marak says that it is not clear who has been sending the anonymous threats over the broadcast of the song, "Black Friday".

The police say they had no option but to open fire when students attacked them. At the time of the shootings, the Deputy Inspector General of the Garo Hills range, Vijay Kumar, told the BBC from Tura that the Garo Students Union (GSU) was not given permission to hold a rally.

Despite that, he said, hundreds of people gathered in Tura and threw stones at police - injuring several officers - before the order to fire was given.

The police version of events is strongly contested by the protesters who say that police did initially give permission for the demonstration but then revoked it without letting them know.

'Painful screams'

"I don't suppose we will ever know," Mr Marak says. "But one thing is certain, the police were and are very embarrassed about what happened on that fateful day. It's clear they totally over-reacted and have the blood of innocent protesters on their hands."

The band are idolised in Meghalaya

Northwind's vocalist Reynold M Sangma says memories of the violence remain vivid despite the passing of the years.

"The sound of gunfire and the painful screams still echo in my ears till today. It will haunt me until the end of my life," he said.

Rhythm guitarist Tete S Momin feels equally passionate about the events leading up to and after the shootings.

"What pains the people most now is the denial of justice... police and government officials responsible for the massacre have never been brought to justice," he said.

Bass guitarist Jeetu N Marak says that the "Black Friday" is a tribute to "the fallen heroes of our tribe, who died defending and fighting for our rights".

The song was written during the curfew which was imposed for more than a month after the violence and was first aired publicly on the first anniversary of the killings.

"The people loved the song and thanked us for reflecting the tragic incidents of that day. However, we received threatening and abusive text messages from unknown senders, warning us not to play the song ever again," Mr Marak said.


"But we will not be intimidated and will play the song again on 30th September 2008, no matter what happens. As long as we are supported by the people, we will not be afraid of anyone."

The use of music in a state like Meghalaya is bound to be powerful tool of protest.

It is renowned for its love of rock and roll, reggae, blues, country and rock.

Observers believe the state got its love of melody because of its strong Christian missionary movement and consequent natural affinity to western cultural mores.

Now they have embraced another Western popular tradition - protest singing - and the trend seems to be catching on.

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