Mr India: Speaking Truth to Power

Mr India, Daniel Langthasa performing at a concert in Chattarpur. Akash Sangma
29 June, 2016

On 10 June 2016, at about 10.30 pm, Daniel Langthasa, a 33-year-old musician belonging to a band called Digital Suicide, posted a status on his Facebook profile. “So I hear that my father’s murderer will now become the Chief Executive Member of my district. Thank you Mr. Himanta Biswa Sharma ... And thank you BJP,” Daniel wrote. “Wondering if it’s time for me to put down my guitar and pick up a gun instead?”

Langthasa was referring to the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Debolal Gorlosa, also known as Daniel Dimasa—the former deputy commander-in-chief of the Assam and Nagaland based extremist group, Dima Halam Daogah (Jewel), or DHD(J), also known as the Black Widow—as the twenty-third chief executive member, or CEM, of the North Cachar Hills Autonomous Council (NCHAC) on 11 June. The 30-member NCHAC controls the administration of Dima Hasao—formerly North Cachar Hills—an autonomous district in Assam. The council is based in the district headquarters, Haflong, which is also Daniel’s hometown.

Daniel began performing in 2006, with a band called Ahimsa. At the time, he was studying at Assam Engineering College in Guwahati. In his final year in college, Daniel skipped his exams in order to play at the Hornbill festival in Nagaland. He never finished his degree. In 2008, he formed Digital Suicide, and began to write what he calls “protest music.” “It was a band, so the song-writing process was collaborative, and our musical influences were mostly Western,” Daniel said. Things began to change when he returned to Haflong, in 2015. He wanted to keep things “simple and spontaneous,” and began recording songs in Hindi, on his acoustic guitar. “More than anything else, I just wanted to talk to the people of Haflong about things that mattered to us, and in our own language,” he said. “I did not care whether the rest of the world would listen.”

The DHD(J) was formed in the early 2000s under the leadership of Mihir Barman, who goes by the alias Jewel Gorlosa. Since the mid 1990s, Barman was a key leader of the DHD, an insurgent outfit in pursuit of a separate state for the Dimasa tribe, the residents of Dima Hasao. When the DHD decided to surrender and negotiate with the central government, Barman, along with Dimasa, formed the breakaway faction, the DHD (J). According to Daniel, the two “Gorlosas”—Barman and Dimasa—as well as another former DHD(J) leader, Niranjan Hojai—all currently members of the NCHAC—were behind an operation that led to the death of his father, Nindu Langthasa, on 4 June 2007.

At the time of his death, Nindu was a member of the autonomous council (MAC) representing the Congress party, and was accompanying the then CEM, Purnendu Langthasa, in campaigning for the impending elections on 7 June 2007. The main target of the DHD(J) was the CEM, who was also the eldest son of Congress leader Govind Chandra Langthasa, and who Daniel claimed was a distant relative. The two Congress members were shot that afternoon in a remote village near Haflong.

Over the next two years, the three DHD(J) leaders—Barman, Dimasa and Hojai, among others were arrested on various charges. In custody, they began talks with the central government. Eventually, they surrendered their arms and those of over 300 of their cadres. “After that there was no legal procedure, nothing,” Daniel said. The three leaders were all released by 2009. Their negotiatations with the government also got them deals worth hundreds of crores for rehabilitation of their cadres. In 2013, the trio entered the political fray, and were elected to the NCHAC. Since then, according to Daniel, the council has suffered from a power struggle with constant reshuffling between the BJP and the Congress, as its members—elected for five-year terms—continue to negotiate and switch sides to form a 16-member majority. “The council keeps getting dissolved because everyone wants power, and no one wants to sit in the opposition,” Daniel said.

For instance, in October 2015, the BJP convinced 11 members of the NCHAC, which was then being led by the Congress, to join it. Overnight, the BJP had the majority, and replaced the Congress as the leader. Hojai was elected the new CEM. “It’s so easy, thoda paisa khila diya aur idhar se udhar ho gaya (bribe them with some cash, and the sides will change,)” Daniel said, referring to the defectors. “You just target the vulnerable members and invite them over to your side.” Three months later, in early January, the Congress pulled the same manoeuver and returned to power. Then, the equation changed again when the BJP won the Assam assembly elections held this year, registering its maiden win in the North-East. In the aftermath, some Congress members of the council resigned and switched over to BJP, facilitated by the BJP minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who himself was a member of the Congress party until last year. Dimasa was elected CEM. “Sarma came to Haflong and assured people that BJP will stay in the council,” Daniel said.

Daniel summarised the power games in one of his songs called ‘Goo Khao’—which translates to “eat shit”:

Subeh utha, council geera                               Woke up in the morning, the council had fallen

BJP se Congress, Congress se BJP . . .          BJP to Congress, Congress to BJP . . .

Sab goo khao                                                  Everyone eat shit

The song is part of a solo project that he began on 10 January. Since then, he has uploaded over 40 songs on his YouTube channel, where he describes himself simply as a “human being from Haflong.” The songs are often cheeky takes on trending topics, and discuss the political status quo, and life as a citizen of India. What shines through the simple acoustic ditties set to popular tunes is the earnestness of the man who sings them in Haflong Hindi, with a pair of hand-shaped plastic glasses hiding his eyes. This is Daniel’s stage persona, Mr India.

On the evening of 29 May, I saw him perform as part of an underground concert in Chattarpur, Delhi, that I had helped organise. At one point, the entire hall of sixty-odd spectators stood rapt at attention, as Mr India performed a satirical piece set to the tune of the Indian national anthem. The song concluded with the following verse:

Hamra biwi bola Modiji ko direct gaali mat deyo      My wife said don’t curse Modiji directly

Jail mein jaane se hamra kya hoga                            What will happen to me, if you are jailed

Hum bola hamra father morke justice toh nahi mila I said, there was no justice for my father’s death

At least hum Zee News mein toh niklega                     But at least I will be on Zee News

Jaya ho, Jaya ho, Jaya ho . . . Jaya jaya jaya jaya ho

At the end of his set, Daniel collected donations for what he called a “noble cause”—the money would go towards satisfying “the hunger of the leaders in Dima Hasao District so that they stop stealing from the public.” He accused the present council of indulging in rampant corruption through bribery, nepotism, false contracts and development on paper. “The government employees of Dima Hasao have not received salaries for seven months running,” Daniel claimed. “Thoda dictatorship type scene ho gaya hai (it’s become a bit like a dictatorship) because suddenly, a few people have become so powerful.

In a song called ‘6 Months Unpaid Salary!,’ which refers to this situation and its lack of media coverage, Daniel sings:

MLA election aaya                                          MLA election came

Teen mohina ka vetan deeya                           Got three months’ salary

Chhoi mohina vetan baaki hai                        Six months still pending

Election bhi khotam hua                                 Election is over now

Kya paanch saal rukne laagega?                   Do we wait for five years?

Tab tak khaana kaise khaayega?                   How’ll we eat till then?

. . .

Autonomous Council kyun banaya?              Why make the Autonomous Council?

Itna paisa kunse khaaya?                               Who ate all the money?

Arnab, tum toh Assam ko hai                         Arnab, you are from Assam

Ithoo kya breaking news nahi hai?                 Is this not breaking news?

On 31 May, I invited Daniel to my house in south Delhi, to observe him record a song. By 6.30 pm, he was at my desk, tuning his Takamine acoustic guitar, with a MacBook, a GoPro camera and a portable microphone set up before him. Soon, he was strumming chords, trying to find a suitable progression. Not long after, the glasses came on—Daniel was now Mr India. Unlike the usual doses of clownish wisdom, that day’s song was different. The lyrics were minimal, and the tone was plaintive. “Maybe because I’m composing in a different place,” Daniel offered. Usually, he recorded the songs in his bedroom, his wife and dogs making cameo appearances in his videos. At 6.49 pm, Daniel announced that the song was done but for the editing of the video.

Daniel and I discussed the insurgency in the North-East. “Jab tak army hoga, tab tak insurgency rahega, kyunki woh log toh army ke against hi ladne ke liye saath aata hai—aur hum public crossfire ke beech mein” (The insurgency will continue as long as the army is present, because the insurgents only band together to fight the armed forces. We, the public, is caught in the crossfire.) Daniel said. “The central government needs to understand this. But everyone takes things too personally, like this sentimentality and egotism associated with the army. This has to change!” he stressed. Elaborating further, he added, “Assam mein bahaut din se jaadatar militancy toh khatam ho gaya hai (the militancy in Assam has been largely ended for a while now). Most of the innocent public who took up arms have surrendered. Like I said, only a handful of leaders have created this militancy problem in the North-East. The others are victims themselves. They have been in the jungle for so long, and so they came out—because they also got fed up. Nowadays, you find them walking around Haflong town, it’s nothing unusual. But the thing is, the army is still there—and so, the fighting will continue.”

In the song titled ‘Message to Modi from Gujarat,’ which he posted to his YouTube channel, Daniel talked about these “innocents”:

Basti ko ladka ko misuse kora                                     Village boys were misused

Apna laabh uthaike sabko fenk diya                           And discarded after serving their purpose

Kitna jan toh firing mein mor giya                              So many died by firing

. . .

Aaj sab bhool gaya                                                     Today, everyone has forgotten

Kyunki poisa aaya                                                      Because money came

Daniel concluded our conversation on a philosophical note, “Kaun right hai, kaun wrong hai (who is right, who is wrong)—how does that matter?” he asked. “You call these people terrorists, but they are also citizens of India—bhai log hai, bas alag uniform pehna hai (they’re our brothers, only their uniforms are different).”