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Let there be Judima

Surviving petty politics, a true spirit. Prasun Acharya reports

TIPPLE-TATTLE: The festival in Assam’s Dibari village might be centred round local brew judima (above), but it celebrates much more   

Bankim Haflongbar has lived all his life in Dima Hasao district of Assam's upper Haflong area, but he has tasted judima - the traditional brew of the Dimasa tribal community - only thrice in his 30-plus years. The first time, shortly after birth, during his annaprashan. The second time, when he went to meet his bride-to-be. And the third time - at his own wedding.

The sweet tasting, golden coloured rice wine has a certain significance in Bankim's world; it pumps through the lifeblood of the people in this geography - 16 tribes apart from the Dimasas, other Assamese people and Bengalis. Assam has filed a GI (geographical indication) registration for it. But even so, Bankim did not imagine a day would come when it would be the centre of a whole festival, such as the one launched in 2016, and that he would be one of the organisers.

Truth be told, even a couple of years ago, it would have been difficult to say Dima Hasao and festival in the same breath.

The area reeled under insurgency between 1990 and 2012. The demand for a separate state comprising Dima Hasao district and the Cachar Hills was on full throttle. Many people lost their lives to the movement before an accord was signed between the people and the Congress state government in 2012.

Today is a bright winter morning. The festival ground in Dibari village is surrounded by the North Cachar Hills and buzzing with people. Locals apart, motorcycle-borne youth from Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh are vrooming in constantly. Trekkers are exploring Barahill, the highest peak here. Everyone is tasting the judima that is being sold off bottles by a women's co-operative. It is as if there has been no yesterday.

There is no seeming shadow of present-day politics either. Or you could say it is all politics, through and through.

By 2013, firebrand leaders of the Dimraji movement such as Jewel Garlosa, Debolal Garlosa and Niranjan Hojai surrendered and joined mainstream politics. Many of them joined the North Cachar Hill Autonomous Council (NCHAC) - the autonomous council formed in 1952 and endowed with administrative powers. Post the 2016 elections, the BJP took it over. Not surprisingly, the judima festival has the blessings of the conservative saffron forces. When in Rome...

Probina Longmailai and Surupala Kembri must be in their mid forties. The two women are minding the stall selling judima. They have also prepared the brew. "Dui diney ek bottle toyar karta hai... It takes two days of labour to prepare a one-litre bottle of judima," says Probina in Haflong Hindi, a mixture of Dimasa, Hindi and Bengali and the lingua franca of these parts. Tradition has it that only women can prepare judima.

UP chief minister Adityanath has recently rapped his Karnataka counterpart for backing beef consumption. The thumb rule for consuming judima is that it must be had alongside pork or beef or buffalo meat. No questions asked. The Dimasas who constitute 40 per cent of the total population of Dima Hasao, are an important votebank.

A lone citizen had tried to make trouble, even complained to the deputy commissioner of Haflong, Debojyoti Hazarika, but nothing came of it. Bahim Longthasa, the man in question, has since accused the BJP of using the festival as a ruse to distract Dima Hasao youth from the real issues, the socio-economic crisis.

Rebel-turned-chief executive member of the NCHAC, Debolal Garlosa, does not agree. He says, " Judima is our traditional liquor. From birth to death, it is an integral part of our life. Even when we want to give respect to a senior person of our society, we offer him this drink. Younger generations should know of it." He adds, "If we export it, it is good for the rural economy."

While the festival days are spent celebrating food and drink, the nights are about music. A rock concert every night is the norm. Anju and Krishna Pillai have come from Thiruvananthapuram. They are carrying back bottles of judima. Lyndogh is from Nagaland. He had attended the first edition of the festival also, had had a taste of things. This time he has come with a guitar. He says, "The judima makes me roam the hills by day and break into a song at night."

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