The newly-built flyover in Dispur super-market area has been claimed to be one of the additions to Guwahati’s infrastructure in achieving the coveted tag of being the gateway to south-east Asia and also the epitome of development in the region.

Guwahati is a city of contradictions: it has its own history of urbanisation, layers of buried peoples history, the Bodos, Karbis, Garos, etc., of wetlands (not to mention the sacrifice of deepor beel), dense forests, garlanding hills, streams, rivers, wild elephants etc, coloured with different nuances. Above all, it is also the political theatre of the region. Where the young starry-eyed teens clamour around the narrow footpaths of glittering malls and restaurants. Students in search of their destinies, migrant labour forces scampering around to make a living, where the populace is constantly complaining about the diminishing standard of living. In contrast sit elegant facades of huge housing complexes with five star facilities in it. 

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Guwahati is a long story in the region and everyone has a love-hate relationship with it, but it’s a space that cannot be denied.

The genesis of the discussion, however, is not musings about Guwahati. It comes from a notification laid out by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) dated 9.11.2021, which rapped out about the civic responsibility and civilisational value of the communities here over the defacing of public places and properties with special mention of the newly-opened flyover.

What is in the notification?

After hue and cry over spitting and pan stains, the GMC came up with a prompt notification decrying the incivility of the act of spitting over the paintings on the flyover and also a strongly-worded diktat which makes one think about the modus operandi of the authorities and the spatial democracy of the city of Guwahati.

Now I, too, really detest the idea of defacing or adding grotesque red colour of pan/tamul/gutkha-like blood stains on the newly curated and beautifully painted walls of the flyover or for that matter on any public space. But, does the minimal defacing of the Dispur flyover and the virtual outrage by the media and group of artists engaged necessitate the ‘notification’ that has been laid into the foundation of the aesthetic space of Guwahati.

The notification, which comes into immediate effect as of the date of publication, has the following directives laid out:

1. A fine of Rs. 1000.00 will be imposed on violators on first offence. However, repetitive/ habitual offenders will be slapped with higher penalty.

2. Guwahati Municipal Corporation will register FIRs against these offenders if needed under its laws/ bylaws.

3. Various groups/ agencies who pasted posters/ bills without the permission of the Corporation are directed/ ordered to remove them within 15 (Fifteen) days or shall face legal actions.

4. Guwahati Municipal Corporation has opened 4 (Four) WhatsApp numbers for citizens to post pictures of offenders/ violators spitting or littering the cityscapes. The numbers are as follows-8811007000, 7399003001, 7399003002 and 7399003004.

5. The Corporation has announced a cash reward of Rs. 1000.00 for such images, if found authentic.

The signatory authority of the notification spoke to a local news outlet and put his idea forth on why he came up with such a directive portraying his authoritarian streak.

“We tried but it didn’t happen. So, we have to be strict. We will have to take strict action and if we needed will lodge FIRs against them,” GMC commissioner Devasish Sharma told The News Mill.

“We can’t tolerate this kind of behaviour anymore. We have to make the city clean and beautiful,” the Guwahati Municipal Corporation official said.

“We will reward the people who report about this kind of offence with Rs 1000 each if their information is found to be correct. We want the involvement of the public here,” Sharma added.

The order has morally determining principles that one could still take with a pinch of salt. But how would one see the gentrification/enclosure of public spaces and civilian vigilantism that it enforces within its realm? Now, it has not only made an enclosure of those spaces that were used as mediums for different forms of expression both political and economic, and at time social outbursts (besides the deplorable act of spitting and urinating), but it has turned all of those acts into criminal activities and reproduced civilian vigilantism to have absolute control and violent clampdown.

Reminiscing the current history of public spaces and clampdown on art in the city:  

Guwahati, if all, I would personally say, is still building its aesthetic self, and is in a flux between traditionality and modernity where it is almost flummoxed with the vast arena of globalised cultures peering into it. But I do not deny the presence of a strong culture of using public spaces in the city.

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The raging clenched fists and slogans, the workers and farmers’ demands, students voicing out the status of the nation and even individuals trying to use it to its benefit – now would the new decree not criminalise all of this akin to a few disturbing realities in the present past? The detainment of Anga art members for doing a ‘free Akhil Gogoi graphiti’ and the utter humiliation of forcing them to erase their own work, victimisation of many such as Pranal Payeng, Nituporno Rajbongshi, Prasyura Pran Nath Valmiki, Kazi Neel, etc. who had to face immense indignity and harassment trying to speak truth to power or even traverse in their creative liberty. At the same time, there also has been mushrooming of many debatable art forms of ants and crows, and also alien cultural symbolisms that have taken over the city.

Doesn’t the above act qualify to be totalitarian and utterly undemocratic? Shouldn’t we be struggling to save the limited spaces of expression? Or leave it up to the authoritarian imagination to criminalise the act of using public spaces, which is most aptly put in Eduardo Galeano’s words, “Walls are the publishers of the poor”.

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Art as emancipation

From my limited exposure and mostly understanding of public art, I see art as emancipatory. And a peek into our history enhances that vindication: the ever evolving Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla and the emancipatory prowess of his art forms. Assam’s history would be incomplete without the unification of the two tallest stalwarts Com. Hemanga Biswas and Dr. Bhupen Hazarika and the historical usage of their artistic prowess in the tumultuous Assam of 1960 – the ‘Haradhan Rongmon’ duet and their usage of it to quell the fratricidal violence.

Even as an art novice who has not heard of Pablo Picasso the great artist, art meant life to him and maybe this story showcases to us what he meant by art. ‘While Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”‘

Could one gauge the symbolic grandness of this gesture in front of power?

We also know about the chapter where young Bishnu Prasad Rabha had scribbled loud in a public space “raije ache duti patha…” And the consequences thereafter, which also led to a life of revolutionary resistance and artistic creation of the highest emancipatory magnitude that enriched Assamese culture and still gives lifeblood to the gloomy days of violence and hatred.

History is replete with numerous acts of art and its gallant service to humanity. Such possibilities in the present generation of the region are also rife and show across different spaces. The earnest way for the authorities would have been not to use the act of a few stains in the new city flyover as an excuse to choke the possibilities of art/expression fearing it could be the brewing aesthetics of dissent. No one except a few buys the idea of spitting as the sole reason, not many would be bothered too! But one should not forget spitting too can have multiple connotations it can be a disgusting metabolic act of pan or it could be used as a weapon too.

Pranab Doley is a political activist. Views expressed are personal.

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