September 1, 2023

Music Healed Riot-Torn Assam in 1960

Indigenous Art & Culture

Rimi Biswas

Ph.D. Research Scholar,

Calcutta University


In this paper, we tend to pay attention to such an incident that can be regarded as a unique one in the global context. Assam witnessed a horrible riot in the year of 1960 that is generally known as ‘linguistic riot’. The riot broke out after the decision on the government level to make the Assamese language the only official language in the state. The aftermath was just horrendous as vandalism started to take place in various belts of Assam. Bengali people, living in Assam faced brutal attacks at that point in time and subsequently, tension along with extreme violence gripped the whole state. Hemango Biswas, the legendary musical personality and political activist proposed Dr. Bhupen Hazarika for a joint ‘peace caravan’ to pacify the violence. Bhupen Hazarika readily accepted the proposal and the rest was history. For the first time, perhaps in the global context, too, a cultural intervention brought an ugly riot to an end.


Hemango Biswas, Bhupen Hazarika, Peace-caravan, Linguistic riot, Music, Vandalism, Bengali, Assamese, ‘Haradhan-Rongmon Kotha’, Peasants, Ballad, Socio-political,   

From time immemorial, music has been a propelling force for this human civilization and it should never be regarded as a medium of mere entertainment. It always does have its didactic nature and at the same time, music has been playing a pivotal role in socio-political contexts over the globe. Music is a unique skill that involves both art and science. According to ‘The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary’- music is “the science and art of the rhythmic combination of tones, vocal or instrumental, embracing melody and harmony. In the pages of history, it is evident that music became the combatant force or medium of protest against the socio-political odds in numerous global contexts.

In this context, we are reminded of “We Shall Overcome”, the evergreen song of all time that surpasses the boundary of entertainment and emerges as one of the most significant mass-song. If we turn the pages of history, we come to know that the song is related to – “O Sanctissima” and “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners’. After 1900, “I Shall Overcome Someday” a gospel song by reverend Dr. Charles Tindley was added to the musical mix. Around 1945, gospel arrangers Atron Twig and Kenneth Morris added the essential pieces of the presently famous song. In 1945-46, during a labor strike against American tobacco in Charleston, South Carolina, Lucille Simmons first sang the song as a protest song. Lucille changed the ‘I’ into ‘We’ and an overpowering sense of solidarity was added to the song. In 1947, Lucille shared this song with another labor activist in Highlander Folk School. The cultural head of the school, Zilphia Horton also learned the song and subsequently taught it to Pete Seeger and the rest was a history in the truest sense of the word.1

  In Bengal also music reached its highest objective at the hands of maestros like Hemango Biswas, Salil Chowdhury, and so on and played immensely vital roles in the socio-political contexts. In this regard, we must pay attention to ‘The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) which played the most significant role in the transitional period in India. IPTA had been the main guiding force in the cultural movement of not only Bengal but the whole country. Its first bulletin was headed by the following epigraph:

  “People’s theatre stars the people, and it resolved to build a theatre not only of the people but also by them, to build not a movement which is built from above but which has its roots deep down in the cultural awakening of the masses of India…which seeks to revive the lost in that heritage by interpreting, adopting and integrating it with the most significant facts of our people’s lives and aspirations in the present epoch.”2

  Now let us pay attention to Hemango Biswas, the unparalleled musical stalwart of Bengal. To him, music had always been the highest art and he did have unaltered faith in the power of music as a weapon in any kind of cultural movement. Hemango was one of the strongest pillars of IPTA. He believed in the notion of Joseph Stalin – art should always be ‘international in content but local in the form’. Following this notion, Hemango mainly used indigenous folk forms in his creations. He did so to attain considerable participation from the audience at the time of performance and also to create a sensation at the mass level.

  In 1960, what Hemango did still does not have any parallel in the entire history of perhaps the global culture. In independent India, after the partition riots, the next major ethnic conflagration occurred in Assam in the year 1960. The Government of Assam decided to make Assamese the only official language in the state. The employment prospects of the Bengali people in Assam at that time seemed to be in jeopardy and naturally, they started to protest. The Barak Valley was mainly dominated by the Bengali people and subsequently, it became a center of agitation and unrest. The same thing happened in the Brahmaputra Valley which was dominated by the Assamese people. on 14 July, a riot broke out in Shibsagar and intense violence took place in Goreswar in the Kamrup district. According to the report of ‘Justice Gopalji Mahotra Inquiry Commission’ 4019 huts and 58 houses were vandalized in the truest sense of the word.3   

  The whole country started to witness a ‘linguistic riot’ on a massive scale that became an abominable scar on the face of the independent India. The situation went beyond control and the administrations as well as the politicians failed to pacify the horrible fire of the riot. This impossible task was made possible by a cultural troupe consisting of artists, dramatists, singers, and writers. The troupe was headed by one and only Hemango Biswas, the astounding musical personality of Bengal, and Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, Assam’s very own bard.

  This was probably the only instance in the history of our independent country when a cultural intervention brought widespread unrest as well as violence to an end.4 Hemango gave a proposal to Bhupen to initiate a joint venture of a ‘peace caravan’ and the proposal was readily accepted by the latter. The two legendary figures met in Shillong and composed a long musical ballad titled ‘Haradhan-Rongmon Kotha’. The story of two peasants, one Assamese and the other Bengali, was narrated in the ballad. Both the peasants lost their everything during the riot. The two peasants in sheer distress came together to survive in the backdrop of a fratricidal riot. The Bengali part of the song was set to a Bhantiyali tune and sung by Hemango Biswas and on the other hand, the Assamese part was sung by Dr. Bhupen Hazarika in Bihu. The combination became just heart-touching. Both artists performed it together on 27th August 1960 at the Shillong Club.5 The audience was simply mesmerized to experience this historical performance.

  The ‘peace caravan’ started under the leadership of the two stalwarts and they sang for peace and harmony. The troupe also involved many local artists and visited all the riot-torn places in Assam. People rushed to listen to the songs and the situation started to get relaxed.

  On 9th September 1960, the Bengali daily ‘Swadhinata’ wrote: “When in Assam ugly sectarian violence raised its hackles and the country had its head in shame, when the flood of hatred between Assamese and Bengalis was threatening to ground to dust the respect of a cultural and independent nation, when the two communities were losing faith in each other, at that time of destruction a clarion call for peace was heard in the hills of Shillong whose creators were the celebrated artists of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, Hemango Biswas and the famous singer and film director Bhupen Hazarika”.6 

  During this ‘peace caravan’ the duo – Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika got ample support from Assam’s then Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chahila. Beginning with Guwahati, the troupe proceeded to Nagaon, one of the most affected areas by the riot. In a memoir, Hemango Biswas wrote: “I clearly remember, after the program, three students came to me and confessed with much remorse that they participated in the riots. One of them was a lead worker of the student federation” According to some eye-witnesses, in Nagaon, just after the program Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika came down from the stage with their arms around each other, and many people started crying.

  The troupe then reached Dhing Bazar, another worst-affected area where tension was still prevailing. The Bengali school in that area where around 300 students studied was destroyed. The same was the fate of almost all the Bengali shops in the area. A Bengali-owned gramophone record shop where almost all the records were of Assamese songs, was also gutted down. Ironically, most of the records were of Bhupen Hazarika.8 In Dhing Bazar ‘Haradhan-Rongmon Kotha’ melted the violent atmosphere down. The troupe continued its musical journey to Shibsagar, Dibrugarh, and then Tejpur. The highly volatile situation was brought under complete control by music only and nothing else. During this ‘peace caravan,’ Bhupen Hazarika composed another song ‘manual manuhor babe that was later translated into Bengali and became immensely popular as – ‘manush man usher janya’(human beings are for each other). In the context of this ‘peace caravan’ we should mention the name of Moghai Ojah, the legendary dhol player of Assam, who also played an extremely significant role in this historical venture. 

  The artistic synthesis of Bihu and Bhantiyali made the ‘haradhan-Rongmon kotha’ an incredibly soulful composition. It just went on creating magic in all the riot-torn areas of Assam. People started to shed tears after witnessing the performance of the troupe and finally listening to the epoch-making composition that told the story of two peasants Haradhan and Rongmon.

  To conduct this ‘peace caravan’ Hemango Biswas even deviated from his party line and compromised with his political ideology as he lent support to the Congress Government at this extremely critical juncture.9 From the journals, written by Biswas himself we come to know how some of his comrades had severe doubts about this peace venture. At that moment Hemango only listened to his heart and at the same time, he was also fully aware of the responsibility of an artist. So, he did what his heart directed him to do. He, along with Bhupen Hazarika, led the troupe consisting of thirty artists to create a history.

  In independent India, this is perhaps the only instance where a cultural troupe, taking high risk, did its best to put an end to the horrendous riot the whole nation was witnessing. It was through music peace was restored and harmony was revived in a most critical phase when two communities completely lost faith in each other. The magnificent duo – Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika once again established the universal fact that music could be the best combatant force even in times of extreme unrest and violence.

  The epoch-making composition ‘Haradhan-Rongmon Kotha’ now can easily be listened to by anybody as it is readily available on YouTube, uploaded by ‘Asha Audio’ in the form of an album, titled Hemango-Bhupen: A Song for Everyone’. This beautiful album consists of rare old photographs and letters, written by Hemango Biswas to his wife during the journey.


  1. We Shall Overcome: the story behind the song – (visited on 26.07.2023 at 6:15 pm)
  2. Sumangala Damodaran, The Radical Impulse, New Delhi: Tulika Books, First Edition, 2017, p 34.
  3. Goreswar massacre – (visited on 26.07.2023 at 6:49 pm)
  4. Forgotten Tale: How a Troupe of Artists Healed Assam After the 1960 ‘Language Riots’ – (visited on 26.07.2023 at 7:44 pm)
  5. Ibid (visited on 26.07.2023 at 8:10 pm)
  6. Ibid (do)
  7. Hemango Biswas’s Historic Peace Road Trip Comes Alive in Singer’s Mission – (visited on 26.07.2023 at 8:45 pm)
  8. Ibid (visited on 26.07.2023 at 9:05 pm)
  9. Remembering Hemanga Biswas: An artivist who fought to have it all – (visited on 26.07.2023 at 9:20 pm)