What happened when an anti-AFSPA Manipuri musician got approached for HRD Ministry's 'patriotic' rock concert?

Akhu Chingangbam is a known voice of political dissent, a vocal critic of Armed Forces Special Act (AFSPA) in the state and the "culture of ban".

What happens when a musician, who admits to having never written any ‘patriotic’ songs in his entire musical career, is approached for a government initiative to instill a sense of ‘patriotism’ among university students? Well, if the fee offered is good enough, one would assume he would quickly pen down a few ‘patriotic’ songs and perform them. Not when the musician in question is Akhu Chingangbam – singer and song writer of Imphal Talkies and famous for writing anti-state lyrics.

On 28 August, this musician from Manipur made a Facebook post saying: “Recently I got a call saying Imphal Talkies has been picked up by Ministry of HRD for a concert. I really wonder if HRD has any idea what are the contents of my songs or are they trying to polarise me? :). It seems the ministry is organising a series of concert everywhere in the country. It sounds like some sort of a campaign to me. I have turned down the gig cos of the ideological differences. Also as they asked who can play at my place i have given few names of other artists from Manipur.” (sic)

Around the time Akhu got the first call, reports of the HRD Ministry’s initiative to organize “patriotic rock concerts” as part of a programme called “Yeh India ka time hai” started doing the rounds. The concerts are supposed to take place across the country in Central Universities and IITs to celebrate 75 years of Quit India Movement and 70 years of Independence over the next one month.

These concerts will be sponsored by the HRD Ministry. Reportedly, a private entertainment firm has been hired to zero in on the bands — something which the opposition sees as a colossal waste of money.

Here’s what HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar has to say about the initiative and the political bickering over the issue.

This is the same programme Akhu was approached for.

Akhu is a known voice of political dissent, a vocal critic of Armed Forces Special Act (AFSPA) in the state and the “culture of ban”.  AFSPA bestows upon the Armed Forces the right to open fire on someone based on mere suspicion or arrest without any warrant and many other draconian powers. The folk rock band Imphal Talkies headed by him was one of the 32 bands chosen from 32 countries by The Manchester University based In Place of War, that works with artists in places of conflict all over the world.

Interestingly, Akhu’s social media posts as well as the songs he writes leave no doubts about where he stands on a few contentious political issues. In fact, what he says and writes can very well be interpreted as being “anti-national” given the current discourse on nationalism and patriotism.

Just take a look at some of the lyrics from his more popular songs. Some of them are a serious indictment of the Indian Army’s role in Manipur and the Indian state.

AFSPA, why don’t you go and f*#k yourself. Don’t you have brothers….? 

 “India I see blood in your hands.” -(From India I see blood in your hands)

“Your constitution has nothing for me, all you do is kill my innocence” 

(–From Lullaby that talks about the impact of AFSPA and the conflict in Manipur on the children and their future)

Or his poem Qutub Minar written in 2008 and later turned into a song, where he creates a symbolic story about the abduction of the 73 m tall Minaret from the National capital to Manipur, where AFSPA is in effect.

Honourable Minister Saheb,
Please convey to Manmohan
When AFSPA is repealed you can take back the Qutub Minar
Otherwise, I will be on my own course
Draped in a phanek I hope to install it at the Samu Makhong
When my mother draped the barren papaya tree with a phanek
It bored fruit
Let me clothe the Qutub Minar with a phanek
Tall and robust it might look becoming

And when they take the Qutub Minar 

The names of those massacred 

I will carve on it vividly and gift it back”

Or the raw anger and anguish against the men in uniform expressed in his song, Rise:

“How long you can trust them when the guns are aiming at you. 

How long you can hear them telling your brother got killed in a fake encounter. “

Or this

Then, how did Akhu make the cut for “patriotic rock concert” in a government education institute in Manipur? Well, that’s a mystery and something even he is not able to fully comprehend. Speaking to inUth he said, “Initially I thought there was nothing wrong in being part of a government initiative like this. But when I figured that the songs have to be patriotic and duly cleared before being performed, I saw no point in committing to it”

“Music comes from the heart, art comes from heart. I don’t write patriotic songs, it’s simple. Frankly speaking I don’t care about the government.” he adds.

On part of the government, instilling ‘patriotism’ on campus has been the top priority ever since student protests erupted on JNU campus last year. A resolution to hoist a large flag in all campuses was passed last year under Smriti Irani, the then HRD Minister. The idea of talks by Army officers was also mooted by Irani.

More recently, JNU Vice Chancellor wanted the central government to help the university authorities procure an army tank so that students would be constantly reminded of the supreme sacrifice made by our Armed Forces.

The ‘patriotic’ rock concert follows the same trend to which Akhu says: “You are trying to make robots out of people by forcing a certain idea of patriotism on them. It’s a crazy idea.”