A strike struck in Assam (again)

Giggly ladies in Modhupur village, Assam © Emma FieldWhen I woke up this morning I was all set for a trip to Sivasagar, the old capital of the Ahoms and rumoured to be the home of the tallest existing Shiva temple in the world.

By breakfast I was googling for news of the strike responsible for changing my planned excursion to Sivasagar to a trip to a local weaving workshop and a tribal village. Not a bad modification in my book, but what kind of strike could possibly affect a simple drive to a pile of old ruins?

Striking is something of an everyday occurrence in Assam, it turns out. The state is a patchwork of different tribes and ethnicities, all jostling for attention. Some want independence, some want government recognition, others want funding or special rights, and so on.

The curious thing is that most shops and businesses in the surrounding area close when a strike is called. Apparently, if they don’t the owners might get a visit from the strike organisers, and the strikers aren’t popping in for an affable chat over a nice cup of Assamese tea. Obviously, strikes are far more consequential if the economy feels a knock-on effect. For example, bringing the financial system to its knees is much easier in London – just ask Underground employees. Here, throwing a few branches at the cars that do brave driving through the strike zone is meant to achieve the same result.

Even more curious is that car owners who defy the strikers by taking to the road risk their insurance being rendered invalid. I haven’t been able to work out if this is because it generally results in more claims being made (branches and paintwork aren’t the best of friends…) or if the insurance brokers support the actions of the strikers. In a land where policemen often have small holes drilled into their batons specifically for making bribes easier to pay subtly from a truck window, it could be either.

Today’s strike was a minor affair. It was meant to last from 6am to 6pm but our guide was confident that by midday most strikers would be bored, hot and heading home. We saw a few shops open in Dibrugarh on our way to the weaving workshop, and by early afternoon, when we drove to Madhupur village for a stroll, things were mostly back to normal.

Driving back to our chang bungalow under the light of a full moon, Dibrugarh seemed in the grip of a party. So our tour guide informed us, many people treat strike days as holidays; shops open in the evening to cover loss of earnings and office workers enjoy a longer-than-usual early evening stroll.

And for our part, thanks to the strikers, we got to meet some extremely pleasant people we may not otherwise have bumped into. Anyway, the moral of the story is, in Assam always have a locally based back-up plan!

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