Looms fall silent in silk town
Sualkuchi, March 31: The sound of wood striking wood was missing, as was the sight of intricate and colourful patterns on silk taking shape on the loom.
This silk town, around 35km from Guwahati and on the North Bank of the Brahmaputa, seemed to have lost its raison d'etre — producing silk products of fame — after the invasion of similar products bearing the name of another town on the bank of another famed river, Varanasi.
If 26-year-old Mithun Barman's hands still worked on the loom at Hiralal Kalita's weaving unit at Kalitapara this morning, it was more to rid himself of the boredom of sitting idle for the past three days than anything meaningful.
The "simple and peaceful" townsfolk didn't know what curfew was like till yesterday afternoon, when it was imposed to restore order.
Khanikar Das, a young trader, said the curfew was such a stranger to the residents that yesterday, some of his acquaintances had even requested him to go out with them to "see" the curfew, which had evoked curiosity and fear in equal measure.
The district administration had imposed the curfew after protesters and security personnel were engaged in a running battle that led to injuries to several on both sides. Three persons are still undergoing treatment in Guwahati.
The cause of trouble was the simmering tension sparked off by traders selling Benarasi silk products in the name of Sualkuchi silk — the more expensive pat and muga. Benarasi silk is mainly churned out of mulberry and costs less.
The anger has been there for quite some time. "The two had co-existed in our shops from time immemorial, but of late, some traders had been passing off Benarasi silk products as those made from Assam silk. Besides, over some time, these products were being designed on the lines of the local products, thus threatening the latter's existence. This should be stopped and I am with the public on this issue. But I am not indulging in any unfair practices," said Kushal Medhi, whose family has been in the business of both manufacturing and trading for the past 75 years. His stock of Benarasi silk products was also torched yesterday outside his residence, where the police had to fire at protesters.
The number of looms in the town has come down from 25,000 to 12,000, as labour shortage and mounting cost of production has dealt a body blow to brand Sualkuchi, which, in turn, also encouraged traders to bring in more Benarasi products. "Most of the weavers have gone out looking for greener pastures in the past five-six years," Das said.
"If this trend continues, we may have to shut shop soon for malpractice by a few and the administration's indifference. An integral part of the Assamese way of life will come to an end because silk mekhela and sador are part of the community's identity. Around 10,000 people from neighbouring districts who work with us have been directly affected. Almost 100 per cent of the households here are involved in making silk products," Hiralal Kalita said.
Officials said silk weaving provides direct as well as indirect employment to more than 25,000 people throughout the year. More than 12,000 women weavers are also involved. While 70 per cent of the products comprise mekhela and sador, 20 per cent are silk sarees and 10 per cent miscellaneous products.
Sualkuchi produces 31,000 lakh linear metres of silk fabrics worth Rs 9,000 lakh, with an approximate annual export of Rs 1,200 lakh.
It is clear from the observations of the weavers and traders that it is more a fight to protect a way of life than an attempt to check Benarasi silk "masquerading" as Sualkuchi silk. "The sooner the administration understands, the better it will be for everyone," Das said.
The administration seems to have got the message. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi called up Kamrup deputy commissioner S.K. Roy to ensure that innocents were not harassed and the situation returned to normal soon.
Local MLA and minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is being accused of not doing enough to resolve the problem, too, held a stocktaking meeting.
Roy told The Telegraph that the situation was under control. "We relaxed curfew from 1pm to 4pm and then extended it by an hour. Tomorrow, we will relax it from 7 am to 5 pm. We understand the sentiments of the people," he said. He said shops would be checked from tomorrow to root out this menace. "I will also move Dispur to conduct such raids all over the state."
Government spokesperson Bhupen Kumar Borah told this correspondent: "The government will do everything to protect this great Assamese fabric, which is also our unique identity."
Local residents today met the deputy commissioner during the curfew relaxation period and sought the unconditional release of the five arrested persons and immediate lifting of curfew.
Prahlad Das, a local youth, said the outburst was collective and spontaneous. "It's a people movement and we will not allow anybody to politicise this identity and livelihood issue. We want solution, not politics."