Why the gamosa wraps the Assamese society together

The current wave of anti-CAA protests in Assam prominently features the gamosa. Why does this humble piece of cloth remain central to the articulation of Assamese identity?

Ranjan Barman, an 18-year-old resident of Assam’s Lakhimpur, has 22 ‘gamosa’ shirts. Last winter, Barman took a few gamosas — the traditional hand-woven red and white Assamese cloth — to a tailor in his village and gave him exacting instructions to stitch them into a shirt. For the avid TikTok user, the shirt guarantees double the hearts on his 15-second videos, where he lip-syncs Assamese Bihu numbers. 

“Obviously it would,” says Barman, “A gamusa — even the sight of it — makes an Assamese person sentimental.” He recalls how three months ago, he was in Bengaluru with his family for a medical check-up. “The Assamese doctors went out of the way to help us,” says Barman, convinced that the preferential treatment could be traced to only one thing: the phulam, or floral, gamosa tied to his bag. 

In the ongoing wave of protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) in Assam, the gamosa has featured prominently — as men, women and children tied it on their heads, or draped it around their shoulders. It became an intrinsic part of protest gear. 

“It is not easy wearing a Mekhela Chador (the traditional Assamese attire) for every protest, but I can always carry a gamosa,” says 21-year-old Sovangini Talukdar, from Tezpur’s Darrrang College, who attended every CAA protest in December so far.

The rise and rise of the gamosa

The gamosa has traversed beyond Assam — to Delhi (on account of being Prime Minister Modi’s favourite accessory) to the tracks of Finland (when athlete Hima Das won her historic gold in July 2018) and even to outer space (when NASA astronaut Mike Fincke — married to an Assamese — performed Bihu aboard the International Space Station in 2004). 

What explains the ubiquitous influence of the gamosa in Assamese society?

According to Sunil Pawan Baruah, a retired history professor and writer, the gamosa as a “symbol of the Assamese nation” can be traced back to 1916 and 1917, when the Asom Chatra Sanmillan (first student organisation) and Asom Sahitya Sabha (premier literary organisation) were founded. 

This article was originally published in The Indian Express in December 2019. Full article here.