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‘Not Assamese, nor Bengali’, Assam’s Barak Valley has bigger issues to worry about

The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016 which has seemingly divided Assam, forces open old wounds of the Bengali speaking population of the Barak Valley. indianexpress.com visits the the southern tip of Assam to find a story of a people who are longing to belong.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Silchar |
Updated: May 31, 2018 7:41:20 pm
Barak Valley Assam, Bengali Language, Bhasha Shahid Diwas, A memorial for one of the 11 martyrs who lost their lives in the May 19, 1961 firing in Silchar. Photo Courtesy: Saptarshi Bhattacharjee.

“If you run around the city of Silchar, you’ll come back to where you started in forty minutes,” says Saptarshi Bhattacharjee, a Silchar-based student. Forty minutes — cars, auto rickshaws, cows, potholes and people, notwithstanding.

Amidst the congested cacophony of the second most populous city of Assam, also the unofficial “gateway” into the Barak Valley (named after the river that flows through it), it is easy to miss the region’s decades old history of quiet struggle. But time and again, it comes up in fits and starts. It simmered earlier this month when a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) from Delhi visited the city (the only other city it visited in Assam apart from Guwahati) to hear views on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill 2016. The Bill, that was tabled in the Lok Sabha in July 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act 1955 by enabling illegal immigrants of six minority communities (Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians) from three countries (Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan) to apply for Indian citizenship. Muslims do not find a mention in this proposed Bill.

In stark contrast to the opposition — rooted in the old fear of illegal Bangladeshi influx threatening to irrevocably dilute the strength of the indigenous Assamese population — the JPC received in the Brahmaputra Valley, the Barak Valley reportedly voiced their “unconditional support” for the Bill. In the weeks that have followed, the local media extensively covered the issue that has polarised Assam, once again bringing to light the age old Barak-Brahmaputra (Assamese-Bengali) divide of the region. Among the 300-plus memoranda signed by various groups in the Barak Valley, the overarching sentiment was one of support — it will finally end persecution of Assam’s Bengali Hindu community which has long felt alienated by the Assamese population.

But for many who live in the Barak Valley, the Bill is the least of their concerns, and the divisive atmosphere more “created” than “real”. “The Bill is irrelevant. It does not help me, nor does it harm me,” says BB Goswami, a Silchar-based teacher. “It has done nothing but opened up old wounds.”

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Silchar Railway Station, Barak Valley Silchar Railway Station. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala)

A Faulty Referendum

The wounds go back to the 1947 Partition, but trouble really erupted only on May 19, 1961 when 11 people were killed in a police firing at the Silchar Railway station. The group (which included one woman) was protesting against the Assam government’s move to make Assamese the official language of the state. After the incident, Assamese continued to be the official language of the state but in a special exception, Bengali was given official language status in the Barak Valley districts.

Ever since, May 19 has been commemorated by the Barak Valley as the “Bhasha Shahid Diwas” or “Language Martyr’s Day”. The railway station has a “Shahid Minar” erected in commemoration, with photographs of the eleven martyrs displayed at the entrance. Through the city, many other such smaller “Shahid Minars” have been erected. “But one has to really look for them. You will find them on street corners, behind bus stops — places you would never expect them to be,” says Bhattacharjee.

The Bengali language movement — which culminated in the bloody May 19 incident — can actually be traced to 1947. Through a referendum, most parts of Bengali-speaking Sylhet joined East Pakistan, while one part (Karimganj) was retained in India and joined to Assam’s Cachar district, despite it having little or no cultural ties with Assam. By the late 1980s, there were three districts which official formed the Barak Valley: Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi constituting a Bengali-speaking majority, who often felt alienated culturally and linguistically from the Assamese-speaking population in the Brahmaputra Valley. “The referendum itself was faulty on many counts. They did not take into account the votes of the tea garden tribes, which account for 30 per cent of the population,” says Dr. Panthapriyo Dhar, an English professor in Silchar’s Gurcharan College. “Till date people are victimised because of a defective referendum 70 years ago,” he says.

Silchar, River Erosion, Cacher District Road Erosion, Barak River, Katigorah A road in Cachar eroded by the Barak river. Photo Courtesy: Imad Uddin Mazumder.

However, problems bigger than language wars have the ordinary Barak Valley resident worried. “Barak Valley is like a well that no one cares about,” says Swarnali Choudhuri, an entrepreneur from Silchar. “Go to the Silchar Medical College and Hospital — they do not even have cotton or gauze to supply. The roads are broken. They flood with just 30 minutes of rain.” In the city’s Sarat Pally area, residents still do not have regular water supply. The land demarcated for a water tank, which was to be built 15 years ago, still lies empty.

Similar sentiments are echoed by younger residents of the city. “I guess the potholes will be fixed when someone dies because of them,” says Jhalak Das, 21, from Hailakandi. In remoter villages of Hailakandi and Karimganj, the picture is bleaker: it has been reported that villages like Bilbari in south Karimganj don’t have access to basic facilities such as electricity, potable water and roads. In April 2018, 100 metres of the 10-km long Katigorah-Harinagar Road in Cachar’s Haritikar village — situated on the Indo-Bangladesh border — cracked due to erosion by the Barak River, completely cutting off access to five villages on the border. “We have so many other things to worry about, but no, we are sitting here talking about whether we should speak Bengali or Assamese,” says Goswami.

Assam’s ‘Cancer

In the midst of the misery, the news about the Bill has reignited old but not forgotten feelings of alienation of the Bengali speaking population of Assam.

“They call Cachar ‘Assam’s Cancer’,” says Abhijit Nath, a teacher of Chemistry, Gurucharan College. “Bengalis came to Assam even before the Assamese. We have a 1500-year-old history in Assam. How are we outsiders?” he says, “People have been waving ISIS flags in parts of Assam, but still it’s the Bengalis Hindus who are a threat?”

The younger lot, too, claim to face a fair share of discrimination . Many students from the Barak Valley prefer to go straight to Kolkata or Delhi for higher studies or to pursue their professional careers, giving Guwahati a miss. “We feel safer in the Hindi belt than in the Assamese belt,” says Jehangir Alam Laskar, 19, who studies in the Assam University, with Bhattacharjee. The latter has always felt a deep sense of being “other-ed”, especially by Assamese students in his class. “I often have to face snide remarks such as ‘You don’t know Assamese but you stay in Assam.’ I mean — is there a rule that I need to know Assamese? Do they know Bengali?” he says.

In the government departments too, there are similar anxieties. “We feel that we have no representation in the Assam government,” says Sangita Dutta, an employee of the Public Works Department, Silchar. The lower bureaucracy is filled with Bengalis, while the higher posts are taken up by the Assamese. “I have no personal enmity but there is everyday discrimination, even in office. Suppose we send an application or letter to Dispur, they will take ages to respond.”

Barak Valley Assam, Bengali Language, Bhasha Shahid Diwas, Silchar Railway station The Shahid Minar erected at the Silchar Railway Station. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala).

Yet many feel the need to emphasise on how this is a divide that just isn’t real. “First of all we are not Bengalis, we are Bengali-speaking Assamese. Bengalis have made huge contributions to Assam and we have always had a cordial relationship, but I do not know why this sense of ‘differentiation’ or ‘alienation’ has become such a issue. It is shameful,” says Samar Bijoy Chakraborty of Dr Subramanian Swamy-led Virat Hindu Sangam’s Barak Valley chapter. While he insists that there is no ill-feeling between the Assamese and the Bengali, he also admits that his children are working in Kolkata, because “he was not sure they would get a job in Assam.”

According to Arjun Choudhuri, an English professor at Gurucharan College, the current scenario around the Bill is reminiscent of the early 1960s when the language movement first started. “It was a similar situation back then too, where political parties and the population were divided like they are now,” he says. He also feels that the staunch proponents and opposers of the Bill from either side are either politically affiliated or ideologically motivated. The local population does not care. In fact, many people do not understand the Bill,” he says.

Silchar, Barak Valley, Bengali A woman selling newspapers in Silchar. (Express photo by Tora Agarwala).

A political game plan?

When the JPC visited Silchar on May 8 and 9, more than 300 memoranda were signed in support of the Bill. However, the number still remains debatable among most in Barak Valley. “That night our local media reported that there were 800 memoranda signed supporting the bill. Later it turned out that it was 300,” says Nath. A government official from Cachar, on the conditions of anonymity, confirmed that many memoranda were rustled up overnight by “fake groups”. Many individuals, too, who came with memoranda, were “bought over” by political parties to push their views forward. Still others thought it would help them with getting their names published in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The NRC, which the BJP government reiterated has nothing to do with the Bill, is currently being updated in Assam and will publish its final list on June 30.

Very few know that there is a considerable section of the Barak population — mostly constituting Muslims — who are opposing the Bill. “It’s a clear ploy to polarise the people on religious lines for narrow political gains. This political game plan (by the BJP) will cost the Assamese in the long run,” says Anwar Laskar, Hailakandi MLA  and member of the All India United Democratic Front.

The Muslim population of Barak Valley, which accounts for almost 50 per cent of the region, live more and or less in peace with their Hindu counterparts. However, communal tensions have come up in the past, with the most recent in April 2018 when in Silchar’s Kalibari area, riots broke out when a Hindu allegedly urinated on the wall of a mosque.

“Like the Bengali Hindus feel victimised by the Assamese, the Bengali Muslims feel victimised by Bengali Hindus who have come in post 1971. If you do a demographic survey of Karimganj, you will find that most people with refugee cards, hold major stake in business in Silchar. Our khas lands have been occupied by the Bengali Hindu refugees — they have upset the ecological balance,” says Atiqur Rahman Barbhuiya, an education consultant from Silchar.

Barak Valley Assam, Bengali Language, Bhasha Shahid Diwas, School students congregate on the occasion of Language Martyrs’ Day 2017. Photo Courtesy: Saptarshi Bhattacharjee.

Despite these inconsistencies, divergent views and deep seated fears, the Barak Valley still feels strongly about their language. And every year, on May 19, lies the evidence. “Two weeks back, on May 19, we celebrated the Language Martyrs’ Day,” says Bhattacharjee. “Almost every household congregates at the railway station to pay their respects, listen to speeches, watch street plays etc,” he says, “The city witnesses a mass procession.”

A few months ago, Nath, was at the railway station in Guwahati, where a queue was held up because of a young Bengali boy struggling to communicate at the ticket counter. “Everyone else started shouting at him — ‘if you do not know Assamese, do not speak it.’ I turned around and told them: ‘Let him try at least’”, says Nath, “They fell quiet and said. ‘Apuni thike koise’ (you are right).’ Such instances give me hope.”

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