By Titash Bhattacharya
24th January, 2020
The completion of 30 years since the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley was observed recently through various events and commemorations. Many expressed their solidarity with the victims on social media as well. Unfortunately, this nation has been scarred by many more such horror episodes which refuse to heal even today.
Many of us do not even remember that, along with Bengal and Punjab, the state of Assam was also partitioned in 1947. The Sylhet district of British Assam, then the province’s most populous district was divided after a controversial referendum and the Hindus of Sylhet were rendered stateless almost overnight.
When the British were expanding their footprint in the north east, many people from Sylhet, mostly Hindus, went to the interior and inaccessible parts of the region and helped in setting up schools, colleges, administrative offices and even small shops and markets. That’s the reason why, they can be found settled across almost all parts of the north east even today.
The Murari Chand College in Sylhet was set up in the year 1892, a good nine years before the prestigious Cotton College in Guwahati. The people of this district had comparatively better access to education than the rest of the state. In the year, 1874, when the Bengali speaking districts of Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara were inserted into Assam, the move was resisted by the political leadership of both the Surma and the Brahmaputra valleys.
While the leaders from Sylhet and Cachar, comprising the Surma Valley expressed the desire to remain with Bengal, the political leadership from the Brahmaputra Valley, saw the move as a facilitator for the migration of more Bengalis in their region. Indeed, this insensitive move by the British and the subsequent sham referendum was to shape the politics of this region for many more years to come.
Prior to independence, the Sylhet district had a slender Muslim majority. In the referendum conducted to decide whether the district should remain with India or with Pakistan, the Hindu majority tea garden communities were not allowed to vote which swayed the fortunes eventually in favour of Pakistan. Apart from Maulavi Bazar, all the other subdivisions of North Sylhet, Karimganj, Habiganj and Sunamganj voted for Pakistan though in the final count the vote percentage was approximately 56 percent in favour of Pakistan to about 44 percent in opposition.
For ensuring connectivity to Tripura, Karimganj remained in India despite voting for Pakistan and Maulavi Bazar went to Pakistan, despite voting for India. My ancestral roots lie in Maulavi Bazar and I wonder what would have happened had that sub division stayed with India.
The political leadership of Assam, in the hope of attaining the much sought after linguistic and ethnic homogeneity for the state, did not resist the move at all. The Governor in his address at the Assam Legislative Assembly in 1947 said, “The natives of Assam are now masters of their own house. They have a government which is both responsible and responsive to them. The Bengali no longer has the power, even if he had the will, to impose anything on the people of these hills and valleys which constitute Assam.”
Probably there is no parallel anywhere in the legislative history of India, where such offensive and vicious language has been used for any community in an official address by no less the Governor, the titular head of the state. This, in many ways, was the precursor to the extreme indignity that the Bengalis have faced in the entire north eastern region ever since.
The partition of Assam almost overnight made the Sylheti Hindu community extremely vulnerable. While their exodus was not as immediate as the Punjabis in the northern part of the country, it became apparent very quickly that it would be very difficult for them to stay on in East Pakistan’s Sylhet. My octogenarian uncle who had visited Sylhet from Shillong just before the independence still recalls, how frenzied crowds would shout “Lar ke lenge Pakistan”.
In multiple communal attacks, many Hindu villages were burned down, men were brutally killed and the women raped. Many wealthy businessmen and landlords had to leave their entire properties and rush to the Indian side only to save the dignity of their women. These horror stories are not very different from the episodes that happened in Kashmir.
In the last 70 years, the Sylheti Hindus have tried to put their lives back in order. As Sylhet was a part of Assam and a substantial part of the district had stayed with Assam even after independence (Karimganj district today), it was only natural for them to seek refuge in the state. Shillong, the then capital of Assam already had a substantial Bengali population, most of who were from Sylhet. Therefore, many also went to Shillong to save their lives.
However, the politics of identity and narrow nationalism has ensured that the community never found any closure to their wounds on this side of the border. They had to bear the brunt of the Assam agitation when many students from the community were harassed in college and university campuses across the Brahmaputra valley. Apart from Assam, almost every hill town of the north eastern region like Shillong, Imphal and Aizawl has the history of riots targeted to evict the Bengali Hindus, mostly of Sylheti origin.
Those who have braved these challenges and stayed back face such humiliations almost routinely even today. Bongal in Assam, Dkhar in Meghalaya and many other slangs define their existence. The businessmen pay heavy ‘taxes’ to the locals to carry on with their businesses while the presence of the community in state government jobs in the north east has diminished greatly.
My ancestral hometown of Shillong, where we have a house almost a century old, today stands lonely with hardly anyone staying in it. The entire generation of my cousins despite being third generation Shillongites, never found any employment there and hence had to shift in search of greener pastures. The popular narrative in north east often talks of Bengalis challenging the demography in the region but does anyone take any stock of the lakhs who had to leave because of sheer Bengali xenophobia? My family was settled in undivided Assam well before independence but have we ever been accepted as sons of the soil?
Silchar, a congested and unplanned urban sprawl in the Bengali dominated Barak Valley of Assam, today has become a ghetto of Sylheti Hindus who have had to leave various parts of the north east due to ethnic violence. Almost every lane of this town has people who have stories of how they were thrown out of Shillong, Aizawl, Imphal or parts of the Brahmaputra Valley.
The greatest tragedy for the Sylheti Hindus is that almost none of these episodes have been sufficiently documented. Some of the works on this issue are Tanmay Bhattacharjee’s ‘Sylhet Referendum: The Story of a Lost Territory’ and ‘Insider Outsider: Belonging and Unbelonging in North East India’ edited by Preeti Gill and Samrat Choudhary.
However, many more stories need to be told and documented. Probably, the community seniors never wanted the world to look at them with sympathy. Therefore, a lot of these horrific stories were not transmitted to the next generations. Here, in Delhi, I come across so many people with Sylheti origin who have no idea about the hardships their ancestors faced in the north east as well as across the border.
Bengali intellectuals or the academia do not like to make the classification between Bengali Hindus and Muslims in their narrative. Neither do they talk much about the Bengalis of Sylhet, their pains and sufferings. Because of this reason, as well, the present generation of Sylheti Hindus settled across the country do not identify with the sufferings of their ancestors.
Any unfair communal classification must be avoided while documenting history or politics of any community but we cannot ignore the fact that the Bengali Hindus – Sylheti as well as others, had to face the wrath of partition. The Bengali Muslims fortunately did not face that predicament. They also had to face unparalleled torture at the hands of the West Pakistanis prior to the formation of Bangladesh. But they did get some kind of a closure to their sufferings with the formation of Bangladesh.
As mentioned earlier, Sylhet was a district of Assam prior to independence. Even after partition, a substantial portion of the district stayed with Assam. The district of Cachar was overwhelmingly Bengali at least a hundred years prior to independence if not more. Yet, the people of these areas are today branded as foreigners and subjected to abominable racial slurs. Will the Hindus of Sylhet ever get any closure to their wounds?