On Barak Valley Bandh on 16th December, 2016 – Some Nascent Observations: Arunima Chakraborty

This is a Guest Post by ARUNIMA CHAKRABORTY

Let’s begin with the usual: by ruing over Indian mainstream media’s overlooking of what could have been treated as more newsworthy. Today, that is, 16th of December, 2016 witnessed a bandh in southern Assam’s Barak valley protesting against the statement by the union minister of state for railways, Rajen Gohain that ‘Bengali…should be withdrawn from Barak valley as official language’ since ‘there cannot be two official languages’.[1] And a simple, layman-like google-news search reveals that there are just three entries on the issue/event.

This piece is aimed not at joining the state Congress and the local SUCI(Socialist Unity Centre of India) cadres who are decrying comment by Gohain, the union minister and a senior BJP leader in Assam but rather at attempting a delineation of the ominous portents which it seems to have unleashed. And of course, to trace the genealogy of the statement.

First of all, a rather facile fact: Mr. Gohain’s observation that there cannot be two official languages clashes with article 345 of the Indian constitution which allows for the adoption of one or more official languages by any state of the Indian union. Article 347 also allows for respecting the desire of a significant section of a populace of a state for the usage of a language of their choice.[2] A couple of months ago, while visiting Assam, I watched, or rather listened, on an Assamese news channel, a shrill voice issuing a caveat to its viewers, “…barak upatyakat asomiya bhasha nokoya hoiche”. ‘Assamese is no longer spoken in the Barak valley’. Anybody remotely familiar with the history of the region could have retorted back with the question, when was Assamese ever spoken in the region?

But the retort will serve precious little here unless, as stated earlier, the historical context of the statements by the newsreader and by Mr. Gohain are traced back. And the context will lead us to two intertwined political phenomena which rocked post-Independence Assam, the attempt in the early 1960s to implement Assamese in the Barak Valley as the official language and the consequent and little-known, Bhasha Andolan in the region to resist the u implementation; and the later more widely talked about Assam agitation of the late 1970s and early 1980s against the burgeoning of illegal immigration (of Bangladeshis) into the state who were viewed as the perpetrators of a ‘demographic invasion’. There are good exegeses of both the movements on the internet and this piece does not presume that it can contribute new facts about either.[3] Rather the endeavor is to draw from the known facts furnished in those various monographs and articles and put together a collage which illuminates some hitherto dark, dank, cobwebbed corners of the history of these movements so that some sense can be made of the bandh today.

Fear the foreigner: a perspective on the political maze

The reasons for fear against illegal migrants are many and complex; the most frequently cited statistical fact being that as per the 2011 census, while the Muslim population in the state rose from ’30.9% in 2001 to 34.2% in 2011’, the highest in the country, the growth of Hindu population decreased by 4.4%.[4] Both during the state assembly elections in 2016 and the Lok Sabha election of 2014, BJP had garnered popular support by assuring the voters that illegal Bangladeshis are unwanted and hence, they will be ferreted out. One of the first steps the Narendra Modi-led BJP government took in this direction was to carry out the National Registration of Citizen (NRC) which formulated that in order to qualify as voters in Assam, it is not sufficient for one to have lived in the state or worked there but that a voter, in order to not have her name struck off the voters’ list, must be able to find the name of her ancestors in the ‘legacy data’ published by the government, which consisted primarily of voters’ lists until 1971. Many pointed out that these so-called legacy data is faulty as many names are misspelt or assigned wrong addresses and that many unlettered people possess no documentary proof but still, the measure must have won support for Barak Valley – which comprises of the three districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj – that had not produced any winner from BJP during the 2014 elections, witnessed BJP bagging 8 of its 15 state assembly seats.

While the state as well as central governments want to protect the rights of Assamese-speaking Muslims who are estimated to be about 42 lakhs, the remaining are the Bangla-speaking, much dreaded Bangladeshis who have purportedly spread themselves out throughout the state but are concentrated in a most palpable manner in the three districts of Barak valley where they do not have to try to learn to speak or read Assamese since Bangla is the predominant language. If Muslims are differentiated on the basis of the language they speak, Bengalis are differentiated on the basis of their religion. So, one oft-quoted reason of popularity of BJP amongst the Bengali Hindus in the assurances given by the Modi-government that it shall grant asylum to Bengali Hindus who are currently facing persecution in Bangladesh. This decision has triggered off a controversy with many in the Brahmaputra valley being displeased with the Centre’s decision to allow Bengali Hindus to settle in Assam.

A picture, therefore, emerges. The Barak valley is zone of contention and struggle because two of its three districts, that is, Hailakandi and Karimganj have Muslim majority and the language most widely spoken there is Bangla, or rather Sylheti. And here begins the genealogy.

History to Rescue?

As per the 2011 census, the number of districts with Muslim majority had risen to 9 in a decade from the earlier 6. As stated earlier, from the Assam Agitation through the Nellie massacre (of 1983) down to the NRC in 2015; one fear that has never loosened its grip upon the psyche of the society is that Hindu Assamese will be outnumbered by the Muslims who speak Bengali (or rather, illegal Bangladeshi migrants). There has been in the early 2000s SMS campaigns in the Brahmaputra valley which urged people to not employ Bangladeshis. But history of the Barak Valley offers a slightly different yarn, a quite another picture. So Bangla spoken in the Barak valley’s three district is not the standard Bangla which the British in their ignorance, had tried to introduce in Assam[5] or which is spoken in West Bengal. There are many indigenous groups in the valley like the Dimasas, Bishnupuriya Manipuris, and Sylhetis who speak a dialect of Bangla which is very distinct. The tome, Bengali and other related dialects of south Assam by S.S. Tunga features an anecdote that how a Bengali babu posted in Shillong during the colonial times and his Sylheti man-servant both were found complaining that they cannot understand each other since to each, the other seemed to know no Bangla! Cachar and Hailakandi were part of the Kachari kingdom until the British accession and Karimganj was a part of Sylhet of East Bengal until Independence. Sylhetis – whether Hindu or Muslim by religion – have historically been living in the Barak valley for atleast three centuries, due to the geographical contiguity of this region to Sylhet and according to Tunga, they consider themselves to be natives of the valley. So one wonders at the insistence of the likes of Gohain to introduce Assamese as the official language in a region where historically Assamese was not spoken? Unlike the demographic invasion theory which has reasons – indisputable or contentious – to view the Bangladeshi Muslims as trespassers in the Brahmaputra valley, there are hardly any grounds for trying to draw up a ‘linguistic invasion’ theory since this region always had Sylheti-speaking majority, whatever their religious persuasion be.

And on the question of religious majority, both Hailakandi and Karimganj have always had Muslim-majority. Here one must introduce the figure of Abdul Matlib Mazumdar, a nationalist staunchly opposed to the partition of India from Hailakandi. It was largely due to his efforts that Karimganj, despite being a Muslim-majority area at the eve of partition, was retained as part of India and so was Hailakandi.

When in early 1961 the congress government of the state tried to introduce Assamese in Barak valley (though by some accounts, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, the-then chief minister was more in favour of first winning the consent of the ethnic and linguistic minorities before introducing the one official language policy), protests were organized in different parts of the region which finally culminated in the death of eleven protestors due to gun-firing by the police on 19th May, 1961. Eventually the Assam (Official) Language Act of 1960 was not implemented in Barak valley and since then, 19th May has been celebrated as Bhasha Shahid Divas. Interestingly, besides the demand for retention of Bangla (standard Bangla though) as the official language of the region, the movement was also in favour of rights of other linguistic minorities of the region. Maybe, the time’s once again come to bring forth the history of the region into public imagination so that BJP or other local right wing parties cannot thrust the idea of one official language of a state, of Assam in order to further their parochial agenda which is aimed at wiping out multiplicities – cultural, linguistic, religious.

Multiplicities to the Rescue?

The notion of One when handed down from above and through coercion or humiliation, is oppressive and therefore, the hegemony of such a One should be resisted at all costs. The proposed imposition of Assamese as the official language is such a One. The three districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj have literacy rates which are much higher than the national average but economically, the region remains backward, and the lack of all-weather navigable roads and poor railway network even after seven decades of the country’s independence contribute further to its backwardness. The attempts ought to be on the elimination of economic backwardness rather than on termination of cultural heterogeneity.

[1] Dilip Kumar Sharma, Strike Call on proposed withdrawal of Bangla in Assam district.


[2] Wikisource. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Constitution_of_India/Part_XVII; National Commission for Minorities website. http://ncm.nic.in/constitutional_provisions.html

[3] One detailed article on the Bhasha Andolan is https://sylhetiyouthwelfareassociation.wordpress.com/2013/10/12/language-movement-in-india-the-forgotten-movement-of-19-may1961silchar/

Also, Amalendu Guha the historian critiqued the Assam Agitation in his article Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinistic.

[4] Rahul Karmakar, Census 2011 data rekindles ‘demographic invasion’ fear in Assam.


[5] PK Mohanty, Encyclopaedia of Scheduled Tribes in India, Encyclopaedia of North East India, pg. 50


Arunima Chakraborty is a PhD student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

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