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Language movement of Barak valley revisited: Problematics of Nationalist Discourses in Assam
Subha Prasad Nandi Majumdar Lecturer in Mathematics, Department of Commerce Cachar College, Silchar
Introduction Assam, inhabited by people of different culture and languages has been a challenge always to the researchers for studying its problem concerning nationality and ethnic questions. Most of the observations in this regard suffer from myopic discrepancies resulting in presenting a lopsided picture of the whole question. Moreover, intermittent harping of the national question by the major players of electoral politics of the state for last several decades created an atmosphere of distrust which in turn stood as a hindrance to introspective and holistic study of the problem. Most of the scholars seemed to exclude the aspirations of other communities while dealing with the problems resulting out of debates on nationality questions. However, this is not true for Assam only, scholars espousing the cause of Indian Nationalism had defined the idea of Indianness strictly within the narrow contour of Hindi and Hindu features. In Assam, the exclusionist tendency assumes a different pattern and these discourses add fuel to the fire of ethnic strife directly or indirectly. Scholars from the Brahmaputra valley, presenting mostly an Assamese discourse of the issue, seemed to be oblivious of the fact that Assam comprises not just of the two banks of Brahmaputra only, but also of two hill districts of N.C Hills, Karbi Anglong and three Bengali speaking districts of Barak valley. For all practical purpose, Assam became synonymous with Assamese language and culture in their thought process. This is no less dangerous than the suicidal tendency on a part of the political establishment of the extreme right to homogenize India in the frame of Hindi- Hindu-Hindustan. Leaders of Assamese elites dreamt of accomplishing the task of nationality formation by reincarnating Assam of pre-British time. That going back to the time of Ahom kings is an impossibility and Assam of present time is altogether a different entity, a geographical construct of the colonial rulers with more than one area of different language and culture incorporated in it were probably never in their thought and action. From a different stand point, discourses from Barak valley also have its own problem. At most of the time scholars from Barak valley depict the language movement of this region as an icon of Bengali Nationalism, limiting its relevance only within the contour of Bengaliness. Needless to
say that in a multilingual and multiethnic state like Assam, nationalist discourses cannot show any road to social harmony. Multilingual and multiethnic feature of Assam is a fact. Denial of this fact and assertion of this reality gave birth to many a turbulent political and social stir and beneath most of the political events, this conflict acts as a catalyst. Of late, the movements by different tribal communities of Assam of last few decades have been able to invite attention of the scholars of the Brahmaputra valley to the multiethnic social reality of Assam, but till date no serious attempt has been made by any scholar to understand the language struggle of Barak valley in a larger realm of society of Assam or to contextualize it in the light of nationality question of the state. In most of the cases it was left unmentioned and even if it is mentioned in the pages of Newspaper it is generally seen as a separatist attempt of isolating the people of Barak valley from the mainstream of Assam and therefore used as a plank for asking expulsion of Barak valley from Assam. The present paper will make a humble attempt to find political relevance of the language struggle of Barak valley in the context of nationality question of Assam. Ghost that never dies Two decisions of the colonial rulers regarding administration of the state, following annexation of Assam evoked very strong reaction from the nascent Assamese middle class and it seemed to cast its long shadow on the psyche of Assamese middle class till date. British introduced Bengali as the medium of instruction in Assam and large numbers of Bengali medium schools were established. Though this lasted for a short period of British history of Assam, large number of Bengali people from undivided Bengal flocked to Assam to work as clerks in British establishments. Fear of indigenous culture getting swamped by Bengali culture agitated the local populace. Moreover, colonial rule reached the common people of Assam through this Bengali clerks and therefore all the vices of the colonial rule began to be attributed to the Bengali settlers. On finding large tract of cultivable wastelands, colonisers encouraged land hungry peasants from neighbouring East Bengal to migrate to Assam with a view to boost food production in the state, which was hailed by Assamese middle class initially. The population of migrated people swelled from 54,000 in 1904-11 to 2, 58,000 in 1921 and to 5, 75,000 in 1921-31. While there was no jute cultivation in Assam before 20th century, 30,000 acres of land was brought under jute cultivation which further rose to 1,06,000 acres in 1919-20. Soon, the glee of economic prosperity on the part of Assamese middle class started getting overshadowed by the concern of
major shift in demographic balance and eventual loss of language and culture. Various organizations of Assamese middle class started advocating different measures to curb the migration of peasants from Bengal and on the other hand, to minimize the influence of the Bengali middle class over the administration. Infamous ‘Line system’ was invoked in 1920 to prevent the immigrant peasants from expanding in to main land of Assam. A parallel of ghettoizing of this kind can only be seen in the black townships of South Africa. While South African example is condemned universally all over the world as racism, its Assam parallel is glorified as a positive measure of protection of language and culture. An early leader of Assamese Nationalism as tall as Ambika Giri Roy Choudhury was one of the vocal supporters of this system. In the wake of partition, when prosperous district of Sylhet was lost to Pakistan in referendum, Assamese leaders heaved a sigh of relief considering it a triumph for Assam. This abnormal reaction born out of fear of losing linguistic identity still haunts the mind of leaders and every move till now on the part of nationalist leaders in the matter of nationality problem has its bearing on them. It is this mindset which is responsible for language movements in Barak valley being not taken in to consideration by the researchers hailing from Brahmaputra valley. Quest for homogeneity through advocacy of Assimilation theory- a disguised project of hegemony In the years after independence, the elites in the Brahmaputra valley advocated homogenization of the state on the basis of Assamese language and culture. Stalwarts like Birinchi kumar Baruah opined that any Non-Assamese in Assam should be considered a foreigner and the only precondition of any foreigner for stay in Assam is to accept Assamese as their language at the expense of their own language and culture. In a demographic miracle number of Assamese people rose from 31.4% in 1931 to 56.7% in 1951. The Bengali speaking immigrant peasants of East Bengal origin turned Assamese overnight. Needless to say this was not a product of historical process, but mere political engineering. Actually this was the only way for the immigrant peasants to escape the wrath of infamous ‘Line system’. This example of demographic politics was cited as “Assimilation Theory” to be followed by people of other nationalities. It is interesting that, in Assam only “Assimilation Theory” is seen as a one-way traffic of surrendering one’s language and culture to other. In a zealous attempt of ‘assimilating’ the people of other linguistic and ethnic communities, “Official Language Act, 1960” was piloted, which faced stiff resistance from people of every Non-Assamese
communities. This theory of assimilation which is yet to be abandoned is a veiled attempt of thrusting a kind of hegemony over people of other linguistic and ethnic identities. Barak valley and its cultural specificities Barak valley, a geographical area comprising of three southern districts, viz Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi of Assam witnessed mass movements on the question of its linguistic identity thrice in the years after independence and social concern over the matter is still far from over. It may be mentioned that the region under question, amalgamated in the state of Assam in the year 1873 by the colonial rulers along with Sylhet and Goalpara districts from erstwhile undivided Bengal to make up for the revenue deficit of the then Assam had discontent in the matter of its linguistic and cultural identity from the early years of its annexation. Concern regarding linguistic identity rose to such height that the Viceroy had to come down personally to Sylhet to allay the fear of common people of the then Surma valley of losing their language and culture in the wake of its amalgamation in the state of Assam. Even in the heated exchange that erupted in the provincial assembly in later part of the decade of twenties in the last century over speaker’s denial to answer a question raised by one of the members from Sylhet because it was asked in Bengali, a regional fear can be heard echoing. In the years following independence, the truncated area of Surma valley which was rechristened as the district of Cachar of independent Assam, the concern regarding language and culture took the shape of a strong mass movement following state government’s desire to make Assam monolingual artificially with the help of “Official Language Act, 1960”. This movement which erupted again in early seventies in the wake of the resolution of Academic Council of Gauhati University in the matter of medium of instruction at college level and in mid-eighties following SEBA’s circular intending to impose Assamese on Non-Assamese populace of Assam. These movements of Barak valley and other movements in the matter of identity in other parts of Assam were never sought to be studied in the context of politics of Assam, which the present paper seeks to compensate to some extent. Essence of language struggle in Barak valley Although language struggle referred to here is generally associated with Barak valley, but the initial outburst of popular resentment to “Official Language Act” was not limited to Barak valley only. People belonging to all Non-Assamese communities resorted to struggle to defend their linguistic rights. A conference of all Non-Assamese
people was convened in Haflong in Joybhadra Hagzer’s initiative. Since Bengalees in Assam are not localized like the Nepalis of West Bengal, demand was raised to accept Bengali as the second official language of Assam. In the wake of the movement eleven youths laid down their life in police firing in Silchar, in protest of which historic silent march was organized by the Khasis in Shillong. Although Bengalees spearheaded the movement, leaders of other communities in Barak valley were in the forefront of the struggle. This movement basically sought to assert the multilingual, multiethnic nature of the state of Assam, which would stand denied in the event of Assamese being declared as the only official language. An attempt to draw parallel to the language movement of East Bengal blurred the essence of the language struggle in Barak valley. Language struggle of East Bengal in 1952 shook the very basic foundation of perverse notion of nationality on which the state of Pakistan was formed. What was perceived as clinching reality in 1947 got shattered in the wake of martyrdom of the students and youths in the streets of Dhaka on 21st February 1952. 21st February asserted that it was language alone which formed the basis of nationality contrary to the attempts of the founders of Pakistan who sought to define nationality on the basis of religion. Thus essence of the struggle of East Bengal was reassertion of non-religious, non-communal concept of nationalism which the progressives in Bangladesh interpret as ‘home coming of Bengali Muslims’. Language struggle of Barak valley districts of Assam is essentially different from that of East Bengal. Although the question of imposition of an alien language on a section of population gave birth to the unrest in both the cases, in case of Pakistan the imposition was sought to be made in the name of religious nationalism. In Assam the hasty imposition of Assamese on Non-Assamese population was made in the name of ensuring linguistic homogeneity of Assam. Basic Formulation What is the linguistic character of Assam? Is it a monolingual, mono ethnic state or it is purely a multilingual and multiethnic state? All the political turmoil in the state of Assam in the days after independence revolves round this question. While the multi ethnicity of Assam is more or less an accepted notion, the real problem arises on the linguistic character. Whether Bengali speaking people are indigenous or outsiders, whether this section of people have got right to practice their own culture and language, whether after hundreds of years of co-existence it is prudent to look upon them as outsiders- is still an unresolved question. Many a stalwart dither on this question too. While no one can support migration to continue for indefinite period,
refugees uprooted because of partition cannot be made scapegoat for all the miseries of this part of India. Again the descendents of those toiling cultivators who were persuaded to migrate to Assam not to save their own life but to augment the economic condition of this state too should no longer be used as toys of the political players. The provision of the language act of Assam which is in force presently again ghettoizes Assam society in a different way. By declaring Assamese as the sole official language of Brahmaputra valley and Bengali as the only official language of Barak valley, it practically separates two major linguistic groups, viz Assamese and Bengalees in to two watertight compartments. This provision denies the rights of the other communities in both the valleys. Again, the language movement of sixties, seventies and eighties of Barak valley, the tribal movements, notwithstanding their centrifugal tendencies actually upheld the multilingual, multiethnic feature of Assam and the Bangal Khedas, movement on so called foreign nationals of eighties sought to homogenize the society of Assam. Experiences of the previous decades suggest that it is high time that so called “Assimilation Theory” is abandoned and a new atmosphere of pluralism is established. If the linguistic and cultural aspirations of all the communities are taken care of, then the incessant spate of insurgent activities can be stalled. People of Barak valley of Assam never endorsed separatist tendencies. Demand of separation of Barak valley always failed to garner popular support and in the days of agitation of eighties of Brahmaputra valley when Bengali films were banned from screening there, Bengali newspapers of Calcutta were burnt in the streets, cultural festivals in Barak valley started with songs of Jyotiprasad as inaugural songs without any protest. All that people of Barak valley want is equal accommodation with its right to have its own language and culture. We must embrace the rich variety of culture and language of this state instead of shying away from it. A kaleidoscopic presentation of Bihu, Bhatiali, Bagramba, Jhumur, Tusu, Bhadu, and Manipuri Ras will show the way to light in this darkness of hegemony. Let hundred flowers blossom.
Paper was presented at a seminar on ‘Nationality Problem in Northeast’ organised in connection with General Conference of NEIPSA,
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