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Remembering Assam’s Barak Valley Martyrs, Who Fought For Their Language

Posted by Tomojit Bhattacharjee in Society
May 19, 2017

On October 10, 1960, the Bimala Prasad Chaliha government in Assam attempted one of the most direct attacks on the multi-lingual and multi-ethnic fabric of the state. On the basis of a proposal made in the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, which ignored protests by many representatives from within the state, a bill was tabled in the Assembly making Assamese the only official language of the state. A few months later, the bill was passed, thereby anointing Assamese as the only official language of Assam.

The decision was a jolt to the diverse ethnic and linguistic groups in the vast territories of undivided Assam. The people in the Garo and Khasi Hills (in present-day Meghalaya) and the Lushai Hills (presently in Mizoram) as well as the Bengali-speaking Cachar district in southern Assam had their own distinct cultures and languages. The government’s decision therefore displayed an utter disregard towards their identities.

Like in many other parts of the state, protests also erupted in Cachar, which comprised of a majorly Bengali population. When Assam was carved into a separate province by the British in 1874, the two Bengali-speaking districts of Cachar and Sylhet were also inserted into the new geographical arrangement – primarily to meet the revenue deficit.

Because of its demographic composition, the Cachar and Sylhet district Congress committees continued to owe their allegiances to the Bengal Congress till Partition, even though the territories were geographically located in Assam. After independence, a major part of the Sylhet district went to East Pakistan as a result of a controversial referendum. On the other hand, the Karimganj sub-division of Sylhet was inserted into Cachar. Much later, the entire district was reconstituted into the three districts of Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi, which is now jointly referred to as the Barak Valley.

Even as the state government came down heavily on the protesters, the agitations intensified against the draconian legislation. A dawn-to-dusk strike was declared on May 19, 1961, in Cachar, as voluntary picketers all over the district geared up to express their resentment against this new law.

Protest procession against the language law on May 20, 1961

However, the trigger-happy government was determined to silence all opposition. In a police shootout, 11 unarmed young lives were brutally gunned down by the Assam Police at the Silchar railway station. In the baton charge that ensued, many others were seriously injured.

Kamala Bhattacharya, a teenage student, was one of the victims of the firing. One wonders how an unarmed 16-year-old could have been a threat to the mighty state government. In fact, Kamala is often regarded as the first woman language martyr of the world in modern times.

Due to the massive protests that erupted, amendments were made and Bengali was finally restored as an official language in the Cachar district of Assam. The Mehrotra Commission, constituted to investigate the state-sponsored violence submitted its findings in due course. However, even after five decades of the killings, the Assam government has not made the findings of the report public. Neither have the people involved in the violence been punished yet.

Unfortunately, nearly all the state governments that have followed have done their best to obliterate this incident from public memory. The killings of May 19, 1961 have not even managed to remain as a footnote in the state’s history books. Almost no one in the Brahmaputra valley knows about this incident, today, because no literature and public discourses have rarely bothered to discuss this fateful day.

This trend of obliteration is not just limited to this incident. The many histories of the people of the Barak Valley has been kept away from academic discourses to reinforce certain political narratives, like the one which considers almost all Bengali speakers in Assam to be illegal entrants from Bangladesh. On the other hand, the historical fact that the Bengali-speaking Surma Valley, comprising of the Cachar and Sylhet districts, was a part of Assam is often ignored. Even today, the millions of Bengali speakers in undivided Cachar (in present-day Barak Valley) have to continuously prove their Indian identities and routinely confront the ignominy of being branded as foreigners in their own land.

Even after 56 years of that blood-stained afternoon, the struggle for linguistic identity continues in Assam’s Barak Valley. This year, suddenly, the Sarbananda Sonowal-led Assam government decided to withdraw holidays in the valley’s schools on the occasion of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary on May 9 and the Bhasha Shahid Diwas on May 19.

Though both the holidays were eventually restored and Sonowal personally intervened to ensure implementation, such actions only strengthened the belief that Dispur was completely apathetic to the people of this backward region.