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Sylheti Hindus In India: The Partition Tragedy Nobody Talks About

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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 northeast, 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 northeast even today.

A man carries two baskets on a stick through a field of tea plants in Jaflong, Sylhet. (Photo: Abdul Momin/Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Women praying at a local temple in Sylhet. (Photo: Faisal Akram/Flickr)

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 Maulvi 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% in favour of Pakistan to about 44% in opposition.

For ensuring connectivity to Tripura, Karimganj remained in India despite voting for Pakistan and Maulvi Bazar went to Pakistan, despite voting for India. My ancestral roots lie in Maulvi Bazar and I wonder what would have happened had that subdivision 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 northeastern 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” (we will fight till we get 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, 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.

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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 northeastern region like Shillong, Imphal and Aizawl has had 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 humiliation almost routinely even today. ‘Bongal’ in Assam, ‘Dkhar’ in Meghalaya and many other slang words 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 northeast 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 northeast 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 northeast as well as across the border.

Neither Bengali intellectuals nor the academia like to make the classification between Bengali Hindus and Muslims in their narrative. Neither do they talk much about the Bengalis of Sylhet, their pain and suffering. 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 suffering 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?

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  1. Sangeeta Dey Akoijam

    Well written, its a narrative all of us Sylheti’s from the north east can identify with. Even today despite being so called settled, I don’t feel at peace, as if something has been left undone. In a way its good that our grandparents and parents were moderate in what they told us, probably the scars are lesser because of that. I dread to think of their plight in India and feel the pain they must have gone through. Probably we should have all gone back when Bangladesh was born. A few of my relatives went back and they are more at peace than us.

  2. Joel Kyndiah

    Well written. Often stories of partition from the North-East are sidelined. Though the severity of the partition wasn’t as great as that in the North West, it is a story that needs to be told through means such as writing or film

  3. Jyoti Moona

    Really well written and can relate to some of stories i heard from my grandfather. Just because of the struggle of our forefathers we are here reading n commenting the histories…
    Good insight n thankyou so much to share history of this untold territory.

  4. S. K. Chakraborty

    Well-written and factual. I heard from my late father that the total population of tea-tribes (almost one third population in the then district of Sylhet in then Assam) were surprisingly kept out of the Sylhet-referendum and were not allowed to offer their views for the easy passage of the district to Pakistan.
    Sadly the plight n sufferings of the Bengali Hindus of erstwhile district of sylhet is quiet unknown to the world as compared to the plight n sufferings of Kashmiri Pundits.

  5. Mriganka Dutta

    I would like to share my views on this. I do not mean to defame or offend the culture or tradition of a community or sub-community. Based on the current scenerio I feel that the sylehti bengalis have always isolated themselves from the mainstream bengali community. I strongly believe that “re-linking” with the mainstream will strive development of the Sylehti bengali community of NE region, because Syletht district no more exists in India. The people should come out of sylehti histeria as soon as possible. After the 1971 massacre and genocide where around 1,000,000 people were killed and 400,000 were raped in a systemical campaign of genocidal rape, the culture and the history have became distorted. I have grown up with you guys, all sylehtis, and had also stayed in Bengal, and I do not find any indifferences in respect to culture, literature, religious practices etc. The only difference I find in terms of geographical indications, which is obvious. You see you can find sub-communities of bengalis within the Bengal or outside, although our roots are from East Bengal or nearby districts/towns or within border areas. But at the end we all consider ourselves a Bengali, which is very important. I believe the literature, the poems, songs, culture, the freedom fighters should matter to a bengali, not the demographical factors.

    1. Zafar Sharif

      U have lost your mind,east bengal and west bengal cannot be one ghoti bangla consider us prabashi bangla,and also we are bangal.and srihatta was the oldest urban settlement and prosperous region,wiki-sylhet.we are not Assamese nor Bengali,we are sylheti and proud Indian sylhetis,wiki-sylhetis

  6. Subhas Mitra

    I had once attempted to narrate how Kings of Ahom, Bhutan and Koch ( coochbehar-Sylhet ) kept Muslims away for nearly 300+ years but when East India Co. managed to get in Assam ,they used their super weapon ” thousand divide in Pagan gentile” without any visible wound. Not many of my readers agreed with me but in this article I find myself proven right . I still think they/British/ Church wanted to curb this part for Christians and Muslims by converting locals under various division, throwing Bengalis out and replacing Muslims in comfort zone. What Sharjeel Imam is talking today I guessed it and wrote in 2013 in a face book post .

  7. Joyeeta Choudhury

    So nicely penned down… even my family also had to go through so much. Wen ever I think of all dis my tears don’t one gives a thought about d pain d people got after India was divided…no is no peace no respect for us in d land which is ours also . Only humiliation n humiliation…no one thought about d plight of d Hindu sylhetis who were forced to leave der own land n property only to save der identity..

  8. Zafar Sharif

    You are right only we sylhetis,cared for north east,the so called mainstream india just give a huge lecture and gave in horrible lecture.sylhetis are really talented and skilled,you could look at British sylhetis.and ur thinking that sylheti Muslims are having fun is nonesense,you already called us Bengalis,whereas sylhetis and Bengalis are not even same,we lost our sylhoti nagri,sylheti language reduced to being mere dialect and many sylheti Muslims victims of discrimination and terror by Bangladesh army,and worse Mia’s are looting our property,and honour.i had to learn hindi and english,and lately I learned sylhetis,I was always called Bangladeshi mia whatever even though my grandfather voted in 1962,and many of our lands had already gone to Pakistan and many of us did not get patta.if my father did not work in civil services,and be in middle class,I tell you I would be in gas chamber called nrc tribunal.assam is suffering from illegal immigration but it is congress who is behind this,Vipin Chandra pal was sylhetis and many sylhetis gave their life for bharat mata,now even Bangladesh,and even international recognise sylheti as another language.hope sylhet be part of India,jai hind

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