Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Turbulence in Assam : How the state’s past divides still drive its politics

Ethnic, linguistic and religious matters can cause great churn in Assam. Entire elections are predicated on it. And it’s happening now over the National Register of Citizens and the Citizen (Amendment) Bill, 2016. The root causes of tension date to British policy and Partition trauma tripping a series of dominoes, as we saw in last week’s column, sharpening divides between the Axomiya people and the non-indigenous.

Things would get worse. The Assam (Official) Language Act, 1960, promulgated in December of that year, made Assamese the official language of Assam.

This touched a raw nerve in Bengali-dominated Barak Valley, especially as it followed what came to be called the Bongal Kheda campaign: Get rid of Bengalis.

Beginning mid-1960, Bengalis were attacked in the Brahmaputra Valley. The district magistrate of Guwahati and a senior police officer were stabbed by mobs. Depending on Assamese or Bengali sources, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 10 times that number fled the Brahmaputra Valley primarily to Bengali-majority Cachar and West Bengal.

There were large, successful islands of mini-Bengal in the heart of Assam. “In the towns of Guwahati, Tezpur, Nowgong, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, etc., almost half the population consists of Bengalis," wrote K.C. Chakravarti in a July 1960 issue of Economic Weekly (precursor of the Economic and Political Weekly). “Many Bengalis are thriving as doctors, lawyers, teachers, clerks and, occasionally, as traders."

Quite often students were at the forefront of such attacks. “They were being incited by Assamese job-seekers and protected by college and university authorities. The local police often felt helpless…" wrote Chakravarti. “Congress and non-Congress leaders, politicians of all shades of opinion, Rightists, Leftists, Hindus, Muslims, poets, priests, men of letters, sober educationists, unruly students—all have wonderfully cooperated."

Some critics maintained that the existing law permitted a monolingual approach only if an ethnic group counted for 70% of the total population. In Assam’s case, going by the 1951 census, it was 55%, and much of Assam’s area at the time contained non-Assamese ethnicities—future Meghalaya, for instance. But several Assamese writers and thinkers justified the move.

“Bengali has been declared as the state language for the Darjeeling district of West Bengal where it is spoken only by about 16% of the population," maintained P.C. Goswami in the same issue of the Economic Weekly. “So there should be no hesitation in declaring Assamese as the state language of Assam for fear of offending the people of Cachar and Hill Districts, particularly when adequate safeguards are provided for the minorities."

Language remained an issue of imposition in places that had never been Assamese. Language safeguards were perceived as inadequate, tied up in legal and bureaucratic knots.

By February 1961, a resistance began to coalesce, and spread from Silchar to the other significant towns of Barak Valley, Karimganj (which is today a district headquarters of an eponymous district) and Hailakandi (also the district headquarters of an eponymous district).

An ultimatum of a shutdown strike was announced for 19 May, if the language law wasn’t modified to include the full-fledged use of Bangla in Cachar. The government arrested leaders of the movement, and requested troopers of the Assam Rifles and paramilitaries of the Central Reserve Police Force to conduct flag marches. On 19 May, Cachar was shut down. Protesters were arrested. When a truck carrying some of them passed by Silchar’s railway station, protesters gathered nearby freed the detainees, and set the truck on fire. Security forces arrived, and waded into the mob. Shots were fired. Nine protesters died then; two died later.

Curfew couldn’t prevent subsequent protests. Negotiations followed. In October 1961 the Language Act was amended to include, only for Cachar, Bangla as an official language on par with Assamese. Areas of Lower Assam, as it is known, such as Dhubri and Goalpara, which today have large Muslim, Bengali-speaking populations, do not have similar linguistic benefits. Meanwhile, a third of the people in Assam use Bengali as a first language. Ethnicity, language and religion continue to contribute to volatility.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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