Forgotten People

Remembering Barak Language Martyrs

Gautam Kumar Das

The Barak language martyrs sacrificed their lives only to get right of their mother tongue Bengali as officiating language in the Barak valley of Assam. The language movement started when the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee placed a proposal in the month of April, 1960 announcing Assamese as the sole official speaking language of Assam depriving the Bengali speaking people of Assam of their right to mother tongue. The proposal had its hidden equation to drive away the Bengalees from the state of Assam. Knowing the ins and outs of the proposal the Bengalee people began a mass movement against the Congress Party's language resolution. But the Assamese mobs were very much ready and attacked the Bengalees, burnt their huts and houses during the span of July to September, 1960. As a consequence of this furious attack by the Assamese mobs, about 50,000 fearsome Bengalee people fled away from the Brahmaputra valley and entered into the state of West Bengal and the remaining Bengalee inhabitants of the Brahmaputra valley of about more than 90,000 by number had joined their counterparts in the Barak valley. The Bengalees of the Barak valley settled earlier coming from Sylhet during partition of India in 1947 as well as during the incident of East Pakistan genocide in 1950 when hundreds of Hindu Bengalees were assassinated. Assamese mobs destroyed more than 25 villages and 4019 huts of the Bengalees only in Kamrup district of Assam as reflected in the report of Justice Gopal Mehrotra Commission.

The then Chief Minister of Assam, Bimala Prasad Chaliha placed a bill before the Legislative Assembly announcing Assamese as the sole official language of the state on October 10, 1960. Bengali speaking people of Barak valley prepared for the procession and agitation against that bill after constituting a mass platform under the banner of "Cachar Gana Sangram Parishad". Then three large settlements of Bengalees in the Barak valley—Silchar, Hailakandi and Karimganj were under Cachar district. Silchar, Hailakandi and Karimganj almost daily witnessed the processions against the Language Bill of the Assam Congress Government. After several demonstrations, Rathindranath Sen, the President of "Cachar Gana Sangram Parishad" announced that if the Bengali language was not considered as the official language in the Barak valley region by the Government of Assam, a full day strike from dawn to dusk will be observed democratically on May 19, 1961. To add fuel to the fire the Assam police arrested three prominent leaderss of the movement namely Rathindranath Sen, Bidhubhusan Chowdhury and Nalinikanta Das on May 18, 1961. The Barak valley witnessed a total strike. All these happenings are recalled and recapitulated by Sri Santosh Dey, presently an inhabitant of Udaraband, 11 km away from Silchar town who was then a student of ISc at Gurucharan College of Cachar. He was then about 18. He distinctly remembered that day of May 19, 1961 when Ruchikadi, professor of physics of Gurucharan College directed all the students of Isc not to attend the physics practical class scheduled in the class routine for that day commencing from 9 am. Santosh Babu added that large number of people gathered at Silchar railway station on that day. The strike was peaceful up to 2 pm. At around 2.30 pm when a Bedford truck with nine arrested agitators coming from Katagarh approached the Silchar railway station, picketers at that point broke out into loud protests against the arrest of their fellows. Looking such furious mobs the truck driver and the policemen escorting the arrested agitators fled away from the spot. An agitator then set fire on the truck. To tackle this unusual situation paramilitary forces started beating the gathered agitators with baton and rifle butts. At that moment seeing such heavy fire of the burning truck, Rebati Pal, controlling officer in charge of the Katagarah police station shouted loudly 'fire' 'fire'. Assuming this shout of Rebati Pal as order of firing, the Assam Rifles fired seventeen rounds towards the agitators within the duration of only seven minutes. Twelve persons were shot by bullets and carried to hospital where eleven persons were declared dead. The names of the martyrs are Kamala Bhattacharya, Sachindra Chandra Pal, Birendra Sutradhar, Chandi Charan Sutradhar, Hitesh Biswas, Satyendra Deb, Kumud Ranjan Das, Sunil Sarkar, Tarani Debnath, Sukamal Purakayastha and Kanailal Niyogi. Kamala Bhattacharya was the sole woman language martyr in the history of the language movement in the world. Assam Government had to withdraw that black bill and the Bengalees living in the Barak valley achieved the official status of their mother tongue ultimately after this unfortunate incident of blood-bath sacrifice of the language martyrs. Later a language martyr's monument was erected on that spot of police firing keeping the ashes of the mortal remains of the martyrs within the tomb which is known to all Bengalees as Bhasa Soheed Minar.

Imposition of Assamese language as the sole official language of the Assam state was only to exert pressure over the Bengali speaking people in Assam. They were trying to drive away the Bengalee population from the Brahmaputra valley as well as from the Barak Valley. They were successful in the Brahmaputra Valley but had to retreat from Barak Valley in face stiff resistance. The Hindu Bengalees had to flee away from Sylhet without a single coin in their hands after partition. First they took shelter in the refugee camp of Barak valley. Gradually they occupied lands, constructed thatched huts over their heads and earned their bread by taking different occupations including cultivation. But cunningly utilising the time-tested divide and rule policy, the Assam government tried to create a wedge between Hindu Bengalees and Muslim Bengalees in the Barak Valley. As per instruction by the government authorities, the opportunist Muslim Bengalees returned Assamese as their officiating language. As a result, it was no problem for the census people to prove that the Assamese language speaking people were in majority in the state of Assam. And Muslim Bengalees used to get importance both in getting employment and security in their localities. But this mainpulation has boomeranged to them of late. Muslim community now covers almost half of the population at Karimganj, Hailakandi and Silchar in the Barak Valley.

Silchar is a town of language martyrs and language movement. The language movement renowned town Silchar is considered as the place of language martyrs that once resisted the illegal pressure of officiating Assamese language exerted upon then. What's about this town, its nature, history or how the Sylheti people settled at Silchar? In her reply to this writer's queries Shibani starts to describe the settlement history of Silchar. Silchar town is not so old. Silchar town was established by the British according to their necessity of exporting tea using the water flow of the Barak River. They constructed jetty on the river bank of Barak adjacent to Silchar town. Before being grown up as a sub-divisional town of the Cachar district, Silchar was the habitat of the Cacharee tribes. The Cachar district was named after these Cacharee tribal people. Cacharees are very friendly. They are now almost Bengali and are recognised by their title Deb, Deb Mazumder etc. Cacharees had their king too and the capital of the kingdom was at Dimapar. Then the capital was later shifted to Khaaspur that stood within the present jurisdiction of Silchar. The relics of the palaces of kings are still there. Now the entire Silchar is under control of the Sylhetis i.e. people from Sylhet. The Cacharees never made any blockade or resistance to the Sylhetis at the time of their entry to Silchar. Cacharees like to dwell either in the hilly region or in the forest. At present Bengali-speaking Cacharees are intermingled with the intercaste marriage with the Bengalee community.

The people of West Bengal never recognize the people of Silchar as Bengalee. And the Kolkata Bengalees keep in touch with all world news, even of Bangladesh, but never would like to know any information regarding those people who had to flee away from the land of their birth—the then East Pakistan (presently Bangladesh).

The Sylheti people had to keep fighting for more than 70 years with the Assamese Government and after several movements they achieved the University, Medical College and broadguage railways. But the present young generation of the Sylhetis are now undone. The highly educated youths have no employment and as a consequence of unemployment they are addicted with drugs. How this generation would be kept attached to any movement towards upcoming demands in the near future is open to question.

Biswendu Nanda, working with the Bengali culture and society explains the oblivion of the Bengali language in a different way. He says, in general, the Bengalees are quite disinterested for upbringing their mother tongue. Nowadays there is a trend towards speaking English or Hindi either as an effect of colonial influence or of national language better known for Hindi movies or TV serials.

Vol. 48, No. 32, Feb 14 - 20, 2016