The Subaltern Factor

Assam and the Left's Failure

Devabrata Sharma

November 1, 2018. Automatic guns roared at Dhola Sadia of Tinsukia, the easternmost district of Assam. The press, e-media and social media are still agog with speculations about who are the forces behind the heinous killings.

To start with, the government agencies, or rather pro-government media and leadership put the blame on ULFA. The latter denied the blame, which, however, doesn't mean much. In the past there were numerous incidents, starting from that of Sanjay Ghose, when ULFA had denied such charges but those were later known to be their handiworks. The involvement of ULFA cannot be ruled out because it had massacred Bhojpuri Hindi-speaking people around this area several times in the past. So, the modus operandi being the same, it is quite natural that ULFA would be suspect. But this time the rumour industry threw up other curious possibilities as well. One statement which went viral in social media even pointed the accusing finger to a powerful Assam minister who, alongwith an upper Assam MLA of the ruling party, had allegedly brought in RSS-linked supari-killers from Bihar to carry out the murder mission and create communal tensions. Some others hinted at the involvement of security agencies themselves as the killers were reportedly Hindi-speaking. For one thing whichever be the killing agency, it is a private/state-sponsored terror group, not a mass-act. This last point is important because gone are the days of Assam agitation when thousand-strong mobs could be mobilised at a day's notice, to conduct pogroms, like those of Nellie, Gohpur, Chaulkhowa and Silapather. The last-mentioned had an obvious reference for linguistic politics as thousands of Bengalis were reportedly massacred at that remote corner of eastern Assam, north bank of the Brahmaputra.

From amidst the dark clouds of presently prevailing propaganda of Assamese-Bengali animosity, a silver lining must not be missed. In spite of the most inciting and inflammatory provocations of Siladityas on the Bengali side and Mrinal Hazarikas and Jiten Duttas on the Assamese side (incidentally both sides enjoy state patronage!), there has not been a single incident of Assamese-Bengali violence in the present phase. Living in the heartland of Assamese, that too Assamese caste-Hindu population, this writer can vouch for the fact that as of today, there is no possibility of any large-scale anti-Bengali violence. This is a great positive departure from 1960, 1972 and even 1979-83.

What do these years signify for Assam or its linguistic politics? To contexulise it, Jatiya Itihash Archival works, which are going on at Assam state archives, NMML-Delhi, British Library etc, have thrown up sufficient documentary proof to show that, the dawn of 'independence' in Assam coincided with the slogan of 'Assam for Assamese' and 'Bengalis, leave Assam'. It was exactly on 24th August, 1947, that a thousand-strong anti-Bengali meeting was held at Guwahati. But it did not come out of nowhere. Rather the British had assiduously cultivated and nurtured Assamese-Bengali linguistic conflict in Assam. It had replaced Assamese with Bengali in 1836, whereas the former language was the official language from 1826-1836. The cause behind this replacement was long propagated to be the machinations of Bengali bureaucrats and clerks serving in Assam. But it goes to the credit of Assamese left intellectuals who proved that the British, who were well aware of the nuances of Assamese-Bengali linguistic autonomy, had consciously and conspiratorially replaced Assamese with Bengali so as to sow the seeds of permanent and perenniel Assamese-Bengali conflict. The British were infamously successful in their divisive enterprise. The present day rulers are reaping the fruits of this division even after nearly two centuries!

The conflict between two aspiring middle classes, Assamese and Bengali, sponsored by the British at first and taken care of by the independent Indian state later, was for the loaves and fishes of office befitting all such middle classes. However the strategic difference is that till 1873 the Bengalis were next only to the British in running the British administration. In 1873, they lost an advantage with the re-introduction of Assamese. But 1947 came as a flashpoint of this contradiction regarding which of these classes would run the post-independence Assam state. The answer was blowing in the air with the chanting of 'Assam for Assamese' in the 24th august, 1947 meeting organised by the Ambikagiri Raychaudhury brigade. But the matter was not settled through legislative way. Riot-like situations arose in 1948 and 1955 to culminate in the 1960 Assamese State Language Act Movement. The Assamese nationalist/chauvinist organisations and individuals have been remembering Ranjit Barpuzari, a student of Cotton College, who was shot dead by the police on 4th July, 1960 and Surya Bora, a railway employee who was beaten to death by a Bengali mob in Siliguri. However not much is found in Assamese discourse except these two deaths. The killing of 11 Bengalis at Silchar, by the police is known and remembered in Bengali circles but the Assamese would rarely mention it. However the list of the dead doesn't end at this 2+11 officially remembered people in the two prominent circles—Assamese dominated Brahmaputra Valley and Bengali-dominated Barak Valley. In truth as per official sources the total dead put the number at 39. But when one delved deeper, one stumbled upon nearly 100 deaths. Then who were the 'other' nearly 87? They were mostly Bengali Hindus upholding the Bengali cause and Muslims supporting the Assamese cause. The names of Muslims are not mentioned by Bengalis because they stood for the Assamese cause. But even the Assamese do not mention their names even after they had apparently given their lives for the Assamese cause.

Surprisingly enough, as far as this writer's information goes, the names of those Bengalis, who were killed during 1960 riots, specially those killed at Goreswar are not known/mentioned/paid homage to, during the martyrdom anniversaries of 1960 police firing victims of Silchar. What could be the reason? One doesn't know. But it remains a fact that the victims of Goreswar, the biggest number of death and arson being from there, were dalits, Nama-shudras to be precise.

Coincidentally or not, the biggest massacre of Bengalis at Silapather of present Dhemaji district also claimed numerous Bengali dalit lives. The death toll could be as high as 4, 000! Diganta Sarma, a fearless journalist who had earlier exposed the magnitude of Nellie and Chaulkhowa massacres, came up with graphic details of the Silapather massacre. His investigation showed that almost all the Silapather victims were Bengali Namashudras. (Please see Diganta Sarma's Nellie, 1983, Chaulkhowa 1983, 1983-r Asomot Nipirita Bongali, all published by Ekalabya Prakashan, Jorhat). Recently another daringly courageous investigative reportage came to light. Written by late Tazuddin Ammed, ex-leader All Assam Minority Students' Union, the book Tirashir Asom, Raktakta Itihash… has again mentioned names of many Dalit Namashudra Bengalis killed during the Assam movement. To recall, a few names of that long list reads as Khiribala Das, Nirubala Das, Dhirubala das, Gendibala Das, Champabala Das, Thakur Mandal, Dukhi Arya, Kartik Arya, Jyotsna Arya (pregnant), Rabi Das, Thandu Arya, Jodu Arya, Kiranbala Arya, Subalabala Arya, Pramilabala Arya, Sontosh Arya, Adyribala Arya, Jomuna Arya, Bimala Arya, and many more. The list is exclusively Dalit-Namashudra-centric on one hand and on the other women outnumber men!

Here are the names of some of the Bengali Hindus killed at Silapather in 1983: Sonai Mandal, Judhisthir Roy, Suren Malo, Modari Mandal, Moina Namashudra, Srimati Namashudra, Bijay Namashudra, Rajkumar Nama-shudra, Kumudini Namashudra, Sameli Namashudra, Kajal Namashudra, Sukhtan Malodas, Manik Namashudra, Milan Namashudra, Pabitra Nama-shudra, Nripabala Namashudra, Asokbala Namashudra, Rajbala Nama-shudra, Sanjana Namashudra, Piyali Namashudra, Niyoytibala Namashudra, Santanabala Namashudra, Renubala Namashudra, Kamalabala Namashudra, Revatibala Namashudra, Sibani Nama-shudra and many more. While the surnames suggest a few Caste Hindus as well, there is not an iota of doubt that the overwhelming majority of those killed were Dalit-Namashudras and tragically most of them were women.

And now comes the Dhala-Sadia massacre, the 5 killed being all Bengali Dalit Namashudras. They were Shyamal Biswas, Ananta Biswas, Abinash Biswas, Subal Das and Dhanai Namashudra. All of them were Bengali-speaking Dalit-Namashudras!

Not that the killers, whoever they might be, killed them because they were Dalit-Namashudras. They were killed because they were Bengalis. But is it a mere coincidence that most of those who have fallen prey are poor and Dalit-Namashudras? It is not a coincidence but it is an aggregation of the complex socio-economic-ethnic-demo-graphics of Assam that while the urban Bengali population is composed of upper and middle castes, the rural, even remote interior, riverine Bengali population is mostly poor dalit. As such, deprived of any state security unlike their urban counterpart, being most vulnerable, they fall easy prey to massacres or selective killings. Not that it is true of Bengali nationality only. Like the Bengalis, the Assamese are also not a monolithic entity. Those who died in Assam for India's freedom were overwhelmingly SC-ST-OBC-minorities, but those who reaped the harvest of freedom were/are overwhelmingly Assam-ese caste Hindus. While researching about the Anti-Foreigner Assam Movement of 1979-83, it becomes clear that while those killed were mostly Miya Muslims, Bengali Hindus (mostly Dalit-Namashudras as is shown already), STs (mostly Bodo/Mech Kacharis killed in Gohpur, Fulung Sapori), left activists belonging to CPM, CPI(ML), CPI and RCPI. On the opposite side there were 855 agitationists in the martyrs' list of AASU. But even in that list the biggest number of those 'martyrs' were Rajbangshi and Nath OBCs, followed by, inter alia, many STs, SCs other OBCs and also Muslims. It shows that on both sides mostly the subalterns were victims.

Dhola-Sadia incident is not an aberration but a continuation of this process. Dalit-Namashudras became soft targets of the trigger-happy killers. Whether it was done by ULFA (though the organisation has disclaimed it), or state forces (as they alleged to have done during the infamous secret-killings), or hired RSS assasins (as alleged by the anonymous statement going viral in social media), one thing is clear : this time the divisive forces are unable to mobilise Silapather-like, or even Goreswar like mobs. In fact it goes to the credit of Assamese people that in spite of the most inflammatory provocations from Siladityas on Bengali side and SULFA Jiten Duttas and Mrinal Hazarikas on the Assamese side, there has been no remarkable violent incidents. This doesn't necessarily mean that the Assamese masses are now purged of chauvinism. They are not. Neither can it be claimed that Bengali chauvinism has evaporated into thin air.

Two more things about Assamese chauvinism. The bitter and bloody battle that CPI(ML), PCC and CPM fought against chauvinism, scores of lives laid down by the activists and organisers of these two organisations, as well as those of CPI and RCPI, reinforced by a battery of Assamese left-democratic intellectuals went a long way in democratising the Assamese psyche to a considerable extent. Rest is attributable to a natural process of maturing of the people in more than five decades of anti-minority blood-spilling. However this does not necessarily mean that chauvinism is buried forever. It is far from being over.

A decisive push is necessary to drive it to the burial pit. However, here lies the irony. While chauvinism itself is now a dying force, many of those who had earlier resisted it are exhausted now. Some of the erstwhile fighters have reneged, joining the ranks of not only chauvinists but even communalists. Several of the left parties are dwindling forces. One major left party seems to be divided along Bengali and Assamese lines. It reminds one of the 1960 Assam State Language Movement when the Assam CPI was divided along Assamese-Bengali lines, the Brahmaputra valley CPI speaking up for Assamese as state language, while the Barak Valley CPI upheld the demand of Bengali. It is true that Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika had sung the famous Haradhan-Rangmanar Katha from under the aegis of IPTA, to send home the message of peace and tranquility. But what was lacking on the part of the undivided CPI was a principled and uncompromising and ruthless opposition to chauvinism. Another left party is opposing chauvinism politically but it is weak organisationally. Two other left parties seem to be pitiably drowning in the morass of (Assamese) chauvinism.

Whether Assam can be made free of Assamese chauvinism and Bengali counter-chauvinism, both legacies of British imperialism, will depend largely on how the left forces in Assam rise up to the occasion, to oppose chauvinism of all varieties, be it Assamese, Bengali or Bodo, to their end and forge an alliance of all class struggle forces with those fighting for social equality. Only class struggle intertwined with national-ethnic struggles can free Assam from repetitions of the tragic incident of Dhola-Sadia.

Vol. 51, No.24, Dec 16 - 22, 2018