File photo of people outside a NRC Seva Kendra in Guwahati | PTI
Representational image| File photo of people outside a NRC Seva Kendra in Guwahati | PTI
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The Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, which have been put on the back burner due to the coronavirus pandemic, will surely rear their heads again soon. But the controversy around citizenship has generated renewed interest in Partition historiography. One positive outcome has been the re-surfacing of the Sylhet Referendum in the public imagination of scholars and media analysts. Many scholars have argued that the politics surrounding the ‘foreigner’s problem’ in Assam and the subsequent demand for updating the NRC can be traced to the Sylhet Referendum of 1947 that led to the Partition of the state of Assam.

Today, 6 July, marks the 73rd anniversary of this momentous event that permanently changed the lives and destinies of at least two generations of Hindu Sylhetis, who were compelled to leave their homeland in now Bangladesh and migrate to undivided Assam as refugees. What became of these people post-Partition is not a story that has been acknowledged, leave alone told very well, in mainstream Partition histories. This is partly because the dominant Partition story in South Asia has been restricted to the Hindu-Muslim binary, while in Assam this dynamic was completely subverted to fuel an antagonism based on ethno-linguistic lines.

Riding on the idea of Assamese sub-nationalism, the political project of the ‘anti-foreigner movement’ has always been exclusionary and the decision to conduct an NRC exercise in Assam was a result of ethno-linguistic chauvinism that had begun with the ‘bongal kheda andolan (oust the Bengali movement)’ immediately after Partition. And yet, wider pan-Indian intellectual outrage against the exercise was registered only when it was perceived as an ‘anti-Muslim’ and communal ploy by the Narendra Modi government.


Also read: Assam’s NRC wound was re-opened and then conveniently forgotten by India


The stateless Sylheti Hindus

While communalisation of the citizenship issue is condemnable, what remains puzzling is how chauvinism based on ethno-linguistic cleavages was legitimised and even normalised as a manifestation of the pent-up frustrations of the Assamese community, whose cultural identity was perceived to be under threat by the Bengalis. One possible reason for this lopsided understanding could be that the perception surrounding this displaced community is flawed. In scholarly and popular imagination, Hindu Sylhetis are an essentially homogenous and privileged community, which has got ‘what it deserved’ after having subjugated the Assamese for decades during the colonial period. However, while every community has its visible privileges, that alone should not militate against the discrimination and the suffering of the bulk.

Sylhet, which now forms part of Bangladesh, was originally known as ‘Srihatta’, which literally means ‘prosperous’. During the colonial period, Sylhet was constantly tossed between Bengal and Assam by the Britishers due to administrative reasons. It was historically a part of undivided Bengal and a frontier region of British India until 1874, when it was joined with the newly acquired territory of Assam. The motivation for clubbing Sylhet with the newly carved out Chief Commissioner’s Province of Assam was primarily to increase revenue and make Assam an economically viable province.

The integration of Sylhet with Assam was resisted vociferously by the Hindu Bengalis of the region because they constantly demanded to be returned to an ‘advanced’ Bengal rather than be clubbed with Assam. The Assamese elite, who saw the English-educated Bengalis as the main competitors for employment and as being responsible for inflicting a cultural hegemony in the region, also opposed this move. In 1905, when Bengal was partitioned, Sylhet was made part of Eastern Bengal and Assam, but in 1912, it was again disintegrated from Bengal and made part of Assam.

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Also read: Assam is my identity, Islam a personal belief. Don’t let India communalise an ethnic struggle


Targeted throughout history

When the Partition plan was drawn up and the question of how regions with mixed populations of Hindus and Muslims would be organised cropped up, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee and then Prime Minister of Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi,played an important role in persuading the colonial government to transfer Sylhet to East Pakistan. As a result of this, on 6 and 7 July 1947, a referendum was held in Sylhet in which 4,23,660 out of 5,46,815 eligible voters voted.

Several scholars like J.B. Bhattacharjee and Binayak Dutta have mentioned that there is sufficient controversy surrounding this Sylhet Referendum because 1,23,155 voters, most of whom were plantation workers and predominantly Hindu, did not vote owing to intimidating threats from the Muslim League. Following the referendum, most of Sylhet, barring the three and half thanas of Patharkandi, Badarpur, Ratabari and Karimganj, was transferred to East Pakistan. The disintegration of Sylhet from Assam came as what historian Sujit Chaudhuri has called ‘a god-sent opportunity’ for the Assamese elite, who had been craving for a linguistically homogenous province for themselves.

However, as Chaudhuri admits, the euphoria of the Assamese elite was short-lived because the Hindu Sylhetis, now refugees, started migrating to undivided Assam soon after Partition after being intimated and targeted by Muslims across the border. Despite the pressure from the Centre to accommodate refugees, the Bordoloi government refused to grant land settlement to not only refugees but to all non-Assamese communities who may have lived in Assam for several generations.

From 1948 onwards, the Hindu Bengalis were systematically targeted throughout Brahmaputra valley, and several lost their lives, livelihoods and property. The language riots, which started in the 1960s, and the Assam movement from 1979-1985, often led to state-supported pogroms in which Hindu Bengalis were killed, forced to flee from medical and engineering colleges and even compelled to leave their jobs for fear of their lives.

Many of them who possessed a certain amount of social and economic capital were compelled to flee to Kolkata during these riots where they continued to be unwelcome and dubbed as ‘probashi Bangalis’ (non-resident Bengalis). Interestingly, until the Nellie massacre of 1983, Bengali Muslims in the state of Assam formed an important ally of the Hindu Assamese and were instrumental in fuelling the demand for a homogenous Assamese province.


Also read: Assam’s old 1970s fury back with Citizenship Act. This time for a new, young generation


Hindu Sylhetis today

In trying to highlight the plight of the Sylheti Hindus in Assam, I don’t intend to downplay the persecution of Muslims, but rather highlight the more complex and under-analysed dimensions of the anti-foreigners’ movement in Assam. For most Hindu Sylhetis across the country, the idea of a homeland continues to remain elusive.

What is puzzling, however, is a total lack of acknowledgment of this deprivation by the larger intellectual community. The anniversary of the Sylhet Referendum is a good opportunity to reflect upon the politics of compassion and to invoke philosopher-theorist Judith Butler’s argument about how the construction of a ‘valid person’ is a function of the particular norms existent in a society at any point of time. In the larger scheme of things, the de-territorialised Sylheti Hindus will perhaps continue to be forgotten because politically they do not matter.

The author is an Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University. Views are personal.

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28 Comments Share Your Views

28 COMMENTS

  1. Congratulations Malini mam for this wonderful article. I believe in Assam there is an urgent need for self introspection of Syllheti genocide as the German did after the in 2nd world war.
    One day they have to answer history. Is it a sign of civilization to attack unarmed refugees. The sooner they realize the better.

  2. ha ha every body wants Assamese people to defame.The more you try to defame us more it gets easier to achieve our aim.

  3. Why Assamese are targeted
    Is it the lobby who wants to diminish our faces from the face of the world?.Sylhet was an integral part of greater Assamese culture, and later it was flooded by the bengali speakers.Anti Assamese sentiment and to defame our leaders like Sukapha will cost The country in long run.Identity of Assamese people should be respected, if bengalis have problem then they can go to Bangladesh or West Bengal. And what about tripura?why that state is screwed?Did this Bengali leaders ever asked about it?What about cooch behar?Did you know that the assembly of cooch behar was burned down!Did they ever asked about it?Sylhet was given to Pakistan, then where the heck your bengali nationalism was?I guess Bangladeshis are bengali too?Why don’t bengalis go for a referendum and join with Bangladesh.Stop aryanization, stop targetting Assamese people,we have only one Assam and we will protect it till our last breath.

    • Sylhet was indeed “given” to Pakistan. But not by the Bengalis residing in Sylhet. But by your very own Gopinath Bordoloi. A man whose xenophobia knew no bounds.

  4. Mr P Bongali,
    Come to the overground.. I suspect you are a genuine Axomia or may be a party member affiliated to group of people from ‘tukre tukre gang’ of those days responsible for partition. .For ‘pheku’ Axomia like you, people from the land of honoured Bhupen Hazarika, can not get recognition beyond Axom. Shame on person like you ,& post like that, who are undermining Axomia. You are the stigma of the Axomia people.

  5. “Better late than never.” Well researched article about the hapless people from the deprived Syllhet district of Bengal who could not find a tall leader to counter chauvinist Gopinath Bordoloi who like others were the bad assets of Congress party.
    Please write another article why Sylhet could not produce a tall leader, after Bipin Pal, who could have settled the issues of forcefully evicted people from that part of Bengal suffering consecutively for three generations.
    Interestingly people of Cachar, where the forcefully evicted people took the refuge & who shares common culture & language with that part of Bengal, also coined them as ‘refugees’ not to say about other discrimination perpetrated on them.

  6. Who is that stupid F. Bongali trying to demean Assamese?
    Come to surface & furnish intellectual dossiers to elevate modern days Assamese instead.
    For the people like you Assamese outside Assam have no footprint & in abroad termed as backward natives.

  7. ‘Better late than never.’ Well researched analytical article.
    People from Sylhet are deprived Bengalees. Sylhet has produced more intellecctuals when compared to other parts of Bengal.
    Why Sylhet could not produce a tall leader to counter a chauvinist like Gopinath Bordoloi at all levels?
    Shouldn’t we have an introspection?
    Like to read such type of articles.

  8. Early April/May 1947, my maternal grandfather was there in Sylhet. My mom was a child then. One fine evening my grandfather came from duty. He was a police officer. He informed about the referendum and asked their opinion. The referendum was held in a fair and unbiased manner by the British. My grandfather’s family remained in India, well settled, no discrimination.

  9. I am very happy that some one has written about it. I always felt we are homeless, freedom of india came by uprooting us. And no body bothered . But we too didn’t have any true leaders to stand for and suffering goes on.
    Whenever some one ask me which state you belong i really don’t know what to answer so I always say , i have no state, whole india is mine.

  10. Dear Ms Bhattacherjee,
    I congratulate you for writing this timely article. In fact you have strengthened my determination to finish the novel I have been writing since two years following my travel to Sylhet – my ancestor’s homeland three years ago.
    I shall be glad if you share relevant articles with me ( drdebashisdeb@gmail.com). I am a practising surgeon and live in Kolkata and a published author of 2 novels and a short story collection.
    Hope to read your mail soon.

  11. It’s an extremely sad that being an intellectual how can you try to legitimise a false fabricated statement like:
    Hindu Bengalis were systematically targeted throughout Brahmaputra valley, and several lost their lives, livelihoods and property. The language riots, which started in the 1960s, and the Assam movement from 1979-1985, often led to state-supported pogroms in which Hindu Bengalis were killed, forced to flee from medical and engineering colleges and even compelled to leave their jobs for fear of their lives.

    This is completely false, fabricated, outrageous statement. You are definitely trying to encourage Assamese-Bengali enmity.
    I am a senior citizen from erstwhile Goalpara district of Assam. I know the facts. We happily mix together and these I can proudly say. Please don’t try to poke your subverted mentality in our beloved Assam.
    You said Bengali community is forced to leave Assam. Go to the Maligaon-Pandu area in Guwahayi, go to Dhubri, Goalpara , Barpeta, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Silchar, Hailakandi, Karimganj and many more towns.
    Either you are ignorant or you are trying to fan linguistic enmity particularly in Asssam and all over India in general.

    • Dear Mr Raja,
      Your opinion reminded me the folklore; the ostrich hiding its head in the sand!
      I grew up in Maligaon -Pandu area, studied medicine in Dibrugarh, worked as a medical officer in Kamrup district. So, I believe you will trust my experience. You haven`t written your surname, so it`s difficult to understand which community you belong to, but I, like Malini am a Bengali Hindu, but for all practical purpose I am an Indian first.
      In every step of my life till I was in Assam, I was reminded that I wasn`t an Assamese – ‘thalua’ – and hence always a second choice. This is why after completion of my higher studies from AIIMS, New Delhi, I didn`t go back to Assam because I had a choice then to decide where I`d live for the rest of my life without being looked down. I came to Calcutta 22 years ago. Yes, there are still many Bengalis in Assam; my parents and brother still live there, and there are hundreds of school and college friends who live there, but they stayed back not by choice but by compulsion – they just didn`t have a choice to move out. Of course Cachar and Karimganj is a different story altogether because Barak valley though in Assam represent an inland of preserved Bengali culture.
      So, I`d like to inform you that either you are taking an “ostrich view'” or you don`t know the reality.

      • Why you people want to defame Assamese people?. Are you being paid by somebody to diminish Assamese people from the face of the world?.Let me remind you that the more you try to defame Assam the more it gets easier for Assamese to gain their ultimate goal
        Stop propaganda about Assam and do urgent work to help west Bengal to get on the development road.Because your sonar bangla is no longer a wealthy state,and its because of people like you,those who speaks but never work .

  12. It’s an extremely sad that being an intellectual how can you try to legitimise a false fabricated statement like: “Hindu Bengalis were systematically targeted throughout Brahmaputra valley, and several lost their lives, livelihoods and property. The language riots, which started in the 1960s, and the Assam movement from 1979-1985, often led to state-supported pogroms in which Hindu Bengalis were killed, forced to flee from medical and engineering colleges and even compelled to leave their jobs for fear of their lives.”
    This is completely outrageous statement. You are definitely trying to encourage Assamese-Bengali enmity. I am from erstwhile Goalpara district of Assam. I know the facts. We happily mix with the peaceful Assamese community, and these I can proudly say. Please don’t try to poke your subverted mentality in our beloved Assam.

    • Dear Raj,
      You may be one of the fortunate few who have not suffered the wrath of the antibengali sentiments of the general Assamese people. But I and my family members have – brutally beaten, houses burnt, women threatened.

  13. Being a Sylheti, I know how our families went through the tough times. Sylheti are known for their education and knowledge and thus been able to just survive. Being in Assam we never could really understand our identity as it was always unwelcoming. Finally someone wrote about it. This article is a gratitude to my forefathers.

  14. Grateful to you for this article which reflects the true plight of our Sylheti Hindus who are now getting marginalised also in Barak Valley districts of Assam..Had the referendum been held in a fair and unbiased manner the result could have been different.It would have also benefited Bengali Hindus of other East Bengal districts who also face lot of humiliation in North East India.I also attribute this to the failure of then Sylheti Hindu leadership to stall the refurendum.

  15. Listen up, you Bongali shit heads, as long as the Assamese elite is alive, Assam will ALWAYS BE FOR THE ASSAMESE. GO BACK TO YOUR SWAMPY MARSHLANDS OF BANGLADESH. WE BUILT ASSAM AND THE NORTH EAST.. Our mighty race entered the B-Valley in the 1200 AD and brough in technological advancements from China to this shit stained region while your primitive race were still being imported/exported as Mughal Slaves. So all you Hindu & Muslim Bangladeshis can GTFO of Assam. I will make sure to it!

    • Take it easy bro.This is post Modernist time plz dont bring your medieval ignorance and hate.Learn to coexist and be progressive.

    • Sir your language stark full of hatred and I’ll information first and formost the pribhumi of assam is tribals and second Bengalis are indigenous of assam,get it wiki-indo-aryan migration of assam.tai-ahoms crack a deal with Mughals and even gave their daughter.these are dark histories also,how British and burmans crushed you google it.and also Assamese are not elite,it is bihari,north indians and Punjabis still dominating it.your hatred towards Bengalis is unjustified,many Bengalis whether Hindus and muslims contributed for assam.also,many Assamese Bengalis are martyrs for Assam agitation for eg amalendu das.brother you must follow the path of pandit xankardev not ulfa.ulfa claims to be khilongia but killed innoncent people.

  16. True there is an ongoing genocide against Bangali hindus which everyone remains a silent spectator😑😑😑.. That is the reason i hate congress.. They kept us stateless and our life has no value for them😑😑

  17. Dear Ms. Bhattacharjee,
    Kudos to you for writing this article and highlighting the plight of Bengali Hindus living in North Eastern part of India. It’s the responsibility of each and every Indian- that the voices of Bengali Hindus living in NE India be heard and justice be delivered .

    My sincere gratitude to Mr. Shekhar Gupta for publishing this artcile.

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