A fervent preparation that started a week ago culminated in the cultural bonhomie that was taking place in the Silchar Gandhibagh park.The tacky spider-man stuck to the gate looked comical vis-a-vis the expression of refinement going on inside.Starch kurtas and beautiful sarees,everyone rose to the yearly occasion of being ‘Bangali’- the celebration of the day dedicated to the martyrs of Bengali Language.But wait, let us pause here a second and do a reality check.Let the song and dance go on, but we shall move to a corner and flip the yellowed pages of history, the history of the movement.
Was is really possible for a government in the ever neglected north eastern states of India to threaten the existence of a language whose legacy dates back to the ages of Bidyapati, the language which was/is spoken by thousands in West Bengal and the then East Pakistan and in both the places, the number of people speaking Bengali were/are much larger than those in that part of Assam? The language that created Rabindranath and Jibanananda and was enriched by them, the language in which SaratChandra wrote, was threatened by a handful of bureaucrats sitting in some vague office of Dispur Secretariat!Doesn’t that sound a bit far fetched? It indeed is.Very dispassionately, it can be said that had all the Bengalis of Assam been eliminated at that period of history, Bengali language would have continued to thrive and prosper as it is doing today.We,rather our ancestors,wouldn’t have mattered to the existence of language that is seventh most spoken in the world.The question wasn’t the existence of the language.The question was and in fact,is, the existence of the speakers.So the movement of 1962 19th May wasn’t for Bangla, but rather for Bangali and more specifically the Bangalis of this part of India, the southern Assam.Even before the passage of the Official Language Act in 1960 that sought to make Assam uni lingual, linguistic repression on Bengalis ran rampant.The Assam government released a circular dated 26th September 1947 making Assamese a second language in all those schools where it couldn’t be first.Shree Nilmoni Phookan, a noted Assamese poet and an MLA then, had remarked that all the languages of different communities and their cultures would be absorbed in Assamese culture…The state government could not nourish any other language in its province other than this(Assamese). Within three years of passage of this act, the number of Bengali medium schools in Dhubri,Goalpara region reduced from 250 to 3.
On 4th May, 1948, another circular was released.which stated that no settlement of land would be done with people who are not indigenous to the province.As the result of this circular, the saying started,’Amaago bhasha ohomiya’ (that is a Bengali line which claims that the language of the speaker is Assamese, in Bengali). Looking into the census reports it was seen that, in 20 years, 1931 to 1951, the percentage of Assamese speaking people rose from 31% to 56.7%. This 149% rise was attributed to the ‘aggressive linguistic nationalism’ by the Assam Government as remarked by Mr. R.B Vaghalwalla,ICS and the then Census Superintendent. Mr Vaghalwalla went on to add that along with the striking increase in the number of Assamese speaking people, there was an equally striking decrease in the number of Bengali speaking people (26.8 in 1931 to 16.5 in 1951).Also, apart from Assamese, all other languages registered a decline in its speakers in the same census.He also remarked that many people who returned their language as Assamese in the census did it due to certain reasons even though their knowledge of the language did not amount to much.
So the question, in Assam, long before 1961, was the question of existence of Bengalis and not Bangla.So the language movement of 1961 wasn’t a movement for the language, but rather for the people;the language wasn’t threatened, the people were and in fact,even now, are.
While you had been dragged into a corner to discuss these,well..mm..not so comforting things, the celebration continued unabated.There some people are walking to the dais.Soon their voices shall boom, singing praise and glory to the martyrs and promising to remember them every year with such pomp and show.Will you please go, and ask them,softly, that what do they remember of the rioting in Hailakandi just a month after 11 people were shot dead in Silchar?Ask them about 1972, where they were then? That person, who is walking with a swagger, go and ask him what he did in 1986? Ask the lady decked in that grand Jamdani about National Citizens’ Register.No, rather don’t do.It would be discomforting for them and you’ll land into trouble.Let us tap our feet to the song, “Moder Gorob Moder Asha Aa Mori Bangla Bhasha”..
On around 30th June, a rally was taken out in Hailakandi, in support of the controversial circular by a group known as Shanti Bahini, which composed pre-dominantly of Bengali Muslims.In fact if one bothers to go through the concise (26 pages) report by the commission headed by N.C Chatterjee, the reader will find that there had been concentrated efforts by the Assamese Government to accentuate the divide between Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims that unfortunately exists in Indian Subcontinent.When the satyagrahis were arrested, people who bore muslim and manipuri names were let go.The rally was followed by rioting and blood was shed even then.But now no one remembers this, because this leads us to many difficult questions which would rather remain not tickled in the situation.
Even after the killing in 1961, situations hardly improved.Nothing dissuaded the rise of Assamese Linguistic Chauvinism and we end up in 1972 where Guwahati and Dibrugarh University adopted a resolution making Assamese the sole medium of instruction.Now look at the predicament of the people of Barak Valley. The 1962 movement ensured the implementation of the famous Shastri formula whereby Bengali was made a official language of Barak Valley and the language of communication between the rest of Assam and Barak Valley was made English and also the right to education in Bangla was not stripped off.But a student who would pass her/his matriculation in Bangla would now be required to take all other undergraduate courses in Assamese, of which he or she has barest minimum knowledge, if at all.Thus an agitation again, a fight again.
In 1986, the Assam Government again passed the controversial SERA circular whereby it was sought to make Assamese compulsory in the valley.The agitation that developed in 1986 was fraught with so many difficulties.One was the difficulty of mass participation.For how long can it be expected that people will have the strength and stamina to fight the continual onslaught.Added to that, many the then established political parties, even the likes of CPI(M) had not been much active it the movement as they ‘ideologically’ found it to be over stressing the question of linguistic identity. An imprudent firing on the agitators breaking 144 in Karimganj catapulted the movement to the forefront at the cost of two lives again.
Coming to this era, it is tiring to speak time and again about the D voter issue and National Citizens’ Register.In the name of Bangladeshi infiltration, what is going on in Assam is a continuity of all previously stated efforts by the Assamese Government to create a homogenous Assam.The attempt is so shameless that even in certain education institutes in Barak Valley, ‘Assamese Anthem’ is sung and ‘Assamese Gamosa’ unfurled as though a flag during the Nabo-barsho celebration which is known as Rongali Bihu in the Assamese parts of Assam.
In such a light, when we see Unish being turned into a cultural fest of the elite Bengalis while the political character,in fact, the only character of Unish, being relegated to darkness, the songs and dances do not seem pleasing anymore.When Unish is invariably compared to Ekush (21st February in Bangladesh), it is very necessary to remember that the language movement of 1952 in East Pakistan had culminated in creation of a new sovereign state for the people.And the legacy of Ekush doesn’t stop there.The legacy of Ekush continues in the movement of Shahbagh and Prajanmo Chottor.It is the legacy of Ekush that creates Abhijit Roy even after the assault on Humayun Azad, that makes people condemn the brutal murder of Abhijeet Roy.Because Ekush there wasn’t just an icon of language movement, it is rather the symbol of resistance against state atrocities., against oppression and It is the people’s hope crystallized to get what is rightfully theirs and this is why Ekush in Bangladesh survives with it full political color, enriching their culture.
But here, where is the continuity of Unish?While is it natural that given the demographics of this valley, it not foolish to hope or even want the creation of a seperate state, let alone country,there has been almost an absence of a movement that unifies almost all of the Bengali speaking population of Southern Assam.The government gets away by branding any non-Assamese as Bangladeshi and no one speaks a word.The creation of NRC is being, to be said the list, imbecilic.While they given a list of 12 documents that precede the date of 25th March 1971 to be a proof of being a non-Bangladeshi, many voter lists of the time frame 1951-1966 are,as the government official say, unavailable.This is one of the many tools in the hand of the government to trouble the Bengalis in Assam.When people from different states or from different parts of Assam are told that the Bengalis here do not have a permanent resident’s certificate, they look with shocked eyes, but that doesn’t change the truth.If no political movement gets organized against this, if the same repression that happened before 1961 repeats itself in varied forms even after 54 years, then song and poetry, no matter how beautiful and how powerful, doesn’t help in the survival of Unish.The movement whose birth was political, whose aftermath was political, gets converted to a happy carnival and that is where we, the people, have failed Unish.
What?You say that this is a cynical rant.The clamor is increasing there, hear.Soon the group will break into a chorus of slogans as the gates of the memorial shall be thrown open.Yes, we’ll walk with the people and place the blood red bouquet of ‘krishnachura’. But there, pause for a minute and ask, is that all to be done?