In a video interview that appeared on April 20, the Chairman of Assam Higher Secondary Education Council, Dr Dayananda Borgohain says if the people of Silchar and Barak Valley at large do not want to identify as Assamese; if they wish to identify as Bengali, then he thinks it is better for them to separate from Assam altogether. He doesn’t object to Bengalis of Barak Valley forming a state of their own. He even went on to add that Brahmaputra Valley bears the financial burden of Barak Valley, which according to him does not generate enough revenue on its own. He suggests Barak Valley could merge with West Bengal if it wanted. But his bottomline was that if Bengalis of Barak Valley live in Assam but refuse to learn the Assamese language, they should carve out a Bengali speaking state for themselves.
He doesn’t just stop there. He goes on to question the integrity and loyalty of the SEBA Chairman, R.C. Jain while taking a sly dig at his surname, and in turn his Marwari ethnicity. Borgohain challenges R.C. Jain to prove his loyalty to the Assamese first. “He should prove himself how much Assamese he is.”, Borgohain says. To question Jain’s loyalty based on his ethnic identity further proves that the exclusive nature of Assamese subnationalism doesn’t apply to Bengalis alone. Probably, proof of citizenship isn’t enough, and Borgohain expects every non-Assamese to furnish and carry around a certificate of loyalty to the state. The question is, will he be the one to put a stamp on it, and if so, what gives him that authority?
The video interview can be found on Facebook. In the comments section, it was evident that Borgohain’s comments had widespread appeal and acceptance in the Assamese populace. As expected, people got riled up emotionally and flooded the comments with the usual rhetoric, “Speak Assamese or leave Assam.” It is indeed futile to expect the average individual to respond to politics of identity and nationalism with nuance, but the least expected of them is to consider what politics of exclusion has really achieved so far.
First, some misconceptions that Borgohain harbours have to be dispelled. Barak Valley might be geopolitically a part of Assam now, but historically, much of it belonged to Bengal. He must be reminded that people living in Barak valley are living on Bengali land only. Though it must be added that this idea that a land belongs to any community or culture in particular is a narrow-minded one. Rulers have come and gone but the population living here has been predominantly Bengali for many centuries now. Much of Barak Valley, or Surma valley, as it was earlier called, had always been a part of Sylhet in Eastern Bengal. The Bengal Presidency was divided in 1874 and so, Sylhet and Cachar were detached from Bengal and annexed into Assam province then. It was during the partition of Bengal in 1905 that the rest of East Bengal was attached with Assam. When Bengal was reunited in 1911, Cachar and Sylhet still remained a part of Assam province. It was when the partition of 1947 happened that Karimganj was retained in India to have an inland connection with the princely state of Tripura which wanted to accede to the Union of India. The rest of Sylhet fell in East Pakistan’s lap.
Interestingly, in Brahmaputra Valley, the Bodos were there even before the Ahoms arrived. Doesn’t this then make the Assamese just as much of an outsider, by their very own logic? If the claim to a land is subject to the timeline of arrival, then the Bodos are the original sons and daughters of the soil and the Assamese are immigrants.
Truth be told, if separation is being suggested, if a Bengali state in the Northeast is to be formed, most people in Barak Valley would be more than happy. Barak has always been subjected to step-motherly treatment anyway by Dispur. Something as ordinary as Broad Gauge took until 2015 to reach Barak valley. Tarun Gogoi’s politics of appeasing Assamese sub-nationalist sentiments is to blame for such indifference.
Again, to say Barak Valley is poor is incorrect and also quite hypocritical. Even if it is assumed that Barak Valley is in fact economically weaker, who is responsible for that? Why doesn’t Dispur let industries come to Barak Valley and expand here? In fact, separation would actually give the Bengali populace full autonomy to open its doors to industries. Plus, every citizen in Barak Valley pays the necessary taxes directly or indirectly. No one’s living for free at the expense of Brahmaputra valley. In fact, the returns on taxes are inadequate. If Barak Valley were such a loss-making entity, Brahmaputra valley would have let it go long back. The reason they don’t is possibly because they need both the taxes and the votes that Barak has to offer.
Being a Bengali in the Northeast has pretty much always been like being a Muslim in India. Irrespective of what you do, whether you pay your taxes or work for the society, it is never enough and your identity always comes in the way of being accepted. You are expected to erase your cultural identity as if that’s some parameter of loyalty towards the region. If one keeps looking for cultural differences, one will keep finding them. You can keep excluding people on grounds of ethnicity, caste, religion, region, language, dialect and what not, but for how long?
And what have Bengalis ever done to deserve this ostracism and xenophobia? Have Bengalis of Barak Valley ever indulged in insurgencies like factions within other Northeastern communities have, including the Assamese, despite being persecuted to this extent? Wasn’t the ULFA insurgency an offshoot of the Assam Agitation? Who killed thousands of Bengalis in the Nellie Massacre? When they teach history to students in the Brahmaputra valley, does the Nellie episode solicit a mention as well? Or do they choose to look away because the barbarity of Nellie is a bit too much to recall and digest?
What does the Assamese chauvinist know about the horrors of the partition or Operation Searchlight that the Bengali endured? What do they know about being massacred and being driven away from one’s own land? What do they know about the woes of displaced people still recovering from the wounds of a partition - of borders drawn at the behest of a short-sighted and manipulative man called Jinnah in cahoots with the scheming Brits?
The hypocrisy of the Assam agitation must also be addressed. Where does the Axom Gana Parishad stand politically and what has it done so far to live up to its ideological commitments to Assamese sub-nationalism? Who is the AGP allied with now? Isn’t that ally the very party that has brought in the CAA which the Assamese sub-nationalists so vehemently reject? At the end of the day, it’s all about power. Political opportunists keep looking for sentiments that can trigger mass hysteria and paranoia to build their political careers. But the average individual is ill-fated to fall for it over and over again, and the Assamese is no exception.
In fact, Borgohain himself contested elections with a BJP ticket in 2004. What does that say about his own loyalty to his language? It is no secret that the BJP-RSS ideology aims to establish Hindi as the national language of India, still he joined them. So, does that mean that while he won’t let Bengalis in their own land study Bengali, he is totally comfortable with his mother tongue playing second fiddle to Hindi in his own land?
The chauvinist never does any good for the community for he or she is not open to ideas and influences from other societies. The Bengal Renaissance happened because Bengali society was exposed to ideas of Western Liberalism. That very renaissance later permeated into the entire nation and led to the progressive evolution and reform of Hinduism. Bengali society is also not averse to influences from the Northeast. But it is the erasure of linguistic and cultural identity that no individual will accept. Bengalis of Barak Valley are no migrants either, who will cower to such majoritarian whims. This is their own land and their sons and daughters will speak the language they inherit from their own mother - and this should apply not just for the Bengali but for all who make up the linguistic minority in Barak Valley.
What insecure chauvinists do not realise is that language survives and spreads not when it is imposed on people, but under two circumstances. First, people voluntarily learn a language when there’s an incentive to it, when it offers employment opportunities and growth. This is exactly how Persian and English came to be widely accepted in the subcontinent because both the Mughals and the British were looking to recruit Indians in their bureaucracy and so, offered education in those languages. Second, languages spread when they generate literature and art. This explains how Hindi and English (American) cinema and culture, and ultimately the languages are widely understood and accepted in all of India including the Northeast. One could notice a similar trend with Korean culture and cinema in some parts of the Northeast, like in Mizoram and Nagaland.
Bengali art, literature and cinema too has crossed linguistic barriers not just in India, but all over the world. The likes of Tagore and Ray were never obsessed with denying someone their right to their language. Instead they worked to enrich their own language and culture, producing great works of art and literature that is widely venerated worldwide.
The truth is, while chauvinists bicker, the open-minded liberal Assamese will soothe his soul, listening to compositions of Rabindranath Tagore while his Bengali counterpart will derive pleasure listening to the songs of Bhupen Hazarika. An aspiring Assamese filmmaker will take inspiration from the films of legendary filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen while the aspiring Bengali filmmaker will draw inspiration from the cinema produced by talented contemporary filmmakers like Rima Das and Bhaskar Hazarika.
Borgohain needs to realize that imposition of language is an idea designed to fail. History is testament to its failure. One doesn’t have to go too far to see how futile it is. The imposition of Urdu in East Pakistan eventually led to its transformation into a Bengali nation, Bangladesh. In (West) Pakistan too, making Urdu the official language has largely been only symbolic, as Punjabi still continues to be the dominant language. Sanskrit is a dead language because of its very exclusionary nature. It is also amusing that while Bengali and Assamese are sister languages, both of which draw from the same script, yet such friction and hostility persists.
People, especially migrants learn the language of the land anyway, even if not academically. When an Assamese person shifts to Barak Valley or Bengal, they have to learn the local language because it helps them socialize. Similarly, when a Bengali shifts to Brahmaputra valley, they too have to learn Assamese for the same reason. Both the Assamese and the Bengali migrants in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu will also have to learn Marathi or Tamil for ease of communication.
The likes of Borgohain must find answers elsewhere to their demographic anxiety. Average people, even the Assamese chauvinists send their children to English medium schools where the MIL is a mere formality. How many young Assamese boys and girls read Assamese literature today? So, what purpose does this chauvinism serve? This romance is reminiscent of the Communist Bengali who mandated Bengali education in government primary schools where most poor children went, but put their own children in missionary schools.
Amidst this hostility from neighbouring communities, Bengali society at large has its own demons to deal with. While far right Islamism funded by petrodollars in Bangladesh has been trying to supersede the shared Bengali identity, in Bengal, Barak Valley and Tripura, Hindu Nationalism sourced from the Hindi Heartland has been trying to create a similar fissure in the Bengali society in India. How long the Bengali allows his or her community to be divided this way remains to be seen. Ethnicity or Religion, who will emerge triumphant? As far as the Northeast is concerned, one could wonder if Borgohain’s comments are the early steps towards the creation of a new Indian state - Northeast Bengal.
Views are personal. Dedicated to the Bengali Language Martyrs of Barak Valley.