On February 25, 1948 the Pakistan Constituent Assembly proposed Urdu as the official language of Pakistan. However, Babu Dhirendra Nath Dutta strongly espoused the cause of Bangla, amid much indignation. His proposal lay down the roots of a struggle that would eventually create a new nation in 1971.
Similarly, Ranendra Mohan Das, a Karimganj (North) legislator, stood defiant against the imposition of Assamese as the state's official language by the Assam Legislative Assembly. This occurred on October 10, 1960. This lingual sadism was initiated under the grace of the Northeast Indian state’s then Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha.
Such follies were one of the key factors behind Assam’s partition
At the time, it also included chunks of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, and various languages were spoken. This was made clear in the statement of former Lok Sabha speaker, P A Sangma in 1996 - “We all spoke Assamese, we still can. But we are not Assamese, so we could not accept the imposition of Assamese.”
We all know now of the Bangla language movement in Assam, where 11 people of Silchar were killed when paramilitary forces opened fire on protesters on May 19, 1961. But we know little of how this is history repeating itself in the area of Assam.
In Troubled Periphery
by Subir Bhaumik, he wrote of how the British invited cultivators from East Bengal to Assam's wastelands in a bid to boost cultivation, and in 1836, Bangla was chosen as the official language. This led to vehement protests from the indigenous Assamese, spearheaded by noted intellectual Anandaram Dhekial Phukan. These efforts were fruitful and in July 1873, the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal declared that Assamese may be used for judicial and revenue proceedings. The language could also be used in five valley districts – Darrang, Nowgong, Lakhimpur, Kamrup and Sivsagar.
However in 1874, Bangla-speaking districts like Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara were added to Assam, and Bangla speakers started to push for Bangla schools, kickstarting the beginning of divisions within the medium of instruction in schools. A split between the two communities began to appear.
This was reflected in a presidential address of the Assam Sahitya Sabha by Tarun Ram Phukan in 1927 - “We Assamese are a distinct nationality among Indians. Though our language is Sanskrit based, it is a distinct language. A rising nationality shows signs of life by way of extending domination over others. Alas, it is otherwise; we are not only dependent, our neighbour Bengal is trying to swallow us taking advantage of our helplessness.”
In 1938, Matiur Rahman Miah, a peasant leader from West Goalpara, told the Assam Assembly, “We are Bengalis. Our mother tongue is Bangla.” He added that if Assamese was imposed upon them, it would deprive their children from their mother tongue and education.
When Partition was announced in 1947, gloom descended over Barak Valley
The people of Sylhet voted in a referendum to join Pakistan, and it was severed from Karimganj. The die was cast. Bengalis were relegated numerically and the Assamese grasped the opportunity of stamping their linguistic domination.
The Assam Pradesh Congress Committee's proposal on declaring Assamese as the sole official language of the state in 1960 touched a raw nerve in the Brahmaputra valley, as mob violence broke out. An estimated 50,000 Bengalis fled to West Bengal as violence against them escalated between July and September. Another 90,000 fled to Barak Valley and other North-Eastern regions.
It all came to a head on October 10, 1960 when the Assam Official Language Bill was placed in the Legislative Assembly. To protest, the Cachar Gana Sangram Parishad was formed, and on April 22, 1961, the protesters marched across Silchar and Karimganj to raise awareness on the language issue. The march continued till May 2. A similar march was organized at Hailakandi, and Rathindranath Sen, President of the Cachar Parishad, threatened strikes if Bangla was not accorded official language status by May 13.
When his threats went ignored, picketing began on May 19 in the sub-divisional towns of Silchar, Karimganj and Hailakandi. In Silchar, the Tarapur Railway Station (now Silchar Railway Station) held peaceful agitations in the morning.
However, trouble started brewing when the Assam Rifles arrived in the afternoon. Around 2:35pm, the paramilitary troops began to beat the protesters with rifle butts and batons, though unprovoked. Within a span of seven minutes, the troops fired 17 rounds of bullets. The lives of 11 people were claimed.
They were Kanailal Niyogi, Chandicharan Sutradhar, Hitesh Biswas, Satyendra Deb, Kumud Ranjan Das, Sunil Sarkar, Tarani Debnath, Sachindra Chandra Pal, Birendra Sutradhar, Sukamal Purakayastha and Kamala Bhattacharya.
Their sacrifice did not go in vain – Bangla was ultimately accorded the status of an official language in all three districts of Barak Valley.
The author is Tripura correspondent, Dhaka Tribune