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Featured Image: A map of the undivided Bengal and Assam before Independence. 


By Joydeep Biswas

THE swanky frontal room of Banga Bhavan, the headquarters of Barak Upatyaka Banga Sahitya O Sanskriti Sammelan in Silchar, was witness to a book release function last Friday.

Mohammad Mushtak Choudhury, a banker from Bangladesh, had come over to Silchar in connection with the formal release of his Cacharer Itihas, Oitijhya O Nandanikata (History, Tradition and Aesthetics of Cachar).

The novice author had visited Barak Valley in 2014 to search for what he described as ‘the other part of Sylhet’. That tour and this book are the product of his longing for discovering the nuanced beauty of the undivided and homogeneous cultural geography of Surma-Barak, now separated by the barbed wire fences erected between India and Bangladesh.

Literary and cultural exchanges between Sylhet and Barak Valley have become a usual feature for the past two decades. What the theorists of international relations would term as ‘people to people contact’ or ‘fourth diplomacy,’ is pretty evident here.

Authors, researchers, artists, NGO activists and individual citizens without professional attachments from both sides meet at short intervals and try to create a ‘bonding beyond borders’.

In the not so distant past, scholars like Anindita Dasgupta, Sujit Choudhury and Sukalpa Bhattacharjee, to name the prominent only, have shown interest in recording the historiography of transfer of Sylhet to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) consequent upon the infamous Sylhet Referendum of 1947.

As regards the Partition of India, celebrated historians chose to focus only on Punjab and Bengal, thus pushing into oblivion the partition in Assam that affected scores of Bengalis of the Sylheti origin.

This is perhaps the reason why Three Novels of Amit Chaudhuri has failed to create as much impact on the connoisseurs as Khushwant Singh’s 1956 classic, Train to Pakistan, could.

Moving forward to the past and an eternal quest for darning the tattered gingham that once draped the undivided Sylheti identity is the most distinct reality of the post-Partition Bengali migrants resettled in Barak Valley and also in some pockets of the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam.

The launch event of Choudhury’s book was no exception on this count. The select audience who had gathered at Banga Bhavan last Friday, had all in their heart a yearning for the united cultural geography what ~ they rued in a familiar fashion ~ could not become a reality due to the cruel Radcliffe Line.

But what they missed or perhaps preferred to miss is that, the people of Sylhet themselves are only to blame for the cultural knifing. History had offered them on the platter a godsend opportunity to decide not only their political future, but also their future cultural asylum.

The Sylhet Referendum of 6 and 7 July 1947, held according to the partition plan drawn by Louis Mountbatten, had put the critical question before the people of that district. Should Sylhet go to a theocratic Pakistan or stay part of a secular India?

On a communally expected line, 56.6 per cent voted for the ‘axe’, the symbol for going with Pakistan. As against this, 43.3 percent voted for the ‘house’, the symbol for parting with Pakistan. The Bengali Muslim decisively voted for an Islamic ‘home land’; the Hindu Bengalis preferred a plural India.

The figurative implication of the axe against the home came as a bitter truth for both the Hindus and the Muslims, as the development in the sub-continental political theatre unfolded down the next few decades.

Had the Plebiscite said ‘yes’ to India, much to the chagrin of the Muslim League and the Assam Congress leadership under their mentor, Gopinath Bordoloi, the history of the Barak-Surma twin valleys could have been written in different annals.

Who knows, the whole of Sylhet along with the erstwhile Cachar district, could have claimed a separate state for the people of the Bengal fringe before the States Reorganisation Commission of 1956.

The ordeal that the Bengalis of Assam have been facing since Independence to prove their Indian citizenship, could have been avoided at the very dawn of Independence.

The tolerant, plural and democratic India that the Sylheti Bengalis opted for as their tryst with destiny, disowned them. The anti-Bengali xenophobia in Assam and the entire northeast is a case in point.

That the Bengali Muslims in Sylhet, and also in the entire East Bengal, committed a real historical blunder in choosing a misplaced identity was vindicated by the 1952 Bengali Language upsurge in Dhaka, a movement which culminated in the birth of sovereign Bangladesh in 1971.

The Referendum was indeed a lose-lose proposition. The Sylhetis were forever trapped in the cunning passages and contrived corridors of history.

(Joydeep Biswas is an associate professor of economics at Cachar College, Silchar, Assam. To see all his previous articles, click here)  

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