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Linguistic Nationalism Versus Religious Nationalism

Partition Trauma and the Northeast

The recent elections in Assam which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power is the latest turn in a story of Assamese linguistic nationalism (now challenged by new political parties) whose origins go back before the Partition of India. The beginnings of both linguistic and religious nationalism in the state, and in undivided India as a whole, can arguably be traced to the stirrings that came with the first Partition of Bengal into East Bengal and West Bengal by the British in 1905. Muslim religious nationalism originated from that, in 1906, with the formation of the Muslim League in Dhaka. The iconic image of Bharat Mata was also painted then, albeit in a rather different avatar, and Vande Mataram became a popular rallying cry. Assam was merged with East Bengal by the British rulers as part of their cartographic negotiations then. This sharpened an already existing three-way division between communities on the basis of language and religion that has persisted since.

In this book excerpt from The Northeast Question: Conflicts and frontiers, author Pradip Phanjoubam traces part of the clash between linguistic and religious nationalisms in the state, with a focus on the Bengali-speaking district of Sylhet in Assam which was at its core.


The Northeast Question

Book Cover, The Northeast Question, Routledge, 2016. (With the author’s permission).

Bengal was partitioned on 16 October 1905, and with it, Assam’s status as a separate province came to an end, as it was as per the Curzon Plan, which in a nutshell was ‘to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule,’[34] and Assam was merged with Eastern Bengal. The partition of Bengal was met with unprecedented opposition from Hindu Bengalis, and by contrast, as expected, a muted response from the Muslims. The explanation for this is that all positions of power in the colonial establishment had come to be monopolised by the caste Hindus in Bengal, sowing the seeds of communal distrust. Under the circumstance, ‘the prospect of Muslims outnumbering the Bengali Hindus in the new province had its appeal to the former’.[35]

In Assam too, the Bengalis reacted vehemently to the partition of Bengal, but the Assamese initially stayed aloof. Some Assamese leaders such as Manik Chandra Borua and Jagganath Borua even went ahead and supported the Curzon Plan,[36] much to the annoyance of the Bengalis. The protest, hence, remained confined to Bengali pockets in urban areas of the province, but soon, the Assamese middle class began taking a stand against the reorganisation of Assam, although, again, for a totally different reason than that which led the Bengalis to protest. The Assamese saw this would further marginalise them demographically. The apprehension was also of a threat to Assamese identity and language. The feeling was that the inclusion of Sylhet in Assam was a bad enough threat but the amalgamation of Assam with East Bengal sounded the death knell of Assamese identity.

The British finally relented against the incessant agitation in Bengal against the Curzon Plan, and on 12 December 1911, the partition of Bengal was annulled by a royal declaration. ‘Assam, inclusive of Sylhet, was also formally reverted to its old status as a Chief Commissioner’s province with effect from 1 April 1912’.[37] Bengal received a respite, but not Assam, where the seed of Bengali-Assamese antagonism – the Sylhet question – still remained unresolved.

The Sylheti Bengalis remained firmly united on the question of re-drawing the provincial boundaries on a linguistic basis. One of its members in the Assam Legislative Council, B. Chaudhury moved therefore a resolution in July 1924 for the transfer of Sylhet to Bengal… Difficulty arose, however, from the side of Bengali-speaking Cachar which was not keen on the vivisection of the province.[38] If Sylhet were to be transferred, the Bengalis of Cachar did not see any point in remaining in Assam, therefore the original resolution had to be modified to include Cachar. Of the three Cachar members in the Council, two decided to support the modified resolution, but the third still opposed it. The Council voted 22 to 28 to pass the amended resolution.[39]

Curiously, the Assamese did not oppose the motion, as long as Assam’s status as a separate province remained unchanged, despite the loss of territory. In fact, one Assamese member, Nilmoni Phukan, voted for the resolution.[40]

The issue, however, remained complex and unresolved. There was no clear-cut consensus on the question of the territory of Cachar. There was no certainty on the future official status of Assam in the event of the campaign to severe the Bengali provinces becoming a reality:

A special session of the Council in January 1926 voted, 26 to 12, to recommend only Sylhet’s transfer to Bengal. A second resolution recommended that in no case should Assam lose its major province status … All Sylhet members, except two Muslims, and all Indian members from the Brahmaputra Valley, except Saadulla and two other Muslim members, voted for the motion. All the three Cachar members – two Hindus and one Muslim – voted against. They were opposed to Sylhet’s transfer to Bengal, unless Cachar also was transferred. Another motion recommending also the transfer of Cachar was, however, defeated.[41]

Likewise, ‘In the Surma Valley Political Conference held on 1 July 1928, a resolution recommending the inclusion of both Sylhet and Cachar into Bengal was defeated by an overwhelming majority. The Conference voted for the transfer of Sylhet alone’.[42]

It is clear then, on the question of the transfer of Sylhet back to Bengal in the early twentieth century, there emerged a consensus among both the Bengali and Assamese communities in Assam in the Surma as well as the Brahmaputra valleys. Both communities were for the proposal, but for entirely different reasons. However, with the increasing polarisation of politics on communal lines in the rest of India at the time, and the widening visions of the future of lndia held by the Hindus and Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the situation in Assam changed. But the polarisation was not so straightforward as on the larger Indian canvas.

Muslim leaders in Assam, such as Syed Muhammad Saadulla, the first chief minister (then called prime minister) of Assam, began opposing the transfer of Sylhet to Bengal on the plea that the continued presence of the Muslim majority district in Assam would put the political future of the Muslims of the province in better stead. With the ascendency of this outlook, Assam’s already dangerous ethnic and communal friction was set to see yet another chapter. The shape of politics that spun off from this development would ultimately lead to a campaign at the time of Partition, by Saadulla, who had joined the Muslim League by then, and his supporters, for Assam to be awarded to Pakistan. This was opposed tooth and nail by the Assamese, rallying under the leadership of Gopinath Bardoloi of the Congress, who was Saadulla’s able match in the high drama of this political theatre during Partition, and ultimately, Assam stayed with India.

‘Bardoloi’s conflict with Saadulla did not stem from a personal rift. It reflected a broader division: the ideological battleground between Congress and the Muslim League and the politics of the times. The British saw Saadulla as the ideal foil for Bardoloi and Congress’.[43] After Indian independence, Saadulla, though he lost in his campaign, and thereafter, retired from active politics, stayed on in India and did not migrate to East Pakistan.

Political developments in Assam in the years leading to Indian independence and Partition were intense as much as they were peculiar. They cannot certainly be depicted with justice using the same brush strokes Indian history of the time is portrayed, as has often been the tendency. At the time the boundary commission under Cyril Radcliffe was set up to determine the dividing line between the soon-to-be-independent India and Pakistan, Sylhet district was marginally Muslim majority, and therefore, under the terms of Radcliffe’s commission, it would have had to go to Pakistan. But if Sylhet were to be treated as part of Assam, then, in the combined province of Assam, Hindus would be majority; therefore, in awarding Assam to India by the same principle followed by the boundary commission, Sylhet would have remained with India. But memories of a century of bitter rivalry, and the Assamese apprehension of losing Assam and their Assamese identity to a hegemonic Bengali population remained unchanged, and they continued to vehemently oppose the idea of Sylhet as part of Assam, at the civil as well as at the political levels.

The cynicism of the time is reflected in interviews of refugees from the Partition period in Assam and Bangladesh by Anindita Dasgupta. She notes: ‘Another significant insight thrown up by my fieldwork was the implicit recognition that the separation of Sylhet from Assam in 1947 was caused not so much by a rivalry between Hindus and Muslims, but between the speakers of two major languages in colonial Assam, the Bengalis and the Assamese’.[44] Curiously, the Sylheti Bengali’s disdain for the Assamese and Assam remained even after the Partition, and Sylhet was awarded to Pakistan. The Sylheti ‘bhodrolok’[45] who opted to migrate to Assam refused to see themselves as refugees.

The circumstance was tragic, but not unforeseen. For ‘while the Bengalees grew from an insecure immigrant group into a formidable political force, the Assamese grew from a disintegrated and frightened indigenous population into an incipient nationality with economic and political ambitions. The Assamese had to fight for their recognition as a full-fledged nationality’, writes Amalendu Guha.[46] The writer quotes the Delimitation Committee of 1936, ‘the line of division in Assam politics is primarily not between Hindu and Muhammedan or on caste lines, but between the inhabitants of Assam Valley and those of the Surma Valley’.[47] The Brahmaputra valley is the traditional home ground of the Assamese while the Surma valley (Barak valley) is predominantly Bengali.

Census figures reveal quite clearly this embedded linguistic tension in Assam of the time. By 1901, 48 per cent of the population of Assam spoke Bengali and only 22 per cent spoke Assamese.[48] Under the circumstances, the “Valley jealousy” which was formerly limited to job-seeking middle classes alone, was slowly being percolated and transformed into a cult of aggressive and defensive linguistic nationalism’.[49] Quite expectedly, in the 1930s, ‘the demand for containment of further influx of East Bengal Muslim immigrants into Goalpara, and the rest of the Brahmaputra Valley, was increasingly raised as a political issue. If the immigration continued unrestrained, would not the Assamese be turned into a linguistic minority in their own homeland – the Brahmaputra Valley? This was the question which plagued the minds of not only its urban middle classes, but also the peasant masses’.[50]

Against the rising tides and changing colours on the larger canvas of the Indian freedom struggle, these rivalries in Assam too were destined to acquire new hues. The Muslim question soon came to complicate the equation between the Assamese and the Bengali. The Sylheti bhodroloks were a different class altogether, but an estimated 85 per cent of the later economic immigrants, mostly of land-hungry peasants from over-populated East Bengal to land-abundant plains of Assam, were Muslims. ‘All that they wanted was land. From their riverine base, they further pressed themselves forward in all directions in search of more of living space in the areas held by the autochthones. It was then that an open clash of interests began to take place’.[51]

[Excerpted with permission from “Linguistic nationalism versus religious nationalism: Partition trauma and the Northeast”, The Northeast Question: Conflicts and frontiers by Pradip Phanjoubam, published by Routledge, 2016].

  1. Sir A. Frazer’s note of 6th Dec, 1904 (as quoted in Amalendu Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj).
  2. Ibid., Amalendu Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj.
  3. Sajal Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict: Nationality Question in North-East India (Manohar, 1990).
  4. Ibid., Amalendu Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj.
  5. Ibid., p.166.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War & Peace from India’s Northeast (Penguin, 2003), p. 49.
  11. Anindita Dasgupta, Denial and Resistance, p. 344.
  12. Bhodrolok, or bhadralok, is the word for the educated, affluent Bengali middle-class.
  13. Sajal Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict, p.79.
  14. Amalendu Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj, p.204
  15. A Gazetteer of Bengal and Northeast India (As quoted in Anindita Dasgupta, Denial and Resistance, p.350).
  16. Ibid., p. 205.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., p. 206.
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Phanjoubam, Pradip (Book Excerpt, 2021). “Linguistic nationalism versus religious nationalism: Partition Trauma and the Northeast.” Partition Studies Quarterly, Issue 04, [Link]

  1. Partition Studies Quarterly has published this book excerpt with permission from Pradip Phanjoubam, author of ‘The Northeast Question: Conflicts and frontiers’ published by Routledge, 2016.
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