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The Question of Sylhet and The Assamese-Bengali Divide

By Issue 05 February 15, 2022 No Comments

This chapter focuses on the Referendum in the Bengali-speaking district of Sylhet and how the Assamese-Bengali animosity in post-Partition Assam was considerably aggravated owing to it. An attempt is made to show how the question of status of the Assamese language was closely linked with the question of Sylhet, which tilted the scales against an Assamese linguistic majority in the province. The chapter traces the history of Sylhet’s incorporation into Assam and how this had all along been resisted by the Assamese, who wished to see a homogenous Assamese homeland.

It analyses how Bengali perceptions about the Assamese ‘betrayal’ of Sylhet are not based on historical facts and that such assumptions have flourished and found their way into scholarly works; that though the Assamese did want Sylhet to be separated and they had strong reasons for it yet the Assamese middle-class leadership represented by the Assam Congress was neither in a position to influence nor did it have any direct hand in influencing the outcome of the Referendum in favour of Pakistan. The chapter also takes up for discussion the language issue and concludes on a positive note by referring to the dissipation of Assamese-Bengali rivalry and the emergence of greater standing and cooperation between the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys.



Book Cover, Burden of History, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Rivalry of the Valleys

Partition politics in Assam came to be dominated in the months immediately preceding Independence by the question of Sylhet. The question of the separation of the district of Sylhet from Assam through the Referendum of 1947 has always been a contentious issue for both the Assamese and the Bengali Hindu population of the state. While the latter has been assiduously maintaining that but for Assamese eagerness to see the district go to Pakistan, Sylhet would have remained in post-Partition India, the former welcomed the results of the Referendum because they never accepted the overwhelmingly Bengali-speaking district of Sylhet, which was incorporated in Assam in 1874, as a part of their province. In order to understand the issue of Sylhet and its ramifications in post-Partition Assam politics, it would perhaps be necessary to go back a bit in history when boundaries were drawn and redrawn to accommodate the administrative needs of colonial rule. Only then would it be possible for one to understand why the question of Sylhet still continues to be a major point of contention between the Bengali Hindus of Assam and the Assamese. Assamese political opinion had always favoured the separation of the district of Sylhet from Assam. There was also substantial political opinion in Sylhet itself favouring its reunion with Bengal. Apart from the all-important fact that the Assamese middle-class elite believed that the separation of the populous Bengali-speaking district from Assam would pave the way for a more or less homogenous Assamese homeland, economic considerations too played a role in this, primarily because Sylhet was a revenue deficit district.[1] From 1826, when Assam came under British rule, the province was tagged with Bengal as an administrative adjunct. It was in 1874 that the province was placed under a chief commissioner and three districts of Bengal, namely Sylhet, Goalpara, and Cachar, were added to it. In 1905 when Bengal was partitioned by Lord Curzon, Chief Commissioner’s province of Assam was joined with a part Eastern Bengal and it was named Eastern Bengal and Assam, with its capital at Dhaka. It was only in 1912 that Assam became a separate province together with Sylhet,[2] Goalpara, and Cachar. While the incorporation of Cachar and Goalpara[3] was viewed as normal, these areas of pre-British kingdoms, the addition of Sylhet was always seen as an anachronism not only by the Assamese middle class but also by several British administrators.[4]

Addressing an all-party meeting in October 1935, Mohammed Tayyebulla declared: ‘Sylhet is a permanently deficit district of Assam. The average deficit from the year 1930-31 up to 1934-35 stood at 18.5 lakhs. Poor Assam is bled white.’ He was of the view that the district was ‘alien’ to the people of Assam and it was needless to keep it in Assam.[5] Historians writing on the region have held contrary positions regarding this contentious history. Amalendu Guha says that Sylhet ‘historically, as well as ethnically, was an integral part of Bengal’.[6] But a recent work on the subject insists that despite this, Bengal was indifferent to the fate of the Sylhetis during the Referendum and argues that the transfer of Sylhet to Assam in the formative years of national spatial imagination removed Sylhet from the territorial imagination Bengal’.[7]

The separation of Sylhet from Assam has occupied a central position in the discourse of Assamese-Bengali relations in Assam right from the early decades of the twentieth century. There was a consistent demand in Sylhet that the district should be reunited with Bengal because Assam was a ‘backward’ province. In a letter dated 11 August 1925, the officiating chief secretary to the government of Assam, in reply to the Government of India’s directive to find out the opinion of the people of the Sylhet regarding reunion with Bengal, writes:

The subject has been extensively discussed in the press and on the platform, and unquestionably the bulk of the educated Hindu opinion in the Sylhet district favoured re-union with Bengal….The desire for unification is based on sentiment. The Bengali Hindu of Sylhet feels that he is looked down upon by his brothers in Bengal owing to his being included in a province inhabited by semi-civilised tribes and by the Assamese whom he considers to belong to a lower standard of civilisation than he does, and he feels keenly that he is not appreciated if indeed he is not actively disliked by the Assamese who in his estimation is inferior. The leading Hindus of the Assam valley if they do not actively dislike the Hindus of Sylhet at least disown any kinship with them and regard them with feelings of jealousy….The fact that the administration of Sylhet is carried on at a loss gives them an additional reason for desiring that the district of Sylhet should go to Bengal. But it was undoubtedly these feelings of jealousy that led the Assam Valley members of the Legislative Council to support the resolution adopted in July 1924.[8]

Referring to the debate in the legislative council in January 1925 about the status of the Jaintia Parganas, the official says that they are indeed temporarily settled, that they were under the Jainta Rajas, and that ‘there is considerable feeling in these Parganas against transfer to Bengal’. About Cachar, the memo states that ‘while there may be something to be said for the transfer to Sylhet, the transfer of Cachar is hardly a practical proposition…Cachar has always been intimately associated with Assam, to which it gave a Kachari dynasty and in almost every district of which small bodies of its original inhabitants are to be found to this day’. Referring to the argument that the region is inhabited predominantly by Bengali settlers, the memo adds:

The Bengalis now inhabiting the district of Cachar, while forming the majority of the population are mere settlers there and can hardly claim they have annexed the district and have right to demand its transfer to Bengal. Arguments based solely on numerical strength and linguistic affinity, if admitted, would at the present rate at which immigration from Mymensingh into several districts of the Assam valley is going on, entitle Bengali settlers in these districts after a few years to assert that they were in the majority and that therefore the districts in which they had settled should go to Bengal.[9]

The memo refers to the legislative assembly resolution on the transfer of Sylhet and says that Cachar was added ‘as an afterthought’. The memo also states:

The resolution recommending the transfer of Sylhet Cachar (meaning South Cachar) was carried with the aid of votes of the members representing the Assam Valley constituencies. The case of Cachar was really not discussed, and if the Assamese members considered the matter at all, they were so anxious to get rid of Sylhet and the Sylhetis that they were prepared to let Cachar go as well if that was the only way of getting rid of Sylhet. Since then there has been a pronounced change of feeling and several of the members who supported the resolution now admit that they made a mistake about Cachar. The Governor in Council does think it necessary to discuss the case of Cachar further.

The letter was written to ‘comply with the instructions of the Government of India and to find out the real wishes of the people concerned’.

In reply to the above letter, H. Tonkinson, joint secretary to the Government of India, stated that unlike the status of Sylhet, Cachar was an integral part of the province of Assam and the Government of India did not favour its inclusion in Bengal. The joint secretary observed in the following manner:

In the first place the Govt. of India consider that the question of the transfer of the district of Cachar from Assam to Bengal need not continue to complicate the main issue of whether the district should be transferred or not. They observe that the original motion of the Assam Council merely recommended the transfer of Sylhet, and that at a later stage an amendment was moved on Cachar. In the Bengal Council an amendment urging the transfer of Cachar was lost.[10] The Govt. of India are of the opinion that Cachar is an essentially Assam district and, that moreover, its transfer to Bengal would mean the isolation of the Lushai Hills district.[11]

In the same letter the Government of India stated that the Jaintia Parganas, then a part of the Sylhet district, historically belonged to Assam.[12] From this, it appears that the stand taken by the Assam Congress regarding Cachar was actually endorsed by the Government of India’s position on the matter concerned. Thus, the colonial administration too favoured the transfer of Sylhet from Assam, while accepting that Cachar was an integral part of Assam.[13] This was much before any idea of the country’s division on religious lines had taken shape.

Ever since the annulment of the partition of Bengal in 1912 and the amalgamation of the Surma Valley, made up of the district of Sylhet and the plains of Cachar, with the newly constituted Commissioner’s province of Assam, civil society moves were afoot among the inhabitants of Sylhet and the Surma Valley for its reunion with Bengal. Initially, the Muslim intelligentsia supported the separation of Sylhet from ‘backward’ Assam. Representations were made to the government by the Sylhet-Bengal Reunion League, which was made up of leading Muslims and Hindus of the Surma Valley.[14] The Bengal Legislative Council passed a resolution, moved by A.K. Chanda, in 1918 asking for the transfer of Sylhet to Bengal.[15]

However, in the course of time a large segment of the Muslim leadership started opposing the separation of the region from Assam, and linguistic and cultural considerations for uniting with Bengal were ‘gradually’ subsumed by religious factors. This, as has been pointed out by some scholars, became even more apparent after the chief commissioner initiated the policy of proportional representation of different communities in government jobs on the basis of population. This policy was instrumental to a certain extent in pushing the question of linguistic and cultural solidarity of the Sylheti Hindus and Muslims to the backseat and bringing to the fore the argument that Muslims as a whole had more to gain by Sylhet being with Assam rather than uniting with Bengal.[16] This change in the Muslim position was also because of the pressure being mounted by Brahmaputra Valley Muslim leaders such as Syed Muhammad Saadulla, who believed that the transfer of Sylhet would endanger the interests of the Muslims of the state as a whole. Polarization along religious lines started to gain pace by the late 1920s, and many see this as a direct fallout of the Khilafat movement when Muslim religious leaders took a prominent and often deciding role. Despite all this, Muslim public opinion was still quite divided, as may be seen in the voting pattern, on the resolution moved by Brojendra Narayan Choudhury in 1924 in the provincial legislative council. While the Hindu members of both the Brahmaputra and Surma Valleys voted for the transfer, five Muslim members voted against and six voted for the motion, while all the European members opposed the transfer.[17] Another resolution for Sylhet’s transfer was moved in the Assam Legislative Council by Sadananda Dowerah in 1926. This process of the polarization of opinion on religious lines continued throughout the 1930s.

It was the Lahore Resolution of the AIML that put a final seal to the Hindu-Muslim divide in the Surma Valley over the question of re-union or otherwise with Bengal. Muslims now supported Sylhet’s retention in Assam and Hindus still insisted on reunion with Bengal.[18] But the prospect of Partition once again changed the equation, with the Hindus now wanting to stay in Assam (India) and the Muslims opting for Surma Valley as a part of Pakistan. The Muslim leadership had initially thought that Sylhet’s Muslim population was crucial to make Assam a part of the proposed Pakistan as a Muslim-majority province. But the dropping of the Cabinet Mission proposals on grouping brought forth the idea of a referendum in Sylhet. Thus, while Assamese Hindu opinion on Sylhet’s transfer was consistent right from the beginning, it was the Hindus and the Muslims of Sylhet and the Surma Valley who kept changing their positions in line with political developments.

Notes & References
  1. Sylhet was always a revenue-deficit district and this was one of the reasons why despite its eagerness to join Bengal, the latter was not willing. When the question of Sylhet being separated from Assam and joined to Bengal arose, the government of Bengal in its telegram dated 28 August 1925, raised the question of the financial effect of such a transfer. It claimed a contribution from the government of Assam as a set-off against the deficit of the Sylhet district. In reply to this demand, the joint secretary of the government of India (Home) wrote: ‘The Government of India are of the opinion that although Assam will be better off financially after the transfer of the district of Sylhet, after that transfer the district will form part of the Bengal Presidency and there will be no reason why the Government of Assam should pay any contribution on account of it to the Government of Bengal.’ (Letter from the Joint Secretary of India, Home Division, to Chief Secretary of the Government of Assam, AICC Papers, p. 4, 1938, NNML, New Delhi.)
  2. At the time of its incorporation into Assam, Sylhet had a population of approximately 1.72 lakhs. The total population of Assam minus Sylhet at the time was some 2.5 lakhs. At the time of Partition, out of the fourteen districts and frontier tracts of Assam, the Sylhet district alone had about 31 percent of the total population of Assam and it had a Muslim majority of about 61 percent. Assam’s population at the time of Partition included 35 lakh Hindus, 34 lakh Muslims, 7 lakh Scheduled Castes, and 26 lakh tribes.
  3. For a detailed description on Goalpara’s status, refer to Sangamitra Misra, Becoming a Borderland: The Politics of Space and Identity in Colonial Northeastern India (New Delhi: Routledge, 2011). Between 1765 and 1822, following the imposition of the East India Company’s rule in Bengal, the permanently settled parts of Goalpara were included within the district of Rangpur. In 1822, Goalpara was formed into a separate district of northeast Rangpur, also in Bengal. In 1826, the year of the beginning of the formal colonial intervention in Assam, northeast Rangpur was separated from Bengal and included within the Assam Valley Division. In 1867, northeast Rangpur became part of the newly formed Chief Commissionership of Cooch Behar. The following year it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Commissioner of Assam. In 1874, Goalpara was included as a district under the new province of Assam but was transferred to Bengal after the Partition of 1905. In 1912, Goalpara was once again included within the jurisdiction of Assam. (Misra, Becoming a Borderland, p. 16fn1).
  4. Nirode Kumar Barooah, Gopinath Bardoloi: ‘The Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre (Guwahati: Bhabani Print and Publications, 2010), p. 36.
  5. A.C. Bhuyan and S. De 9eds), Political History of Assam 1920-1939, vol. II (Guwahati: Government of Assam, 1978), p. 294, quoted by Barooah, ‘The Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre, p. 105.
  6. Amalendu Guha, Planter Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam 1826-1947, (New Delhi: ICHR, 1977), p. 27.
  7. Saptarshi Deb, ‘The Construction of the Sylheti Identity in Assam’, thesis submitted to the University of Hyderabad, 2015, p. 109. Deb goes on to add that Sylhet’s extreme north-eastern location and by virtue of its being placed with ‘backward’ Assam, amidst “wild aboriginal races”, coupled with its peculiar speech raised doubts about its “Bengaliness”’.
  8. Letter from the officiating Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam, no. 1573-Pol-3860-AP, dated Shillong, 11 August 1925, to the Government of India, AICC Papers, p. 4.
  9. Letter from the officiating Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam, no 1573-Pol-3860-AP, dated Shillong 11 August 1925, to the Government of India, AICC Papers, p. 4.
  10. It was such moves that accentuated Assamese fears of a ‘Greater Bengal’.
  11. Letter from the Joint Secretary to the Government of India, Home Department, no. 81-25-Public, dated Simla, 24 October 1925, to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam, The Assam Gazette, 20 January 1926, part VI, AICC Papers.
  12. Letter from the Joint Secretary to the Government of India, Home Department, no. 81-25-Public, dated Simla, 24 October 1925, to the Chief Secretary to the Government of Assam, The Assam Gazette, 20 January 1926, part VI, AICC Papers.
  13. The Sylhet issue was debated in the Indian Legislative Assembly in January 1926 when a member moved a resolution for the transfer of Sylhet and Cachar to the Bengal Presidency because ‘a great wrong had been done to these districts’ by joining them to Assam. No decision was, however, taken on this resolution. But the Assam council debated the transfer issue once again in its special session of January 1926 when a member, Sadananda Dowersh, moved a resolution for the transfer of Sylhet to Bengal. The Assamese member argued that such a transfer would finally put an end to the rivalry between the two valleys. Interestingly, this motion was opposed by a Sylheti Bengali member from Sylhet who insisted that the district had made rapid strides after its amalgamation to Assam and that ‘bar, benches and subordinate services, which were once dominated by the Bengalees, were now manned by the Sylhetis. For details, refer to Bhuyan et al., Political History of Assam, vol. II, pp. 287-8.
  14. In 1917, several deputations from the Surma Valley made up pf both Hindus and Muslims demanded the transfer of Sylhet to Bengal. Brahmaputra Valley Muslims opposed the transfer, Saadulla, while opposing the transfer, suggested that in case it was given affect to, then the entire Brahmaputra Valley be transferred to Bengal and adequate measures be incorporated for the ‘preservation of Assamese nationality, culture and language’. Refer to M. Kar, Muslims in Assam Politics (New Delhi: Omsons Publications, 1990), p. 114.
  15. Kar, Muslims in Assam Politics, pp. 113-14.
  16. Deb, The Construction of the Sylheti Identity, p. 70.
  17. The motion was carried out by twenty-two votes against eighteen. Assamese leaders such as Rohini Kanta Hati Baruah supported the transfer on the ground that the Sylhetis were never a part of the Assamese nationality. Taraprasad Chaliha had reservations about the transfer because he felt that this could affect the status of the Governor’s Province but eventually gave in to what he believed to be the overwhelming sentiment in the Surma Valley, which favoured a reunion with Bengal but opposed the transfer of Cachar. Refer to Kar, Muslims in Assam Politics, pp. 116-22.
  18. Saadulla made it clear that the demand for transfer of Sylhet was primarily a demand of the educated Hindus of the Surma Valley.
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Misra, Udayon (Book Excerpt, 2022). “The Question of Sylhet and the Assamese-Bengali Divide.” Partition Studies Quarterly, Issue 05: [Link] 

Partition Studies Quarterly has published this book excerpt with permission from Udayon Misra, author of ‘Burden of History: Assam and the Partition-Unresolved Issues’ published by Oxford University Press, 2017.

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