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73 yrs ago, Sylhet Referendum left a Hindu community homeless between Assam and Bangladesh

Representational image| File photo of people outside a NRC Seva Kendra in Guwahati | PTI

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The Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, which have been put on the back burner due to the coronavirus pandemic, will surely rear their heads again soon. But the controversy around citizenship has generated renewed interest in Partition historiography. One positive outcome has been the re-surfacing of the Sylhet Referendum in the public imagination of scholars and media analysts. Many scholars have argued that the politics surrounding the ‘foreigner’s problem’ in Assam and the subsequent demand for updating the NRC can be traced to the Sylhet Referendum of 1947 that led to the Partition of the state of Assam.

Today, 6 July, marks the 73rd anniversary of this momentous event that permanently changed the lives and destinies of at least two generations of Hindu Sylhetis, who were compelled to leave their homeland in now Bangladesh and migrate to undivided Assam as refugees. What became of these people post-Partition is not a story that has been acknowledged, leave alone told very well, in mainstream Partition histories. This is partly because the dominant Partition story in South Asia has been restricted to the Hindu-Muslim binary, while in Assam this dynamic was completely subverted to fuel an antagonism based on ethno-linguistic lines.

Riding on the idea of Assamese sub-nationalism, the political project of the ‘anti-foreigner movement’ has always been exclusionary and the decision to conduct an NRC exercise in Assam was a result of ethno-linguistic chauvinism that had begun with the ‘bongal kheda andolan (oust the Bengali movement)’ immediately after Partition. And yet, wider pan-Indian intellectual outrage against the exercise was registered only when it was perceived as an ‘anti-Muslim’ and communal ploy by the Narendra Modi government.

Also read: Assam’s NRC wound was re-opened and then conveniently forgotten by India

The stateless Sylheti Hindus

While communalisation of the citizenship issue is condemnable, what remains puzzling is how chauvinism based on ethno-linguistic cleavages was legitimised and even normalised as a manifestation of the pent-up frustrations of the Assamese community, whose cultural identity was perceived to be under threat by the Bengalis. One possible reason for this lopsided understanding could be that the perception surrounding this displaced community is flawed. In scholarly and popular imagination, Hindu Sylhetis are an essentially homogenous and privileged community, which has got ‘what it deserved’ after having subjugated the Assamese for decades during the colonial period. However, while every community has its visible privileges, that alone should not militate against the discrimination and the suffering of the bulk.

Sylhet, which now forms part of Bangladesh, was originally known as ‘Srihatta’, which literally means ‘prosperous’. During the colonial period, Sylhet was constantly tossed between Bengal and Assam by the Britishers due to administrative reasons. It was historically a part of undivided Bengal and a frontier region of British India until 1874, when it was joined with the newly acquired territory of Assam. The motivation for clubbing Sylhet with the newly carved out Chief Commissioner’s Province of Assam was primarily to increase revenue and make Assam an economically viable province.

The integration of Sylhet with Assam was resisted vociferously by the Hindu Bengalis of the region because they constantly demanded to be returned to an ‘advanced’ Bengal rather than be clubbed with Assam. The Assamese elite, who saw the English-educated Bengalis as the main competitors for employment and as being responsible for inflicting a cultural hegemony in the region, also opposed this move. In 1905, when Bengal was partitioned, Sylhet was made part of Eastern Bengal and Assam, but in 1912, it was again disintegrated from Bengal and made part of Assam.

Also read: Assam is my identity, Islam a personal belief. Don’t let India communalise an ethnic struggle

Targeted throughout history

When the Partition plan was drawn up and the question of how regions with mixed populations of Hindus and Muslims would be organised cropped up, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee and then Prime Minister of Assam, Gopinath Bordoloi,played an important role in persuading the colonial government to transfer Sylhet to East Pakistan. As a result of this, on 6 and 7 July 1947, a referendum was held in Sylhet in which 4,23,660 out of 5,46,815 eligible voters voted.

Several scholars like J.B. Bhattacharjee and Binayak Dutta have mentioned that there is sufficient controversy surrounding this Sylhet Referendum because 1,23,155 voters, most of whom were plantation workers and predominantly Hindu, did not vote owing to intimidating threats from the Muslim League. Following the referendum, most of Sylhet, barring the three and half thanas of Patharkandi, Badarpur, Ratabari and Karimganj, was transferred to East Pakistan. The disintegration of Sylhet from Assam came as what historian Sujit Chaudhuri has called ‘a god-sent opportunity’ for the Assamese elite, who had been craving for a linguistically homogenous province for themselves.

However, as Chaudhuri admits, the euphoria of the Assamese elite was short-lived because the Hindu Sylhetis, now refugees, started migrating to undivided Assam soon after Partition after being intimated and targeted by Muslims across the border. Despite the pressure from the Centre to accommodate refugees, the Bordoloi government refused to grant land settlement to not only refugees but to all non-Assamese communities who may have lived in Assam for several generations.

From 1948 onwards, the Hindu Bengalis were systematically targeted throughout Brahmaputra valley, and several lost their lives, livelihoods and property. The language riots, which started in the 1960s, and the Assam movement from 1979-1985, often led to state-supported pogroms in which Hindu Bengalis were killed, forced to flee from medical and engineering colleges and even compelled to leave their jobs for fear of their lives.

Many of them who possessed a certain amount of social and economic capital were compelled to flee to Kolkata during these riots where they continued to be unwelcome and dubbed as ‘probashi Bangalis’ (non-resident Bengalis). Interestingly, until the Nellie massacre of 1983, Bengali Muslims in the state of Assam formed an important ally of the Hindu Assamese and were instrumental in fuelling the demand for a homogenous Assamese province.

Also read: Assam’s old 1970s fury back with Citizenship Act. This time for a new, young generation

Hindu Sylhetis today

In trying to highlight the plight of the Sylheti Hindus in Assam, I don’t intend to downplay the persecution of Muslims, but rather highlight the more complex and under-analysed dimensions of the anti-foreigners’ movement in Assam. For most Hindu Sylhetis across the country, the idea of a homeland continues to remain elusive.

What is puzzling, however, is a total lack of acknowledgment of this deprivation by the larger intellectual community. The anniversary of the Sylhet Referendum is a good opportunity to reflect upon the politics of compassion and to invoke philosopher-theorist Judith Butler’s argument about how the construction of a ‘valid person’ is a function of the particular norms existent in a society at any point of time. In the larger scheme of things, the de-territorialised Sylheti Hindus will perhaps continue to be forgotten because politically they do not matter.

The author is an Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University. Views are personal.

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