In Language Movements of West Bengal and Assam, a Parallel in Governments' Responses

The movements for Nepali in West Bengal and Bengali in Assam have faced an uphill task, both finding their first success in 1961.

New Delhi: Anyone who de-boards at Assam’s Silchar railway station cannot miss the life-size memorial erected just outside the station in the memory of the town’s dead.

The dead – 11 of them – fell to the bullets of state police guarding the station on May 19, 1961, during a public protest that turned violent.

Tarani Debnath, Satyendra Deb, Sunil Sarkar, Sachindra Nath Pal, Sukumal Purkayastha, Kamala Bhattacharya, Kumudranjan Das, Kanailal Niyogi, Hitesh Biswas, Chandi Saran Sutradhar and Birendra Sutradhar were among several protesting the then Assam government’s decision to introduce Assamese as an official language for administration and medium of instruction in schools across the state.

Bengalis – mostly Hindus – forced to migrate to Assam’s greater Cachar district from the Surma Valley in East Pakistan post partition, were abruptly stripped of their home and hearth. It was their language that they wanted to hold on to in their new homes. Most of those who died that day in May 1961 at the Silchar railway station were born in Sylhet, a large part of which was truncated from India (the present Karimganj district of Assam was part of the Surma Valley, which was included in the Cachar district post independence).

Fifty-six years after that violent agitation, remembered as Bhasha Dibas every May 19 by those living in Assam’s three Bengali majority districts of Cachar, Hailakhandi and Karimganj – the latter two were sliced out of the greater Cachar district and together they comprise Assam’s Barak Valley named after the river Barak – the ongoing unrest in West Bengal’s Darjeeling hills reminds one of some of the stark resemblances between the two language movements – in terms of government response.

Also read: Here’s What the West Bengal Government Must do to Resolve the Darjeeling Hills Unrest

That both Nepali and Bengali became the official language of a part of Bengal and Assam respectively in the same year – 1961 – has probably a connection that one would care to think of now.

The then West Bengal chief minister Bidhan Chandra Roy relented to the Gorkha demand for Nepali as an official language of the state’s Darjeeling district probably keeping in mind the interest of the Bengali speakers of Assam’s Barak Valley who were also battling their state government for the same right at that time. The agitators in Barak Valley received considerable moral support from Bengal then.

Interestingly, in the post-partition majoritarian linguistic politics played by the two state governments, the same language became “oppressed” in one situation and an “oppressor” in another.

The similarities in the pattern of responses between the two state governments is quite uncanny. Or perhaps falling perfectly to the script of majoritarian chauvinism.

Banking on the post-independent map of the state, then Assam chief minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha tried asserting the linguistic jurisdiction of the mainstream Assamese language on the Bengali-speaking people of Barak Valley by bringing in an official language bill in June 1960. The B.C. Roy government tried doing the same with the majority Nepali speakers of Bengal’s Darjeeling district around the same time.

In March 1958, a bill was proposed in the Bengal assembly to make Bengali the official and administrative language of the entire state. Demanding autonomy from Bengal since the time of the British, it was a raw nerve of the Gorkhas that the government had touched.

Like the violent protest seen in the Barak Valley, the Darjeeling hills too erupted in a language movement, pushing the Bengal government to move an official language bill to accept Nepali as the official language of the three sub-divisions of Darjeeling. Chaliha too stepped back after the then home minister Lal Bahadur Shastri propounded the same language policy for Assam.

If you go by a recent lecture – by Ajoy Kumar Roy, general secretary of a Silchar-based civil society organisation, Sammilita Sanskritik Mancha – at a seminar in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, yet another interesting parallel springs up.

Roy said, “One of the biggest evidence of conspiracy of then Assam government, in case of manipulation of [the] population pattern, was the census report of 1951. The population of Assamese speaking people in Assam, according to 1931 census, was 19,92,846; but in [the] 1951 census showed it as 49,66,159 – a miracle increase. The then census commissioner of India, Mr. Bhagaiwala, described it as [a] biological miracle.”

The well-regarded book Politics of Autonomy: Indian Experiences (2005, edited by Ranabir Samaddar), speaks of a similar accusation made by the Nepalis against the then Bengal government.

The book notes:

In 1955, N.B. Gurung, an independent MLA from the district (Darjeeling) submitted in the Assembly, that the government of West Bengal and the Congress Party had adopted an unfriendly attitude towards the people of Darjeeling. He noted that a Congress Party in a supplementary memorandum to the States Reorganisation Committee, when it visited Darjeeling, stated that “Nepali speaking population is 20%, Bengali speaking 14.3%, Hindi-speaking 6.8%, Lepchas and Bhutias being 4%”; the total comes to 45.1%. It is not understood who constituted the rest of the population, viz., 54.9 %. I hope they are not Chinese.”

The book, a critical political inquiry into the conditions and dimensions of the Gorkha autonomy movement among other such movements, added, “He [N.B. Gurung] also quoted from the report of the States Reorganisation Committee that if an area within a state had more than 70% people belonging to one ethnic or linguistic group, then they would constitute a minority within the province and the language of that minority group should be the official language in that area.”

Finally, such a decision, adhering to the committee’s norms, was taken by both the Assam and West Bengal governments.

However, thereon too, attempts at tinkering that 1961 decision continued in both the states.

“The saga of oppression continued. It should be remembered that all higher educational institutions of Cachar was under Gauhati University as there was no university in Cachar at that time (it now has the centrally run Silchar University). On June 12, 1972, the academic council of the university took a decision that the medium of instruction in all colleges under it will be Assamese, and English would continue simultaneously for the next ten years. Again the situation in Cachar got heated. Agitation started… Assam government tried to suppress it by all means… two people died, ultimately the central government intervened again and a temporary solution was imposed. According to this, English would continue as the alternative medium of instruction in the colleges of Cachar district,” said Roy at the seminar, organised by Delhi-based socio-cultural organisation Jookto.

Also read: Understanding the Demand for Self-Rule in the Darjeeling Hills

He also spoke at length about the Assam government “oppressing the Bengali people of Assam, particularly Cachar” again in 1986 through a circular issued by the Board of Secondary Education, Assam (SEBA).

“All the high schools of Assam are run academically by SEBA. On February 28, 1986, this SEBA issued a circular regarding the educational curriculum. This circular is known as the notorious SEBA circular. It said that non-Assamese students from class V onwards would have to learn Assamese as [a] third language in place of Hindi till class VIII and from class VIII onwards Assamese would be a mandatory subject. Though it appears that there is not much of contention, it should be remembered that it is said in the circular that Assamese students would learn Hindi as their third language, which means the number of learnable languages for Assamese students would be two whereas for Bengali students it would be three.”

Roy recalled that “agitation started, students jumped into it…violence erupted” where a student died, ultimately leading SEBA to withdraw the circular.

Though the Nepali speakers had to wait 31 years for the parliament to recognise the language as one of the official regional languages of India (in August 1991) to be able to include Nepali in schools, the subsequent Bengal governments seemed to have continued trying to impose the majority language on them in a fashion quite similar to that of Assam.

“Nepali may be the second official language of Bengal but the Bengali hegemony continues. For instance, our people still can’t write the state public service commission exams in Nepali though it can be done in Bengali. It is the reason why most of our people don’t get qualified for state service jobs. They get deprived of government jobs. It is the reason that people have to deal with public servants in the Gorkha Territorial Administration (GTA) area who can’t speak the local language,” said Swaraj Thapa of Gorkha Janamukti Manch, the party spearheading the ongoing protest in Darjeeling.

He stated, “Imposition of Bengali is tried out by the government surreptitiously. Knowing well that people can’t speak Bengali, the chief minister will still address the public in Darjeeling in Bengali. The first trigger of the present unrest was the public outrage at posters written in Bengali that announced the state government’s achievements. When the local public objected to it, the administration replaced them with posters in Bengali by using the Roman script. It confirmed the intentions of the majoritarian state government, the message it tried to convey, that it has a problem accepting Nepali as a language of the state.”

What the present Bengal government did on the night of May 15 was similar to what the Prafulla Kumar Mahanta government in Assam tried doing to the people of Barak Valley in 1986.

State education minister Partha Chatterjee announced in Kolkata, “From now on, it will be compulsory for students to learn Bengali in schools. English medium schools will have to make Bengali an optional subject from class I so that the students can study it either as a second or third language.”

Some political observers in the state have also looked at the state government’s action as a “reaction” to, or “precaution” against, the BJP’s growing attempt at “imposing” Hindi on non-speakers across the country by recognising it as a national language (India doesn’t have one).

Prior to Bengal, similar decisions were taken by the Kerala and Karnataka governments. (The Assam government, instead, announced making Sanskrit compulsory in schools, which was met with huge protest, leading the government to put it in cold storage for now).

Thapa agreed but added, “The composition of people in Bengal is not as homogenous as in Kerala. I can understand the fear of Hindi among the non-Hindi speakers but it could have been done by clearing the air at the same press conference by the education minister. He could have said it would not be applicable in the GTA. Nothing would have happened. No lives would have been lost. But it was not.”

Though chief minister Mamata Banerjee did say it later, years of distrust of the Gorkhas towards the Bengal government – looked at more as Bengali government – turned into a fresh bout of violent protest.

Ranabir Samaddar, distinguished chair in Migration and Forced Studies at the Calcutta Research Group, underlined, “More than majoritarian politics [played by the government] here, the crucial issue is the politics of autonomy, its contentious nature and the relation with the language rights of the people.” Herein, Samaddar tried to highlight the arterial link of a public movement for autonomy with language rights.

How the two movements differ

It is in the question of autonomy that the similarities between the two language movements of Darjeeling and Barak differ. Unlike the people of Darjeeling sticking to their longstanding demand for autonomy, the people of Barak Valley harbour no such sentiments. However, Roy did speak of yet another longstanding “struggle”.

“For years, Sanmilita Sanskritik Mancha and Barak Upatyaka Banga Sahitya O Sanskriti Sammelan have been following up the legacy of the 1961 movement. Though we have put up boards stating the railway station as Bhasha Shahid Station, it is not officially accepted yet. So we have been urging both the state and the central governments to formally change the name. The earlier Tarun Gogoi government and the UPA at the Centre promised to do so, still it didn’t happen,” he said.

If the situation in Darjeeling is yet to see a sign of progress and peace, Roy hinted at “some positive developments” in their “struggle” lately.

“Recently, the Silchar district commissioner had a meeting with us on the issue. Let’s see. We told him that we want it named in the interest of all the people living in Barak Valley,” Roy told this correspondent from Silchar. He said, “Both the organisations speak for development of all the languages of this region.”

Interestingly, if Bengali speakers of the Barak Valley have been assertive about their linguistic rights, yet another group of people in Assam – albeit smaller and scattered but vital in this context since they ruled Cachar before if fell to the British – are struggling to get wider recognition for their language – the Dimasa Kacharis.

What has made it an uphill task, like many northeastern tribal languages, is that the Dimasa language doesn’t have a script of its own.

Though many votaries of Bengali language in Barak Valley highlight that Bengali was the court language of the Dimasa kings in Cachar to argue and establish the historical claim of Bengali as a dominant language of the region (Roy did it too at the Nehru Memorial), Uttam Bathari, deputy director (regional) at the North Eastern Regional Centre of the Indian Centre for Historical Research – widely considered as knowledgeable on Dimasa history – put it in historical context.

“In the long period of monarchial tradition, use of language in Dimasa kingdom shifted from Sanskrit to Assamese to Bengali in the 18th century. However, these languages remained limited to the transactions of the royal court,” Bathari said.

“Bengali,” he added, “gained predominance in Dimasa royal court for political reasons. By then the monarchy lost the resourceful territories in the Brahmaputra Valley and needed to augment its revenue. Therefore, the monarchy sought expansion of land settlement and migration from Bengal was encouraged. This was done even by the British who wanted the valley to serve as a rice bowl to feed men in uniform to secure their designs in the eastern front.”

“However, this patronage of Bengali didn’t go down well with the Dimasa masses. Schism developed in the society and it proved to be fatal on the monarchy and the people themselves.”

In the History of Upper Assam, Upper Burmah and North-Eastern Frontier (1914), L. W. Shakespeare writes about Dimasa Kacharis fleeing their capital Dimapur (presently in Nagaland) after facing defeat at the hands of the Ahoms and “retiring to Maibong and Cachar.” The Kacharis became “the dominant power in Cachar plains (Surma Valley)” after “driving back the original occupants, the Trippera people (of Tripura).”

It also talks about Ahom king Rudra Singha defeating Kachari king Tamrodhoj and bringing the kingdom set up in Maibang and Cachar again under the Ahom rule. Also about “the whole of Cachar” coming under Raja Manjit from Manipur (It probably explains the presence of a small section of Manipuris in the Barak Valley even today) before the Burmese snatched it from him. The region came to the British from the Burmese who descended on Cachar from Dhaka.

Today, though many Dimasas living in Cachar and Dima Hasao district (earlier North Cachar Hills) still write their language using the Bengali script, and those in Karbi Anglong and Nagaon districts use the Assamese script, there is some amount of resistance to it.

Bathari stated, “The script controversy began in the early 1970s when the first Dimasa primer was prepared in Bengali after much debate and discussion. The younger generation was opposed to it and finally the Roman script was adopted in 1999.”