When the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha last year December, there were protests in all parts of the country including the Northeast. Assam, with its long history of tussles over the question of citizenship, was not an exception.

But those uninitiated with the politics of the state certainly found it strange that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) evoked contrasting responses in the two major geographical regions constituting Assam – the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valley.

While there were vociferous protests in the Brahmaputra valley, the people of Barak welcomed the CAA with a jubilant sense of enthusiasm. To make sense of this optimism, it is necessary to revisit and look deeper into the history of a people whose belongingness in the region has remained contested for long.

One of the entry points for beginning to understand the politics of these people is provided by the “Matri Bhasha Andolan” (Mother Tongue Movement), during which eleven people were martyred in the struggle to secure Bengali as the official language in the Barak Valley districts. Fifty-nine years have passed since then.

A memorial in front of the Silchar railway station remembering those killed in the police firing incident of 19 May 1961 during the Bhasha Andolan | Photo: Bikash Nanda Goswami, Wikimedia Commons

The 19 May incident

Drawing upon policy of linguistic reorganisation of states, the Bimala Prasad Chaliha government introduced the Assam Official Language Bill in 1960. With the passage of the bill, the Assam Official Language Act (ALA) gave Assamese the status of the sole official language of the state. Barak Valley – with its Bengali-speaking majority immediately erupted in protests.

Following the introduction of the language act, the Cachar Gana Sangram Parishad was formed to voice grievances against the ALA on 5 February 1961. And on 14 April, the people of Silchar, Karimganj and Hailakandi observed Sankalpa Divas in protest. The Parishad chief, Rathindranath Sen, called for a complete dawn-to-dusk hartal to be observed from 19 May, if their demand of recognising Bengali as the official language by 13 April is not recognised (which it wasn’t).

But on 18 May, Assam police arrested prominent leaders of the movement, after which the hartal commenced as scheduled from 19 May. But at around 2.30 pm on the same day, when a Bedford truck carrying arrested Satyagrahis (protestors) was passing by the Silchar railway station, the Satyagrahis assembled at the railway tracks broke out in loud protests seeing their detained fellowmen.

The truck driver and the policemen escorting the arrested fled the spot. Immediately after, an unidentified person set fire to the truck. A firefighting team immediately rushed to the spot to bring the fire under control. Before the ensuing tension could subdue, at around 2:35 pm, paramilitary forces guarding the railway station started beating the protesters with rifle butts and batons without any provocation from them.

A faded photograph showing police and paramilitary forces baton-charging Bengali Language Movement protestors at the Silchar railway station on 19 May 1961 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Then within a span of seven minutes, they fired 17 rounds into the crowd. Twelve persons received bullet wounds and were carried to hospitals. Nine of them died that day, two more died later.

This incident had an imminent reverberation. The Assam government had to withdraw its decision to impose Assamese as the sole official language of the state and Bengali was given the official status in the districts of Barak Valley. The 19 May episode came to be popularly marked as “Matri Bhasha Dibash” or Mother Tongue Day.

A memorial plaque in front of the Silchar railway station with the names of 11 protestors killed in police firings on 19 May 1961 during the Bhasha Andolan | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Legitimising belongingness

The popular agitation acts as a symbol around which contemporary cultural identity of the Valley gets constructed and propagated, as argued by Nabanipa Bhattacharjee in Language of Love and Death: Fifty Years of Assam’s Language Movement. There is a collective urge to preserve the glorious legacy of 19 May through monuments, statues and Shahid Bedis (martyr plaques).

Somewhere along the line, there is also the conundrum of renaming the Silchar railway station as Bhasha Shahid Station, to which the current central government has reportedly given a nod. The former government denied such appeals, but the people of Silchar had anyway informally renamed the station to mark the language movement and those killed as part of it.

This image of Silchar railway station from 2013 shows a plaque with the popularly-accepted name “Bhasha Shahid Station” or “Language Martyrs Station” | Photo: PP Yoonus, Wikimedia Commons

While the agitation is often seen as a mode of Bengali cultural assertion, for a community whose roots were disrupted and belongingness questioned time and again, the acknowledgement of the demand went much beyond the realm of culture.

It helped confer a sense of legitimacy as rights-bearing citizens.

The CAA also carries the potential for recognising the legitimacy of their belonging. One of the reasons why people in the Brahmaputra valley have protested against the Act is because it is considered to be inimical for the preservation of a distinct Assamese identity and contravenes the Assam Accord of 1985.

For instance, Professor Nani Gopal Mahanta of Gauhati University has emphasised on the non-religious and ethnolinguistic objectives of the Accord. Such claims, however, do not represent the perceptions of the people of the Barak Valley.

Anti-CAA banner with the slogan “One North East/One Voice/No CAA” displayed at a ‘Cultural Protest’ organised by Artistes of Assam at AEI playground, Chandmari, Guwahati, 15 December 2019 | Photo: Ankur Jyoti Dewri, Wikimedia Commons

Why is it that the people of Barak Valley seem to be “unaltered” in their position regarding the bill, even as thousands of students and people from all sections in other parts of Assam and India held vociferous protests against the Act?

To understand this, one needs to go beyond the theory of linguistic somnambulism that views the issue through an Assamese versus Bengali lens. 

CAA as derivative of Bhasha Andolan

In the period after the 1947 partition, a sizeable Bengali Hindu population migrated to Barak Valley from erstwhile East Bengal, which became East Pakistan after the breakup. Many believe that the CAA would give justice to the people who had come to this side of the border overnight, without any documents – a fact that is made evident with their names appearing on Assam’s ‘Doubtful Voter’ (D-Voter) list and not appearing in the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

In a preliminary field study that I conduced during my MPhil research, few months before the CAB was passed in the Parliament, on the people of Barak Valley and their opinion regarding the Bill, I found a sense of desire to resolve their tragedy of belongingness. Even before the CAB became law, people told me that it was their last hope of asserting their identity of being in the space in which they reside. 

Thus, for a community that was forced to leave its homeland and migrate to a place which has perpetually questioned their legitimacy, the CAA – much like the demand to have Bengali as Assam’s official language – acts as another means of affirming their membership in a particular political space.

The story of a people’s contested belongingness and the politics to legitimise it is underlines the struggle of the people of Barak Valley. The Bhasha Andolan could, thus, be seen as the initiation point, and the support for CAA its derivative.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Sthapana Sengupta is a PhD scholar at the Department of Political Science, Gauhati University, Assam. Her MPhil thesis was titled ‘Belonging Nowhere: Partition of Sylhet and the Identity Issue of the Hindu Bengalis’. She is interested in identity studies and exploring the concept of “belongingness” in cosmopolitan setups like Assam.

Featured/background image: A faded photograph showing police and paramilitary forces baton-charging Bengali Language Movement protestors at the Silchar railway station on 19 May 1961 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons