Bengali Communities in Colonial Assam
Summary and Keywords
The history of the Bengali community in Assam, along with many other communities such as the Marwari traders and the Nepalis, can be dated to the early decades of British rule in Assam when the East India Company found itself relying on Bengali amlahs (court officials) for its policing, legal and revenue administration of the newly acquired kingdom of Assam. The Bengali community grew partly due to the encouragement that the Company gave the Bengali language by using it in its courts, administration, and schools. While in 1873 Assamese replaced Bengali as the medium of instruction and language of the court, with some caveats and exceptions, the province of Assam, which was formed in 1874, brought together four historically distinct spaces in the region, including the two Bengali-speaking districts (Sylhet and Cachar) of the Barak-Surma Valley. The decades leading to Partition witnessed various factors, including employment opportunities and cultural and linguistic belonging, leading to contradictory pulls in Sylhet and Cachar on the question of whether it should be integrated with Bengal or Assam. Another important factor was the growth of linguistically based Assamese nationalism whose politics lay in the articulation of a unique Assamese literary and cultural identity along with the securing of employment opportunities. The latter would lead to a demand of an Assamese homeland free of competition from the Bengali middle class. A referendum in July 1947 based on limited franchise led to Sylhet being integrated to Pakistan while Cachar remained part of Assam and India. Other than the Bengali-speaking communities of Sylhet and Cachar, a history of the Bengali-speaking communities in Assam involves the story of peasant cultivators from East Bengal who continuously migrated into Assam in the early decades of the 20th century. While earlier pre-colonial patterns of migration were seasonal, the colonial state’s primary aim of acquiring high agrarian revenue led to specific policies and schemes that encouraged peasant migration into Assam from East Bengal. This further encouraged an intensification of commercial agriculture especially jute, changes in the transport network in the Brahmaputra valley, a developed credit network, and some local elements such as Marwari businessmen and Assamese moneylenders. However, with time this migration created conditions of insecurity for Assamese peasants who faced ejection from their lands as a result of the growing competition for cultivable land and higher rents. The colonial state’s attempt at regulating the migration—such as through the Line System in the 1920s—became a site of contestation among many emerging nationalist and political perspectives, whether of the Congress, the Muslim League or others. The tussle between the preservation of the rights and claims of indigenous peasants over grazing and forest reserves and those of Bengali Muslim immigrants over land defined the politics of the 1940s in Assam until Partition.
The Bengali Community in Sylhet and Cachar
The Bengali Community in 19th-Century Assam
After the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, which formalized the transfer of the Ahom kingdom from Burmese hands to the British, the East India Company first established direct control over Lower Assam (Kamrup and parts of Darrang) and then over Upper Assam in 1836. The history of the Bengali community in Assam, along with many other communities such as the Marwari traders and the Nepalis, can be dated to these early decades of British rule in Assam when the East India Company found itself relying on Bengali amlahs (officials of the court) for its policing, legal and revenue administration of the newly acquired kingdom of Assam. The business of the courts during this period was almost entirely conducted in Bengali, making the services of the Bengali community indispensable.1 This reliance was further strengthened by the Act of 1837 that allowed the East India Company to replace Persian with any vernacular language, considered more easily accessible to the local population, for the purposes of administration. In Assam, Bengali was chosen as this language and, from 1837 to 1873, it remained the language of the courts and the government schools in Assam. With an exposure to western education and colonial law, Bengalis emerged as a community that stood to benefit from these new changes that were introduced in the administration of Assam. This was obviously a factor that encouraged the migration of Bengalis into the region, seeking jobs as white-collared employees of the colonial state in the revenue and judicial departments of the colonial state. The dearth of teachers in the government schools set up by the British in Assam in the 19th century, with Bengali as the medium of instruction, also had to be met by Bengali teachers from Bengal.2
The formation of the province of Assam in 1874 brought together four historically distinct spaces of the region: the hill districts; the five plains districts of the Brahmaputra valley, which were earlier known as “Assam proper;” the region of Goalpara where overlapping linguistic identities made a seamless inclusion into “Assam proper” difficult; and the two Bengali-speaking districts of the Barak—Surma Valley—Sylhet and Cachar.
Of the two distinct geographical regions that Cachar comprised of—the Cachar plains and the North Cachar hills that are a continuation of the Meghalaya plateau—the former allowed Cachar a historical and geographical contiguity with the Bengal mainland. Unlike other parts of the Brahmaputra valley, where the migration of the Bengali-speaking community could often be traced to the beginnings of colonial rule in the region, historical evidence confirms the presence of this community in the plains of Cachar from the pre-colonial period. Such evidence also points toward shared histories with the other inhabitants of the region, such as the Dimasa Kacharis.3 British conquest of the region was formally marked by the 1824 Treaty of Badarpur, although the East India Company had established its political presence in the region earlier through its interventions in the affairs of the kingdom of Cachar and neighboring Manipur and Jayantiya.4 The expanse of the vast cultivable Cachar plains and the possibility of accruing revenue from it were ideal conditions for the colonial state to encourage cultivators from Bengal. The Cachar plains being contiguous to those of Sylhet and by extension, to the vast plains of Bengal, had at any rate seen some of the earliest Bengali settlers in the region coming in as cultivators into a sparsely populated region. Thus there were numerous Bengali villages on the northern side of the Barak bordering Sylhet, from the pre-colonial period. Many of these settlers had migrated to this region during the years of Heramba rule into the Cachar plains and were organized into Khels for the payment of land revenue and labor services.5 With the coming of British rule, there was a more concerted and regulated policy to attract settlers to the Barak Valley: letters were issued to the district officers of Sylhet, Dacca, Tripura, and Mymensingh to inform inhabitants about the availability of rent-free lands, low taxation rates, and easy acquisition of proprietary rights in land in Cachar.6 This policy of agrarianization through a clearing of land categorized as “waste,” and “jungle” continued in Cachar for much of British rule as it did in other parts of the colonial empire in India and Bengali cultivators contributed substantially to the important position that Cachar occupied in the revenue map of the British empire in India.7
The inclusion of Sylhet which had historically been an integral part of the Bengal province within the newly created province of Assam was justified by the colonial state as necessary for making it financially viable.8 The larger story that unfolded after its inclusion, however, is of historical significance not merely for what it tells us about the history of the Bengali-speaking community in Assam but also for its other embedded narratives: of the politics of borders and the construction of the nation and of the contested nature of cultural identities.
From 1874 until 1947, when Sylhet was “returned” to Bengal, Sylhet’s intelligentsia and educated elite articulated a politics of identity that was shaped considerably by their dominant position in the realms of politics, administration, and education in Assam. There was initial resistance from within sections of these elites to the inclusion of Sylhet within Assam, perceived as a more “backward” province. Public opinion was mobilized against the inclusion of Sylhet in Assam through a series of articles published in newspapers from Calcutta. The influential Hindu Patriot published a series of articles and editorials echoing the sentiment of the Bengali elites. K. Das Pal, its editor, wrote that Sylhet was the golden calf, being sacrificed for the new idol, the province of Assam. A memorandum of protest against the transfer of Sylhet was submitted to the Viceroy on August 10, 1874, by leaders of both the Hindu and Muslim communities.9 This resistance soon crumbled in the face of the new advantages that came their way. The Hindu elite of Sylhet accepted assurances from Lord Northbrook that Sylhet’s education and justice system would continue to be administered from Bengal. The obvious benefits of the tea industry in the Barak-Surma and Brahmaputra valleys in the form of clerical and medical appointments in tea estates played an important role in eroding this resistance. Added economic benefits for the Sylheti community came in the form of a demand for rice in the tea plantations of Assam; here the Sylheti zamindars profited from the sale of rice at far higher prices than would have been possible had they been obliged to export it to Bengal. After 1874 the knowledge of the English language became integral to the process of the formalization of the administrative apparatus and an essential educational qualification for government jobs.10 Bengal had a far wider prevalence of English education in the 19th century than Assam and members of the Bengali community therefore continued to have an advantage in securing jobs with the colonial administration.
This advantage, as well as the political position of the Bengali community in Assam, was reinforced by other auxiliary policies of the British government, such as the introduction of residential qualifications for government jobs in 1903 which rested on an important clause that extended the definition of a “native” substantially to include all those who were domiciled in Assam.11 Scholars have argued that data from the first half of the 20th century reveal an overwhelming dominance of Bengali Hindus from Sylhet and Cachar in the colonial bureaucracy in Assam, in different offices in the tea estates, in the medical, legal, and teaching professions, and in the clerical jobs in the railways and post offices.12 This visible presence of the Bengali community in the apparatus of the colonial state was complemented by their presence as the single largest linguistic community in the province of Assam during British rule.13 In the late 19th and first half of the 20th century this linguistic and economic predominance was to encounter the growing resentment of the emerging western educated Assamese middle class and intelligentsia.14
Cultural Nationalism, the Politics of Language, and the Partition of 1905
The decision to introduce Bengali as the official language of Assam in the mid-19th century shaped the trajectories of education and literacy among the people of this province. Scholars have even argued that this language policy was reflective of the colonial state’s politics of space, an aspect of which was the imagination of Assam as an “extension of Bengal.”15 Resisting this imagination from the early decades of the 19th century onward, the Assamese indigenous elite attempted to enter the employment of the colonial state in various capacities including as dobashis (bilingual) authored texts that focused not only on the long tradition of written culture that Assamese shared with Bengali, but also on the distinctness of Assamese as a language and the significance of its historical connections with mainland India.16
Written in the form of modern histories of Assam, these texts sought to insert the region into a pan-Indian nationalist consciousness.17 In the absence of a printing press in Assam, these texts were published from printing presses in Calcutta and in the Bengali language. The history of modern Assamese, its development as a print language, and its subsequent transformation into the main site for the articulation of Assamese nationalist identity, however, begins more accurately from the second half of the 19th century, when American Baptist missionaries and the Assamese intelligentsia opposed the prevalence of Bengali as the language of administration and education.18
In a region with diverse, polyglot cultures, the missionaries chose the dominant language of the Brahmaputra valley—Assamese—as the language of proselytization. Assamese was also the lingua franca of most elites and of the peasants of this region. The distinctiveness of the Assamese language was proved further through the compilation of comparative vocabularies and grammars. A very crucial force behind these arguments of the missionaries was the publication of their journal Orunodoi (“the rising sun”), the first journal in the Assamese language and published from the Baptist mission press in Sibsagar from 1846 onward until the 1880s. Prominent figures of the Assamese intelligentsia in the first half of the 19th century included Haliram Dhekiyal Phukan and his son, Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan. It is in the writings of the latter, such as the Asomiya Lorar Mitra, that Assamese linguistic identity came to be forcefully articulated for the first time. Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan’s deposition before Judge Moffat Mills and which appears in print as A Few Remarks on the Assamese Language and Vernacular Education in Assam provided a long vocabulary that underscored the difference between the Assamese and Bengali languages while providing Assamese with a literary history and genealogy that was older than Bengali.19 The process of strengthening of Assamese linguistic nationalism continued through the 1870s and 1880s. In the fecund intellectual milieu of Calcutta, young Assamese students learned to nurture their language and literature in journals and periodicals, creating in the process an Assamese literary public sphere.20
In the initial decades of the 20th century, this resurgence of Assamese literature and language took on the form of a cultural nationalism that had as one of its elements a contentious relationship with the Bengali language.
Assamese finally replaced Bengali in 1873 as the language of the courts and of education in the Assam valley, while Bengali continued to be the medium of instruction in the Barak-Surma Valley and English the official language. However, despite the introduction of Assamese as the medium of instruction in vernacular schools the educational position of the Assamese continued to lag far behind that of the Bengali community.21 Apart from the lack of sufficient vernacular educational institutions where Assamese could be the medium of instruction, the continued redrawing of the borders of the province produced a demographic balance that kept Assam’s language question a highly controversial one throughout the entire colonial period and beyond.22 In 1905, East Bengal and Assam were formed into one composite province through the partition of Bengal. With the addition of the Bengali-speaking region of Sylhet to Assam, the number of educated job seekers further increased to the disadvantage of the Assamese-speaking population.23
Historians have argued that the decision to administratively join Eastern Bengal and Assam into a province was an illustration of the colonial perception of Assam as a land frontier of Bengal. The British government justified the move to combine Assam and East Bengal into a single province on the ground of administrative convenience, providing a maritime outlet for the industrial products of Assam (tea, oil, and coal) and a space for the expansion of the densely populated region eastern Bengal. As against this, Indian nationalists were convinced that “all such administrative arguments were little more than smokescreens for a deep imperialist design of ‘divide and rule.’”24 The formation of the new province returned Sylhet to Bengal, albeit briefly, during the intensely political period of the Swadeshi movement that followed the partition. While the impact of the Swadeshi movement on the rest of Assam was negligible, its presence in Sylhet was significant. The district figures prominently in lists of Swadeshi volunteers, revolutionary organizations, and nationalist schools.25 At the initiative of the Bengali Hindu community of Sylhet, the first Surma Valley Political Conference was organized in Silchar in 1906, followed by a period of widespread political mobilization for the boycott of foreign goods.26
Sylhet and Cachar: Redrawing Boundaries and the Movement for Reintegration
The annulment of the partition in 1912 witnessed a resurgence of the movement against the reintegration of Sylhet in Assam. Agitations across urban and rural Sylhet were held in protest against this reintegration, accompanied by public meetings and petitions signed by members of the Provincial Legislative Council. The Sylhet-Reunion League formed in 1920 under the leadership of Brojendra Narayan Chaudhury helped formalize these demands of the Sylheti community in Assam, including concerns about the continuation of Sylhet’s special status in education and justice. The politics of articulating a distinct Sylheti identity evidently caught the imagination of both the Hindu and Muslim elites of the district. At the core of this identity was its affiliation to Bengali ethnicity and to historical connections with Bengal.27 These were repeatedly affirmed in the 1920s and 1930s through the “Back to Bengal” movement and its strident criticism of Sylhet’s inclusion within Assam.
Cachar, the other district in the province of Assam with a large Bengali-speaking population, was frequently invoked as an analogous case of historical injustice by Sylhet’s intelligentsia in order to strengthen their demands for a reunion with Bengal. The territorialization of a Bengali cultural and linguistic identity was at the core of these political claims of the intelligentsia which sought to subsume Cachar within itself, invoking the apparently shared linguistic and other cultural affinities of its people with those of Sylhet. As discussed earlier in this essay the specificities of its history set Cachar apart from Sylhet in many ways. Officials of the colonial state had repeatedly pointed out that Cachar had not been historically a part of Bengal. They emphasized that arguments for the transfer of Cachar based on numerical strength and linguistic affinity stood no ground: Cachar was an integral part of the province of Assam and the colonial state did not favor its inclusion in Bengal. The discourse of the resurgent Sylheti identity of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, however, continued to lay frequent claims on the Cachari language and identity as integral to this Bengali homeland. As a regional variation of the Bengali language and culture, Sylheti identity of course continued to retain its distinctiveness, finding its articulation through regional cultural associations, a vibrant culture of print and a powerful historical narrative that placed Sylheti identity within a story of Bengali nationalism.28 Within the realm of regional nationalist politics too, Cachar continued to be a site of political contention, as the Assam Provincial Congress Committee and the Surma Valley District Congress strongly disagreed on whether Cachar should be integrated with Bengal or Assam in the decades leading to 1947.29
The territorialization of cultural nationalism among the Bengali community of Assam emerged in tandem with similar trends within contemporary Assamese nationalism as well as in contestation with the latter. Crucial to the politics of the latter was the appropriation of the 19th-century repository of Assamese literature and language and the securing of a favorable demographic balance. Sylhet’s Bengali-speaking community upset this demographic balance and by extension, the roots of Assamese nationalism. It is not surprising, therefore, that resolutions demanding an exclusion of Sylhet from Assam were passed by nationalist associations such as the Assam Association and the Jorhat Sarbajanik Sabha, seeking to secure an ethnic homeland for the Assamese-speaking community. Such resolutions necessarily excluded not just the several other dialects being spoken in the Brahmaputra valley in favor of a standardized Assamese language that essentially based itself on the speech of Upper Assam, but also various other speech practices of different communities inhabiting the province.
More stridently articulated in the borders of the province, this contentious relationship manifested itself in the form of a debate over the language of the region of Goalpara in the western borders of Assam. In the imagined language map of the Assamese intelligentsia, the “center” or Upper Assam spoke chaste Assamese while the speech of Goalpara, at the peripheral frontiers, was represented as a pale imitation of the language of “Assam proper.”30 Laying bare the cultural inequalities that were lodged in the apparently democratizing aspects of print and questioning the essence of the standardization of a vernacular—the idea of an authentic and pure language—several intellectuals from the region of Goalpara resisted the standardization of the Assamese language based on the language of Upper Assam.31 They underlined the geographical proximity of western Assam to the northern districts of Bengal, a factor that allowed its residents a greater degree of mutual accommodation in speech than the people living in Upper Assam. There were protests through the late 19th and early 20th centuries against what was clearly perceived as a deliberate choice of the language of Upper Assam as the criterion of modern Assamese identity.
The slogan of “Assam for Assamese” was hinged on the imagination of an Assamese homeland free of competition from the Bengali middle class.32 As in the preceding 19th century, the first half of the 20th century, too, was marked by competition between these two linguistic communities over jobs with the colonial state and political power, so much so that according to scholars, the growth of nationalism and the national movement in Assam took place under the constant shadow of the Bengali—Assamese conflict.33
The demands of the Sylhet-Reunion League during the 1920s and 1930s had reflected the shared political and cultural concerns of both the Hindu and Muslim members of Sylhet’s Bengali gentry. Crucial shifts taking place within the politics of Sylhet during the same period, however, revealed deep fissures within the Bengali community. As the upper-class Muslims of Assam and Sylhet became increasingly powerful in provincial politics, a considerable number of their leaders spoke out against the reunion and questioned whether the Muslims of the districts supported it.34 Abdul Matin Chaudhury, a former Congressman who had become a member of the Muslim League and an influential Muslim leader of Sylhet, wrote a letter to members of the Assam Legislature in 1924 declaring that the Muslims of Sylhet did not want to be part of Bengal, and argued that the only ones who wanted this were the Sylheti Hindus.35 An important factor behind the shift in the position of the Muslim elite of Sylhet was the rise of the Muhammad Saadulla as a powerful political leader from Assam in legislative politics. With significant political support from European planters as well as colonial officials, Saadulla made a strong case for the retention of Sylhet within Assam. Through the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s, he succeeded in firmly locating the issue of Sylhet within a religious frame, arguing that the transfer of Sylhet to Bengal would harm the interests of the Muslims in Assam.36
The prospect of partition, however, altered the position of the Bengali Muslim community of Sylhet yet again; they now argued for the transfer of Sylhet to Pakistan. As for the Bengali Hindu community of Sylhet, there was a crucial shift in their political position as well. In a complete reversal of their earlier “Back to Bengal” demand, they now mobilized political forces against Sylhet’s reunion with Bengal, compelled significantly by their fears of a marginalization as a result of the increase in the political power of the Bengali Muslims. In the tumultuous year of 1947, this shift culminated in their demand for the retention of Sylhet within the province of Assam.37 Sylhet’s Bengali Hindus who had for decades fought a political battle to return to Bengal now clung to Assam. The British government rejected the appeals and proposals of people of Surma Valley for territorial and linguistic reorganization of the provinces of Assam and Bengal, preferring to opt instead for a referendum in Sylhet.38 In the referendum held on July 6 and 7, 1947, the majority voted in favor of Sylhet’s merger with Pakistan. Since according to law in the 1940s, only those people who had paid nine annas rent to the government were eligible to vote, all laborers—agricultural, industrial—were left out of the referendum.39
Following the referendum, the Boundary Commission headed by Cyril Radcliffe announced its decision: most of Sylhet was ceded to East Pakistan; Cachar remained within Assam, along with a portion of Sylhet district made up of the three thanas of Badarpur, Patharkandi, and Ratabari, and half a thana of Karimganj. Historians assess the partition and the Sylhet referendum as a “mixed bag for Hindus and Muslims of Sylhet as well as Assamese speakers of Assam.”40 For Sylheti Hindus it meant permanent loss of their homeland, though not without some consolation that came from the retention of a portion of Sylhet in India, while for a large section of Sylheti Muslims it was the realization of the most desired and cherished goal of being able to retain their homeland and live amidst co-religionists. For leaders of the Assam Congress and sections of Assamese people and press, the transfer of Bangla-speaking Sylhet would, above all, be what they believed to be the first step toward the emergence of a unilingual and culturally homogeneous Assam.
The Muslim Peasants from Eastern Bengal
The Migration of Cultivators from Eastern Bengal into Assam
Cultivators from Eastern Bengal formed a distinct section of the Bengali-speaking community in Assam during the period of British colonialism. The migration of cultivators between the region of eastern Bengal and the district of Goalpara in western Assam was a feature of the regional economy from pre-colonial times and had continued into the early colonial period as well. The pattern of migration had, however, remained primarily a seasonal one, linked to the demand for labor during the jute season.41 In the period after the annexation of the region into the British empire, the colonial state’s constant quest for increased revenue successfully intensified the process of “peasantisation” and “colonisation of wastelands.” Apart from the more obvious classification of land into the distinct categories of “waste,” “arable,” and “forested,” colonialism envisaged various inducements for local tenants.
Despite the visible increase in the area under settled cultivation, however, vast tracts of land continued to be available at the turn of the century, a condition that led to the formulation of government schemes to encourage the migration of cultivators from neighboring regions to settle in Goalpara. In 1897, colonial officials identified portions of Bengal and Bihar as the areas from which these land colonists would be drawn, listing also the necessary markers of ideal colonists for the unsettled areas of Goalpara: “a sturdy independence, self reliant resourcefulness, the existence of tribal and village organisation, a small amount of capital and the habit of combination and co-operation.”42
The migration of Bengali Muslim peasants from the saturated plains of Bengal into the region of Goalpara, and then into the other districts of the Brahmaputra valley such as Kamrup, Darrang, and Nowgong, was a product of such colonial schemes. According to settlement reports from the period, the margins of cultivation had been reached in most parts of Eastern Bengal by the end of that first decade; demographic pressure, the subservience of a jute-producing cultivating class to market forces, and the near constancy in the yield from cultivable areas created conditions of impoverishment for the Eastern Bengal peasant. Epidemics, floods, and the devastation caused by the earthquake of 1897 further impoverished the Bengal peasant. The earthquake of 1897 changed the bank lines surfaces and the courses of the channels of the rivers in the region, exacerbating the fragility of ecological features and leading to the increasing loss of agricultural land.43
The initial waves of migration into Assam primarily consisted of landless Bengali Muslim peasants from the East Bengal district of Mymensingh, which had a high demographic growth and a situation of rural indebtedness.44 Bengali-speaking cultivators from the regions of Tangail and Jamalpur migrated to settle in Goalpara’s riverine island areas of the Brahmaputra. They were accompanied by cultivators from the Bengal districts of Noakhali, Pabna, and Bogura. Over 1 million people are estimated to have been involved in this migration that spread over the first three decades of the 20th century. By 1911, more than 118,000 migrants had moved into the district of Goalpara alone, clearing vast tracts of dense jungles along the south bank of the Brahmaputra and occupying flooded lowlands all along the river, leading to a 30 percent growth in the population of the district. This figure increased to 141,000 in 1921, after more than 300,000 cultivators from Eastern Bengal migrated to the province of Assam. The migration continued on the same scale well into the next decade. The number of settlers, including children born after their arrival in Assam, was estimated at over half a million in 1931.45
This unprecedented migration from Bengal into Assam led to important changes in the land tenure system in the regions where the cultivators settled. Several zamindars granted perpetual leases to these cultivators in order to reclaim wastelands and forests, thereby creating intermediate tenures. Cultivable land was also often sold at highly profitable rates to the immigrants by the local cultivators. In several parts of western Assam, the migrant cultivators gradually established themselves as de facto holders of cultivable land over whole regions, forming villages of settled communities. After the 19th-century colonization of “wastelands” under British rule, the immigration and settlement of Bengali Muslim peasants from Eastern Bengal marked another important phase of period of economic and social expansion. Their labor led not just to a considerable increase of the acreage of cultivated land in western Assam but also to an unprecedented diversification of the local economy. This was possible, among other factors, on account of their familiarity with superior and more intensive techniques of agriculture, including the cultivation of commercial crops such as jute, the growth of a transport network in the Brahmaputra valley, and a developed credit network.46 The migrants found financiers in local Marwari businessmen and Assamese money lenders, enabling them to expand the cultivation of jute, but also ahu rice, pulses, and vegetables. The conditions for industrial expansion created by the First World War encouraged jute industrialists to push for further expansion of jute cultivation in the Brahmaputra valley and by the time of the Second World War, Assam had become the third-largest producer of jute in the country.47 Historians have, however, argued that despite these apparently favorable conditions, the majority of migrant families failed to overcome the economic and social burdens that they used to face in East Bengal. Indebtedness burdened them enormously, and continued until a much later period.48
The migration from East Bengal with time created conditions of insecurity for the Assamese peasants, who now faced ejection from their lands as a result of a growing competition for cultivable land and higher rents. As floodplains in the western part of the valley were slowly reclaimed by peasants who migrated there from the lower reaches of the river and had very different agrarian practices that were centered on jute production, they found themselves in conflict with Assamese peasants over resource use.49 By the second decade of the 20th century, the colonial state was beginning to put some measures into place to regulate the flow of migrants by setting apart areas for their settlement, confining the transfers of land holdings to local cultivators, amidst fears that the Assamese peasants were losing their land, and would ultimately have no land for themselves. Instances of conflict over wasteland resources and common grazing areas in villages added to these fears. Seeking to subsume these conflicts within the structures of colonial law, the colonial state enacted the Line System in 1920 in order to formalize the boundaries between natives and migrants. According to this system, a line was drawn in the districts under pressure in order to settle migrants in segregated areas, specified for their exclusive settlement. As an illustration, in the district of Nowgong, wasteland grants were divided into three categories: those made available exclusively to immigrants; those made exclusively to local people; and those available to both. No land settlement could be made with an immigrant family beyond a ceiling of sixteen bighas (a bigha was about 1/3 of an acre).50
However, allegations of violations of the Line system, enabled frequently by the corruption of local revenue officials, poured in from various districts of the Brahmaputra valley, and were in turn articulated strongly by several Assamese members of the Legislative Council. In July 1927 a significant resolution moved in this council by Mahadev Sharma recommended the appointment of a committee to provide a district-wise assessment of the availability of wastelands, the need of reserving adequate area for future development, and the impact of the immigration policy on grazing, fuel and forest reserves.51 Colonial Assam during this period included a spread of mixed economies of settled cultivation as well as shifting and foraging ones. The presence of plough cultivation did not exclude others forms of production; rather shifting forms of cultivation and timber felling, settled agriculture and hunting and foraging techniques were practiced alternately, frequently within the same community, as among the Koches, Hajongs, and the Rabhas.
Though Mahadev Sharma’s resolution was not passed in a council that was divided sharply along communal lines of Hindu and non-Hindu, revenue considerations of the state continued to determine the proposed policy of land colonization. Under this colonization scheme, blocks of land were settled with members of the same community, with each family being given about twenty bighas of land on the payment of a premium. Beginning with the district of Nowgong, this colonization scheme was introduced in the subdivisions of Barpeta and Mangaldai; in all these areas, between 1930 and 1936, as many as fifty-nine grazing, forest and village reserves were thrown open to settlers from Eastern Bengal, leading to important changes in land ownership patterns in the region. In the district of Nowgong the effects were visible: in 1936, 37.7 percent of the occupied land was in the hands of immigrants while 62.3 percent was still in the hands of indigenous people.52
Nation, Nationalisms, and Migrants
Through the 1930s and 1940s and particularly in the rather tumultuous years leading to India’s independence from British rule, this issue of land and its separation between immigrants and indigenous people continued to be a source of immense political turmoil in the Brahmaputra valley and in Bengal. Historians argue for a close intertwining of economic and cultural concerns in the attitude of the Assamese-speaking population toward the migrants. Some scholars have perceived a consensus regarding the status of the Eastern Bengal migrant that as long as there was evidence of attempts by the migrants to adopt the Assamese language and culture, he was to be allowed to hold and occupy land without any opposition. This emphasis on “assimilation” is evident to an extent in records of the colonial state as well.
Assamese nationalists from this period appear to have responded with considerable anxiety, however, to these perceived threats to their linguistically based nationalism. This nationalist anxiety was articulated very powerfully in the speeches and writings of prominent Assamese nationalist figures such as Ambikagiri Raychoudhury, Nilmoni Phukan, and Jnanath Bora. In many ways, the Line system—the question of its retention or abolition—remained the fulcrum of Assam’s politics during this period. In 1937 on behalf of the Asamiya Sanrakshini Sabha, formed in 1926 by Ambikagiri Raychaudhury, some of these leaders petitioned to Jawaharlal Nehru, the then President of the Indian National Congress, against the Muslim League’s resolve to abolish the Line System. The petition, which alleged that the question of immigration had been given a communal color by the Muslim League, also stated that “as a means of saving the Assamese race from extinction, a considerable section of the Assamese intelligentsia had even expressed their minds in favour of the secession of Assam from India.”53
It has been argued that indigenous Assamese-speaking Muslims welcomed migrants in general, with the hope that they would be “Assamized” in due course and numerically strengthen the base of Muslims. Despite a shared religion with the immigrants, this section of the population appears to have continued, however, to retain a strong emphasis on the distinctiveness of their shared cultural practices with other sections of the Assamese-speaking population.54 This distinctiveness was marked by the absence of practices and symbols that marked the Muslim community in many other parts of the subcontinent; it was further accentuated by the differences in the economic conditions of migrants and Assamese-speaking Muslims. Accordingly, there was little interest evinced in the political destiny of immigrant Bengali Muslims in the associational politics of Assamese Muslims. As an illustration, the Assam Valley Muslim Political Conference held in Guwahati on September 8, 1935, espoused much concern for the protection of the economic and political rights of Muslims against perceived threats. The resolutions in this Conference included one that emphasized the need for reservation of jobs for Muslims in the Brahmaputra valley. The interest in the rights and claims of immigrant Muslims remained perfunctory at best, however, and sought to repose responsibility for this community in the hands of the newly formed Assam Settler’s Welfare Committee.55
From the late 1930s onward, ignoring overtures by the Bengali Hindu community, the Bengali Muslim community began to coalesce around the figure of Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan, a man from their midst.56 Called “Bhasani” after the char (floodplains) on the Brahmaputra that he had settled on, Maulana Bhasani over the course of the next decade succeeded in mobilizing the immigrant Bengali Muslim peasants and organizing them for their land rights against landlords and money lenders. During his campaigns, Bhasani extensively used the religious idiom of Islam to spread his message.57 In 1937 he became a member of the Assam Legislative Council, a position that he retained for the next ten years and used, along with other members of the Muslim League, to consistently push for the abolition of the Line System.58 Within the Assam Legislative Assembly, the first attempt at securing a legislative action to abolish the Line System had been made in 1936 but the motion was lost by seven votes to twenty, with all Hindu members voting against the abolition. The second attempt at the abolition of the Line System was made in 1937, through a motion brought up by Munnawar Ali, a prominent Muslim League leader from Sylhet which found active support from Abdul Matin Chowdhury, a prominent Muslim League leader.
After the resignation of the Bardoloi government in November 1939, the new ministry under its premier Syed Saadulla of the Muslim League sought to balance the demands of the indigenous people with that of the immigrants’ demands for land. The May 1940 resolution passed by this government put a ban on all settlements of wastelands by immigrants entering Assam after January 1, 1938 and thereby afforded some protection to the grazing and forest reserves. But the clause within the resolution that allowed the settlement of flood-affected people inhabiting government reserves effectively negated this ban.59 This instance of contradictions within government policy was symptomatic of several such policies that were initiated, critiqued, and abandoned by successive ministries headed by Bardoloi and Saadulla until 1947. Maulana Bhasani himself broke ranks over time with all important regional parties over the issue of the abolition of the Line System—he disassociated with the Muslim League and also opposed Saadulla’s Assam United Party, as well as the Indian National Congress, accusing the latter of being proponents of narrow class interests. The political disaffection was particularly evident in the April 1944 provincial Muslim League conference held in Barpeta, a region where Bhasani commanded considerable popular support. Speaking at a public rally before thousands of people, Bhasani offered a powerful critique of the Saadulla government’s land settlement policy for immigrant Bengali Muslim peasants; the meeting also saw a cogent articulation of Bhasani’s support for a separate state of Pakistan.60
The tussle between the preservation of the rights and claims of indigenous peasants over grazing and forest reserves and those of Bengali Muslim immigrants over land therefore continued to define the politics of the 1940s in Assam, including the crucial issue of whether it could be integrated with Bengal to form East Pakistan in 1947.61
Table 1. Decadal Growth of Migrants in Brahmaputra Valley, 1911–1921
% of 1911 population
Surma Valley (with North Cachar hills)
Source: The Census of India, 1921, Volume III, Assam, Part 1:7.
Discussion of the Literature
The historical literature on the Bengali community in Assam brings them into the purview of discussion in the context of broader histories of nationalism, language, and political economy. Amalendu Guha’s work provides a rich historical narrative of the British colonization of Assam and its lands and the cultural nationalisms spawned therein.62 The methodology is avowedly Marxist, retaining its focus on changes within the political economy. The story of the Bengali community in the Brahmaputra and Barak-Surma valleys, including that of the migrant peasants of Eastern Bengal, surfaces at several moments in Guha’s history of the region as the text goes on to acknowledge the centrality that their economic claims comes to occupy in the history of electoral politics of Assam. The increasing pressure on a fast shrinking arable land space in Eastern Bengal and the resultant migration of Bengali peasants into Assam is an important element strand in Guha’s thesis. It is therefore important to acknowledge other connected works on this area such as Keya Dasgupta’s monograph on the colonization of wastelands and Sugata Bose’s book on agrarian Bengal.63 Exploring the history of migration of peasants from Eastern Bengal into western Assam and its implications for the regional political economy (changing demographic patterns, land holding structures, and property rights) and the domain of law is the chapter titled “Colonial Spaces: Land, Law and Migration” in Sanghamitra Misra’s monograph.64 Critiquing the communal and racial undertones inhered in the figure of the Bengali Muslim peasant in the writings of colonial officials Binayak Dutta takes apart this figure by exploring the historical imperative behind the migration of Bengali Muslim peasants to the Brahmaputra valley.65
Extending the concerns of political economy into the domain of cultural nationalism and identity are the works of Sanjib Baruah and Monirul Hussain, tracing, however, very different lines of argumentation. Hussain’s narrative contested the causal connections sought to be drawn between the migration of Bengali Muslim peasants and the perceived threat to Assamese identity in the post-colonial period.66 The book includes a critique of the sociologist Myron Weiner’s hypothesis: internal migration and ethnicity, created by modernization, are necessarily antagonistic processes. Sanjib Baruah’s exploration of the contemporary politics of subnationalisms in Assam, on the other hand, returns to the period of profound economic and political change that was colonialism to find the roots of Assamese cultural nationalism in British policies.67 In his strident prose, Baruah argues that the colonial policy of encouraging large-scale immigration from Bengal into Assam and the introduction of Bengali as the official language in the 19th century were reflective of a colonial geography that imagined Assam as an extension of Bengal. These policies were to have historical implications for the cultural politics of Assam which found its expression in the assertion of the autonomy and distinctiveness of the Assamese language and culture.
In recent years there have been several important additions to the historical literature on the partition of India and its impact on Assam and Bengal, all of which engage with the history of Bengali communities in Assam. Udayon Misra untangles the web of identity politics in the crucial decades of the 1940s in Assam to recover a history of communities embedded in contestations over political economy.68 Looking afresh at a range of historical sources relating particularly to the decades of the 1930s and 1940s, Misra finds the fulcrum of “high politics” of pre- and post-Partition politics in Assam in the dense debates around arable land, migration, indigenous rights, and grazing reserves. More specifically on the Sylhet referendum, nationalism, and identity, Anindita Dasgupta’s essay on the Sylhet referendum analyses the complex and fast changing political considerations involved in the decisions taken by the Muslim League, the Assamese intelligentsia, and the intelligentsia of Sylhet about the Sylhet referendum.69 Dasgupta’s other essay focuses on the post-referendum experience of the people of Sylhet, and the voices of the Hindu and Muslim communities who were relegated to a condition of “refugee-hood” without the experience of direct violence.70 Ashfaque Hossain’s essay offers a point of departure in the literature on Partition and the Sylhet referendum as he attempts to recover the excluded histories of the “pro-Pakistani” dalits (lower-caste Hindus) and madrasa-educated “pro-Indian” maulvis, who he argues emerged as crucial players in the referendum of 1947.71
The British Library in London is a repository of a wide variety of colonial records that can be used by researchers working on this subject. These include files of the Bengal Political and Secret Department, the Home Department, Judicial Department, Revenue Department, the Proceedings of the Assam Legislative Council, and Proceedings of the Assam Legislative Assembly. The library’s catalog of vernacular publications in Assamese and Bengali from the 19th and first half of the 20th century included several texts, newspapers, and periodicals, all of significance to explore linguistic identities during the colonial period. The British library also houses a rich collection of private papers, to be found under the Mss.Eur. section.
The National Archives of India in New Delhi is another rich repository of documents from the colonial as also from the period after 1947. The records that are available for consultation include files classified under the Foreign Department, Foreign and Political Department, and Home Department records. The National Archives of Bangladesh, too, has Home Department files as also several volumes of the papers and records of the governments of Bengal and Assam, various District Collectorate Records, and the Sylhet Proceedings from 1874 to 1947. The National Archives of Bangladesh has newspapers holdings and private paper collections, which should be of interest to researchers.
The State Archives in Guwahati has a large collection of published and unpublished documents on this subject. Reports published by the colonial state that pertain specifically to the issue of immigration of Bengali Muslims and the administrative history of Bengal and Assam, such as the Report of the Line System Committee and along with Resolution on the Land Revenue Administration of Assam (various years), Report on the Administration of Eastern Bengal and Assam (1906–1912), and census reports of various years, are available. The Archive in Guwahati also has a long catalog of associational papers that relate to the history of the Bengali community in Assam. These include the Papers of the Assam Domiciled and Settler’s Association and the Papers of the Assam Sanrakshini Sabha.
The Record room in Dhubri in the Goalpara district of Assam has useful collections of papers of various local associations, village directories, and memorials and representations made by landlords and peasants to the British state in the first half of the 19th century. Immigration from Eastern Bengal and the subsequent changes in the regional political economy are frequently the primary issue of concern and debate in these papers.
The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (New Delhi) has a very useful set of collections which include the private papers of some of the key individuals associated with the modern history of Sylhet and Assam. Some of these collections are as follows: the All India Congress Committee Papers, the Gopinath Bordoloi Papers, the Bishnuram Medhi Papers, Papers relating to the Reconstitution of the Provinces of Assam and Bengal (1906), the Syed Saadulla Papers, and the Shyama Prasad Mookherjee Papers.
Primary sources also include a substantial amount of print literature in Assamese and Bengali languages. These include the writings of Assamese nationalists such as Lakshminath, Bezbaroa, Ambikagir Raychaudhury, Jnananath Bora, and Nilmoni Phukan in various Assamese newspapers and journals such as Awahan and Banhi. Jnananath Bora’s Srihatta Bisched (Calcutta, 1935) and Asomot Bideshi (Guwahati, 1928) and Benudhar Rajkhowa’s Notes on the Sylhetee Dialect, showing its relation to Assam (Sylhet, 1913) and Nilmoni Phukan’s “Notes on the Domicile Question” (Assam Tribune, October 6, Guwahati) were polemical explorations of language and identity that had Sylhet as an important concern. The theme of Bengali and Assamese linguistic nationalism through the colonial period was the subject matter of several articles in the following Bengali-, Assamese-, and English-language periodicals and newspapers as well: Amrit Bazar Patrika; Asam Bandhu; Asamiya; Assam Bandhav; Assam Sahitya Sabha Patrika; Probashi; Rangpur Sahitya Parishad Patrika; The Orunodoi, Sulabh Samachar; The Hindoo Patriot; The Statesman; and The Star Of India.
Ahmed, Rafiuddin. The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981.Find this resource:
Baruah, Sanjib. India Against Itself. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:
Bhattacharjee, Jayanta Bhusan. Cachar Under British Rule in North East India. Delhi: Radiant, 1977.Find this resource:
Bose, Sugata. Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics, 1919–1947. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.Find this resource:
Dasgupta, Anindita. “Remembering Sylhet: A Forgotten Story of India’s 1947 Partition.” Economic and Political Weekly 43, no. 31 (2008): 18–22.Find this resource:
Dutta, Binayak. “The ‘Stout Fanatical Mahomedan’ and Mullan’s Burden: The History of Bengali Immigration in Colonial Assam (1871–1931).” Man and Society: A Journal of North-East Studies 11 (2014 ): 70—86.Find this resource:
Guha, Amalendu. Planter Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam 1826–1947. Delhi: Tulika Books, 2006.Find this resource:
Hossain, Ashfaque. “The Making and Unmaking of Assam-Bengal Borders and the Sylhet Referendum,” Modern Asian Studies 47, no. 1 (2013): 250–287.Find this resource:
Hussain, Monirul. The Assam Movement: Class, Ideology and Identity. Delhi: Manak, 1993.Find this resource:
Ludden, David. “The First Boundary of Bangladesh on Sylhet’s Northern Frontiers.” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Humanities 48, no. 1 (2003): 1–54.Find this resource:
Ludden, David. “Spatial Inequity and National Territory: Remapping 1905 in Bengal and Assam.” Modern Asian Studies 46, no. 3 (2012): 483–525.Find this resource:
Misra, Sanghamitra. Becoming a Borderland: The Politics of Space and Identity in Colonial Northeastern India. Delhi and London: Routledge, 2011.Find this resource:
Misra, Udayon. Burden of History: Assam and the Partition—Unresolved Issues. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017.Find this resource:
Nag, Sajal. The Roots of Ethnic Conflict. Delhi: Manohar, 1990.Find this resource:
Saikia, Arupjyoti. “Jute in the Brahmaputra valley: The making of flood control in 20th century Assam,” Modern Asian Studies 49, no. 5 (2015): 1405–1441.Find this resource:
Sharma, Jayeeta. Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India. Durham, U.K. and London: Duke University Press, 2011.Find this resource:
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(1.) Francis Jenkins, the commissioner and agent to the Governor General commented that almost all the amlahs (clerks) were Bengalis from Sylhet, Dacca, and Mymensingh. Sajal Nag, The Roots of Ethnic Conflict (Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1990), 50.
(2.) This move to introduce Bengali as the language of the court and of schools found strong support in the figure of William Robinson: a Baptist missionary who subsequently became Inspector of Schools. Although the author of the first Assamese grammar, with sufficient knowledge of the Assamese language, Robinson propagated the need for the introduction of Bengali instead of Assamese in the province. Tilottoma Misra tells us that, in his 1854 Memorandum to the Government, Robinson argued for the financial expediency of using Bengali textbooks which had already been published for 30 million Bengalis, rather than create a distinct literature for a handful of people. Tilottoma Misra, Literature and Society in Assam: A Study of the Assamese Renaissance 1826–1926 (Guwahati, India: Omsons Publications, 1987), 68.
(3.) The other dominant community in Cachar, the Dimasa Kacharis, were primarily inhabitants of the hills around the Cachar valley. The historian Jayanta Bhusan Bhattacharjee writes about the influence of Bengali culture on the Dimasa Kachari kings who had adopted Bengali as the language of the court. Bhattacharjee also dwells at length at various points in his book on the administrative separation of the hills of Cachar from the plains under British rule, and the subsequent deployment of ideas of cultural difference and hierarchy among communities as a result of this hill-plain binary. Jayanta Bhusan Bhattacharjee, Cachar under British Rule in North East India (Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1977), 76, 148, 149.
(4.) Bhattacharjee, Cachar under British Rule, 38.
(5.) Bhattacharjee, Cachar under British Rule, 74–75.
(6.) Bhattacharjee, Cachar under British Rule, 77.
(7.) This system of land revenue and encouragement of Bengali cultivators was, however, limited to the plains of Cachar as the hills continued to be exempted from regular land taxes (Bhattacharjee, Cachar under British Rule, 166).
(10.) In 1882, for instance, the recruitment of clerks for several offices had the knowledge of the English language, along with Assamese or Bengali, as a necessary criterion. Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict, 46.
(11.) In 1903, the colonial administration introduced a rule whereby “a native of Assam was taken to mean a person, of whatsoever origin, who had his permanent residence or who owned land or houses in Assam and would be staying in Assam after superannuation.” Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict, 48.
(12.) Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 262.
(13.) As an illustration, in the census of 1931, the number of Bengali-speaking people was 3.9 million. Of this, 2.8 million were from the Surma Valley Division (comprising of Sylhet and Cachar) while 1.1 million lived in the Assam valley. The number of Assamese speakers was 2 million. Sanjib Baruah, India Against Itself (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), 103.
(14.) Baruah, India Against Itself, 59.
(15.) Baruah, India Against Itself, 39.
(16.) The Burmese war had created the need for dobashis who knew Bengali, Assamese, and Sanskrit.
(17.) Asam Buranji is the first printed modern history of Assam, written in the Bengali language; this was also the first modern historical work in the Bengali language.
(18.) See the chapter titled “Orunodoi and the Secular Trend” in Misra, Literature and Society, 58–100.
(19.) For a detailed discussion of various aspects of Assamese linguistic nationalism and relationship with print culture, see Misra, Literature and Society and Jayeeta Sharma, Empire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India (Durham, U.K., and London: Duke University Press, 2011).
(20.) Chandrakumar Aggarwal, Lakshminath Bezbarua, and Hemchandra Goswami formed the Assamese Students Literary Club in Calcutta.
(21.) The number of public institutions, including primary schools in the Assam valley in 1891–1892, was 2,502 with 7,701 pupils. The educated in the total population of the Assam valley was 10.3 percent in 1891–1892. Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict, 46.
(22.) Baruah, India Against Itself, 39.
(23.) Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict, 48. To quote Nag, “improved education did not help the Assamese in employment.” Nag, Roots of Ethnic Conflict, 48.
(24.) Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement (New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2011), 12.
(25.) Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement, 277. By 1909, Sylhet had branches of revolutionary groups such as the Anushilan Samiti and the Suhrid Samiti (Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement, 380). Guha, Planter Raj, 71.
(26.) Guha, Planter Raj, 72.
(27.) “Nearly cent percent [100 per cent] of the indigenous population speaks Bengali, belong ethnologically to the Bengali race, have the same manners, customs and traditions and thoughts as their brethren in Bengali and are indissolubly bound up with them by ties of blood and social relationship.” Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 263–264.
(28.) Nabanipa Bhattacharjee, “‘We Are With Culture but Without Geography’: Locating Sylheti Identity in Contemporary India,” South Asian History and Culture 3, no. 2 (2012): 224.
(29.) For a detailed discussion of the political movement in Cachar, for and against the integration with Bengal, see Misra, Burden of History: Assam and the Partition—Unresolved Issues (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017), 106–140.
(30.) The movement from the center to the periphery appeared to suggest, therefore, a different value along with a difference in form. Along with this was an acceptance of the idea that national identity at the borderlands tended to be diluted. Thus, it was acknowledged that “Goalpara’s Assamese language is mixed with Bengali to a certain extent, a phenomenon common to languages in frontier and marginal areas . . . where certain sections of the population do not even know whether their mother tongue is Assamese or Bengali” (Lakshminath Bezbaroa, “Asamor Gauripurot Bangla Sahitya Sabha,” Banhi 11: 350).
(32.) Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 267. In 1933 the president of the Assam Association publicly argued that Assam could not have its own university or high court, nor could it develop its language and literature for as long as Sylhet remained in Assam. Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 264.
(33.) Guha, Planter Raj, 69.
(34.) Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 264.
(35.) Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 264.
(36.) In July 1925, he wrote, “Speaking from the communal point of view, the transfer of Sylhet will spell disaster for both the Valley Moslems.” In the first session of the Assam Provincial Muslim League the consensus was that the separation of Sylhet from Assam would weaken the Muslim population of Assam by some 16 lakhs (Misra, Burden of History, 116).
(37.) Voicing the concerns of the Bengali Hindu community of Sylhet, the Sylhet District Bar Association sent a telegram to the president of the Indian National Congress in May 1947, stating that “it would be inappropriate for the Surma Valley to support the movement launched by the Assam Valley in respect of the proposed grouping of Assam with Bengal.” Quoted in Misra, Burden of History, 115.
(38.) Bhattacharjee, “We are with culture but without geography”, 217.
(39.) Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 273.
(40.) Bhattacharjee, “We are with culture but without geography,” 218.
(41.) Misra, Burden History, 104.
(42.) Ibbetson observed: “Every family that is successfully transplanted to a new colony from a congested district in Bengal or Bihar is removed from a hand to mouth struggle with poverty maintained on the brink of starvation, to a life of independence, with a certainty that hard work will bring ease and a reasonable amount of comfort.” (Correspondence between Denzil Ibbetson, the Secretary to the Government of India and the Chief Commissioner of Assam, June, 2, 1897, Revenue and Agriculture, File nos. 1–28, OIOC, London) quoted in Misra, Burden of History, 101.
(44.) Guha, Planter Raj, 206.
(45.) Guha, Planter Raj, 206. The Census Commissioner of 1931 offered the following rather dramatic, now oft quoted, description of the continuing migration in 1931:
Probably the most important event in the province [of Assam] during the last twenty-five years—an event, moreover, which seems likely to alter permanently the whole future of Assam and to destroy more surely than did the Burmese invaders of 1820, the whole structure of Assamese culture and civilisation—has been the invasion of a vast horde of land-hungry Bengali immigrants, mostly Muslims.
(46.) By 1921, jute had emerged as the second most important cash crop in Goalpara, with its cultivation occupying more than 9 percent of the net cultivated area of the district. Sanghamitra Misra, Becoming a Borderland, 113.
(47.) Saikia, “Jute in the Brahmaputra Valley,” 1420.
(48.) Saikia, “Jute in the Brahmaputra Valley,” 1421.
(49.) Saikia, “Jute in the Brahmaputra Valley,” 1422.
(50.) Guha, Planter Raj, 207.
(51.) Guha, Planter Raj, 207.
(52.) Guha, Planter Raj, 210.
(53.) Quoted in Misra, Burden of History, 97.
(54.) Guha, Planter Raj, 170.
(55.) Guha, Planter Raj, 171.
(56.) Thus, the Assam Domiciled and Settler’s Association formed in 1935 attempted to forge a political alliance with the settlers from Bengal.
(57.) See Rafiuddin Ahmed, The Bengal Muslims, 1871–1906: A Quest for Identity (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1981), 29, for an analysis of the role of Mullahs in creating political solidarities in Bengal.
(58.) The first branch of the Muslim league in Assam was established by Maulana Bhasani in Nowgong, 1936.
(59.) Misra, Burden of History, 43.
(60.) Bimal J. Dev and Dilip Kumar Lahiri, Assam Muslims: Politics and Cohesion (Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1985), 102.
(61.) For details, see Misra, “The Critical Forties I,” and “The Critical Forties II,” in Burden of History, 38–105.
(62.) Guha, Planter Raj.
(63.) Keya Dasgupta, Wastelands Colonization Policy and the Settlement of Explantation Labour in the Brahmaputra Valley: A Study in Historical Perspective (Calcutta: Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, 1986). Sugata Bose, Agrarian Bengal: Economy, Social Structure and Politics, 1919–1947 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
(64.) Misra, Becoming a Borderland, 95–137.
(65.) Binayak Dutta, “The ‘Stout Fanatical Mahomedan’ and Mullan’s Burden: The History of Bengali Immigration in Colonial Assam (1871–1931),” Man and Society: A Journal of North-East Studies 11 (2014), 70–86.
(67.) Baruah, India Against Itself.
(68.) Misra, Burden of History.
(70.) Anindita Dasgupta, “Denial and Resistance: Sylhet Partition “Refugees” in Assam, Contemporary South Asia 10, no. 3 (2001): 343–360.
(71.) Hossain, “Making and Unmaking,” 250–287.