In defence of Bengali Hindus in Assam as polls beckon

6th April 2019

6th April 2019

Bengali Hindus: a bleak future?

(The 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Assam are due in first three phases on April 11, 18 and 23. The eastern state is being split open on separate Bengali-Assamese identity. This was not always so. This binary must go as voters get ready with their choices. A timely perceptive piece).

The people whose mother-tongue is ‘Bangla’ are generally regarded as Bengalis. But in Assam the scenario is different. Here, it is not the mother-tongue that decides the identity of Bengalis. People belonging to Hindu religion, having mother-tongue bangla are known as Bengalis. Absurd it may appear but the fact is that Bengali Muslims are identified as Muslims – the term liked and preferred by them. This phenomenon is partially different in case of Barak Valley Muslims. In Barak Valley, the Muslim community people love to disclose their identity as Bengalis.

However, people of Barak Valley say that the Bengali Muslims of the Valley are now shifting away from their conception of identity. Though not all, but a bulk community feel that they are more comfortable with their Muslim identity. The Bengali Muslims of Assam are identified as Muslims not because of their adherence to Islam religion; had it been so then the Bengali Muslims of West-Bengal and Bangladesh would not have loved to disclose their identity as Bengali. Time will only speak whether this attitude and tendency of the Bengali Muslims of Assam towards their mother-tongue and identity could manage to yield any benefit for them. But the believers of Bengali Nationalism feel that this is not at all a healthy sign.

In order to be socially acceptable, economically vibrant and politically powerful, the Bengali Muslims of Assam felt the necessity to get rid of their original identity and accept a new identity of life. They decided to give up their mother-tongue, which is Bangla by all means and accept Assamese language and culture. In doing so, Muslims got converted to ‘Neo-Assamese’ and started their activities to reach their vision and mission with a new identity. On the other hand, the Bengali Hindus realized that language or more precisely mother-tongue is their first identity of life. It is the constituent element of civilization. Without mother-tongue the process of ‘human becoming a man’ would just be impossible. Language and Society are interdependent. One cannot exist and survive in the absence of the other. To me, ‘mother-tongue is the umbilical cord that ties a person to his mother from the moment of his inception into his mother’s womb. It cannot be changed, rather it is to be enhanced and developed in one’s lifetime.’ Probably this feeling and attitude of the Bengali Hindus is the bone of contention with the various race and communities including the Assamese.

History refers to the existence of several instances of  friendly-cordial relationship among the Assamese-Bengali communities of Assam before the British invaded the land. Then why this two communities are daggers drawn at each other now? Why each community is unable to trust the other? Why one considers the other as its foe? Is it only because the Assamese and Bengali language bears a very close tie among themselves and both have their distinct language and culture?  May be this is one of the reasons but it cannot be the only reason. The main reason of misunderstanding is something else, which the elite luminaries, intelligentsia of both the communities failed to identify. A section might have realized the root cause but are unable to focus on it or make it public due to the fear of outburst of reaction or some other limitations.

History says that the Bengalis were present with their language, culture and literature in Assam from time immemorial. It can also be advocated strongly that the Bengalis always stood by the Assamese and other communities of Assam, and extended all sorts of help required to protect, preserve, uplift and serve their purposes socially, politically, culturally, literally, spiritually, etc. Since a long time, Assamese-Bengali community have established a strong bonding among themselves through matrimonial alliances which resulted in the enrichment of culture, language, customs and traditions of both the communities.

In this direction, out of the many we can cite few instances : (a) Pitambar Ghosh of Nawadip, Bengal was the forefather of Kanaklal Barooah, the reputed historian of Assam; (b) Girin Chaudhuri, Health Minister in Sarat Babu’s last cabinet has his origin in a Bose family of Bengal; (c) Bimala Prasad Chaliah’s family also had a relation with a Bengali family; (d) Lakshminath Bezbaruah, the father of modern Assamese literature, married Pragya Sundari Devi, a niece of poet Rabindranath Tagore; (e) Latika Barua the grand-daughter of Rabindranath Tagore’s brother Dwijendranath Tagore, was the grand-mother of Sharmila Tagore, the famous actress. Sharmila’s maternal grand-father (husband of Latika Barua) was Jnanadabhiram Barua, the first Principal of Earl Law College, Guwahati (now known as Government Law College).

Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore’s relationship with Assam was a unique one. His bondage of love and respect towards the land made him visit this undivided region thrice – in 1919, 1923 and 1927. Deshabhakta Tarunram Phukan was very closely associated with Tagore and his family. Surya Kumar Bhuyan, the renowned historian, used to visit Jorasanko with his family at regular intervals. Eminent Assamese writers like Satyanath Bora, Hemchandra Goswami, Bholanath Das, Banikanta Kakoty had a very cordial relationship with Rabindranath. The contribution of Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee in this direction needs no explanation. It is due to his tireless efforts and love towards Assam, Assamese language got a new dimension in academics. In the thirties, Calcutta University introduced Assamese language at the Post-Graduate level of studies which is only due to Sir Ashutosh. Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the then President of Indian National Congress, saved Assam from being a part of Pakistan and made the then leader of the opposition, Gopinath Bordoloi as the Prime Minister of Assam. Member of Asiatic Society of Bengal, Chandra Mohan Goswami advocated for retaining Bengali in schools and courts of Assam. According to him, the impact of Bengal on the life and culture of the Assamese was not small. In spite of their animosity against linguistic domination, the intelligentsia was not slow in adopting Bengali dress, customs, usuages, and even food habits. (Source : Assam Commissioner's Office, File No.471; see statement made by Babu Chandra Goswami). Influence of Michael Madhusudan Dutta is found discernible in Chandradhar Baruah's two dramas in blank verse- Meghnad Badh and Tilottama Sambhava. (Source: Political History of Assam, Vol 1, P146). Gunabhiram Baruah,an eminent social reformer of the age became a follower of Brahmo Samaj. The work and activities of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar influenced him very much, which prompted him to write the first modern drama 'Ram Navami' where in he made an appeal to the people to rethink in encouraging perpetual widowhood. (Source: Political History of Assam,Vol 1, P 131). Anandaram Dhekial Phukan keenly felt the necessity of promoting cultural and commercial contacts between the people of Assam and Bengal. Anandaram developed a cordial relationship with the legendaries of Bengal, like, Devendranath Tagore, Raja Radhakanta Deb, Prasanna Kumar Tagore, Motilal Seal, Sitanath Ghosh, Ram Chandra Mitra. (Source: Political History of Assam, Vol 1, P 120& Ibid. P35-37). Many more such stories of warm and friendly relationship among the people of Assamese and Bengali exist. In spite of having such a strong history and legacy, how can the Bengalis become a threat?

Few friends of mine belonging to the Assamese community of Brahmaputra Valley opine that ‘the region has been historically the route of foreign invasions from the east. So, it is very important to identify the obstacles and barriers that stand in the way of assimilation and adopt those measures that could demolish those barriers and accelerate the process of integration.’ To me it is the ignorance and lack of knowledge about the various communities of the state that breeds distrust, which in its turn sow ill-will and hostility; whereas knowledge leads to understanding and understanding generates goodwill and trust.

 Integration is a dynamic phenomenon and it grows out of sustained interactions. Myron Weiner, the renowned political scientist and scholar identifies five uses of the term ‘integration’, viz : (1) National Integration or The integration of diverse and discrete cultural loyalties and development of a sense of nationality. (2) Territorial Integration (3) Value Integration (4) Elite-Mass Integration (5) The integration of individuals into organization for purposive activity.

Integration must be distinguished from Assimilation. Assimilation means a total loss of cultural identity for the group or community that is being assimilated and its absorption into the dominant group on the latter’s terms. The minority fear’s losing of its cultural identity to the majority. This leads to increasing alienation among minority and majority groups. The Bengalis feel forced and induced assimilation can be dangerous for them. Assam is a multi-lingual state with diverse race, culture and traditions so emphasis for unity should be on the framework of this cultural and ethnic pluralism. Bengalis have no allergy in integrating with the Assamese language, culture and traditions with loyalty but not at the cost of giving up their own ones. Does this attitude and feelings of the Bengalis can anyway be harmful for the Assamese? Is it crime to love, adore one’s own mother-tongue, language, culture and traditions?

Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev is the father of Assamese race. He preached and worked for the creation of universal brotherhood among the different ethnic groups of the society and advocated for its integration. He felt that the evil aspects of the society should be removed by any means, as he himself was a victim of it. Unity among the various ethnic groups of the region was acutely felt by him. He laid emphasis on nation building and felt that religion can play a vital role in nation building. Had the path and philosophy shown and propagated by Srimanta Sankardev and Madhabdev  been followed in its true spirit, then the socio-cultural-political crisis which we are passing through now ,would not have engulfed us. The ‘Race formation and developmental process’  which was initiated on the path and philosophy of Sankardev and Madhabdev all of a sudden came to a halt for which both the Assamese and Bengali communities are affected. If we look back at  history, we learn that the people of primitive cult who took up ‘Sankari Dharma’ or ‘Eksharan Dharma’ developed ill-feelings among themselves, which resulted to the Moamoria Rebellion. But the people of Bengal rather Undivided-Bengal became the lifeline in the development process of Assamese race at this juncture.

The task of bringing and accommodating the Bengali hindus into the main frame should be on the path of  Sankardev and Madhabdev - the path of love, faith, trust, equality and respect. It cannot be achieved through forceful imposition or foul means. Had it been possible otherwise then it would have happened by this time and no rift or misunderstanding could have existed among the Assamese – Bengalis. Both the Assamese – Bengali have their individual identity, language, culture and traditions of honour, dignity and pride. The hurdles in the path of their integration and unification  are motivated and created by individuals or a group of individuals. These deceptive forces are in the fray from a very long time and are very much active at present too; though the name and style may be different. Applying the method of ‘divide and rule’ the British very tactfully deceived a section of Assamese luminaries against the Bengalis and the trend is carried forward as legacy, generation after generation without trying to identify the root cause of the problems and the reasons behind. What a wide hatched conspiracy!

The Bengali hindus on the other hand failed to express themselves, highlight the misunderstandings and false allegations against them. To prove their innocence the Bengali leadership meshed up their certain activities in such a manner that it  added fuel to the conflict and the ignition of spark stood as a hindrance in constructing the roadways of friendship and unity. It can be justified vehemently that the Bengali leadership might have failed to perform a constructive role in solving the conflict but is not entirely responsible for the created crisis nor can be considered as guilty. Had it been so then they would have encouraged the further fragmentations of Assam, demanded for a separate Autonomous Council.

The Bengali hindus of Assam never became a part of the campaigns which are Anti State and Nation. They always stood by the state and nation. From the pre-independence era till present time they contributed to the best of their ability in developing the society, state and nation. It is said that they are very much nationalistic in their approach. So the question of encouraging cluster division of the state into various fragments does not arise. They will always stand for the cause of ‘Unified Assam within the territory of United India.’ But the manner in which ‘ethnic fight’ is cropping up, the possibility of it taking the shape of ‘religious fight’ cannot be ruled out; because the fanatic religious fundamentalist  groups are constantly supporting the destructive forces to create anarchy in the state – the trend of various movements in the region gives us such an indication. Therefore it is the demand of time that the Assamese and Bengalis should build a close bonding among themselves based on mutual trust, faith, love and respect. Now the million dollar question is, who will initiate this sacred work --- Government or a specific group or elite luminaries ?

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