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Mainstream, VOL L, No 9, February 18, 2012

Language of Love and Death: Fifty Years of Assam’s Language Movement

Sunday 19 February 2012



The Beginning of Things

Of the major issues that informed the culture and politics of post-independence Assam, none (other than the issue of immigration) perhaps acquired the kind of centrality that language did. The post-independence Gopinath Bardoloi-led Congress provincial government, and also sections of the civil society through various organisations such as the Assam Sahitya Sabha and Assam Jatiya Mahasabha took upon themselves the task of construction of a political discourse—the genesis of that lay of course, in the cultural politics of colonial Assam which culminated in the referendum and ceding of Sylhet, a Bangla-speaking, Muslim-majority district of the province, to East Pakistan in 1947—and that sought to project the province as one which bore nothing but a unilingual/cultural character. The hegemonic linguistic nationalism, sponsored and propagated by the Assam(ese) provincial State, was primarily pitched vis-à-vis the Bangla language and Bengalis, the largest linguistic minority (despite the exclusion of Sylhet) of the province.

By introducing a series of language policies since 1947, the provincial government clearly pronounced its intention of restoring for the Assamese language the position of supremacy that it was always denied; but this had nothing other than a historically legitimate right. And it was the culmination of such measures that saw the introduction of the Assam Official Language Bill followed by the Assam (Official) Language Act (ALA) in 1960 which stated that Assamese was to be then and thereafter the sole official language of Assam. Given Assam’s historically multilingual character, the launch of the ALA however, only added to the often violent conflict-like situation—between Assamese (with nearly 150 per cent rise in their population following the census of 1951) and non-Assamese speakers—already prevalent in the State. Cachar (geographically contiguous to Sylhet in undivided Assam), a district on the southern tip of the State with an existing Bangla-speaking majority—and growing steadily due to the inflow of Bengali partition-migrants—was a site of tremendous protest against the ALA.

While language-based mobilisations in post-independence India have been paid considerable attention in academic as well as the larger public sphere, yet in a curious act of oversight the one in Assam has perhaps received not more than a footnote treatment. In fact, for most scholars and public commentators (mainly those based outside southern Assam) the language-based mobilisation of the 1960s in Assam was nothing but an instance of “resistance”, and not a movement; more importantly, the complex historical-political factors that contributed to what I would not hesitate to term as the movement (and not “resistance”), have always not been factually accurate, and therefore, susceptible to partisan and hence, incompre-hensive and simplistic analysis. As recently as 2010, T.K. Oommen, the well-known scholar and commentator, in his two-volume edited work on social movements in India, also misread the situation that prevailed in Assam during the two decades that followed the partition—including the “resistance” of the 1960s—and thereafter. The following discussion, therefore, looks at that “forgotten” (outside southern Assam) Bhasha Andolan/language movement that rocked Assam half-a-century ago. Indeed, it remains significant not only for a critical understanding of the linguistic/cultural politics of contemporary Assam but also India and neighbouring Bangladesh.

Loving and Dying for Matribhasha

THE Bengalis of southern Assam in particular—the region popularly known since the 1980s by the epithet Barak Valley to represent Cachar, Karimganj, and Hailakandi districts—following partition spearheaded campaigns for territorial reorganisation of Assam (and in fact, the entire North-Eastern Frontier) on the bases of language, culture, geography and other factors, by proposing, first, a Plan for Purbachal in 1948,—and not Purbanchal as Oommen (2010) writes—and second, Purbachal Reconsidered to the States Re-organisation Commission of India in 1954. Gone unheeded, such failed campaigns also added to the language movement that was already in the making in the State. The fear of the Bengalis of Assam in general (and also people of the hill districts of the State), articulated clearly and vociferously by those based in Cachar in particular, grew not only due to the State Government’s policies related to political-economic development, rights of a linguistic/cultural minority, fate of the Bangla language medium educational institutions, but also the gradual “loss of position of social dominance” they had had under the colonial administration. Quite predictably, the battle-lines had been clearly drawn, and amidst hectic manoeuvrings of political parties such as the Congress, CPI, and so forth, and civil society groups, the ALA came through as nothing but the last straw.

Organisations such as the Nikhil Assam Banga Bhasha-Bhashi Samiti, Sangram Parishad, Cachar Zila Gana Sangram Parishad intensified their protests against the implementation of the ALA, as did the district Congress Committee which formed the Bhasha Andolan Samiti; students, eminent community leaders, intellectuals, and so forth eventually joined the process of mobilisation across Assam. Throughout 1960 clashes—a few turning violent—between protesters, the police and pro-Language Bill/Act supporters were reported (and sometimes unreported) in the press. Largely non-violent modes of protest—like processions, satyagraha, padayatras, hartals, meetings, picketing, and so forth—were adopted in Cachar (including Karimganj and Hailakandi), and it was on a procession of satyagrahis at Silchar, the headquarters of the district, that the State Police fired on May 19, 1961 killing one woman and ten men. The death of eleven protesters along with numerous wounded, and an equal number arrested signified the high point of the language movement. On May 29, as a protest against the police firing, a complete district-wise bandh was observed. “Paritosh Pal Chaudhary, the chief architect of the Sangram Parishad… cate-gorically stated that ‘the movement would be resumed and carried on until the Bengali language was recognised at the State level’”. [The Times of India, May 30, 1961 cited in Goswami 1997: 62]
Following the brutal state repression and matters snowballing in all likelihood into, to say the least, a major controversy, the Congress High Command in Delhi (and the State Government) in a reconciliatory move appointed Lal Bahadur Shastri to initiate and implement suitable damage control measures. Suggesting amendment of the ALA he proposed the following: “(a) to give local bodies the authority to alter the official language of their area by a two-thirds majority; (b) to allow communication between the State capital and Cachar and the hill districts to continue to be in English; (c) at the State level to continue the use of English along with Assamese; and (d) to incorporate stronger provisions for the protection of linguistic minorities”. [Chakrabarty 1981 cited in Baruah 1999:105] The Shastri formula was unpalatable to both the Bengalis and Assamese, and the district level political groups; while the former accused Shastri of bypassing the central issue of official recognition of the Bangla language in the State, the latter alleged that they were not duly consulted. Meanwhile, the officially consti-tuted Mehrotra Commission which enquired into the May 19 killings submitted its report, as did the independent one headed by N.C. Chatterjee (with members, namely, Ranadeb Choudhury, Ajit Kumar Dutta, Snehangshu Kanta Acharya, and Siddhartha Shankar Ray). But Cachar continued to be disturbed—also due to internal differences within the leadership of the movement, the Sangram Parishad in particular—necessitating heavy police and armed forces deployment. In September 1961, the State Cabinet taking cue from the Shastri formula resolved to amend the ALA.

While Cachar’s response was cautious and a little more than lukewarm, sections of Assamese civil society resented the proposed amendment. The Assam Sahitya Sabha, in a memorandum to the Union Home Minister, argued: “The Assamese people strongly resent that their legitimate demand for recognition of Assamese as the only official language of the State which has been partially fulfilled in the Assam Official Language Act, 1960, as it stands, will be further adversely affected if the Act is amended … [and] the Assamese language will be reduced to the Status of a regional official language within the State ….” [Memorandum of Assam Sahitya Sabha to the Union Home Minister, June 29, 1961 cited in Goswami 1997:151]. Be that as it may, the ALA stood amended to grant Bangla the status of the other official language—but only of Cachar district—in October 1961. By the early 1970s a number of hill States were finally carved out of Assam, though Cachar remained in Assam. The issue of the Bangla linguistic identity of Cachar, and its preservation arrived centre-stage yet again during the “language riots” in 1972 (and then in 1986) which broke over the issue of Gauhati University’s decision to introduce Assamese as the “language of education” in its affiliated colleges. After protracted negotiations a “compromise formula [was struck] that allowed for the continuation of English and removed any compulsion on matter of colleges switching to Assamese”. [Baruah 1999:106] The Bangla language/culture issue, however, continued to simmer in Cachar. The Cachar Gana Parishad Union Territory Demand Committee – demanded autonomy, that is, grant of Union Territory status in 1972, and reiterated that—during the high period of the anti-immigrant Assam movement—in 1980 and 1986 —by submitting memoranda to the then Prime Ministers.

The Summer of 1960s, and After

THE brief sketch of the language movement offered above is certainly not sufficient for its compre-hensive and critical reading. However, after fifty years it is certainly time to initiate an informed and non-partisan discussion on it so as to understand not only its complex trajectory—its colonial historical roots, ideological framework, mobilisation tactics, leadership issues, following and mass base contact, negotiation strategies—but also evaluate the political and cultural processes it subsequently unleashed. Of critical significance is the near extraordinary emotional chord it strikes among the young and old alike in contemporary Barak Valley. Indeed, the language movement, the killing of eleven protesters on May 19 in particular, remains as an overwhelmingly living memory in the region. Fifty years after the eleven protesters laid down their lives for upholding the cause of their matribhasha/mother tongue Bangla—a language of their love, and also finally death –and christened as Matri Bhasha Shahids/Mother Tongue Martyrs, May 19 continues to be commemorated as Bhasha Shahid Dibash/Matri Bhasha Dibash/Language Martyrs’ Day/Mother Tongue Day across the valley. Internal cultural differences in Barak Valley notwithstanding, May 19 is the symbol around which the contemporary cultural identity of the valley gets constructed, and propagated; the heroic pride that the language movement—May 19—generates has at the same time a touch of melancholy too, but that is negotiated through the idea of martyrdom of eleven protesters, their blood being spilt for a just cause, their love for Barak’s folk life, and finally, their love for Bangla until death. The poem cited below partially illustrates that:

Nineteenth May/tell me where I should/Keep our bleeding youth of long forty years?/My backbone, as I straighten it up/I see Tagore and Nazrul/Extending their caring arms/The fertile field of rural Barak, Boatword River, the warm heart of mankind/Soil-plastered hut in the courtyard/Everywhere, in happiness, sorrow, festival/Dear to the roots of tongue/Folk tales, Folk songs, Rhymes, Tune, Rhythm, the Padmapuran with smells of life/Dhamail, Bratakatha, Paachali, the songs of Ghazi/The inherited Nineteenth May/The tell-tale water, roots/The restless water, space. [Gupta 2002:1]

In fact, so large is the oeuvre of writings (primarily in Bangla) on the language movement and May 19—added to that now are those written to mark its fifty years—that it is impossible to discuss those here; also statues honouring the eleven protesters, and Shahid Bedis/Martyrs’ Altars dot the Barak Valley landscape, not to mention the repeated (failed) appeals by its citizens to the Railway Ministry to name the Silchar Railway Station—site of May 19 police firing—as Bhasha Shahid Station. On May 19, 2011 at a seminar organised jointly by the Sahitya Akademi and G.C. College Alumni Association (a Silchar based college of repute) in New Delhi to mark fifty years of the movement, the discussion, among others, raised an interesting issue: the message of the language movement, May 19, and eleven dead protesters was not to remain confined to Barak Valley. For half-a-century, the audience argued, the Indian state (and even the predominantly Bangla-speaking West Bengal) had failed to take note of the fact that Barak Valley’s “production” of eleven Mother Tongue Martyrs (including one woman named Kamala Bhattacharjee) had no parallels in history; more importantly, the United Nations declared February 21—the day two protesters were killed during the Bengali language movement in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1952—as International Mother Tongue Day because India failed to offer due recognition to the Mother Tongue Martyrs who were born, bred, and finally made to bleed to death on its own soil. The discussion no doubt bordered on deep emotional outpouring not unrelated to what could be called a cultural or rather, an expanded existential angst, yet it touched upon questions that certainly require exploration. Without suggesting that India should have entered into the competitive politics of “production” of number of Mother Tongue Martyrs—India had eleven and Bangladesh two—the issue still remains as to why the event(s) of the summer of 1960s—not just May 19 but the entire movement—in Assam stood, and stands marginalised in the Indian public imagination.

Baruah, Sanjib (1999):India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality (Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Bhattacharya, Bijit (2010):19 May Ebong Aashame Bangalir Astitiwer Sankat (19 May and Existential Crisis of Bengalis of Assam) (Hailakandi: Sahitya Prokashoni).
Choudhury, Sujit (2007): Barak Upatyakar Samaj O Rajniti (Society and Politics of Barak Valley) (Karimganj: Jugashakti Prokashon).
Datta, ParthaShankar (1993): Autonomy Movements in Assam (Documents) (Delhi: Omsons Publications).
Goswami, Sandhya (1997): Language Politics in Assam (New Delhi: Ajanta Publications).
Gupta, Chabi (2005): ‘Inheritance’ in Subir Kar (ed.) Poems on the Language Movement in Barak Valley: A Bilingual Anthology (Silchar: Shakespeare Society of Eastern India) 01.
Kar, Subir (1999): Barak Upatyakar Bhasha Sangramer Itihash (History of Barak Valley’s Language Movement) (Karimganj: Rita Kar).
Nag, Sajal (1990): Roots of Ethnic Conflict: Nationality Question in North-East India (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers).
Oommen, T.K. ed. (2010): Social Movements, Volumes I & II (Delhi: Oxford University Press).
Paul Choudhury, Paritosh (1972):Cacharer Kanna (Cry of Cachar) (Silchar: Author).

The author teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi,and her research interests include historical sociology, movements etc. She can be reached at

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