The music was vastly different from those of the previous performances that evening at the CIT Road ground in Calcutta. It was a song that re-energised the audience at the Carnival Against Fascism in January, which turned the protests against the new set of citizenship rules into a celebration of democracy and free speech. A music band that evening sang a Sylheti song – it took a while for the eager, young attendees to swing to the lyrics that sounded familiar and yet so alien. In the audience, I saw filmmaker Ronny Sen, who has roots in Silchar, run to the front of the stage.
Whale In The Pond, a young band comprising of Sourjyo, Shireen and Deep took the stage towards the end of a long evening and turned the spotlight to the arrival of a fast train and a 1961 incident in Assam’s Barak Valley region. Let’s go back to that story.
From the mid-1960s, Bengalis in Assam had risen in protest against the imposition of Assamese as the only official language of the state. For most Bengalis, including Sylheti speakers in the Barak Valley, the right to speak one’s mother tongue being taken away in independent India was unacceptable. It was a natural reaction from a community that had just survived a violent Partition and had fought a language war in East Pakistan in 1951 against the imposition of Urdu as the only medium of instruction. The protests across Assam had by and large been peaceful. In May 1961, however, things took a different turn. Police fired indiscriminately without warning on a group of peaceful demonstrators squatting at a railway station in Silchar. The firing, said a commission of a group of eminent lawyers investigating the incident, was ‘reckless, brutal and absolutely without any semblance of justification’ and in violation of police manuals. No emergency or contingency had arisen and there was no danger to public security or loss of life or property for which this extreme measure was taken, it added. Eleven people were killed in the firing. The song in Sylheti — a language spoken by many Bengalis — narrated this incident of police brutality at the Tarapur railway station in Assam. But only in the chorus. The centrepiece of song was the story of the arrival of a fast train. But ‘Aaij Bhagle Kalke Amra Nai', which loosely translates to ‘If We Run Today, We Won’t Be Here Tomorrow’, immediately took the clued-in back to the violent politics around language, identity and citizenship in Assam, the precursor to the present nationwide search for illegal migrants.
The fears about Sylhet
Sylheti not only took the audience back in time to the '60s, but it also reignited memories of a Sylhet when it was a district of an undivided India and a district unwanted by the Assamese. Before 1947, Assamese political leadership wanted the Bengali-speaking district of Sylhet to be partitioned out of an independent India to save their idea of a pure and homogenous upper-caste Assam. By then, Assam had already witnessed a Line System that allowed Muslim migrants from East Bengal’s Mymensingh and Rangpur districts to settle only in some demarcated areas. As historian Sujit Chaudhuri points out, Congress leader from Assam Gopinath Bordoloi told the British Cabinet Mission in 1946, “Assam would be quite prepared to hand over Sylhet to Eastern Bengal.” Chaudhuri writes, “The Assam Pradesh Congress Committee in 1945, in its election manifesto, stated: ‘Unless the province of Assam is organised on the basis of Assamese language and Assamese culture, the survival of the Assamese nationality and culture will become impossible. The inclusion of Bengali speaking Sylhet and Cachar and immigration or importation of lacs of Bengali settlers on wastelands has been threatening to destroy the distinctiveness of Assam and has, in practice, caused many disorders in its administration.’" These were the initial seeds of hatred against Bengalis and Muslims that was already translating into policy and would later evolve into targeted violence against the community. Between 1979 and 1985, the Assam agitation, an anti-foreigner agitation infamously went after Bengalis residing in the state. In 1983, according to some accounts, at least 3,000 Bengali speaking Muslims were killed during that agitation in Nellie.
The Assam Accord was signed in 1985 and gave rise to a new set of citizenship rules. By that time, the Barak Valley, of which Silchar is a part, had already been at the centre of many fights about illegal migrants, Bengalis and Assamese language and culture. Slowly but surely it had also transformed itself into a catchment area for the polarising politics that drives the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India. Many people in the region had turned Bharatiya Janata Party supporters. Those who opposed were in the minority.
When trying to find out more about the events at the Tarapur Railway station, I reached out to an eyewitness to the police firing. The person insisted on first knowing my position on the National Register of Citizens (NRC), that has already marked 1.9 million ‘Indians’ as non-citizens and kept them in a dangerous limbo. My opposition to it turned out to be a big disappointment for her. That my family has roots in Mymensingh and Jessore districts in Bangladesh added to that disappointment. “You should support the NRC,” I was told. The dangerous politics of polarisation has coopted people who might have suffered during Partition and turned this place into a big catchment area for those who want to push NRC, National Population Register (NPR) and CAA. What was anti-Bengali at one point has now become anti-Muslim and this is in perfect coordination with the BJP’s politics and divisive regional aspirations.
The song in two time-spaces — 2015, when the train arrives and so does the exercise of a National Register of Citizens update and 1961, when the shooting happens — captures this co-option.
Co-option of a Neglected Barak Valley
Barak Valley, even though a part of Assam, for the longest time was neglected by its own state government according to its residents. Not anymore. There are proactive announcements of schemes and there is some development on the surface. This includes faster trains as well. There is a certain romanticism around infrastructure in the region and this is where the song talks about a train that arrives on a broad-gauge line at Tarapur after more than 50 years. As the song proceeds, it seems that a cloud of amnesia engulfs the lives of the residents of Silchar, many of whom are now supporters of the BJP waiting to see a fast train arriving at the station. “The previous f---ing government took all our money all these years promising us broad-gauge lines and they’ll get away with it,” goes the translated lyrics.
As the song proceeds, in the chorus, there is a constant reminder of the police brutality and the language war that this region witnessed in the '60s. “They come to scare us with the sound of their guns. My blood freezes. But I won’t let them take away my identity. No, I won’t.” With such lyrics, it connects to the citizenship politics and protests across India.
Sourjyo, who wrote the song and is from Silchar, is direct about the politics of opportunism and Muslim hatred in Barak Valley. “I saw friends I grew up with (and some members of my extended family as well) slowly turn into vocal supporters of the BJP,” he says. “On a bigger scale, the entirety of Silchar fell in love with Modi after they introduced broad-gauge railway lines. I really wanted to poke fun at that blind hero worship and the verses do deal with that.” He points out the strange turn of events at the same railway station where people went to garland the first broad gauge train and thereby usher in the “Modi lovefest”, also witnessed perhaps Silchar's most historic event in 1961. “So it just made sense for me to make the chorus about that and highlight the hypocrisy of a community which was othered 60 years ago and which resisted a rabid nativist government, to completely forget their own history and accept a rabid nativist govt 60 years later, now completely comfortable with the othering the Muslims.” In 2019 general elections, the BJP won the Silchar Lok Sabha constituency. Its candidate received 52 percent of the votes cast.
Sense the dangers from 1961
In 2017, in a road accident, musician Kalika Prasad Bhattacharya, the frontman of Dohar, a Bengali folk music group, died. An iconic folk musician from the Barak Valley, Bhattacharya sung songs in Sylheti, Assamese, and in any style and genre and captivated people from Assam, Bengal and Bangladesh. His magical music defied borders, defied the dirty divisive politics that has consumed this region and united people. In fact, in the '60s, during the language riots in Assam , it was Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, who travelled across the state with their music as bridge builder between communities.
Whale In The Pond’s Sylheti song remains in sharp contrast to Dohar or the music caravan of Biswas and Hazarika. It calls out the divisive politics of Assam and the BJP. At a time when India is fighting a citizenship battle and riding high on the anthems of protest by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Varun Grover, Moushumi Bhowmick, Imphal Talkies, and others, this Sylheti song reminds people about an event in history that those in the railway platform where it happened barely remember.
“The BJP in Assam has reopened a lot of old wounds. Who knows what might happen,” adds Sourjyo.
The song that evening remained an important intervention from a young band, reminding everyone of the damages of conflicts between communities. It was asking the audience to turn their face towards recent history and sense the dangers current politics posed. It threatens to permanently damage relations between people of two communities and it also marginalises other communities who are not part of this conversation in the region. The dangers are manifold, and perhaps even worse than what India is witnessing now with its drive to create a legal list – and non-list – of citizens.
Arijit Sen is an independent journalist. He tweets at @senarijit
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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2020 09:25:55 IST