We foreigners: What it means to be Bengali in India’s Assam
As tensions over India’s citizenship law shine a light on Assam, a writer explores the historical tensions in the state.
It was a cold afternoon in December 1979. I was attending the makeshift central government school in the town of Maligaon, which means “the gardener’s village”, in the northeast Indian state of Assam. I was in class 3.
Suddenly we heard police sirens. We saw the police enter the principal’s office. That is when I heard the word “curfew” for the first time. Soon after, a boy whispered into my ear: “It’s Assamese versus Bengali.”
I learned later that day that violence had broken out on the streets that morning. There were reports of stone-throwing by Assamese in a Bengali neighbourhood called Das Colony. A petrol pump on the main road between Maligaon and Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, was set on fire and the peace I had taken for granted went up in smoke.
History pulls you by your ears far more brutally than a teacher in the classroom or a parent at home
When I had left home for school earlier that morning, I had seen and heard nothing that suggested anything was wrong with the world around me. How had things become so crazy by recess?
I did not know then that life as I understood it was about to change. History pulls you by your ears far more brutally than a teacher in the classroom or a parent at home. It forces you to grow up instantly and face a world you are unprepared for.
We were sent back home in a car. The shops were shut, and the roads were empty, except for policemen. I experienced my first fear of the world. I did not know if I was safe inside the car.
We passed a makeshift stage on the main road to Guwahati, made of bamboo and white cloth with a photograph of a young Assamese boy, Khargeshwar Talukdar, who had been killed by police fire and declared a “martyr”. It was surrounded by incense sticks and beside it was written in Assamese: “We will give blood, not country.”
It was a territorial stake in the ground by Assam’s majority ethnic group, the Assamese, who were declaring that they would rather sacrifice lives than give up exclusive claim to the land around us.
I was catapulted into history that day.
A label and a slur
Within a few hours of returning home (much to the relief of my parents and neighbours), I learned about the preamble to this conflict. I was a “foreigner” in Assam, where I had been born: a frightening word meant for all outsiders, even migrants from Bihar state and Darjeeling district (in West Bengal state). It was a political label and a slur.
The political concern of the Assamese community was that large-scale migration was threatening to turn them into a linguistic minority. Assam’s leaders argued that the number of refugees from East Pakistan, fleeing conflict and civil war with West Pakistan, which ultimately led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, had created a demographic imbalance, endangering the rights of the “indigenous” Assamese (a term borrowed from the colonial lexicon).
They demanded that refugees from Bangladesh arriving between January 1, 1966, and March 24, 1971, should be made ineligible for citizenship rights. In the Assam Accord of 1985, signed between Assam’s student leaders and the Rajiv Gandhi government, March 24, 1971, was set as the cut-off date for identifying and expelling “foreigners” (mainly immigrants from Bangladesh).
Dates were a matter of political negotiation, but did not matter when it came to targeting people in the street for the language they spoke. My father, a Bengali Hindu refugee from Mymensingh, then in East Pakistan, who came to Assam in 1951 to join the Northern Frontier Railway, was a “foreigner”. My mother was born in Assam. But since her parents hailed from Dhaka, she too was a “foreigner”. I inherited the distinction of being a “foreigner” by birth.
The partition of India in 1947 was unapologetically unkind to people from the severed provinces of Punjab, which was divided between India and then West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and Bengal, which was divided between India and then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
Once you lose your home, you live your past in your tongue. My father used to speak endlessly about his home. His proof of belonging lay in his recounting the names of the 12 police stations of Kishoreganj, a district in Dhaka division of Bangladesh. I never understood his obsession with that until much later. Refugees are parrots of memory. Naming as an act of repetition is a mark of loss, a way to hover around the same place and time that is gone forever.
From 1836 to 1872, Bengali was imposed as Assam’s state language by the colonial government, while Assam was part of the Bengal Presidency, once the largest subdivision of British-ruled India. It was a colonial manoeuvre for administrative ease, but Bengalis were thereafter blamed for what was seen as cultural hegemony. The Assamese people felt that the fewer Bengalis within their territory, the better. Nothing much has changed since.
A body without a place
The insecurity of culture is a territorial concern. It causes fear of numbers, fear of presence. Refugees are people only to themselves. For the nation, refugees are a population looking for legal status. For refugees, the citizen is a desirable but frightening idea. It eludes their condition. The nature of this crisis was explained by Hannah Arendt, the German-American political theorist and author of We Refugees: those who are not citizens are not considered human beings. The refugee is another species. He or she is an encroacher, an infiltrator, and resembles an insect.
Belonging was a matter of right and I did not possess that right, even by birth. The land belonged to someone else
On learning I was a “foreigner”, I felt like a fruit sliced into two. I was old enough to realise that my ties to my land of birth had been altered forever. It was a moment of multiple severances: all that I thought belonged to me, suddenly no longer did. My home, my garden, my street, my neighbourhood, my school, the road to Guwahati, the shops in nearby Fancy Bazaar, even my grandmother’s house. Belonging was a matter of right and I did not possess that right, even by birth. The land belonged to someone else.
The most fundamental feeling that has stayed with me since that day is one of groundlessness. We lacked ground. I felt that lack in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata) whenever we visited my father’s relatives, and when we finally moved there in the mid-1990s. Calcutta belonged to other Bengalis, not us. I have felt the same “lack” in Delhi for two decades as well. When I met Kashmiris who were fighting for their land, I envied them. A Bengali woman journalist from Shillong aired a similar sense of envy for the Assamese people. Her community faced persecution in 1979 and she felt jealous of the Assamese people for having what she did not – a homeland to call her own. We had no blood to offer, for the sake of any country.
During the 1979 agitation, we witnessed frequent curfews and strikes called by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and other organisations belonging to the local community. At least two young Bengali men in my hometown were murdered. One incident that happened when I was 11 years old involved a young Assamese man, a school dropout in his early 20s, in my neighbourhood. He stabbed his childhood Bengali friend, who had just joined the Indian Air Force, to death in the middle of the street.
A week earlier, the same murderer had grabbed me by the collar when I was returning from school.
“Why don’t you go to your golden Bengal?” he asked me.
“But this is my home,” I said.
Chewing paan (a preparation combining betel leaf and various mouth-freshening additives), he spat out a curse, “Just leave, you rogue!”
On a few occasions, I was accosted by boys on side streets and told to leave.
I saw a banana seller heckled, his bananas stolen and his basket thrown into our garden. One day, our garden of betel nut trees, marigold, ashoka and magnolia flowers, turned solemn, as the “foreign” gardeners from Bihar left.
“Outsiders” would be humiliated and assaulted at will. There were torchlit marches after dusk by the local Assamese. We would sit in the darkness listening to them chant “foreigners get out” as they passed by our house. We went to bed worrying about rumours of a midnight attack. Fear was a constant shadow. Fear was intimate.
I felt a foreigner to myself. I could not place myself anywhere. I lived in my body. A refugee is a body without a place.
Too young to know why they died
During the agitation, I was lucky as a school-going boy to have as a neighbour the man responsible for the street theatre movement in Assam. The late Ratna Ojha, who passed away on December 31, 2019, introduced me and my family to the Assamese culture. He would take us to the evening kirtan – a performance of devotional songs offered to the Hindu deity, Krishna – sung with the slow rhythm of the dobas (drums played with sticks or hands) and bhortals (cymbals made of brass) at the Nam Ghar (prayer house).
The uniqueness of Assamese culture lies in its artistic forms. Be it the delicate vigour of the Bihu dance, or the sombre grace of folk songs about the mahout-friend (he who tends elephants) in the Goalpariya dialect of Assamese, sung by the iconic late singer, Pratima Barua Pandey.
The house of straw and bamboo (called bhelaghar in Assamese) that was burned on the eve of the Magh Bihu festival had a haunting impression on me. It symbolised the harvest season but I found it strangely frightful, despite the celebrations around it.
I later recalled the bhelaghar, watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film, Mirror, in which a child watches a straw house burning in the rain. That neighbourly love with an Assamese family was lost forever once he left with his family to live in another part of the city.
While the agitation was going on, I had distanced myself from my Assamese friend who was my classmate and neighbour. One day, he caught up to me in the street and asked: “Why don’t you come to my house any more? What’s the matter?” I was embarrassed by my own doubts. He understood, though: “I know you must be feeling terrible. But trust me. My mother taught me to read.”
I trusted him. The word “read” seemed like a light in the dark because sharing books as we did in class enabled us to imagine a life beyond the constraints of our own identities. He affirmed a community that was based not on ethnicity, but ideas and sensibility. Such a community has a universal appeal, where people can transcend their cultural locations.
Contrast this to the slogans we listened to, shouted by locals walking past our darkened windows: “Ali [for Muslims], coolie [for Biharis], Bongali [slur for Bengalis], naak sepeta Nepali [blunt-nosed Nepalis].” It was ironic that a political movement that had started in the name of language had reduced that language to racial and ethnic profiling.
The Nellie massacre on February 18, 1983, that took the lives of 2,000 Bengali Muslim peasant families from 14 villages in central Assam within six hours, brought the Assam Movement to a halt. It took a massacre for the nation to finally take notice of Assam, although the All India Radio did not give us news about ourselves. We learned of Nellie from the two radio channels we had depended on since 1979 – the Bengali service of the Voice of America and the BBC. Pictures were released in the press, of dead children lying in rows like fallen hyacinth. Those children were too young to know why they died or that they were “foreigners”.
At the time of the Poona Pact in 1932, which secured electoral seats for lower-caste Indians, the social reformer BR Ambedkar famously told Mahatma Gandhi: “Gandhiji, I have no nation.” Despite fundamental differences in their historical and social status, Dalits, a community of “outcasts” within the Hindu caste structure, and refugees share a sense of groundlessness. They lack a sense of belonging to the nation. They feel excluded.
I have always hesitated to claim my rights as a citizen. I have felt an outsider to my nation’s history. If belonging is ascertained by language, and is measured by arbitrary cut-off dates, I do not want to be desperate to belong. But I shall oppose this mindset that treats territory as more sacrosanct than people.