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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2017



Home, Exile and Ethnic Violence in Post-Partition Assam

Rajorshi Das, Asst. Professor (ad-hoc), Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi

The story of India’s Partition is primarily a story of the marginalisation of ethnic and/or religious minorities in their own homelands. This is particularly true of the Sylhetis in Assam, who have been reduced to exiles following their construction as ‘foreigners’ in post-Partition India1. In his ideological pamphlet, ‘Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?’ Savarkar writes – “Hindutva is a not a word but history” thereby suggesting that ‘Hindu’ as a term is more of an ethnic rather than religious identity with Muslims being seen as infiltrators and carriers of a more aggressive culture. His notion of India as a homogeneous Hindu country establishes the ‘host’ status of the majoritarian religious community due to their prior entry point into the region. Thus, the nation, in Savarkar’s Hindutva is based on a Nazi-like ‘pure’ identity. I will look at the forced displacement of Sylhetis in Assam, through both official history and literary testimonies (that can be read as a form of alternate history) to understand how the fictive construction of the nation in fascist terms blurs the distinctions between the citizen and the foreigner, the host and the guest in a region which was otherwise celebrated for its ethnic plurality.

Immigration in Assam and Roots of Assamese Xenophobia:

It is important to remember that in Assam and the North East, the divisive forces emerged largely out of ethnic and linguistic reasons rather than religious ones. The Partition of Bengal and Assam reduced Bengalis to ‘foreigners’ who were now expected to go to their nation – East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh). Though “the problem of immigration was recognized by the Central government way back in 1950 when the Parliament passed the Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act of 1950” (Goswami 130), the anti-Bengali sentiment can be traced back to 1826 “when the Burmese occupation forces ceded Assam to the British who Bengalised the administration” (Gupta 99). Thereafter, one can identify three distinct waves of migration in Pre-partition India. Firstly, the incompetency of the Ahom bureaucrats made the British import Bengali officers who being agents of imperialism looked down upon the native ways and culture. Later, the East India Company also brought in labourers for tea estates from the tribal belt of Chota Nagpur plateau which contributed to the growing demand of food grains. Lastly the administration merged Sylhet with Assam in 1874 to make the latter “economically viable” (Dasgupta 19) and consequently the peasants from the overpopulated East Bengali districts were encouraged to settle in the state.

Priya Kumar contends that “possessiveness and ownership of the house can often incite hostility and hatred towards those designated as strangers” (85). Therefore, the Mymensingh peasant’s hunger for land which often amounted to the encroachment of tribal property, escalated tensions between the natives and the immigrants leading to the formulation of the controversial Line System in 1916. Shekhar Gupta refers to this “land-hunger” while trying to justify the barbarity of the Lalung tribals during the Nellie massacre decades later (102).  During the Sylhet referendum, the vote was therefore not so much for religious reasons but ethnic and linguistic ones. Though the Congress leadership headed by Gopinath Bordoloi was relieved to let the Muslim dominated Sylhet go, its separation did little to stop immigration that continued “in waves” (Chatterjee 106).

According to Van Schendel, the “language of infiltrators” surfaced in 1962 and came into everyday use during the Assam Movement that started in 1979. Though the indigenous people made little distinction between the Hindu and the Muslim Sylhetis in times of violent uprisings, the official discourse specifically reduced the Muslim migrants across India to infiltrators wedging a “demographic invasion” (Schendel 195). Soon the terms, ‘Bengali’ and ‘Muslim’ came to be used interchangeably and every attempt was made to deport these so-called illegal migrants to Bangladesh who in turn refused to take them back. Thus, while the Sylhetis were always seen as ‘outsiders’ and ‘strangers’ in the Brahmaputra valley, Partition constructed them as ‘foreigners’ to be marginalised by a hospitable-turned-hostile homeland. The fragmentation of the Sylheti identity (only the Hindu pockets of Ratnabari, Patherkandi, Haliakandi and half of Karimganj thana remained in India) not only made the Indian Sylhetis extremely vulnerable but gave away to a diasporic consciousness leading to the creation of “little Sylhets” (Dasgupta 20) like that of Brick Lane in London. It may however be mentioned here that in their usual conversations, my Sylheti relatives rarely distinguish between Karimganj and Sylhet as regions from two different nations. The international boundary has little significance for them as they treat Sylhetis as one cohesive family with distinct culture and language – separate from the indigenous West Bengalis, the ghotis.

Victims of Ethnic Conflicts:

Jaswant Singh argues that “trouble in Northeast India is endemic” and rightly so given the recurrent massacres and killings perpetuated by both separatist groups and armed forces (1057). Following the language movement in 1960, Asamiya was made the official language of the state in complete denial of the region’s multi-lingual character. Consequently, the tribal population felt threatened and the separatist movements by tribal elites lead to the granting of statehood to Meghalaya and Mizoram. The relatively more vulnerable Hindu Bengalis on the other land were subjected to unprecedented violence during the 1972 movement started by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) to make Assamese the medium of instruction till the graduation level. The issue of the cut-off date for identifying infiltrators resurfaced in 1979 with the leaders of the Assam movement demanding 1948 as the cut-off year. Monirul Hussain laments: “Notwithstanding its popular character, the leadership of the movement failed to contain the anti-democratic, non-secular and violent tendencies generated by the movement itself particularly against the Hindu Bengalis, Na-Asamiya Muslims and in some cases the Nepalis living in the Brahmaputra Valley” (“Internal Displacement” 4520) The violence in North Kamrup in 1980 was soon to be followed by the 1983 Nellie massacre after the Election Commission decided to go ahead with elections on the basis of the 1979 electoral list. Termed as “one of the single largest and severest pogroms that the post-second World War history has witnessed”, it marked a senseless butchering of Muslim women and children who “had no place to go, no alternative to their existing living space” (4520). It is significant that women and children being the carriers of their respective races are the chief targets during these acts of ethnic violence.

The signing of the 1985 Assam Accord two years after the massacre did little to contain tensions and instead its failure gave way to the emergence of ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) and Bodo union groups. Like the Assam Movement, the Bodo Movement resorted to violence against minorities and with the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous Council (BAC), armed militants started Holocaust-like ethnic cleansing in BAC areas as exemplified by the systematic killings of non-Bodo populations in Barpeta, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon in 1994. Hussain refers to the plight of the Santhal tribe who has been twice displaced – firstly after the famous rebellion against the British in 1855 and later following the repeated attacks in Assam (4522). These attacks in turn have led to the emergence of Santhal militant groups like Birsa Munda Force and Cobra Force.  As recent as December 26, 2014 attacks and counter-attacks have gripped the districts of Kokrajhar and Chirang- Bodo dominated regions.

Partition Literature as Testimonios:

The usage of literary texts as testimonies can be traced back to slave narratives and Black American literature that capture stories of human rights abuses. This autobiographical mode usually focuses on the collective suffering of a community and their long-term trauma as evident in Rigoberta Menchu’s life-writing: “This is my testimony. I did not learn it from a book and I did not learn it alone” (1). This is also true of Partition literature emerging out of Bengal and Assam that rely on memory to reconstruct a violent past and force the reader to take notice of unprecedented acts of barbarism that got obliterated in the process of nation building. Unlike other sites of Partition, Northeast and specifically Assam have continued to witness bloodshed of genocidal levels over the decades. Hence literature becomes a means to record the collective trauma of the marginalised lost in Indian historiography. Nothing exemplifies this better than Arupa Patangia Kalita’s Felanee (2011) that traces the life of a carnage survivor whose journey coincides with decades of insurgencies and communal riots initiated by the likes of AASU, ULFA and most significantly All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU). As a new-born baby, Felanee was thrown away into a pond by the agitators who set fire to her house sheltering her unconscious mother. Patangia critiques the notion of a pure Nazi-like Assamese identity by focusing on a character with multi-ethnic roots in true spirit of the state and by extension that of India’s pluralism. Even as Baishya warns Felanee against wearing the shell bangles lest she is mistaken for a Bengali and Bulen, a caring neighbour-turned-hostile militant orders her to wear a dokhana, the traditional dress for Bodo women, Felanee refuses to go by notions of ethnic performativity2: “I need neither a separate dress nor a separate state. All I need is something to wear and one square meal” (31). In contemporary Assam, such markers of identity become essential to identify and confront the enemy and the infiltrator in complete denial of ancestry, time of arrival or period of domicile as also seen in Siddharta Deb’s The Point of Return (that will be discussed in later sections of this paper).3

As in the case of Bangladesh War of Independence, the woman’s body here becomes the site of organised sexual violence. The author depicts the plight of all the displaced women in the refugee colony with brutal honesty and factual details that are meant to penetrate through decades of silence and shake the reader out of his/her stupor. Each woman suffers from acts of sexual exploitation in some form or the other. While Jaggu’s wife’s death is a result of multiple abortions and workload, her uterus hanging down like “a big chunk of raw flesh” (19), the mentally deranged Sumala’s mutilated body, “in place of her breasts, were two raw bleeding wounds”, is discovered near the army camp suggesting the complicity of the so-called protectors in the murder (35). Felanee who too starts out as a nervous wife of Lambodar – her memory scarred by the grotesque images of the massacre in her husband’s village – is empowered by the financially independent Kaliboori. Felanee in turn motivates the likes of Minoti, Jon’s wife and Aruna to survive the atrocities committed by the militants, predominantly men. While the novel encourages the women to be economically self-reliant, like Bama’s Dalit narrative Sangati, it does not advocate it as the only means of emancipation as the married women’s income need not necessarily reduce their exploitation at home as evident in the cases of Jon’s mother and Jaggu’s wife. In a vehement critique of conventional masculinity glorified by Indian nationalism, Felanee warns Minoti – “You don’t know these men. They have blood in their hands. Once they have tasted blood, they are greedy for more….The greed for women, the greed for money, the greed for power” (55). In the name of ‘golden Assam’, the agitators are seen looting shops and exhorting money from civilians and businessmen whose refusal to comply would cost them their lives. They impose prolonged bandhs spilling over days and weeks thereby starving the refugees who depend on their day-to-day earnings. It is the feeling of solidarity that finally allows these women to construct a new home for themselves and confront their oppressors, be it Assamese agitators, Bodo militants, surrendered ULFA members or the Indian Army. Their ethnic differences become meaningless in the wake of adversities: “The Biharis would be killed too. And the Hindu as well. And then, not a single Muslim would survive either. Who then, will live? No one!” (68). In Felanee, we recognise that identity is ambiguous and in a state of flux, it rejects the regionalisation of Home as an entity for a homogenous self and community.

Whose Home?: Strangerizing the Unfamiliar:

Priya Kumar uses Derrida’s definitions of ‘étranger’ and “hostipitality” to explore how the Hindutva discourse makes strangers out of Muslims since the latter’s “moment of entry can be determined or pinpointed” (86). By not owing their religious allegiance to an indigenous source, Muslims are labelled “strangers” and “outsiders”. This process of strangerization is also true for Indian Sylhetis who are now made “foreigners” by virtue of losing their homeland, Sylhet to East Pakistan. While the Sylheti bhadralok refused to be categorised as “refugees” (Dasgupta 344), his linguistic and cultural differences make him an outsider in both West Bengal and Assam. In Siddharta Deb’s The Point of Return (2002), Dr Chatterjee chastises the Sylheti bhadralok’s false sense of superiority: “We saw the honesty of the tribal people as stupidity and through that we taught them our own deviousness” while also dismantling the romantic notion of the noble tribal: “innocent people, living of the earth, singing and dancing all the time” (Deb 284, 285). Though the Sylheti identity is rarely recognised in India beyond Bengal and Northeast, Chatterjee explains their marginalisation by both West Bengalis and “genteel” East Bengalis of Calcutta, in the process also highlighting the absurdity of ethnic conflicts –
Their smugness, as if they are the only Bengalis in the world, with their oh-so-proper language in their comparison with our dialect, which is rustic. It’s okay for a visit, but when I run into tribals in Calcutta, tribals on their shopping trips, we stick together. We who will come back and be ready to murder each other in this place, we feel united in our common dislike of the city and its people. (289)

Van Schendel’s narrative of Homecoming has little relevance for migrants in Assam who are seen as perpetual outsiders. In The Point of Return, the story is narrated in reverse chronological order through Babu, the insider-outsider who has to confront the truth that he has no claim on his homeland, Shillong (which is not named in the novel). The author writes: “The generations that grow up in the stability of a family home know nothing of the uncertain process that went into creating that home” (37). While Babu has no sense of belonging to Sylhet or East Bengal, his father Dr Dam’s ‘homing desire’ perpetuates the story in his continuous search for a stable mooring in form of his own house. Though he never betrays any sense of nostalgia for Sylhet, his insecurity is evident in his repeated search for an ‘imaginary homeland’ in Guhawati and later in Silchar. It is significant that Dam, despite being a government servant is not a typical bhadralok and recounts no exaggerated tales of properties left behind in East Pakistan. His “white skin and grey eyes” make him an anomaly foregrounding his position as a ‘foreigner’ (76).

Unlike the Punjab or Bengal experience of Partition, the Assam experience was peaceful and people migrated due to perceived threat of violence. However, the threat itself is very effective as evident from Dam’s confrontation with the minister, following which the former thinks that it was Leapingstone, the minister’s uncle who pointed a gun at him. The word “dkhar” resonates throughout the novel as the author’s mind oscillates between his desire to blend with his surroundings and leave it forever. He remembers the first time he “walked into my enemy country” (225) when he and Dam got assaulted by a crowd of agitators who were protesting against the “presence of foreigners” (227). While observing the “future leader” (231) for the first time, Babu and his friend Moni discuss:
“Know who the cowboy is?”
“No. Looks like an outsider…”
“As far as he’s concerned, we’re outsiders. You more than me.” Moni was Assamese. (230)

Thus, despite not knowing any other hometown, Babu is denied the host status in the hills. The leader is ominously named Adolf Hitler, thereby drawing parallels between the Nazi regime’s atrocities on the Jews and that of the agitators on the Bengalis4. As “quadrants of time and space are sliced into zones of fear” (235), Babu and the non-tribals took extra care to avoid the leader. That the Bengalis were asked to carry identity cards to prove their citizenship anticipates the fate of East Bengali refugees as “transnational migrants” being denied residence in both India and Bangladesh (Ramachandran 14). It paves the way for fellow xenophobic states like Maharashtra to make foreigners out of Muslims as evident in stories like N S Madhavan’s ‘Mumbai’ and Prafulla Roy’s ‘Stateless’. The absurdity of the process is obvious as Aziz in ‘Mumbai’ is not even a Bengali but is made an infiltrator from Bangladesh by virtue of not being born before 1971 (the cut-off year) while Pramila Gokhale, like the tribal in Assam need not prove their citizenships being from an indigenous ethnicity.

According to Tuan, “hometown is an intimate place” and “its ugliness does not matter” (144, 145). Being denied a place in his homeland, the author’s situation echoes that of Ahmed Ali who after Partition was not allowed to return to Delhi and had to settle down in Karachi. The title of the novel foregrounds the author’s return albeit a temporary one to his hometown – “Why come back, you ask? What happened in between? Nothing really – a room here, a room there” (247). Like his father, Babu’s search for a new “home” remains a distant dream as he tries to retain the memory of his childhood home that is almost unreal and imaginary compared to the contemporary reality of Shillong.  His profound nostalgia for the city betrays a sense of guilt: “But I had ignored everything, the place and the people who lived here, turning my back on them…I told myself that there will be a time when you will sit somewhere far from here and need to remember many things” (199). Having escaped from his Place in search of better places, Babu, the “hillman” finds the plains “wanting” (254) and is also unable to relate to Tagore’s achievements. His return is also an act of remembrance as he revisits the ‘intimate places’ marked by the memories with his father. Like Ahmed Ali, the author soon realizes that things have changed only for worse and that his memories are nothing but ghosts of the past that need to be put to rest. While as a writer, the onus falls on Deb to write the testimony of his community – “somewhere, on some map, there must be a place for them too” (290) – Deb’s inability to find that place makes him a perpetual exile in his own country. According to Tuan, “thinking” and “seeing” creates distance (146) and hence Babu’s recollection of events allows his intimate experiences to be made more distant and less private. Unlike Arjun in Sunil Gangopadhay’s novel (by the same name), Babu chooses to only report and not to work towards a solution for his people. The concluding paragraph has a sense of closure as the author liberates the ghost of his childhood to move ahead in life. There is no return for this member of the Sylheti diaspora –

I look at my birthplace, knowing that I will never see it again. I want it to be home for everyone…But how you achieve that future is no longer my concern. I tell you my hometown. I truly let go, I know, as I step past the impatient conductor and the door closes behind me” (304).


While force has been the root cause of dispersal for the victims of Partition narratives discussed in the paper, unlike Babu in Deb’s novel, Felanee refuses to be categorised as a diasporic subject by using the collective trauma of the refugee colony as a source of attachment and empowerment. Perhaps Babu being economically stable and ethnically more vulnerable finds it rather practical to relinquish his claim. The recent ethnic violence in Kokrajhar and the controversy over religious conversions in the name of ghar wapsi (homecoming), reiterate the labelling of Muslims as strangers and outsiders. This attempt at homogenizing the nation and eliminating its cultural diversities further complicates the already unstable moorings of the minorities, thereby raising their “diasporic consciousness” as a “defence mechanism” (Khan 147). It may also be pointed out that the Muslims in general are not exactly ‘outsiders’ in Assam as their earliest entry can be traced back to the failed invasion by Muhammad Khilji in 1206, much before the arrival of Ahom kings. While this is inconsequential with respect to the perpetual ethnic conflicts plaguing development in the state, it highlights once again the role of Partition in rewriting India’s history.



1 This idea of internal exile is heavily anticipated in Ahmed Ali’s pre-Partition novel, Twilight in Delhi (1940) that laments “the decay of a whole culture, a particular mode of thought and living, values now dead and gone before our eyes” (xxi). In depicting Delhi’s transformation under colonial rule, the novel’s elegiac tone anticipates the Partition genocide that confirmed the status of minorities (particularly Muslims) as strangers – a construction of the mainstream Hindutva ideology.

2 Butler’s ‘gender performativity’ can be applied to the performance of ethnicity and identity that follow strict binary notions of good and bad, centre and other. Such a performance becomes an important marker of identity constructing ‘strangers’ and ‘enemies’.

3 This isn’t unlikely the construction of the “anti-national” and the sartorial expectations that govern the category.

4 The Assamese xenophobia also extends to the Nepalese migrants as evident from the butchering of their cattle and burning of sheds.


Works Cited

Ali, Ahmed. Twilight in Delhi.1940. New Delhi: Rupa, 2007. Print.

Chatterji, Joya. “Partition and Migration: Refugees in West Bengal, 1947-1967” The Spoils of Partition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. Print.

Dasgupta. Anindita. “Remembering Sylhet: A Forgotten Story of India’s 1947 Partition” Economic and Political Weekly 43.31 (2008): 18-22. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Deb, Siddhartha. The Point of Return. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. Print.

Goswami, Sabita. “Sabita Goswami: Along the Red RiverMuse India 58 (2014): n.p. 1 Nov 2014. Web. 2 Dec 2014.

Goswami, Sandhya. “Ethnic Conflict in Assam” The Indian Journal Political Science 62.1 (2001): 123-137. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Gupta, Shekhar. A Valley Divided. Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1984. Print.

Hussain, Monirul. “Ethnicity, Communalism and State” Economic and Political Weekly. 30.20 (1995): 1154-1155. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Hussain, Monirul. “State, Identity Movements and Internal Displacements in the North-East” Economic and Political Weekly 35.51 (2000): 4519-4523. JSTOR. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Kalita, Arupa Patangia. The Story of Felanee. Trans. Deepika Phukan. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2011. Web. 14 Dec 2014.

Khan, Aisha. “Rites and Rights of Passage: Seeking a Diasporic Consciousness.” Cultural Dynamics 19.2-3 (2007): 141-164. Sage Journals. Web. 2011.

Kumar, Priya. “Beyond Tolerance and Hospitality: Muslims as Strangers and Minor Subjects in Hindu Nationalist and Indian Nationalist Discourse.” Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace. Ed. Elisabeth Weber. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013. 80-103. PDF File.

Madhavan, N.S. “Mumbai” Image and Representations Ed. Mushirul Hasan and M. Asaduddin. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Trans. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray London: Verso, 1984. Print.

Ramachandran, Sujata. “Indifference, Impotence and Intolerance: Transnational Bangladeshis in India” Global Migration Perspectives No. 42. Geneva: Global Commission on International Migration, 2005. Print.

Savarkar, V. D. “Essentials of Hindutva” 1923. Web. 4 Dec 2016.
Schendel, William van. “Narratives of Border Crossing” The Bengal Borderland. London: Anthem, 2005 191-209. Print.

Singh, Jaswant. “Assam’s Crisis of Citizenship” Asian Survey 24.10 (1984) :1056-68. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec 2014.

Tuan, Yi-Fu “Intimate Experiences of Place” Space and Place; the Perspectives of
Experience. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1977. Print. 136-148.