In his article titled “NRC debate: How the 1947 Sylhet partition led to Assam’s politics of the foreigner”, published by on August 12, Shoaib Daniyal brings up the pertinent subject of the partition of eastern India, a facet of subcontinental history that remains underexplored. However, the way Partition is linked to the National Register of Citizens is problematic and, in fact, exemplifies how this debate has often been pitched on fallacious starting points and premised on narratives that present only partial histories.

The NRC has elicited opinions from across the spectrum. Some are looking at it as a unique administrative exercise conducted at the behest of an active judiciary but whose consequence may be beyond judicial scope and intention. Many are trying to locate a sociopolitical rationale behind the move and often place it in the narratives of an identity politics that borders on xenophobia, encouraged by a government that is growing increasingly authoritarian and majoritarian. Few, though, have tried to place the debate in the nuances of regional history.

While Daniyal’s piece puts the focus on tracing the “roots” of the NRC in the region’s history, it unfortunately begins from a point where it can only tell a half-story, perhaps even a distorted one. A story that would implicate some of the views being circulated after the release of the NRC’s final draft, that of the Assamese as a community that is culturally and linguistically intolerant of others, specially the Bengalis.

First, since the debate is about historicising the NRC, one needs to be careful in articulating one’s notion of the territorial reference point. Which Assam is one referring to? The colonial, the pre-colonial, the one at Partition, the one post-Partition? Because each period as a starting point would seem arbitrary if devoid of the context of sociopolitical articulations of that period. Thus, if one says “the 1947 Sylhet partition led to Assam’s politics of the foreigner”, one would in fact have to go back to 1874, when the district of Sylhet was joined with the colonial province of Assam. As such, what “led to Assam’s politics of the foreigner” was a course that began with the clubbing of Sylhet with Assam, purely for colonial financial interests and without regard for the needs and sentiments of the people or the consequences for the province. In 1905, after the partition of Bengal, Sylhet became a divisional headquarters in the newly created province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. When in 1912, this partition was annulled, Sylhet was separated from Bengal and made part of the Assam province. Thus, it was not the “Sylhet partition’’ but the colonial annexation of Sylhet into Assam. The “Assamese” were unhappy and insecure about it, seeing the addition of a populous Bengali-speaking district as a threat to their “language and culture”.

Now, one is aware of the ample historical record, dating to the pre-colonial era, that connects the Brahmaputra valley to Sylhet in different ways, notably as a common administrative unit of the Mughal dominion. This shared history points to the complexities of a region that is built on essentially eclectic and syncretic foundations. The significant cultural commonalities that still exist are a legacy of this shared past.

Sylhet in now in Bangladesh. Map courtesy Creative Commons

Cultural resurgence 

Seeking to locate the NRC in a historical past is essentially about historicising the concept of “insider-outsider” in the context of the territorial formation of colonial Assam, where “modern” Assamese nationality was first articulated. One must remember it was around the time Sylhet was clubbed with it that Assam began to witness an Assamese linguistic and cultural resurgence after decades of confusion and “ill treatment” by the British, who had annexed Assam through the Treaty of Yandabo that ended the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1826. The first magazines in Assamese appeared in the late 1800s and printing presses proliferated, mostly in upper Assam, at the turn of the century. This resurgence was led by a nascent educated middle class for whom recognition of their language was of utmost importance. No matter how much one dislikes nationalism based on language, one cannot ignore that in a resource-scarce “colonial hinterland” language was (and continues to be) a source of both identity and resources.

Thus, the subheading of Daniyal’s piece – “till the division, there were more Bengali speakers in Assam than Assamese speakers” – becomes distorting if the backdrop is not clarified. It must be pointed out that the growing numbers of Bengali speakers and their position of “dominance” in the colonial administration was precisely why the Assamese felt their language and culture were under threat. After all, the “Assamese” had seen Bengali replace Assamese as their province’s court language from 1836 to 1873. It took decades of campaigning, with help from American Baptist missionaries, to make Assamese the court language in what is was the first linguistic assertion of the “Assamese”. One must also point out that the Bengali-speaking Cachar and Sylhet remained under the jurisdiction of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee and not the party’s Assam chapter until Partition. In an atmosphere of cultural paranoia and one-upmanship, such “facts” were enough to strengthen the perception of threat to cultural and linguistic identities.

By the start of the 20th century, however, the Assamese middle class, riding a wave of print capitalism and gradual colonial patronage, rose to a position of hegemonic leadership of the modern project of the formation of Assamese nationality.

The “incipient elite” had to overcome many challenges. One, the Ahom kingdom’s attempts at resurrection in the early years after the annexation of Assam had left the British determined to decimate any remnants of the “old order” and distrustful of the “Assamese”, especially when it came to entrusting them sensitive administrative work. The armed rebellion by Ahom prince Gomadhar Konwar in 1828 is still referred to as the story of “India’s first freedom fighter that is not recognised”. As the historian Jayeeta Sharma has noted, much of the British contempt for the Ahom kings was premised upon their view that the Assam valley was “surrounded north, east and south by numerous, savage and warlike tribes” whom the “the decaying authority of the Assam dynasty had failed of late years to control and whom the disturbed condition of the province had incited to encroachment”.

Administratively, Assam was part of the Bengal Presidency from 1826 to 1873 and the British made it a policy to recruit only Bengalis for government service in the province. Even for land revenue settlement work, men from Marwar and Sylhet were appointed in preference to the Assamese gentry. This was objected to by Maniram Dewan, a rising entrepreneur from the erstwhile Ahom nobility, in his memorandum to AJ Moffatt Mills, judge of the Sudder Court who visited the province in 1853. Four years later, Maniram Dewan would be executed for his role in the 1857 uprising.

However, in his “Report on the Province of Assam”, published in 1854, Moffat Mills deemed the Assamese as “unattractive, degenerated and stupid people”. “The colonial representation was neither strange nor surprising,” the historian Yasmin Saikia writes about such portrayals of the Assamese in early colonial accounts. “However, what is deeply problematic is that colonial intervention led to an abrupt end of histories that preceded that encounter and closed the channels of communications with groups that were mapped outside British India. Hence, when we view the changes during colonialism we have to interrogate the policies and labels of representations both for what they convey as well as hide.”

Two, the expanding Bengali educated class, ever in need of jobs and resources, embarked on a project of linguistic expansionism, a manifestation of which was to portray Assamese as a “corrupt form” of Bengali. This was one of the reasons behind the British replacing Assamese with Bengali as Assam’s official language in 1836, directing that “all business should be transacted in Bengalee and that the Assamese must acquire it”.

So, a rejoinder to “how the 1947 Sylhet partition led to Assam’s politics of the foreigner” could very well be “how the 1826 Yandabo annexation led to Assam’s tryst with demographic engineering’’.

The partition of Sylhet is a story of great loss; multitudes were forced to relocate at short notice, often without adequate compensation and left to penury. But one must recognise the uncomfortable truth that it was part of a cycle of tragedy triggered over a century back and crafted brick by brick by the whims of colonial rulers, who began by victimising some at the cost of privileging others, only to “swallow them all” eventually. Although loss has no hierarchy, there perhaps is a chronology to it.

The NRC debate has opened up the prospect of engaging with some of the most complex, yet underexplored facets of the subcontinent’s history. But the first challenge is to figure out the right vantage point to unpack the complexities. Without it, one would feed on narratives that are presumptuous, uniformed and misleading.

Kaustubh Deka teaches political science at Dibrugarh University, Assam.