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Sylhet Referendum 1947; A BIG betrayal that led to Sylhet being lost to Pakistan and created a divide between Assamese & Bengalis


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Not many people are aware that till the partition of India, there were more Bangla speakers in Assam than Assamese speakers. Well, you may be shocked or surprised, but that’s the truth.

Assam is carrying out a massive National Register of Citizens (NRC) process, which is one of its own kinds of process anywhere in the World. According to the NRC process, the state government has updated its list of Indian citizens and asking them to furnish documents proving that they or their ancestors had entered the state before midnight of March 24, 1971.

The final draft of the NRC has excluded four million people and created an unprecedented situation, where a massive stateless population is been carved out of a state. At the same time, we also observed a politics of antipathy towards alleged foreigners in Assam.

Well, people may often make statements without knowing the root cause of an issue, and that creates more animosity among the people. To understand this issue, we have to go back to 1947 and understand the circumstances, under which the state of Assam was divided.

What…division of Assam?

While most of the people usually talk about the partitions of Punjab and Bengal during 1947, but hardly anyone knows that Assam was also divided. The district of Sylhet, which was a Muslim majority area and ethnically Bengali was transferred from Assam in India to East Bengal in Pakistan after a referendum.

In the 1930s, an unusual demand was raised in the Central legislative assembly by Basanta Kumar Das. He moved a resolution to rename the province of Assam, as the number of people who can speak Assamese was in the minority, whereas the number of Bangla speakers in Assam was twice that of Assamese speakers.

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This unprecedented situation was created because of a practice followed for several decades. In 1874, the Sylhet district was transferred from Bengal to Assam. This district was rich in tea plantations, and the British transferred it to boost the revenues of Assam. Past his transfer, Assam saw a massive demographic imbalance, as three-quarters of all Bangalis in Assam after this relocation were Sylhetis. The local Assamese leaders started demanding to reverse this situation and move Sylhet back to Bengal in order to preserve the homogeneous and linguistic character of Assam.

How did it start?

In 1945, the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee raised a demand of preserving the culturally homogeneous Assam in their manifesto. They stated that the survival of the Assamese culture and nationality is impossible unless the Assam is restructured on the basis of Assamese culture and language. They were of the opinion that the inclusion of Bengali-speaking Sylhet and Cachar, and massive immigration of Bengali settlers on wastelands could become a threat in the future and may harm the distinctiveness of Assam along with many other administrative challenges.

In 1946, the head of Assam province Gopinath Bordoloi conveyed this to the British delegation, which was on the visit if India to discuss the transfer of power. He made it clear that Assam is ready to hand over Sylhet to Bengal.

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British agreed with the demand and initiated the referendum process for Sylhet, along with the NWFP province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan). These were the only places where the referendum was allowed to let them join either India and Pakistan after the British had transferred power. This referendum took place on 6th and 7th July 1947.

People witnessed that the Muslim population started flooding the Sylhet province few days before the referendum, on the intimidation by the Muslim League members, who were specially bought in from Northern Indian states. As expected, the Muslim population garnered a massive majority and Sylhet voted to join East Bengal (Pakistan). There were few pockets of Hindu majority areas that remained with India, rest entire district was transferred to Pakistan.

Congress-led Assam Government blamed for this fiasco

Assam government was responsible for having a non-serious attitude towards retaining such an important district, and this issue still remains as a bone of contention between Bangalis and Assamese people. Assam Government regarded the Bengali-speaking district as an ulcer hindering the emergence of a unilingual Assam, and that was the reason why Gopinath Bordoloi clearly stated that they were not interested in retaining Sylhet.

In 1954, as the Cachar States Reorganization Committee recommended to the States Reorganization Committee, that a new Bangali-dominated state should be carved out in the North East, and this state should be known as ‘Purbanchal’.

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This committee stated that the Assam government didn’t make any efforts to win the Sylhet referendum and even allowed radical Muslim leaders from Punjab and Northern provinces to sway away people to vote in the favor of Pakistan. Assam Government also harassed people who were asking locals to vote in favor of India and retain Sylhet in the Union of India.

To this was added the charge that “Sylhet leaders were discouraged when they tried to salvage a portion of the district through an effective representation to the Boundary Commission”. Historian Amalendu Guha writes: “It was indeed the lifetime opportunity for the Assamese leadership ‘to get rid of Sylhet’ and carve out a linguistically more homogeneous province.”

The shortlived dream of the Assam Government

Well, the Assam government took this as a massive achievement, as they wanted to preserve the culture and language of Assam. The Governor of Assam made a statement in September 1947, that “The natives of Assam are now masters of their own house. They have a government that is both responsible and responsible to them. The Bengali no longer has the power, even if he had the will, to impose anything on the people of these hills and valleys which constitute Assam.”

However, this so-called dream of preserving the homogenous character of Assam was short-lived. After the partition, large numbers of Hindu Bangalis were forced to migrate across the border back to Assam, as Muslims of East Pakistan were oppressing the Hindus. This created an unwarranted situation, as these oppressed Hindus were now being considered Foreigners.

This allowed politicians in Assam to add the pre-1947 question of cultural homogeneity as one of infiltration by foreigners. Although the truth is, had there been no Sylhet referendum, there would not have been any ‘foreigner issue’ in Assam. This had a cascading impact on the politics in years to come, this led to the eviction of immigrants, deletion of their names from voter lists, etc.

Aftermaths of Sylhet Referendum

Aftermaths were terrible, to say the least, as Assam saw a complex interplay of linguistic and religious factors. Bordoloi demanded Sylhet’s separation from Assam on the basis of the Linguistic factors, which led to a highly communal referendum, where Hindu and Muslim Bangalis voted separately.

This communal divide was responsible for a botched-up referendum which was followed by massive communal riots. Riots were a usual affair even after the influx of Hindu Bangali refugees into Assam. The language and culture became the tipping point of tensions between Bengalis and Assamese, sensing the opportunity, the communal and divisive forces with vested interests used to organize riots frequently.

Apart from that, there was another anomaly created when a large number of Muslim Bangalis in post-Partition Assam mentioned their mother tongue as Assamese while submitting the information to the Census department. As a result, the 1951 Census observed that Assamese speakers had grown by 150% compared to 1931. These Muslim Bangalis were educationally and economically backward at the time, and the Assamese elite and Congress party hatched an alliance with them against the elite Hindu Bangalis.

Due to this strong alliance, the Assamese elites and Congress were able to retina power. Also, as the number of Assamese speakers was artificially increased by providing wrong information to Census officials, the demands of Hindu Bangalis – to carve out a Bangali-majority state were rejected when the states were reorganized on linguistic lines in 1956. Which created a massive divide between Assamese and Bengalis, and that is only widening further to date.

In the nutshell, we can say that due to the lack of farsightedness of our leaders, we have not only lost a large territory to Pakistan, but we also led to a cultural divide between two of our own communities.


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