In 1947, as the British prepared to depart India, the division of the subcontinent on religious lines was set in motion. One of the territories which came under this unfortunate division was Sylhet of East Bengal. To decide the question of staying with the Indian Union or joining the East Pakistan province of the newly formed state of Pakistan, a plebiscite was held. A Muslim majority district, Sylhet voted for accession to East Pakistan. But thanks to efforts of Abdul Matlib Majumdar, an Indian Congress leader, the easternmost subdivision of Karimganj stayed with India while the rest of Sylhet joined East Pakistan.
Post 1947, Karimganj became a part of the district of Cachar in the Indian state of Assam, roughly synonymous with the Barrack river valley. Due to its history, and in contrast with the rest of Assam state, Cachar had an overwhelmingly Bengali speaking population – almost equally split by the two major religions: Hinduism and Islam. By the early 1950s, East Pakistan was on the boil with the Bengali speaking populace up in arms against the West Pakistani administration’s diktat of imposing Urdu as the official language of all Pakistan. The embers of that fire also spread to Barak Valley.
In April, 1956, at a meeting of the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, a resolution was adopted to introduce Assamese as the only official state language of Assam. It led to disquiet in the Barak valley region. By October, a bill to the above effect was tabled in the assembly and was passed in the same month. Protests now erupted across Cachar district with an almost 80% Bengali speaking population.
This decision by the Assam Congress govt. was in stark contrast to the Language based State Reorganization committee decision of 1956 which had clearly stated that a state could adopt a single official language only if more than 70% of a state’s inhabitants spoke only that language. This was not the case in Assam but the state govt. decided to go ahead with it.
In February, 1961, the Cachar Gana Sangram Parishad (Peoples’ Resistance Committee) was formed. The Parishad now took the lead in organizing protests across the Barak valley. In April, it was decided to launch a 2-week long peaceful protest march across the district. At the culmination of this protest march, Rathindranath Sen, a leading figure of the resistance movement, declared that if the state govt. did not acknowledge Bengali as an official language of the state, a mass hartal (strike) and non-violent Satyagraha would be launched. The date decided was 19th May.
The night before D-Day, the state struck at the resistance with all major Parishad leaders arrested and thrown behind bars. A week earlier, soldiers of Assam Rifles, Madras Regiment and the CRPF had marched into Silchar station.
As dawn broke on 19th May, despite having lost their leaders, the protest begun in earnest. Pickets were placed in front of govt. offices, courts and railway stations. At Silchar station (known as Tarapur back then), not a single ticket was sold for the 5:40 AM morning train. Despite the protests remaining peaceful, lathi charge by govt. forces at several places left more than 200 injured.
At around 2:30 PM, a truck was passing the Silchar station carrying some detained protesters. Seeing their mates arrested, the protesters at the station started sloganeering loudly.
The Assam Police contingent manning the station now started indiscriminate lathi charge and tear gas firing. Then, with little threat from the unarmed protesters, 17 gun rounds were fired in just 7 minutes. When the smoke cleared, 9 protesters lay dead. Two more died later. The youngest among the dead was 16-year old Kamala Bhattacharya.
The next day, a massive procession walked out with the bodies of the martyrs. The incident led to widespread condemnation of the state govt’s actions across the country. Put on the backfoot, the Assam govt. formed an inquiry commission under the auspice of the Chief Justice of Guwahati HC.
At the intervention of Union home minister, Sri Lal Bahadur Shastri, the protests were called off on 17 June, 1961. It was thanks to Shastri ji’s diligent efforts that the controversial circular was withdrawn and Bengali was formally adopted as the official language of the Cachar district (Cachar, Karimganj & Hylakandi districts at present).
As recently as 2013, the Tarun Gogoi govt. of Assam had issued a circular stating use of Assamese as the only official language of Assam. Strong protests in the Barak valley districts forced the withdrawal of the circular.
In the history of the world, the Bengali language remains unique in that speakers of this language have twice sacrificed their lives en masse to retain the rights to use their mother tongue. But while the first of the two, 21st February massacre in Dhaka is now recognized and celebrated as the International Mother Language Day, 19th May and the people who sacrificed their lives that day remain largely in obscurity.
Maybe time has come for India to recognize this day as its own Mother Language celebration day.
Assam Police lathi charge at Silchar station (By Original publication: Not knownImmediate source: http://nirmaaan.com/blog/sumon/5866, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39623150
Protest march with dead bodies of those killed on 20-May, 1961 (By Original publication: Not knownImmediate source: http://bangalnama.wordpress.com/2008/09/19/je-bhashar-jonye/, Fair use, httpshttps://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39556677
Silchar language martyrs memorial (By Runabhattacharjee - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115425248
Kamala Bhattacharya picture http://mridulnandy.blogspot.com/2012/04/language-movement-in-barak-valley-19.html
Based out of Kolkata, Trinanjan is a market researcher by profession with a keen interest in Indian history. Of particular interest to him is the history of Kolkata and the Bengal region. He loves to write about his passion on his blog and also on social media handles.
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