I have a very strong connection with Assam. It all began when my grandfather, a retired doctor from the Indian Railways, who never ever believed in the partition of a country, had to relocate to Tinsukia in Assam rather reluctantly from Chittagong, Bangladesh. He and his family accompanied the eldest son, a “foreman” (supervisor) with the Indian Railways and the sole earning member of the family, to Assam a couple of years before Independence. My grandfather sadly had no other choice.
My father must have been around six years then. He completed his school and college education in Assam, and stayed back in Assam due to his job.
Some of the fondest memories of my life are of the people and the city of Guwahati where I grew up. I have made some wonderful friends for life both from my school and college days who happen to be Axomiya.
The memories of Assam evoke mixed emotions in me. The recent publication of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) list brought back many memories, which are not very pleasant. I could feel the helplessness of those 40 lakh people whose names did not find place in the final draft. That feeling when you are told that you are no more a part of the land where you have lived almost all your life. I could relate to that feeling instantly.
To understand this we have to go back a few decades. It was in the early 80s and I was in primary school then. I still remember the day when I heard the word ‘curfew’ for the first time in my life. It was around 11 in the morning and I was in school. As young children, we had no idea of what was happening outside the school compound.
Nevertheless, the anxiety and stress written large on the face our teachers gave us a feeling that something had gone wrong somewhere. The school authorities however asked us not to panic and assured us that we would reach home safely. They ensured our safety and did accordingly. My father had come to pick me up at the bus stop. There were around a hundred men standing on the road that led to the para (colony) where I lived.
As soon as I got down from the bus I saw a man bleeding profusely through his nose and all his clothes were drenched in blood. My father didn’t want me to see that and almost whisked me away from that place. However, that gory scene was etched in my mind forever. This is one of first memories, I have, of the Assam Agitation.
The agitation, I was told, was to push out (kheda) the foreigners from Assam – the foreigners mainly being Muslim/Hindu Bengalis, Biharis, Marwaris. As a child, I had very little idea of who a foreigner was. Whatever little I understood I realized that the agitators could attack us any time, as we were Bengalis. I lived in a locality that was almost like a Bengali ghetto, and was therefore an easy target of the agitators.
Each day one would hear about a new act of violence. My father and I did not leave home for months together. “Bandhs” and “Black Outs” (where one could not switch on lights in the evening for an hour or two) were a daily affair.
Meanwhile, frequent meetings were held by the elderly men of the locality to find out ways and means of self-defence. Young and old men were assigned jobs of guarding the houses at night. Sleepless nights, new threats every other day, mock drills for self defence, the murder of one of my father’s close friends and I could go on about the nightmare we went through.
If a day passed away without any major incident, elders would heave a sigh of relief. I did not understand much about the humiliation the elders had to face each time they were called a “Bideshi” or hauled up for not being able to talk in proper Axomiya.
My father was very fortunate to have some Assamese colleagues and family friends who continue to friends till date.
The Assam Accord signed in 1985 brought some hope for the Bengalis living in Assam but the damage was already done by then. It was around this time that many Bengali families moved to various parts of West Bengal. We know many families who sent their children outside of Assam during that time and the families moved on later. A number of my relatives did this too.
The decision to relocate was not easy. Many had to incur heavy losses in business due to relocation and start from scratch elsewhere. I have heard from my father that many Bengalis relocated from Assam just after the Bhasa Andolan in the early 60s. Most of my father’s friends, almost all our relatives have relocated to different places of West Bengal through the 80s and the 90s. My parents made up their mind that they would not stay back in Assam once my father retired. It was the same for many of his friends. They perhaps thought that it would be easier to settle down at a new place at the age of 60 than face violence once again.
Kolkata’s Santoshpur, where my mother lives, is an area where majority of the residents are Bengalis from places like Tezpur, Jorhat, Darang, Moriani in Assam. Some of them have fled for their lives from Assam and settled here with whatever they could bring along with them. And some others are like my parents who consciously decided to settle down in a place outside Assam.
My maternal uncles, who are second generation Bengalis in Assam, also relocated around 18 years back. This exodus of Bengalis from Assam has been almost a continuous process.
Some events in our lives makes us compassionate, sensitive, kind, tolerant and all that it requires is to be more humane. The Assam Agitation would be definitely one such event in my life. I do not know what will happen to the 40 lakh people whose names are not in the final NRC draft, but I can definitely feel how helpless they must be feeling now.
[Photographs of Hillside Colony, Maligaon, Assam, courtesy: Anupam Chakraborty]