Possible Solutions to the North East’s ‘Bengali Problem’
By Titash Bhattacharjee
Many of you might be extremely disturbed, rather offended by the usage of the term, ‘Bengali problem’ in the headline. Many of you might argue that Bengalis have been living in the northeast for centuries and have every right to live here and lead a respectable life and therefore the term ‘problem’ is not appropriate. But what are the circumstances in which the Bengalis of the northeastern part of the country are surviving? What have been the challenges they have been forced to confront? Let us have a look.
August, 2021: Assam’s Education Minister Ranoj Pegu holds a meeting with the state’s student bodies to discuss the education-related issues of the state. He puts up a Facebook post with a detailed list of those organisations which were called. No representative from Barak Valley is in that list. The government of day, elevated to power with a substantial number of votes from the Bengali community doesn’t deem it right to call anyone from the same community. Sigh!!
August, 2021: A foul-mouthed wannabe leader, who claims to carry the legacy of the great Lachit Borphukan, utters absolute nonsense against the Bengali community, openly threatening them. No, he is neither arrested nor criticized by anybody. Barak Valley’s representatives refuse to talk to the media on this, lest they upset their masters in Dispur. Didn’t a two-time MLA lose his ticket in the last elections apparently because he spoke a little too much?? Oh, that’s scary.
August, 2021: Vistadome train services are launched with much fanfare between Guwahati and New Haflong. The then Railway Minister Piyush Goyal’s statement that the services will run upto Badarpur are ignored. Our MP, this time, writes a letter to the Railway Minister and puts it up on Twitter. The story ends there!!
August, 2021: Two Bengali Hindu persons from Barak Valley are killed by miscreants in Meghalaya during the violence that followed the death of an HNLC leader. We don’t quite know whether they were simply caught in the crossfire or were killed because of their language and ethnicity. However, as usual there was no condemnation, no criticism from our political representatives. Obviously, these lives are cheap.
I have repeatedly pointed out the month in the list above just to assert that all this happened in just a month’s time. If we make a similar list for the earlier months, they would also in all likelihood, make for similar reading. The silence of the lambs, oops, I mean the so-called leaders would be the most common feature of course.
To add to these monthly events, are the other stories that are perpetual in nature. In more understandable language, we may say that while the events listed above are like episodes on OTT, there are other daily soap operas such as denial of even grade 3 and 4 jobs to locals in Barak Valley, the continuous serving of foreigner notices to Bengalis, continued suffering of the employees of the Cachar Paper Mill who haven’t been paid salaries for years, abuse and violence against Bengalis in the tribal states from time to time.
Only in the month of July, 2021, six brave policemen of Assam Police, all locals from Barak Valley, were gunned down by Mizoram Police personnel during a border dispute related faceoff. The issue was hurriedly hushed off. A delegation of ministers from Assam, which did not include a single representative from the valley went to Aizawl and called truce within a few minutes. For those staying in the border areas near Mizoram, there is no closure to the wounds. They feel let down and betrayed by their own state.
The above examples clearly elucidate that the term north east’s ‘Bengali problem’ is indeed not inappropriate. Thanks to the political narrative built over decades, the community is perceived as an outsider by the tribal as well as non-tribal communities in the region. The age-old arguments of domination by the Bengali Hindu intelligentsia in the government hierarchy or the grasping of arable land by the Bengali Muslim peasants are still used as fodder to foster anti Bengali sentiments.
That Bangladesh has made significant economic progress and is doing much better than India on many human development parameters is often ignored in such discourses. While nobody can deny the stream of migration that happened to Assam and other northeastern states post-independence and after the creation of Bangladesh, there has to be a detailed study on what the trends have been in the last couple of decades when Bangladesh has performed significantly better than the northeastern states on almost all parameters. In addition, relative political stability there must have led to a decrease in illegal migration.
However, in most such discourses which spew venom on the Bengali community, data is the greatest casualty. Any discussion on numbers is deliberately ignored because the hatemongers know that the statistics may not be favourable anymore regarding the alleged migration of Bengalis from the other side of the border to Assam. And this is where the Bengali intellectuals have to come in. At the end of the day, academia holds the power to shape public opinion through well-researched articles, books, seminars, symposia etc. Unfortunately, the socio literary organisations representing Barak Valley have not been able to do this job aggressively enough.
Therefore, if we have to look for a strong resistance to defeat the narrative that all Bengalis living in the northeast are foreigners and non-indigenous, the intellectuals of the valley have to step in. Let there be strong articles, rebuttals, publications, films in the national media highlighting our plight. Let us try to find spaces in Kolkata’s Bengali news channels to tell our stories. A publication like Barak Bulletin is doing wonders in this regard as it already has significant readership outside Barak Valley.
Of course, beyond the intellectual realm, there lies the requirement to put up a political resistance. It is very obvious that our current political dispensation is absolutely incapable of solving these issues. That Barak Valley has failed to build a single political party of any note representing the region is an absolute shame. Many tribal communities in the northeast have successfully demonstrated that community-specific political representation is vital to raise issues that are integral to that community’s growth and development.
Recently, the Barak Democratic Front (BDF) has been making some noise on issues that concern the people in the region. We may like or dislike the people involved, but we must welcome the initiative. There is a massive vacuum here of local political voices and whoever fills that gap must be encouraged. We may criticize our representatives endlessly but at the end of the day, we must realise that we reap what we sow.
Elections in Barak Valley have for long been arithmetic exercises where the demography decides the outcome. If there is a bilateral fight, a Hindu wins in the Hindu majority areas and a Muslim wins in the Muslim majority areas. In case of a tripartite fight, the verdict depends on the division of votes. If two strong Muslim candidates contest, their votes get divided to make the Hindu candidate win and vice versa. As long as the parties get this mathematics right, there is no need to speak for the genuine issues facing the people. Therefore, the people of the valley as a whole have a lot to answer. When will we finally decide to focus on issues and cast our precious votes accordingly? The AIUDF is apparently the saviour of the Muslims and the BJP is supposed to take care of the interests of the Hindus. But can we hold our hearts and say that these parties have done anything beyond provocative speeches and false promises for their target vote banks?
Many also look at separation from Assam as a viable solution. However, in my personal opinion, such small states or union territories that can’t sustain themselves economically are not the solution. Already most of these small states in the northeast survive on central doles and do not have the necessary wherewithal to run their own affairs with their own revenues. At the end of the day, the solution lies in peaceful coexistence where there is mutual respect and cooperation. However, this mindset seems missing ever since independence among the political leadership of Assam. Many a time, we have been referred to as the ‘cancer of Assam’ which must be gotten rid of. In such a scenario, separation may end up being the most viable solution in the long run.
However, now is the time to stand up and be counted. Whichever field you are from, raise your voice in a peaceful and democratic way. Hate begets hate and therefore, we can’t reply to the abuse of a Shrinkhal Chaliha with the same crassness. However, a lot of us are indifferent. That should not be the case. If you love your rights, you have to earn them!!
The story has been published by Anirban Roy Choudhury and all responsibility rests with him. To respond to the article, email: