Connecting Regions of Asia.

Remembering Unishe May

61

Rajonimohan Suklabaidya & Imran Ali  Silchar, Easternlink

The world knows of the Bengali language protests in Dhaka on 21 February, 1952 , when five Bengalis were shot dead and scores of others injured in police firing in erstwhile East Pakistan. 
Ekushe February, Amar Ekushe (Immortal 21st) in Bangladesh, has been declared as International Mother Language Day to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism.
 First announced by UNESCO on 17 November 1999, it was formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly with the adoption of UN resolution in 2002. 
Mother Language Day is part of a broader initiative “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world” as adopted by the UN General Assembly on May 16, 2007 .
But the world does not know much about Unishe May , the day Bengalis fighting for linguistic rights , laid down their lives on the streets of Silchar, the main town of Bengali-dominated Barak Valley.
One of the largest linguistic nationalities divided in 1947 on a religious basis primarily through imperialist conspiracy in tandem with Indian ruling classes represented in the Congress and the Muslim League, the Bengalis have fought for their language rights in Pakistan and in many parts of India.
Assam is where the fight often got bitter because Assamese ruling elites , a numerical minority in their larger state (before the breakup of 1972) , were reluctant to come to terms with the plural reality of the state.
On 19 May, 1961, Assam police opened fire on Bengali protestors outside the Silchar railway station, killing eleven of them, including a teenage girl Kamala Bhattacharjee.
They were protesting against the decision of the Government of Assam to make Assamese the only official language of the state even though a significant proportion of population were Bengali people.
 In April, 1960, a proposal was raised at the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, to declare Assamese as the one and only official language of the state.

On 10 October 1960, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, the then Chief Minister of Assam presented a bill in the Legislative Assembly that sought to legalize Assamese as the sole official language of the state.

Ranendra Mohan Das, the legislator from Karimganj (North) assembly constituency and an ethnic Bengali, protested against the bill on the ground that it sought to impose the language of a third of the population over the rest two thirds, meaning the claim that Assamese were a majority on Assam was not true.

On 24 October, the bill was passed in the Assam legislative assembly thereby making Assamese as the one and only official language of the state.

On 19 May, 1961, Assam police opened fire on Bengali protestors outside the Silchar railway station, killing eleven of them, including a teenage girl Kamala Bhattacharjee.

They were protesting against the decision of the Government of Assam to make Assamese the only official language of the state even though a significant proportion of population were Bengali people.

In April, 1960, a proposal was raised at the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee, to declare Assamese as the one and only official language of the state.

On 10 October 1960, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, the then Chief Minister of Assam presented a bill in the Legislative Assembly that sought to legalize Assamese as the sole official language of the state.

Ranendra Mohan Das, the legislator from Karimganj (North) assembly constituency and an ethnic Bengali, protested against the bill on the ground that it sought to impose the language of a third of the population over the rest two thirds, meaning the claim that Assamese were a majority on Assam was not true.

On 24 October, the bill was passed in the Assam legislative assembly thereby making Assamese as the one and only official language of the state.

On 5 February 1961, the Cachar Gana Sangram Parishad was formed to agitate against the imposition of Assamese in the Bengali-speaking Barak Valley

On 14 April, the people of SilcharKarimganj and Hailakandi observed a Sankalpa Divas in protest against the injustice of the Assamese government.

On 24 April, the Parishad flagged off a fortnight long padayatra in the Barak Valley, in the regions surrounding Silchar and Karimganj to raise awareness among the masses. 

The satyagrahis who took part in the padayatra walked over 200 miles and covered several villages. The procession ended on 2 May in Silchar. Later on a similar padayatra was organized in Hailakandi. After the padayatra, Rathindranath Sen, the Parishad chief declared that if Bengali was not accorded the status of official language by 13 April 1961, a complete hartal would be observed on 19 May from dawn to dusk.
The Parishad also called for due recognition of the languages of other linguistic minorities.

On 12 May, the soldiers of the Assam Rifles, the Madras Regiment and the Central Reserve Police staged flag march in Silchar. On 18 May, the Assam police arrested three prominent leaders of the movement, namely Nalinikanta Das, Rathindranath Sen and Bidhubhushan Chowdhury, the editor of weekly Yugashakti.

On 19 May, the dawn to dusk hartal started.

Picketing started in the sub-divisional towns of SilcharKarimganj and Hailakandi from early in the morning. In Karimganj, the agitators picketed in front of government offices, courts and railway station. 

In Silchar, the agitators picketed in the railway station. The last train from Silchar was around 4 PM, after which the hartal would be effectively dissolved. Not a single ticket was sold for the first train at 5-40 AM. The morning passed off peacefully without any untoward incident. However, in the afternoon, the Assam Rifles arrived at the railway station.At around 2-30 PM, a Bedford truck carrying nine arrested Satyagrahis from Katigorah was passing by the Tarapur railway station (present-day Silchar railway station).

Seeing the fellow activists arrested and being taken away, the Satyagrahis assembled at the railway tracks broke out in loud protests. At that point the truck driver and the policemen escorting the arrested fled the spot. Immediately after they fled, an unidentified person set fire to the truck. A fire fighting team immediately rushed to the spot to bring the fire under control.

 Within five minutes, at around 2-35 PM, the paramilitary forces, guarding the railway station, started beating the protesters with rifle butts and batons without any provocation from them. Then within a span of seven minutes they fired 17 rounds into the crowd. 

Twelve persons received bullet wounds and were carried to hospitals. Nine of them died that day. Ullaskar Dutta send nine bouquets for nine martyrs. On 20 May, the people of Silchar took out a procession with the bodies of the martyrs in protest of the killings.Two more persons died later. One person, Krishna Kanta Biswas survived for another 24 hours with bullet wound in chest.

After the incident, the Assam government had to withdraw the circular and Bengali was ultimately given official status in the three districts of Barak Valley.Section 5 of Assam Act XVIII, 1961, safeguards the use of Bengali in the Cachar district. It says, “Without prejudice to the provisions contained in Section 3, the Bengali language shall be used for administrative and other official purposes up to and including district level.” But there has been constant efforts to dilute this Act and impose Assamese on Barak Valley.

This massacre is compared with the massacre in Jalianwalabag or the one in Bangladesh on 21 February 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bengali, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, which is the capital of present-day Bangladesh.

Every year on 19 May is celebrated as Bhasha Shahid Divas (ভাষা শহীদ দিবস) to commemorate those 11 martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the sake of protecting Bengali language, various cultural programmes are conducted, rallies are taken out and bust of those martyrs are decorated with flower garlands. This year was no different.

The Assam government had on November 30, 2013 issued a circular asking the deputy commissioners of all districts of the state to ensure use of Assamese as official language, which generated a lot of protests in the three Barak Valley districts – Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi. Section 5 of the Assam Official Language Act 1960 as amended in 1967 had specified Bengali as the official language anyway. 

This prompted the state government to issue a fresh circular on September 9 saying that the official language (Bengali) of Barak Valley will continue to be used for all official works. Barak valley will have to guard its hard-won linguistic rights, though it can do very little at the moment to assert its Bengali identity in a state where the NRC exercise has exposed the vulnerability of the Bengali-speaking people.

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