Recovering Sylhet

By Binayak Dutta

22 November 2012

The loss and recovery of the history of Sylhet, and a close look at Partition historiography in contemporary India.


Sixty-five years after Partition, the scholarship that event generates is varied and contested. Now more than ever before, writers and researchers are questioning the heavy focus on Punjab and Bengal at the expense of the third site of Partition – colonial Assam, and particularly the region of Sylhet, which elected to join East Pakistan in a 1947 referendum. The history of Sylhet opens up new complexities beyond the typical discourse that sees Partition as primarily a matter of religious communalism.

The study of Partition’s more narrowly regional dimensions is a recent development. The first Partition historians – Michael Edwardes, Penderel Moon, David Page, V P Menon, G D Khosla, and others – focused on decolonisation and the high politics of the division of India, with a core focus on Punjab. Punjab had captured the popular imagination because of the enormity of Partition violence there, which completely clouded this first phase of scholarship. The 1960s saw another spurt of Partition studies, including debates on the emergence of communalism, and also the publication of the memoirs of many key political players with a hand in the events of 1947. Still, the main focus remained on Partition in the Indian west. Meanwhile, nationalistic scholars in India engaged in glorifying the new state and eulogising the post-Partition leadership. Little emerged on Partition’s impact in areas distant from the ‘core’ of north India and Punjab; Partition became a largely Punjabi experience and not, as it actually was, a story of both east and west India. Even until recently, many professional historians who have contributed immensely to the study of Partition – Mushirul Hasan, Ian Talbot, Stanley Wolpert, David Gilmartin, Alok Bhalla, Anita Inder Singh, Ravinder Kumar – have been loath to engage with the Partition experience in the east.

In the 1980s, studies of genocidal violence after the anti- Sikh riots again revived interest in Partition. This time, scholars took a closer look at the Bengali experience, but Assam and Sylhet still lay outside mainstream concern. Even as late as 2006, an article titled Analysing Partition: Definition, Classification and Explanation by the historian Brendan O’Leary stated that, “the Partition of India is also known as the partition of Punjab and Bengal, and was executed by the Radcliffe Commission.”

J B Bhattacharjee’s Sylhet: Myth of a Referendum (1989) was among the first works to focus on Assam as the third site of Partition. At the time, his was a voice in wilderness. More scholarship on Sylhet finally emerged after 2000, with Anindita Dasgupta’s Denial and Resistance (2001) and Remembering Sylhet (2008), Bidyut Chakrabarty’s The ‘hut’ and the ‘axe’ (2002) and The Partition of Bengal and Assam (2004), and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee’s Unburdening Partition (2009). Scholarly interest has increased further with several relevant articles published in the last few years.

Selective amnesia
The causes of Sylhet’s near-total eclipse from Partition history, particularly from the mainstream discourse in India, are not difficult to trace. The Indian state has long been reluctant to focus on   Partition in official histories, choosing instead to emphasise and celebrate the achievement of its independence. In addition, Assam and Sylhet cannot compete with Punjab and Bengal, which have always enjoyed considerably more attention (both scholarly and otherwise), and boast far more archival material to support study. Also unlike Punjab and Bengal – substantial parts of which remained with India after Partition – almost the entire district of Sylhet went to East Pakistan, save only three thanas and a part of a fourth. While West Bengal remained to lament the loss of Bengal, and East Punjab to lament Punjab, there were no Sylhet left in India to speak of the Sylheti experience. As independent India constructed its history, prominent leaders such as Nehru often discounted the trauma of displacement in the east. In a letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal in December 1949, Nehru wrote:

There was something elemental about [the Punjab] and we have come to face the situation. In Eastern Pakistan the migration has been at a lower pace and rather gradual.

Within that overlooked eastern history, the Sylheti Partition experience was rendered almost invisible. In Assam, the antagonism between the Brahmaputra and Barak (Surma) valleys coloured post-Partition memories, especially among the political leadership and elites. The misery of the Sylheti Hindus in East Pakistan was not an Assamese concern, since for many, Sylhet was never part of Assam. Some saw Sylhet’s transfer to East Pakistan as a ‘God sent opportunity’ to further the Assamese project of creating a linguistically homogenous province. Meanwhile, in addition to the official apathy, the violence faced by the Bengali Hindus of Sylheti origin in the Brahmaputra valley after 1947 silenced the community, and in the interest of survival none of them raised their voices to assert their history and victimisation. This meant that thousands of testimonies of the Sylhet Referendum were never recorded.

Yet that history is not entirely forgotten. In the absence of official histories, private histories of the Referendum and the resulting displacements have gained great potency, especially among the Sylheti community. In her most recent writing on Sylhet – a section of an article titled ‘The Partition Diaspora’ , which appeared in this magazine – Dasgupta sketches the story of the Referendum by narrating her own family history. Dasgupta’s effort is both interesting and provocative, yet while personal histories offer good points of entry, they are also problematic. Biographies can sometimes cloud larger community experiences, especially if they build broad generalisations based on the details of, at most, a few lives. Dasgupta’s article opens several worthwhile debates on the Sylhet Referendum, and on post-Partition history in Assam and beyond.

Unrecorded stories
The fact that Sylhet was part of colonial Assam from 1874 until its incorporation into East Pakistan is fairly well established and documented. In view of that fact, it is perhaps not entirely accurate to use – as Dasgupta does in ‘The Partition Diaspora’ – the term ‘diaspora’ to describe the migration of the people of Sylhet to Assam. ‘Displaced’ might be a better term for those who moved to Indian Assam from Sylhet, which was a part of colonial Assam. Most Sylheti middle-class professionals maintained multiple residences within the province – often one at Shillong, the provincial capital and seat of government, and the other at their desh, meaning their village in some sub-division of Sylhet. Relocating to Shillong or Guwahati often meant the loss of their desh, but did not mean all Sylhetis became refugees.

But the bigger problem with Dasgupta’s article is its simplistic handling of the immensely complex situation faced by the civil servants in Sylhet at the time of Partition. As part of a planned post-Partition administrative reorganisation, on 25 June and 1 July 1947, the Government of Assam issued two circulars asking each government servant – including both Gazetted and non-Gazetted officers – to choose the dominion that he or she wanted to serve after the division of India and East Pakistan, which was subsequently announced on 3 July. This came to be referred to as the Option. Civil servants were given a week to submit their choices. Like their counterparts in other provinces facing division, thousands of Sylheti civil servants filed unambiguous replies. Yet despite assurances that those choices would be respected, many Sylheti civil servants who opted for India were not subsequently accommodated in Assam, and instead lost their jobs.

In fact, the Government of Assam had no intention to accommodate the Sylhetis. A cabinet meeting on 13 August, after Sylhet had opted for East Pakistan in July, decided that all government servants domiciled in or native to Sylhet and serving there as of 14 August 1947 should remain in Sylhet, irrespective of whether they wished to serve in India or East Pakistan. At that same meeting, the cabinet also decided against exchanging any officers from Sylhet who wished to serve in India for officers from other provinces who had opted for Pakistan. Further, those Muslim officers who had opted for Pakistan were not released from their posts. Thus, on 1 September 1947, 1496 employees of Sylheti origin, including 422 temporary employees, were released from Indian government service.

Pakistani authorities behaved similarly. In compliance with a cabinet decision on 29 September, temporary employees and senior government officers hailing from Sylhet were discharged, with one month’s extra pay in lieu of notice. The case of Dasgupta’s grandfather, Prafulla Chandra Dasgupta, was an exception. Most Sylheti officers, on both sides of the new divide, were left running from pillar to post to try and recover their livelihoods. This misfortune, combined with subsequent events, left them little opportunity to record their stories for posterity.

The story of Narendra Chandra Deb, who was a class-one Assam Education Service officer of the Assam government and a Professor at M C College, Sylhet, is one example. According to his daughter, Sabita Choudhury, Deb was discharged from government service with effect from 1 August 1948, in complete disregard of the terms and conditions of his service. He moved to Karimganj, which became part of Cachar district in Assam after Partition. There, he joined Karimganj College, which was not a government institution. Deb lost the two houses he owned in Sylhet town, and had to move into a one-room bamboo tenement in his in-law’s house. Deb’s case was not an exception. There were thousands whose education and degrees meant little in post-colonial Assam.

Such experiences call for a more critical examination of the post-Partition situation in Assam. They also run counter to the relatively happy tale of the Dasgupta family, and strike at the root of Dasgupta’s suggestion that educated Sylhetis were able to build decent lives for themselves after Partition despite the loss of land and property.

Completing the picture
Many works on the Sylheti Partition experience – Dasgupta’s article being no exception – discount the violence and trauma experienced by Sylhetis displaced from their ancestral homes. In ‘The Partition Diaspora’, Dasgupta maintains the position she had taken in her book Denial and Resistance, stating, “There were, however, very few cases of direct communal violence in Sylhet, in striking contrast to Punjab and Bengal.” Within Partition scholarship, the understanding of violence has undergone a radical transformation over the last two decades, which should be reflected in the writing of Sylheti history. For example, in a 2002 article on Partition historiography in Seminar, Meghna Guha Thakurta points out that violence is not to be measured only by ‘external’ acts of murder, loot or abduction; fear itself can be a physical and psychological violation. This is extremely relevant in the context of Sylhet, where failure to acknowledge that fact can make Sylhetis’ experiences seem far less difficult than they actually were. In the Sylheti case, women’s testimonies seem much more forthcoming than men’s on the fear and trauma caused by displacement. In The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India (2003), the diary of Suhasini Das, the renowned Gandhian freedom-fighter and social worker, gives us a vivid picture of post-Referendum violence in Sylhet. Contemporary vernacular accounts such as the memoirs of Suresh Biswas and Pranesh Biswas point to a rapid deterioration of law, order and communal relations after the Referendum. These revelations must form part of our memory and understanding of the partition of Assam.

Both Indian and Pakistani archival documents also establish that the assertion of Pakistan’s Islamic character further aggravated the situation in Sylhet. The Referendum Commissioner’s report, submitted to the Viceroy on 26 July 1947, showed that violence was a conscious part of the Muslim League’s strategy in Sylhet both before and after Partition. The Chief Secretary of Assam at the time even compared the League’s intimidatory tactics to those of the Nazis in the Sudetenland prior to German annexation. As Suhasini Das recorded, “the law and order situation was worsening. The exuberance of the Muslim League at the creation of Pakistan sounded like threats to the minority [Hindu] community.”

Violence broke out against Hindus and Indian-nationalist Muslims almost immediately after Referendum results came in. After the creation of East Pakistan, even pro-Pakistan newspapers carried reports of such attacks in Sylhet. The Dawn, in its report dated 28 August 1947, stated that “reports of unrest and lawlessness are reaching Shillong from the Habiganj subdivision of Sylhet district.” This violence is well documented, and memories of it persist among displaced Sylhetis to this day. These facts must also inform our understanding as we construct more comprehensive narratives of the Sylheti experience.

There is an overwhelming need to exercise caution in constructing the Sylhet story, especially in the volatile political climate of the Northeast where questions of origin, immigration and citizenship are bitterly contested, and are crucial issues in national and regional electoral politics. Here, Partition is a living history. The tension and angst that pervade community relationships in this region demand responsible scholarship. Scholars like Dasgupta and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee deserve credit for retrieving much of Sylhet’s forgotten history and unpacking many of the myths surrounding the Referendum, but their work – and that of other scholars on Sylhet – must be read with an understanding of the many Sylheti experiences that are yet to be discovered and recognised. This is a forgotten story that we are still only beginning to remember.
~ Binayak Dutta teaches history at Assam University, Diphu, and is currently Visiting Fellow at the Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati

7 Responses to “Recovering Sylhet”

  1. Neha Dhar says:

    Could not be captured better… The sylheti community (or whatever is left of it) owns it to you… Thank you for sharing this… God Bless

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  2. Dahlia Bhattacharjee says:

    I thank Himal Southasian and Binayak Dutta for this lovely read.. As a sylheti, I always had this question,”why is there no mention of our partion history in academic discourses?” I really hope to do something in this direction someday.. Cheers!!!

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  3. Bishwanath Dutta Choudhury says:

    The effects of partition were borne not only by the people living in Sylhet at that time but by their descendants after shifting and it has been very correctly pointed out that it continues in some form or the other even to this day. The Sylheti Hindu descendants are found unsure of and searching for a community identity which they can proudly declare and it is definitely difficult when you have had no touch with the soul and the soil of your origins! Sad but true!

  4. Mohammad Fasih-Ul Islam says:

    Thank you for the history though it hasn’t covered how Assami Muslims suffered loss due to the displacement. One of the victims was my paternal grandfather. He was one of the first class officersliving in Shillong during the British period.

    Our forefathers had to leave their place and all their belongings. Some Hindus captured our properties there.

  5. Gaurav Deb says:

    Very informative article. Sylhet was an important administration center of East India, the history of Shillong is incomplete without Sylhet. With the lack of attention to this region the rich culture of Sylheti’s is losing ground.

  6. Debashis De says:

    Your article was very informative and insightful. I am writing a novel which has Sylhet referendum as its main event. I am interested to read the articles you have mentioned which I am quoting below.
    How can I get those articles?
    I shall be grateful, if you help me to get them.
    Thank you
    Debashis Deb
    [email protected]

    The articles are the following:

    J B Bhattacharjee’s Sylhet: Myth of a Referendum (1989) was among the first works to focus on Assam as the third site of Partition. At the time, his was a voice in wilderness. More scholarship on Sylhet finally emerged after 2000, with Anindita Dasgupta’s Denial and Resistance (2001) and Remembering Sylhet (2008), Bidyut Chakrabarty’s The ‘hut’ and the ‘axe’ (2002) and The Partition of Bengal and Assam (2004), and Nabanipa Bhattacharjee’s Unburdening Partition (2009). Scholarly interest has increased further with several relevant articles published in the last few years.

  7. Soheil Ahmed says:

    Even at a cursory glance, Dutta’s intellectual courage and integrity shine forth.

    Penetrating and cogent commentary . . . hope to get more of that.



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