Bangla language ‘martyrs’ of Assam and the fight against linguistic aggression

Photo credit: Sammilita Sanskritik Mancha

Utsa Sarmin, 

Guwahati: A two-week commemoration of the 63rd anniversary of a turbulent and bloody moment in Assam’s history culminated at Silchar on May 19. The events, which began on May 4, saw thousands thronging the streets to join rallies and seminars and to create alpona (Bengali folk art).

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On May 19, 1961, 11 Bengalis in Silchar, including a 16-year-old schoolgirl, lost their lives in police firing while peacefully protesting the Assam Language Act 1960. The Act imposed Assamese as the sole official language of the northeastern state, disregarding the Bengali-speaking majority of the Barak Valley — a region distinct from the majority Assamese-speaking Brahmaputra Valley.

The Barak Valley, named after the Barak River, comprises Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj districts. Karimganj was originally part of Sylhet, a Muslim-majority district in undivided Bengal. Sylhet in the aftermath of India’s independence joined Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), while Karimganj became a part of the Cachar district — where 80 percent of the population spoke Bengali.

Writer Bijitkumar Bhattacharya, in 2005, claimed that post-partition, Assam had a roughly equal tripartite division: Bengalis, Assamese and tribal/indigenous communities — each comprising around one-third of the population.

However, he alleged discrepancies in the 1951 census data reported by the then Assam government. The Bengali population supposedly dropped from a third to 17 percent, while the Assamese population rose to 55 percent — with the then Census Commissioner Bhagaiwala terming it a “biological miracle”. In 1951 and 1955, a large-scale Bongal Kheda movement (which was allegedly aimed at driving out the Bengalis) was organised in the Brahmaputra Valley.

According to Santanu Sarkar, a professor of Bengali language at the Assam University, the seed of discontentment between these two populations is a “colonial legacy”.

Photo: Sammilita Sanskritik Mancha

“After the British annexed Assam, they imposed Bangla as the administrative language. Later, due to the efforts of Christian missionaries, Assamese was recognized as a separate language,” he said, adding, “Bengalis however became associated with colonial rule in the eyes of the Assamese people”.

He argued that the British exploited existing tensions between the Bengalis and the Assamese, similar to their manipulation of Hindu-Muslim divides. The ruling elite of independent India, he alleged, also perpetuated these resentments for their own political gains.

The Bongal Kheda movement reached its peak in 1960 when the Assam government passed the Language Act — which would have forced all the linguistic groups in the state to work, study and communicate in Assamese.

By then, the Bangla language had already seen a pivotal moment. On February 21, 1952, students of the Dhaka University in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) organized a rally against Pakistan’s imposition of Urdu.

During the protest, five people were killed by the Pakistan Army. This linguistic nationalism ultimately contributed to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. Later, February 21 was recognised as the International Mother Language Day.

Echoing this revolutionary spirit, Bengalis in Assam began their own struggle against the sole imposition of Assamese. At 6 am on May 19, 1961, the protestors gathered at the Silchar Railway station for a peaceful demonstration. The situation soon escalated as the police responded with a brutal lathi-charge, tear gassing and mass arrests. The jails got overcrowded leading the authorities to transport detainees far from the station only to be intercepted and brought back by agitators in their own vehicles.

Hours after the incident, at 2:41 pm, the police indiscriminately fired 17 rounds in just seven minutes — killing 11 agitators.

The deceased — Tarani Debnath, Satyendra Deb, Sunil Sarkar, Sachindra Nath Pal, Sukumal Purkayastha, Kamala Bhattacharya, Kumudranjan Das, Kanailal Niyogi, Hitesh Biswas, Chandi Saran Sutradhar and Birendra Sutradhar — were later known as independent India’s first “language martyrs”.

Biswajit Das, president of the Sammilita Sanskritik Mancha, an umbrella body of 32 socio-cultural organizations in Silchar, which organises the commemoration programme every year, says all those who lost their lives in the 1961 protest came to India from erstwhile East Pakistan.

Around 2,000 people gathered at Gandhibag in Silchar exactly at 2:41 pm on the same day this year to honour the martyrs.

“We do it every year,” said Das, adding that his organization, over the years, has included other concerns of the people of Barak Valley like tea garden workers and labourers and has spoken out against alleged religious aggression.

After the May 19 incident, nationwide protests erupted — leading the Assam government to amend the legislation. Bengali was recognized as the formal language of Barak Valley.

“The situation, however, remained tense,” Das said, alleging, “Since 1961, there have been repeated attempts to marginalize the Bangla language in Assam”.

Citing specific instances, he elaborated, “In 1972, the Gauhati University issued a circular restricting instruction solely to Assamese and English in colleges. Similarly, in 1986, the Board of Secondary Education, Assam, mandated Assamese as the medium of instruction through another circular.”

Both instances witnessed large-scale protests — demanding the right to use Bangla in schools and colleges leading to the death of three more people.

Sarkar pointed to a more recent development — the Assam Language Learning Act of 2020. This law mandated learning Assamese for the inhabitants of the state, though it exempted certain regions like Barak Valley and Bodoland. However, he said the language remains a contested issue in the state.

Das added another layer to the issue, “The inclusion of Assamese words in Bangla textbooks, subtle shifts in grammar — which align with Assamese syntax. Additionally, we often notice the use of Assamese in official communication in Barak Valley. Just before the Lok Sabha elections, some government signboards used Assamese. It was removed after we lodged a strong protest.”

Elaborating on the broader implications of language marginalization, Sarkar said, “Once a language is given an exclusive official status, linguistic minorities face challenges in accessing resources and opportunities. This can hinder their economic progress. Moreover, a culture flourishes through its language. Losing one’s language is like losing one’s identity.”

And that’s why, Das emphasizes, it is important to keep remembering May 19 and the “Bhasha Shahid” (language martyrs).

He also pointed to another trend. In the last few years, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is at the helm of affairs in the state, has started organizing separate rallies in commemoration of May 19. “But they chant the religious slogan of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ in the rallies. With an aim to create a rift between Bangla-speaking Hindus and Muslims, BJP leaders emphasize that the martyrs were Hindus.”


Notably, the ongoing fight for Bengali rights intersects with the protests against the contested National Register of Citizenship (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Under the NRC, an Indian citizen will have to prove that they are citizens of India and did not enter the country illegally.

Sarkar explained, “Bengalis are considered as outsiders in Assam. There have been instances in Brahmaputra Valley where speaking one’s language can result in imprisonment. The NRC has rendered many Bangla language speakers, both Hindu and Muslim, vulnerable. Those who don’t speak Bangla, after all, are not seen as outsiders. Hence, language has everything to do with the NRC and the CAA.”

The NRC list was first published in August 2019, rendering almost 2 million people in Assam on the verge of being stateless. The Sammilita Sanskritik Mancha opposes the NRC and the CAA. “We have been speaking against these policies and the religious and linguistic aggression,” claimed Das.

“May 19 is a testimony of a majoritarian imposition. Today, we see an increase in majoritarianism throughout the world. Nineteen is a symbol of resistance against any such kind of majoritarian hegemony,” concluded Sarkar.