(Translated by Arjun Chaudhuri, from উনিশে মে ও আমি, Dainik Jugosankha, 20th May, 2001)
19th May, 1961. My employed life had started by then. But my college life wasn’t over yet. When I passed my ISC examinations in 1958, immediately after that I acquired a job as a teacher in a high school at Silchar. And I was getting ready to appear for my B.A. examinations as a teacher-private candidate. Then came the Nineteenth of May. My finals were to begin only a few days after that.
I was never involved in active politics. But there once had been in me a youthful curiosity for politics. And it was this curiosity that ultimately led me to become a believer in Marxism. I also discovered a connection between my literary thinking and Marxist thought. Thusly, I am a communist at heart. At that time, there was only one party that could be called Marxist-Communist. The CPI or the Communist Party of India. There used to be an office for the Communist Party in Silchar at around that time. It was a small two storeyed wooden building in Nazirpatty. The highly respected Comrade Gopen Ray used to live in that office itself. That place was almost a one-man commune by itself. The other leaders used to come there in the day or in the night, for work or even when there was no work to be done. Achintya Bhattacharjya, Digen Dasgupta, Dwijen Sengupta, Mani Ray and many others used to gather there. The party office had a Bengali newspaper subscription. The publication was called “Swadhinota” (Freedom). It was, of course, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
I wasn’t a regular at this office. But I used to go there in the company of student-friends of my age, people who had been initiated in the ideology of Communism. I remember two of them especially. Chintaharan Das and Asit Aditya. Asit was a college mate of mine at G. C. College. We lived together for some time in the same house. It was through him that I came in touch with my other friend Chintaharan. Both of them were far ahead of me in their socialist ideas. They were both informed readers of literature, as well as voracious critics. Chintaharan went a step ahead. I have seen few such good orators as he was. This brings to mind that incident in 1959 when the Left led state government of Kerala was dismantled. The central government was a Nehru led Congress one. Indira Gandhi was the president of the AICC. The ‘red’ government was dismantled quite unethically. The communists were naturally very strident with their protest against this. A protest meeting was organised in Silchar as well in the form of a public convention right next to the round pond at Nazirpatty. The fiery address Chintaharan delivered in that meeting remains, in my opinion, almost unparalleled. Anyway, living amidst some close friends, with the reading of relevant literature, the adda at the tea shop, and other things, I continued to mature in my practices of writing poetry, and in the principles of socialism. And at around this time the year 1961 arrived. In the Assam State Legislative Assembly (then located at Shillong), they passed the State Language Bill. The language of this state would be only Assamese. The non-Assamese, especially the Bengalis, could not accept this easily. But the Assamese speaking crowd was numerically dominant in the Assam State Legislative Assembly. Purely on the basis of this numerical strength did Assamese become the official language of the state. The Bengalis were naturally quite displeased. Bengali must be given equal status as the official language alongside Assamese – this demand gradually gathered pace. The Bengalis in the Brahmaputra valley could not come clean with their objections to this bill, of course. But the Bengalis of Cachar (now Barak Valley) began to prepare for a protest movement. There was no support extended to this movement initially by any political party. Like it was in the rest of the country, the ruling party in Assam at that time was the Congress. It was this Congress government that had passed the Language Bill. Even though some of the Bengali Congress leaders of Barak Valley might have been secretly annoyed at this act of the government’s, they did not say or do anything by way of protest out in the public. As a result, there was an attempt to shape up an organisation to further the cause of the Bengali language movement by positing some nonconformist political figures at the helm of affairs. Even though there were quite a few senior leaders in the organisation, the primary driving force was a slew of young leaders from a middle income or a lower income background. It was then that the name of an entirely unknown young man began to emerge from among the ranks of the organisation. Paritosh Pal Choudhury. A child of an emigrant family. After leaving East Bengal, he had been busy in the Brahmaputra valley trying his luck. After that, he came to Silchar and soon achieved some renown as one of the leading organisers of the Bengali language movement. We began to hear of names like those of Rathindranath Sen of Karimganj, Harish Chakravarty of Hailakandi and others. They were engaged in consolidating the preparations for the Bengali language movement. But it seemed that the movement was not becoming forceful, or effective enough anywhere at all. That something so momentous would happen on the Nineteenth of May was not something anyone could have even thought of at that time. But there was a special reason behind that. The Congress was all in all in the political arena of the state of Assam at that moment. In the national context, the PSP (Praja Socialist Party) had acquired only some significance. The Communists were well known, but the party was not at all well organised in this region. In 1961, this was how the apparent political scenario of Barak Valley was situated.
But the inner dynamics of the political arena depend more on existing socio-economic contexts. The society of Barak Valley, even though it was divided into several groups and communities apparently, had only two main categories that were much visible. The locals and the refugees (emigrants). Those living in the rural areas irrespective of their caste or religious affiliation, and had been doing so for many generations were the locals. And those coming from East Bengal and now living in the urban or semi-urban areas were the refugees. Among these refugees there was a minor section which had been living here for some generations, or had come here before 1947, but their soul connection to the rural population of the area was almost nonexistent. Of course this was not the scene only in Barak Valley but the entire country could be said to have been, more or less, in the same way. The reason behind that is for sociologists to determine. I am not even going there. Another reality portrait about Barak Valley’s local life would be the Hindu-Muslim relationship that existed here. Needless to say, in the last century there have been many ways in which these two communities of the region have embraced as well as abused each other. But there never has been a truly affable union between them. They might have been two blossoms on the same stalk, but they could not become two petals of the same blossom. In an undeveloped region like Barak Valley, these flowers were full of worms. As a result, what was to happen, happened. Even though the middle and lower income Hindu groups were more or less active in the Bengali language movement of the Nineteenth of May, the Muslim population remained largely silent.
The protestors did not really have any significant political patronage. The Congress leadership because of its selfish interests, and the Communist leadership because it would mean a compromise with its ideology, remained almost withdrawn from the movement. What whispers we would hear in those spaces then would amount to this gist – Cachar (Barak) is a region populated by many languages and many communities. Participating in a movement for the Bengali language here would spell doom for our political future. This was what the Congress and the PSP were inclined to think. Another name used to crop up regularly in their discussions. Moinul Haque Choudhury. I had not yet beheld Moinul Haque Choudhury with my own eyes. He was the King behind the curtain. A leader of the Congress party and the uncrowned master of the Muslim community. He had participated in Muslim League politics before Independence. And after that he became a Congress follower. Hindu Congress followers used to say that it would be better to be wary of this man. If he doesn’t come to the aid of the Bengali language movement then no one would be able to do anything of import at all. Therefore, in a state of quandary the Hindu Congress followers remained.
And the Communists used to say, a movement with which the interests of the farmers and labourers were not associated (the Bengali language movement, in this case) was not a movement communists could associate themselves with. The language movement was a movement fuelled by the emotional complex of the bourgeoisie. Economic ideologies do not have connection with it. Participating in the language movement would mean an undermining of the more encompassing movement against the exploitation of the labour-farmer-middle classes. Therefore, this was not a way they would walk on.
In such a situation, an almost “inactive political” young man that I was, I began to do rounds of the wooden second floor office of the Communist Party. On my way to and fro I used to come across a protest march or a meeting or two sometimes. On the eighteenth of May the protestors intensified their public campaign. The nineteenth of May was to be a strike day. No wheels on the roads. Satyagrahis would assemble at the railway station from daybreak itself in order to bar the trains from moving on the tracks. The loudspeakers kept announcing their messages from the main, broad roads of the town to the smallest and most remote lanes. I was a young Bengali man. My blood did heat up a bit at that moment, so to say. But this was a movement fuelled by bourgeoisie sentiments. It would not do at all for me to become too heated up. At that time, I used to consider Rabindranath a bourgeois poet. Considering that he had composed works while seated inside the Elephant Tusk Minar. There was no connection between his language and his thought and the language or the thoughts of the masses. Therefore it would not do for communists to show him any deference. In those days, Niren Ray’s was a well known name as a Marxist literary critic. People belonging to his school used to say that Golam Kuddus’ novels like Moriawm and Bnadi were far better works that Rabindranath’s Gora or Ghawrey Bairey. As a poet, Sukanto Bhattacharjjyo was far better than Rabindranath. An intellectual reader could read Manik, could read Bishnu Dey, but Bankim’s, Sarat’s, and Bibhutibhushan’s works were communal and reactionary. And Jibawnanawndo? A poet of decadence. I am talking about a time when the editorship of the publication called Parichay had been passed from Sudhin Datta’s hands to Gopal Haldar’s. And I was a regular reader of Parichay at that time.
Anyway, on the morning of the nineteenth of May I and Asit Aditya went to the railway station together. The satyagrahis had already occupied the railway tracks in small groups. There was no violence in the air at all. It seemed as if Gandhi-ji’s ahimsa had become the guiding spirit of the protest. The protestors were interacting with the protest resisters (the police, the CRPF) in almost friendly, affable terms; chatting, joking, talking with each other. Wandering around there, I came to think that the day would pass by peacefully. We returned home when it was around one o’clock in the afternoon. Around three in the evening we came to know that the railway station had been reddened all over with the blood of the martyrs. Hundreds of satyagrahis had died in the firing. More than a thousand people had been wounded in the melee. This relative of mine (whose house I was staying in at that time) had become very anxious since his son also had gone to the railway station. Was the boy even alive? I could read that unasked question in his visage. We sped to the civil hospital. Ranks and ranks of people had assembled there. But no one could say anything for certain. Many had come looking for their near and dear ones. On entering the hospital I saw that some bodies had been placed on the floor with white sheets shrouding them. Someone was very bravely removing the facecloths from the faces of the corpses to identify them. We sped ahead as well for a glimpse of the bodies. No, the one we were looking for was not among the dead there. A certain incident comes to mind now. The facecloths from one after the other, from two or three of the corpses had been removed. At that moment, a man from behind was forbidding the removal of the facecloth of one of the bodies. There was a woman standing next to him. They had come in search of someone named Kamala. Without really understanding what that man had meant, the facecloth from that body was also removed. Immediately that woman started weeping piteously. Later I came to know that the name of that martyred young woman was Kamala Bhattacharjjyo.
Even after coming out of the hospital we could not ascertain the number of the martyred dead. But we did get to know a few of the names of those who had died. The martyred Shochindro Pal was a student of mine from the Cachar High School. Moti Lal from Paanpatty was also a student. A bullet had lodged itself inside his stomach. He later recovered through careful nursing and treatment. A complete list of the dead was available only after a day or two.
Who had given the orders for the firing, and why is something that we do not know even now. The benevolent role played by Mohitosh Purkayastho, Nawndokishor Shingho, Sotindromohon Deb and Achintyo Bhattacharjjyo in the aftermath of this grisly incident is quite well known, of course. But we do not know why, exactly a month after the Nineteenth of May, there was a counter-protest against the Bengali language in Hailakandi. We do not even know now why, if not in the entire state, then after having acquired the rights of the Bengali language at least in Barak Valley, we are not being able to protect it from decay.
Or maybe we know everything. But it needs independent deliberation, and debate, if necessary, as well.
Arjun Chaudhuri is Assistant Professor, Department of English, G.C. College, Silchar.