REPORTS & ESSAYS
In Name of the Tongue: Language Based Martyrdom and Politics in South Assam
November 7, 2017
The recall of the nation, within the public sphere, has been one of the recurrent characteristics of postcolonial Indian political life. With every passing phase, this tendency to invoke the nation and add meaning to its ever-expanding body has acquired renewed interest. The nation, despite our best efforts towards understanding it, has never quite had any fixity of meaning within the sphere of public political life. In other words, since the emergence of the postcolonial Indian nation-state, the category of the nation, within electoral politics, mediatized everyday politics and the unregulated out-in-the-open sphere of unorganized mass politics has been rendered highly amorphous. One has to only think of the propensity for imposing a forced homogeneity in the name of the nation that has come to characterize Hindu right-wing politics in contemporary India.
Notwithstanding its amorphousness, the various ideas of the nation has always had a common core, thinking in terms of inclusivity and at the same time, pushing everything and everyone who do not fit, outside its limits. Thus, politics in postcolonial India has for the most been about cohering as a collective body with a shared political belief by identifying a common enemy. The reader should not overlook the apparent religious nature of such thinking and its propensity for elimination that festers at the heart of modern Indian democracy. The notion of shared political belief, mentioned earlier, works primarily by attaching itself to a range of signifiers – religion, caste, food, rituals, language etc., among which language appears to be the most prominent. It can be confidently argued that much of the cohering, as a people in postcolonial India, has been made possible around a shared political belief, based on language and linguistic rights.
Language not only appeared as the most significant political category during the early years of the Indian democracy but has remained so even in the present, best expressed in the Hindu right-wing efforts at a forced homogenization based on the idea of Hindi as a ‘national language’. During the early days of Indian democracy much of the politics of rights and claims was based on the idea of linguistic rights or the right to use and learn a particular group or a community’s ‘mother-tongue’. The notion of ‘mother-tongue’, as historians and anthropologists have argued was primarily a construct, emerging out of anti-colonial nationalist politics in early twentieth-century India. It was within this sphere of anti-colonial struggle that the problem of language and linguistic rights of communities was linked with the larger idea of a nation. Within this discourse that drew sustenance from political practice and contemporary technologies, print languages were imagined as constituting bounded linguistic worlds, and their ‘frontiers’ were delineated much like that of the modern nation. This phenomenon of delineating linguistic worlds led to the imagining of linguistic nations existing within the body of modern Indian nation-state in the twentieth century.
Recent monographs on language based political movements in India have highlighted the importance of abstract categories like ‘passion’ and ‘emotion’ that come to lend significance to the idea of language as ‘mother-tongue’. They have stressed the need for looking into language and politics as a sociological and historical problem. Within this scheme of analyzing language based political movements the question of life becomes particularly important. As recent studies have shown, these movements often express themselves in the language of rights and particularly that of right to life and right to speech. And within such a discourse ‘mother-tongue’ acquires a whole new significance – they are posited alongside other fundamental rights of an individual granted by the modern nation-state.
It is precisely within this discursive formation that the conversational transaction between the various language based political movements and the postcolonial nation-state takes place. Thus, it is often a commonplace occurrence to find the absence of a hardcore secessionist stance while this is replaced by politics of negotiations, based entirely on the ideas of rights and benefits. In other words, although most of the language based political movements posit a potent challenge to the idea of the singularity of the Indian nation their conversation with the postcolonial nation-state takes place very much within the shared space of democracy. There is very little evidence in postcolonial India to argue for a contrarian position than what has been just mentioned. However, there are moments when this carefully worked out conversation between the political movements and the state appears to fall apart, exposing the inadequacies of both the collective group seeking their linguistic rights and the modern state unable to fulfill their expectations.
The space that is created due to this rupture of a democratic conversation is often found to be quickly taken over by the politics of violence. Thus, mob demonstration and destruction in public premises that represent the state (most common being the railways) and state response through an act of police violence, unleashed on the gathered collective, has almost become a naturalized event within the history of language based political movements in postcolonial India. Violence as an episodic occurrence comes to mark these political movements which almost always speak a language of non-violence. This, in most cases, is seen to have changed the political character of these movements, introducing death and martyrdom as potent signifiers of association with the ‘mother-tongue’. A narrative of impassioned belonging takes over the discursive space of the movement. It is not reasoned politics but a highly charged passionate politics that characterizes the unfolding of the movement in the public sphere which in most cases is seen as a crisis of ‘law and order’ situation in the language of the modern state, that requires regulation, and hence the justification of its response with violence.
Although violence appears as an episodic occurrence, this suddenness, this almost random event quickly turns into an enduring presence, by a mediation, of what I call politics of language based martyrdom. Apart from a few satisfying empirical accounts of language based martyrdom (Mitchell 2007; Ramaswamy 1997) there has been no attempt at positing the problem at the analytical and a more general, theoretical level. It is difficult to address all these levels within the limited scope of this article. Thus, concentrating on my archive I would like to address the question of language based martyrdom in postcolonial India at the analytical level. Towards this end, I ask two questions, how does an analytical study of martyrdom help us to better understand the location of violence within language based political movements? And to what effect does a politics of martyrdom keep these movements alive, completely bypassing the reasoned politics of negotiation?
Bengali martyrdom in twentieth-century South Assam
The death of eleven language activists on the afternoon of 19 May, 1961 at the Silchar railway station initiated a mass insurgency or a gana avyuthān in the district of Cachar. The language activists were among a larger group of volunteers and people who had gathered for an anti-government demonstration at the railway station premises. They were killed in a violence that erupted within the railway station premises when the police, following the instructions of the Assam government, opened fire on the gathered mass, protesting against the introduction of Assamese as the only official language of the state of Assam.
The district of Cachar in South Assam along with that of Karimganj and Hailakandi forms the region of Barak Valley. The region is home to a large number of ‘Bengali speaking’ Muslims and Hindus along with the people of the Kachari Barman, the Bishnupriya Manipuri and the Kaibarta community. Thus, when the Assam Official Language Bill was passed in the legislative assembly on 23 October, 1961, there was an immense outpour of dissent, mostly led by the ‘Bengali speaking’ peoples of the region (who were in a numerical majority) and organizations like the Kachar Zilla Gana Sangram Parishad (henceforth referred to as KZGSP). However, it was not until this sudden occurrence of violence, when eleven language activists were shot dead, that the movement swelled into an insurgency. Following this event, there was disruption of everyday life all over the valley for the next few months and according to leading newspaper reports nearly fifty thousand people participated in an enthusiastic and impassioned unrest.
This was a moment of intense political struggle between the postcolonial state and the collective mass of people demanding their right to use the Bengali language for official purposes. Their demand was framed within the discourse of a politics of seeking rights. The denial of the official status to the Bengali language by the Assam government was soon turned into an ‘attack’ on the fundamental rights of the people of the region, to ‘speak in Bengali’, their ‘mother-tongue’. However, the incident of shooting at the Silchar railway station turned the political intentions of the movement upside down. The question of negotiation or conversation was buried in the swelling passion for the dead, who were henceforth referred to in the public sphere as bhāshā śahid or language martyrs.
The political situation undoubtedly put the postcolonial state in dire straits when the limits of its responsibility were put to severe test. In fact, the intervention of the Congress party leading a popular government at the center in New Delhi was unable to solve the political crisis in the region. Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of the Indian nation-state in 1961 made several trips to the valley along with the Minister of Home Affairs, Lal Bahadur Shastri. However, none of these political trips and meetings came of any result as both the Assam Pradesh Congress in Guwahati and the Nehru led government at the center were unable to contain the people who took to the streets in mourning the dead. Their struggle, as I read the situation, was launched against the political legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Assam unable to protect the lives of its citizens. However, at the core of their collective dissent was the question of violence and martyrdom in the name of language.
The appropriation of the eleven language activists as ‘martyrs’ was made possible by the intervention of the Calcutta based print media and the local presses of Silchar. The Bengali language newspapers from both these regions widely circulated the idea of a language based martyrdom, thus, facilitating the formation of an imagined community of Bengali speakers who were held together by their emotional association with the martyrs. Within the pages of the newspapers, death was interpreted as a sacred text with its religion of bhakti or devotion expressed at the altar of bhāṣā jananī and banga saraswatī. This act was impelled by the need to counter the statist discourse where the victims of the police attack were referred to as ‘miscreants’. There was a political need to produce a counter-narrative of death where the language activists were remembered as ‘heroes’ and their death was glorified as a ‘sacrifice’. Thus, mass insurgency sustained itself through the production of symbols and meanings related to mourning in the public sphere.
The imagination of the language martyrs as integral constituents of a larger Bengali community was put to practice by the act of mourning. There were a wide number of activities ranging from observance of religious rites to rituals and penance that came to signify mourning during this moment. Within this sphere of mourning, death was carefully constructed as a text with its vocabulary of sacrifice, grammar of spectacle and its inter-textual history, by situating the event within a larger field of other violent deaths – the most notable comparisons being the Jalianwala Bagh massacre (1915) and the Sharpeville massacre (1960). There was a conscious shift from reporting death to writing it as a narrative. The role that journalistic imagination played in this shift is particularly significant. The primary target of the narrative was the literate, urban middle class, who were thereby mobilized as a political group through the use of the language of affect.
In a report published on 21 May, 1961, Jugantar, the Bengali daily published from Calcutta, reporting vociferous protests across Bengal with regard to the killing of eleven language activities in Cachar, wrote,
Shocked and dismayed by the killings at India’s new Jailianwala Bagh, Silchar, today entire Bengal roared in protest expressing immense disgust at the violence. Overcoming all political differences, the leaders of the various parties of West Bengal strongly criticized the atrocities of the police forces. They added that the event is even more unfortunate because it took place when the Prime Minister was on a visit to Assam.
The comparison with the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh was one of the most common inter-texts that were circulated in print. This was picked up Anandabazar Patrika, another popular Bengali daily from West Bengal, in their reports on the event of 19 May, 1961. Jugantar also compared this event with one of the worst instances of state violence in South African history, the Sharpeville Massacre, which claimed 69 lives when police opened fire on a gathering of nearly 7000 people protesting against the controversial ‘Pass laws’.
Within this narrative of death, the body of the martyr was interpreted as a repository of virtue. Through elaborate rituals centered on the bodily remains of the martyr, the idea of death as cessation was countered by the idea of transmission of life, as the relics of the dead travelled across the imagined space of a larger Bengali community. It is precisely during this moment that the people of Barak Valley and Calcutta were mobilized through the politics of martyrdom when they were invited to participate within the spectacle of death and were allowed to play the assigned role of the mourner. As newspaper reports suggest, the relics of the dead language activists were taken out in processions across the region of Barak Valley and were then brought to Calcutta on 23 May, 1961. Under the initiative of the Praja Socialist Party a huge procession was taken out from Lower Circular Road along with relic kept in a car decorated with flowers and incense. On 24 May, 1961, after a successful day long Bengal strike called by all political parties another procession was taken out, this time from Deshbandhu Park. The procession covered a long stretch from Deshbandhu Park, crossing Cornwallis Street, Dharmatala Street, Chowringhee Road, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road and Rashbehari Avenue. The relics were later immersed in the Ganges.
Processions carrying relics of the martyrs were taken out in far flung parts of Cachar district. A procession of nearly forty thousand people toured Karimganj with the relics stored in two silver vessels. People walked barefoot and wore black badges as a mark of mourning. The relics were kept in a nearby Kali temple until their immersion on 29 May, 1961. On 26 May, 1961, more than ten thousand Bengali Muslim peasants in Karimganj took to the streets and observed mourning by abstaining from Eid-ul-adha celebrations. In rural areas of Lala, Katalichara and Katakhal peasants and tea garden workers observed strikes and organized processions. In Lala, police intervened in a procession of three hundred people thereby wounding many. In Katalichara the police attacked the procession midway and arrested more than eighty people who were mostly tea garden workers.
If we look closely into the newspaper reports about the mourners it will be quite clear that most of the participants were represented as ‘Bengali speaking people’. Their class, caste, religion or gender was not payed much attention to in these accounts. For the journalists reporting in the newspapers, the mourners were a collective solely through their linguistic expression and performance of grief for the martyrs. That most of these mourners belonged to communities who did not use Bengali in their everyday lives (Manipuri, Kachari, tea garden laborers) was not recorded in any account. In an attempt towards constructing the idea of a Bengali martyrdom the Calcutta newspapers consistently erased these heterogeneous presences writing of them as constituting a ‘Bengali speaking’ community.
Practices and rituals in the making of the politics of language based martyrdom
Within the narrative of a mass insurgency in Cachar lies the story of the birth of a cult of martyrs with its ideas of a deified object of devotion constructed as a counter-narrative to state perpetration of violence. In the wake of state-aided violence that tried to curb down popular protests across the region of Barak Valley, mass insurgency turned into a politics of protest, with the dead activists as the deities of devotion at its core. This imagination was accompanied by elaborate performances of veneration intended towards lending a sacrosanct character to the phenomenon of language based martyrdom. Thus, the notion of the language activists sacrificing their lives at the altar of the language goddess imagined as the ‘mother-tongue’ was turned upside down in this world of performance. It was the dead who were now remembered as the godheads and their relics were regarded as a repository of generated life and virtue.
In every village or town that the relics were carried to they were housed in the shrine of the temple. At the time of immersion people ensured that in every house eleven lamps were lit marking the dead, conches were blown from river banks as the relics, decorated with flowers and leaves of the bilva plant, placed on rafts made from the stems of the banana plant, were set sail. The meticulous construction of the Bengali Hindu sacred ritual described here contradicts with the urban, middle class, print accounts where the politics of martyrdom was represented as a vaguely secular act. Quite contrary to that representation we find the presence of Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim rituals in the performance narratives that were reported from across Barak Valley. As local newspaper reports show even in areas that were remote from the site of violence every ritual was carried out with utmost devotion.
On 29 May, 1961, people across Cachar observed śahid dibas by performing the awrandhan vrata and congregating for readings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. They constructed śahid bedis or martyr memorials and offered obeisance to the dead activists. The volunteers representing various organizations like KZGSP adopted the practice of tying flower threads or rakhis on the hands of the police and the people on the streets. These practices were meant to bring back the memories of the swadeshi movement and the anti-colonial days in the public sphere.
The invocation of swadeshi in the public sphere was related to a politics of affect whereby the notion of an improvisational friendship between the Bengalis in Cachar and of the regions beyond its boundaries was invoked in the public sphere. The Calcutta print media played the most significant role in this regard. Emerging as the mouth-piece of the language movement in Cachar and elsewhere the newspapers made clear attempts at creating a larger consensus and support for the ‘rightful demands’ of the Bengalis of Cachar. The Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika arranged for a fund-raising scheme in helping the people of Cachar carry out the gana avyuthān. There were a series of advertisements in the pages of the daily starting 27 May, 1961, asking the readers to donate generously for the cause of the gana avyuthān. As further reports show this was quite a successful campaign and was later used to help the family of the dead language activists and those wounded in police violence.
Apart from the fund-raising efforts there were regular cartoons and graphic narrative panels in both Anandabazar and Jugantar attacking Jawaharlal Nehru led Congress government in Delhi and Bimala Prasad Chaliha led Pradesh Congress government in Guwahati. Kafi Khan and Rebati Bhusan Choudhury produced some of the most iconic caricatures. 1961 was the year of Tagore centenary commemoration and there was immense institutional excitement regarding this event. Reports published in Anandabazar and Jugantar suggest that it was during this moment that the Bengal Congress government express their wish to declare Bengali as the official language of the state (which also marks the beginning of anti-Bengali protests by the speakers of the Nepali language in northern West Bengal). The government and the print media worked extensively towards reviving Tagore as a cultural icon of the state during this moment. However, in Cachar, Tagore found a life as the icon of resistance against state perpetration of violence, which became the subject of one of the most iconic graphic panels of the legendary cartoonist Kafi Khan.
The panel which was published in the Jugantar on 21 May, 1961 shows a teary eyed Tagore bending on his knees and pleading an answer from the almighty with lines from one his most quoted poems, Proshno (Question),
Therefore I beseech you in tears,
Those that have poisoned the air
Those that have quelled your glare
Have you forgiven them?
Did you ever love them?
The panel further depicted Cachar burning in flames as the poet looks up to the sky. It was titled by the cartoonist in the interrogative – Tagore centenary in Cachar?
The proliferation of such narratives built on diverse interpretations of death and language based martyrdom and its incorporation within other significant events like the Tagore centenary moment added new meaning to the struggle for Bengali language in Cachar. As a result of this, almost all contemporary accounts of remembrance begins with the pronouncement that the Bengalis of Cachar were defending Tagore’s language at the most appropriate hour (we are prompted to ask how much of this narrative was influenced by the revival of Tagore as an icon of resistance in 1960s East Pakistan). The signature one-liner used in contemporary commemoration of the language based martyrdom reads, “Tagore in our hearts and Unishe in our consciousness”. This was the everlasting contribution of print to the gana avyuthān of 1961 – the making of its icon of resistance. And who could better serve the purpose than the poet who was already being used as polysemic icon in Bengal’s different worlds?
We began this analysis with a general overview of the phenomenon of the language based political movements, their vocabulary of rights, state intervention by way of violence, and the commitment to the idea of the nation. Here, I want to turn briefly to this last point before taking stock of a few general observations. As I stressed earlier, it is precisely the recall of the nation within the sphere of public politics that partially explains the fervor and passion in dying for languages. There is something in the manner of a generative grammar in the structure of most of these language movements and their politics of martyrdom. If we look closely at the event of violence in Cachar that turned into a politics of martyrdom or similar occurrences from other parts of northeast India (interesting case would be the Assamese language movement and its framing of the martyrdom question), Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu we will find that the discourse of resistance borrows largely from twentieth-century anti-colonial struggle and its framing of the ideas of patriotism, political struggle and sacrifice. The practice of resistance and its vocabulary is primarily drawn from the anti-colonial archive in turning the dead into martyrs and thus laying their life for a shared cause.
A particularly instructive case in point would be the negotiating politics of benefit that ensues once the political objective of such movements are achieved. The manner in which martyrs’ kin and friends demand an association with the ‘heroes’ of the ‘nation’ (read jāti) and bargain with the state or civil society organizations in demanding benefits like housing loans, land, pension and health benefits bears striking similarities with the similar kinds of politics of rights on the part of a patriot or a war veteran’s family. The vocabulary of the rights demanding after-life of these movements reveal a continuity with a much older language of struggle and resistance which cannot to be overlooked.
Again, in all the above mentioned cases we find the cohering of a rights demanding collective resisting the ‘unjust’ and ‘oppressive’ attack on the part of the postcolonial government. They stress the point that a near total failure of postcolonial forms of rights granting and life protecting governance creates the space for violence to erupt in public life. It is precisely at this moment that we find the colonial core of postcolonial governance exposing itself in the working of state perpetrated violence. These historical examples from the early days of Indian democracy allow us to see the limits of postcolonial governance and the emergence of popular modes of political practices. Within such practices the abstract notions of love, kinship, friendship and devotion to play a formative role in organizing a collective who desist from a language of political negotiation as a method to counter unreasoned state violence.
Finally, in all the events, martyrdom is seen to play a crucial role in organizing popular will and attributing to it the character of political practice. The phenomenon of language based martyrdom shapes most language based political movements in postcolonial India and their long after-life. As I have indicated before, these movements continue beyond their political interest, as histories that shape communities and their lives. Be it the Bengalis of Cachar or the Telegu speaking people of Andhra Pradesh their lives within the postcolonial Indian nation-state are marked by histories of violence. It is precisely in the act of remembering and commemorating, when violence is turned into martyrdom that the community comes into being. If we are to write histories of language based political struggle in the present, we have work with ideas that explain the coming together of violence, martyrdom and community formation within a single theoretical framework. It is precisely through such inquiries of the general that we can write histories of governance and its limits of responsibility in postcolonial India.
The mass insurgency in Cachar generated an enormous visual archive as has been indicated in the article. In this section, I present three such visual instances which record the history of the gana avyuthān in different ways. The first set of images is from a pamphlet published from Azad Library in Silchar and circulated during the gana avyuthān in the rural areas of Cachar district. The pamphlet was written by Alauddin Khan, a less known Bengali Muslim poet from the region. Khan calls his composition śahid gīti or a song or ballad for the martyrs. The composition is particularly instructive in informing us about ways in which such narratives circulated across the region where the language martyrs were seen as constituent of a larger Bengali Muslim and Bengali Hindu family. The second image is of the iconic panel drawn by Kafi Khan discussed in the article.
First published by Pangsau.com
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