The tragic story of a people that far too few Indians know about

In the last few years, the plight of minorities and migrants has caught a lot of world attention, from Syrian refugees to Kashmiri Pandits, with related issues in sharp focus, from India’s Citizenship Amendment Act to America’s Black Lives Matter. So perhaps it’s time to talk about a minority that almost no one in India has heard of. The story of the injustice, discrimination and violence they have been subjected to might be unique in the subcontinent. It’s the story of my community, the Sylhetis of Bengal, who have neither a geographical nor a cultural homeland. Our story has hardly ever been told, in media or academia.

Yet, Sylhetis have been globally influential. They were the first and most intrepid sailing community of Bengal. They reached all over the world, manning ships owned by Indian and foreign traders. They took “curries’ across the planet. From low-price London restaurants to the world’s most luxurious cruise ships, Sylheti cooks rule. Visit a good curry place anywhere, and the kitchen is likely to be Sylheti.

The tragedy of Sylhet began in 1874, when the British created the province of Assam. But Assam had low revenue potential, and to make it financially viable, the Raj added to it the entirely-Bengali region of Sylhet, rich in natural gas, tea and fisheries. Through the ensuing decades, Sylhetis—both Hindu and Muslim—kept demanding a reunion with Bengal. It was reincorporated in Eastern Bengal in 1905, but put back in Assam again in 1912. Thus, Sylhetis had been an odd linguistic minority for seven decades in Assam, when Partition took place.

Before Partition, referendums were held in only two areas: the North West Frontier Province and Sylhet. The latter voted 54:46 to go to Pakistan. The referendum remains controversial, since, among other things, Hindu tea plantation workers, who comprised 15-20% of eligible voters, were unable to vote. Sardar Patel then realized that if all of Sylhet went to Pakistan, mainland India would be cut off from Tripura and today’s Meghalaya. Thus, India insisted on retaining a small part of Sylhet—now Assam’s Karimganj district.

Sylhet had been a remarkably advanced society, boasting of the first premier college in Assam and the second largest readership, after Calcutta, of Bengal’s prestigious literary magazine Probashi. The Sylheti middle class achieved high levels of education earlier than the Assamese, and held a disproportionately high number of jobs—in government and hospitals to tea gardens—in undivided Assam, which comprised most of today’s North East, with its capital at Shillong. Naturally, as the Assamese middle class grew, a resentment of Sylhetis, even though they were not outsiders, surfaced.

An Assamese representative at the 1931 Round Table Conference made a strong argument for the linguistic integrity of Assam and the separation of Sylhet. The peculiar issue here is that Sylhetis by and large did not want to stay in Assam either—they were part of Assam through no fault or desire of their own. Immediately after independence, in his address at the Assam Legislative Assembly, the first governor of Assam made it clear what Sylhetis could expect: “The natives of Assam are now masters of their own house…The Bengali no longer has the power, even if he had the will, to impose anything on the people of… Assam.”

So the Sylhetis stuck in Assam faced officially endorsed discrimination, while Sylheti Hindu refugees from East Pakistan were also pouring into Assam. Meanwhile, Sylheti Muslims in East Pakistan found themselves treated with suspicion since they had been part of Assam and not Bengal. This resulted in mass migration to Britain. In a tragic irony, while Assamese saw Sylhetis as Bengalis, Bengalis saw them as Assamese. All because the British had wanted to balance their books.

In Assam, Sylheti Hindus are often pejoratively called “Bongals”; in Meghalaya, “Dkhars”. They have been victims of violence for decades, starting with the 1960s’ “Bongal kheda” (Throw Bengalis out) movement in Assam. The Assam agitation of the 1970s and 1980s was aimed at illegal migrants, but ended up targeting Sylhetis, who were as indigenous to the region as anyone else. Every Sylheti family was affected. My college-going cousins were thrown out of campuses, uncles saw their businesses burnt down or had to sell out for a pittance. Sylhetis were systematically denied jobs. Some of this continues.

Most Sylhetis have now either left the North East or taken refuge in Assam’s Barak Valley, crammed with people who have moved from Shillong, Imphal and parts of the Brahmaputra Valley to escape ethnic violence.

Muslim Sylhetis in East Pakistan got a homeland in 1971 with the creation of Bangladesh, but Sylheti Hindus have no home. Post-Partition communal hatred made them flee to India, but then faced ethno-linguistic discrimination and violence. We cannot dream of a homeland, as, for example, Kashmiri Pandits can, because we have none. We really don’t know where we should be. We can only helplessly watch our culture and identity fade, a stateless people, since neither Assam nor Bengal seem to want us, as we struggle for inclusion in the idea of India.

is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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