The Sylheti People of Assam – Living Under Neglect and an Identity Crisis

The Barak Valley – Home to most of the Sylheti people of India 

The Southern part of Assam – the Barak Valley, comprising of the three districts of Cachar , Hailakandi and Karimganj is a distinct region in the state of Assam, separated from the Brahmaputra Valley by the hills of Dima Hasao. This geographic barrier naturally has led the people of the region to develop their own distinct culture and languages and is particularly known for being the only native place for the Sylheti speaking population in India, generally considered a dialect of the Bengali language.

Sylheti Identity

A search on google maps for the term Sylhet will take you to the city of Sylhet in Bangladesh however historically region was known as Srihatta. The name later got corrupted and later became anglicized as Sylhet in the colonial era. Originally a centre of Hinduism and Buddhism, the region saw the arrival of Islam in the 14th century by Sufi figure Shah Jalal whose tomb can be found in the city of Sylhet and is an important place of pilgrimage in Bangladesh.

The Sylhet region was a part of Assam during the days of the British Raj and finds a special mention in our history books due to the fact that a referendum was conducted in 1947 where the Muslim majority voted to side themselves with East Pakistan which came as a shocker to many of the Hindus and Nationalist Muslims of the region. Pakistani flags flew over the entire region of Sylhet until the 17th of August 1947 when the Radcliffe line was made public and it was revealed that the a part of the boundary was drawn in the middle of
the Kushiara river, which resulted in the region of Karimganj becoming a part of India.

Although I am not exactly aware of all the aspects of how things are on the other side of the border, again a quick chat with my friend from Bangladesh has revealed me that even the Bengali speaking people of Bangladesh have a tough time interpreting Sylheti. The Sylheti people often migrate to London to pursue jobs, a scenario quite like that of Punjabis going to Canada or Malayalees heading abroad to the Gulf. A quick Youtube search with the term Sylheti will pop up many videos of London, some even featuring ‘white people’ speaking Sylheti giving me an inference that the Sylhetis of Bangladesh have tried to keep their language and identity quite intact.

The Sylhetis of Assam, however, consider themselves as Bengalis, any other label will be enough to spark their sentiments. The Sylheti dialect is often difficult is for a usual Bengali from Kolkata as it is often poles apart from the one spoken in Kolkata – the Kelu Bhasha as we call it. While a few, which includes my friend in Bangladesh, consider Sylheti as a language more related to Assamese, than Bengali, I, as a speaker of all the 3 languages feel this isn’t necessarily true as even though the pronunciations of many consonants are
quite aspirated just in like the case of Assamese, however I tend to find that the general vocabulary does bear a strong connection with Bengali and Sylheti also its own set of distinct words not found in either Assamese or Bengali.

However, lately it has become a trend among parents over there in the Barak Valley to raise their kids to speak in Kelu Bhasha rather than Sylheti as many often perceive it to be a not so refined like Kelu Bhasha, with a few even finding it somewhat embarrassing to speak Sylheti in public. This is resulting in the growing up of an entire generation of kids who are growing up without knowing their mother tongue which will post serious threats to the distinct culture and identity of these people.

A Dialect that has its own Script! – The Sylheti Nagri Alphabet

It is sad that many many do not realize that Sylheti actually has its own distinct script! – Sylheti Nagri, which, at first glance might feel to bear more resemblance to Devnagari rather than the Assamese-Bengali script. However this fact is known to very few people of the region as they often react in shock and awe when they hear that their dialect even has their own script. The theories surrounding the origins of this script are many but the usual
consensus is that it was introduced and propagated in the region by a much celebrated Sufi figure, Shah Jalal during his 14th century conquest of Bengal and thereby Sylhet. The script, was extensively used to write Islamic religious text, pertaining to the region is arguably very easy to learn as it contains just 33 alphabets compared to the 52 used in Bengali. The script is currently  endangered and is not in use as the language is often transcribed using the Bengali alphabet. It is not very often that you come across a fact there can exist a separate script for a dialect however the fact that many of the people do not know this leaves be extremely sad and concerned.

Vowels – Devanagari, Bengali and Sylheti Nagari
Consonants - Devanagari, Bengali and Sylheti Nagari
Consonants – Devanagari, Bengali and Sylheti Nagari

A Region and its Culture Suffering Due to Years of Neglect and Lack of Development to This Date

The culture too of the Sylhetis has its own distinct touch with, the region having its own dance form – Dhamail, practised usually by the womenfolk during weddings, however the propagation of Dhamail outside the region has been somewhat dismal when compared to Bihu, Sattriya and other tribal dances of Assam. The food from this region also has its own unique touch being a bit high on spice, something which is again poles apart from the usually sour and less spicy Assamese cuisine or the sweet laden dishes of Bengal. The Sylhetis love feasting on Shutki Maas (Dried Fish) something which the Assamese and
Bengalis again may find it to alien for their tastebuds.

The region of Barak Valley in Assam, however weren’t lucky enough like their Bangladesh base counterparts when it comes to a proper road, rail or air connectivity. The Silchar airport offers connectivity to only 4 cities – the state capital airport of Guwahati, Kolkata ad the quite recently introduced New Delhi and Bangalore, with most flights still being ATR 72 seaters while the region only received Broad Gauge passenger railway in November 2015, a service which regularly faces disruptions due to the uncountable landslides plaguing
this railway line. There is also lack of a proper highway – with the project sanctioned by Atal Bihari Vajpaeyee – the Saurashtra – Silchar Mahasadak (The East West Corridor) still running incomplete due to multiple delays, rejected forest land clearances and the recurring problem of landslides plaguing the Dima Hasao region with the only alternative highway passing through the hills of Meghalaya being a mostly 2 lane highway which is again highly accident prone.

This in stark contrast to the region of Sylhet present in Bangladesh is rich in Natural Gas, Tea and has been blessed with proper connectivity in the form of Road, Rail, Air and even Water while the Barak Valley region of Assam has been plagued by connectivity issues which still remain to this date even after 70 years of independence. The city of Sylhet in Bangladesh is among the top 3 economically performing regions in Bangladesh along with Capital Dhaka and the Port City of Chittagong and the city even has an International airport
connecting it to premier cities like London and Dubai which is a somewhat close reflection of their economic prowess.

The 11 Martyrs of the Bengali Language Movement in The Barak Valley

Apart from the lack of economic growth, the people of the Barak Valley sadly have historically faced animosity from the Assamese speaking majority of Assam which has somewhat turned ugly following the recent proposed modification to the Citizenship Amendment Bill (2016) which saw plenty of vocal support in the Barak Valley while many in the Brahmaputra Valley still might perceive them as Bangladeshis even though them being native to this region. The Barak-Brahmaputra animosity is a sensitive matter with some of
the people of the Assamese speaking region considering them somewhat of a burden due to their low economic output and cultural differences while the Bengali populace too have had a not so positive perception towards Assamese ever since the Assam Government’s decision to impose the Assamese language by making it the only official language in the region which saw the death of 11 martyrs of the Bengali language when they performed a protest against the then state government’s decision which ended in a bloody conclusion when they were shot dead by the state police during the 19th May 1961 Bengali Language movement which is still remembered to this day in the Barak Valley where you will find memorials to the 11 martyrs in most part of Silchar city. Moreover the people of this region too have had a long held demand to officially rename the Silchar Railway station as Bhasha Shaheed Railway Station due to the fact that most of the protests were held at this site where you would also find a memorial dedicated to those 11 Martyrs. The Assam Government decided to withdraw its decision and reinstated Bengali as the official language in this region which has stayed on to this date.

Looking into the Future

I am a firm believer that economic development of this region is the first need of the hour as the Barak Valley is essentially the gateway to 3 other North Eastern States – Tripura, Manipur and Mizoram and a road and rail network will do wonders for the region which is starved of economic development ever since independence with some of the only notable economic projects – the Hindustan Paper Corporation Mill (Cachar Paper Mill), Panchgram on the verge of shutting down. Once the economic aspect is taken care of, we may then
think of ways to take measures to conserve and propagate the culture of this region which is slowly but steadily facing the scare of being forgotten and slowly losing its unique characteristics, heading towards a rapid amalgamation with the heavily admired culture and language of Kolkata.

So whether it be the loss of their cultural and ancestral lands because of the partition or the constant fear of being labelled as Bangladeshis by their fellow Assamese brethren from their own state or living under a false illusion of trying to have a similar cultural upbringing like that of the people of Kolkata, the Sylheti community faces some sort of an identity crisis despite the fact that their own culture is quite unique, vibrant and there is plenty of scope to make this often forgotten community be heard and known across India.


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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SatyaVijayi.