Sunday, January 02, 2000

The Bangladeshi Assamese

My chance discovery of Jugal Kalita's website on the Internet confirmed that Assamese like other people in the world have entered cyberspace. What did that really mean to me- a Bangladesh born Assamese? I was going to find out- and therefore sent Kalita an E-mail, introducing myself as a 'second generation Assamese from Bangladesh', and waited. Nothing happened for 72 hours - and then came replies from all over the world - the Assamese world. I was baffled and I remember one mail, which brought me to the brink of tears. 'Welcome to the fold' it said. By the end of that week Kalita had put up my c.v. in his website an attached my E-mail address. A dozen more mails roared in. This belated introduction to so many Assamese around the world immediately eased a lifelong sense of isolation, and courtesy of the worldwide information super highway, I now have a chance to communicate with other Assamese. We, Assamese, a unique race can benefit from the shared experience of our people. This piece is an attempt to share the experience of the Assamese community in Bangladesh.

In the beginning allow me to explain what 'second generation Assamese' means. I am the child of Assamese parents- 'the first generation' - who migrated to this part of the world after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. We were born here and therefore are the 'second generation'. Our parents had the distinct honor of being citizens of four countries, British India, Independent India, Pakistan, and after 1971, of Bangladesh. I may add that could have also claimed a fifth nationality, that of Assam !

Why my parents or the other Muslims Assamese migrated to what was then East Pakistan is worth mentioning here. It was not because of economic or political necessity that they moved. They all came from more or less upper middle class background and while the 1947 partition was precipitated by communal riots elsewhere in India, let us not forget that Assam never subscribed to that communal culture; Muslims of Assam were never persecuted for their religious beliefs. This migration did not arise from any sense of insecurity either. So why did they move?

The Assamese Muslims visualized the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, as a land of opportunity, where they felt that they stood a better chance with their acquired skills in the civil service, railways, and armed forces to improve upon their existing careers. Some generalists like my father also felt the same way. This was a migration of 'optees' in general, probably of less than a hundred individuals. This was no exodus.

There was comfort in that decision. They were only a couple of hundred miles away from their homes, mainly in the district of the then Sibsagar (now Jorhat), Nagaon and Lakhimpore (now Dibrugarh). There was no Passport or Visa requirement until the late fifties and inexpensive railway communication made it possible to board a train in those days at Lumding or Furkating and reach Dhaka within twenty four hours - less than twenty if the destination was Chittagong. Many had promised their families of their imminent return, if things did not work out and yes, this was a move by the Muslim Assamese. I have no records of any non-Muslim Assamese settling in Bangladesh other than Maya Das who married Siraj Hazarika and who until here death last year was the famed Screen and TV actress, Maya Hazarika.

It is of interest that most Assamese ended up marrying in Assam and in the 'first generation' I cannot cite an instance of marriages with Banglees. Therefore a strong community, indeed clannish feeling developed amongst them. At the outset it was for service in the Railways that most of the Assamese chose Chittagong, the port city of Bangladesh to settle. It is possible that the hilly and picturesque Chittagong district, temperature and topography-wise reminded them of Assam and having satiated their nostalgia with that placebo city - it was only in the early sixties that many Assamese started moving towards the Capital Dhaka.

Hostilities and wars between India and Pakistan contributed in distancing the Assamese from their homeland after 1965. For some it became necessary to completely disassociate themselves from their relatives in Assam. In that inglorious period, the Indian Government imprisoned some Assamese Muslims who had relatives in East Pakistan for 'security reason'. My eldest uncle the Late Shafiur Rahman Hongkwar was one of them. He languished for months in Jorhat Jail, only because he had relatives in East Pakistan: our family. Following the war, tighter imposition of Passport and Visa requirement together with deep suspicion made things very cumbersome. The 'first generation' did not want to complicate situation for their relative's back home. Postal services were suspended - letters that got through bore the clear mark of censorship. To get a visa was a nightmarish wait for six months or more, and one could be refused even after that.

Came the War of Liberation in 1971 and the Assamese sided with the aspirations of the Bangalees. The community spirit ensured the survival of the Assamese through the genocide. While a million Bengalees fled to West Bengal, the three hundred odd Assamese in Bangladesh chose to hide together as a community. In both Dhaka and Chittagong upto ten families at a time made the use of their own or the larger houses of richer Assamese and lived communally for nine months, the duration of the war. Though food was scarce, there was no dearth of love. The Assamese were prepared to die together. Among the unsung heroes of the Liberation War of Bangladesh are two Assamese from our 'second generation'. One Bablu Rasheed was a martyr, savagely tortured to death by the Pakistani Army of Occupation. Another, Faruk Ahmed was a ferocious guerrilla fighter of the Mukti Bahini.

Nothing changed for the Bangladeshi Assamese after the Independence in 1971, for soon Assam became a restricted area and our Bangladesh passport meant we were foreigners. No exception was made in the Restricted Area Permit regulation for native Assamese or their children to visit their homeland. Much as our parents were denied the chance after 1965, we had to endure the same wait after 1971, months on end and even be refused. The RAP was thankful lifted in 1994.

So resigned are some of us to our fates that I know of at least two- dozen native Assamese in Bangladesh that have not visited their homeland for over forty years! Many have lost touch or have been disowned by their relatives in Assam. Sons and daughters do not know for certain if their parents are still alive and vice versa. There cannot be any more tragic instance in immigration history than that of the Bangladeshi Assamese.

Because of the fact that we the 'second generation' have so successfully assimilated ourselves into mainstream Bengalee culture, and have become so much more busier and because we probably have to work twice as hard as the average Bengalee to make our presence felt; what has become prohibitive for us is regular contact. To compensate for that we chat on the phone. The 'first generation' rejected the idea of forming an Association, why we will never know and we have respect for that decision. Now, as a community we only get together for marriages, the two Eid celebration or ironically at funerals.

What are we doing to keep Assamese tradition and culture alive? Firstly, we do not as a practice allow any young Assamese to forget their mother tongue; so its strictly Assamese language when we speak among ourselves. The 'second generation' Assamese girls have largely married Bengalees out of choice or arrangements. It is not as if marriages within the 'second generation' has not occurred - yet some more adventurous Assamese boys, me included, have opted to marry Assamese girls - from 'proper' Assam. My wife is among the four ladies in the Assamese community in Bangladesh who are referred to lovingly as the 'imported brides'! Their upbringing in Assam has contributed to their celebrity status. Therefore, before any function, especially weddings, they initiate a telephonic relay that seeks to cultivate opinions so that authenticity is upheld and nothing is missed out. a meeting is called among the ladies who then iron out all the finer details, and yes, a load of 'pai's and napais' (do's and don't's) !

The weddings are fine examples in exhibiting our culture to our Bengalee friends. Ladies wear riha-mekhala-sador, seven ladies press a angothi on he brides heads as oil is poured during the halodi ceremony and Biya naam is sung. Assamese jewelleries are of course hot favorites in the community. The Gaam Kharu, Lokaparoh, Golpota, dhol and Jonbiri, Thuria, Gajera, Nez Loga, Angothi, Sipat etc., compete with Dhakai jewelleries, which are equally exquisite. Most Assamese home in Dhaka are incomplete without Xorai, Bota, Ban Bati and these are used ceremoniously. Our Bengalee friends request Khar, Jaal, and Khorisa dishes whenever we invite them for a meal.

This piece cannot be a complete picture on the Assamese community in Bangladesh, yet I would like to add that in fifty years since the first immigrant from Assam arrived, the Bangladeshi Assamese today are a proud community, regarded for their sincerity, hard work, honesty and above all simplicity. We have no regrets and are proud of who we are, of our parents, and of course of ASSAM.

First Published June 1997 in an Assamese publication in Delhi. Later this was translated and published in Assamese daily newspaper in Guwahati, Assam.

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