A Syncretic and Long-Standing Relationship

Irrespective of the unease and issues that the Assamese and Bengalis have shared, they are similar in numerous ways, with a shared bond rooted in the region, and hence are sometimes very identical to each other.
Keywords: Assam, Bengal, Culture, Integrity, Territorial, Conflict, National
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I am a fourth- generation Bengali born and brought up in Assam, and I identify myself as both an Assamese and a Bengali. I consider both Assamese and Bengali to be my first languages and consider myself to be bringing out the best of both cultures.

The present generations of many Bengali families, such as mine, have adopted Assamese as a means of communication, making them pluralistic. The extensive assimilation of multiple cultures, societies, and ethnic groups has led to the formation of the Greater Assamese community, of which all the citizens of Assam are a part. As a result of Bengali Indians absorption into Assamese society and their decision to learn Assamese as a second language, a more comprehensive and vibrant culture is visible in Assam today.

However, Bengalis and Assamese are two sides of the same coin, and I am a testimony to the values of the two cultures that I have grown up in, without discrimination or fear. The main reason behind the similarity between the two cultures can be traced back to the geographical proximity that they have had over the years. The age-old bonds between the two communities can be seen even today, from Ambubachi Mela and Bihu to Durga Puja. One can see both communities rejoicing together with both Dhak and Pepa.

Irrespective of the unease and issues that the Assamese and Bengalis have shared, they are similar in numerous ways, with a shared bond rooted in the region, and hence are sometimes very identical to each other. To begin with, Sanskrit is the root language of both the Bengali and Assamese languages. Both have the same script, with just two distinct alphabets. Both the languages are known for their inherent vowel, generally written as “o অ”. In addition, holidays for both communities are observed simultaneously under different names. For instance, while Magh Bihu is observed by the Assamese, Poush Sankranti is observed by the Bengalis. Artists like Papon and Zubeen Garg are cultural icons for both cultures. The legend Bhupen Hazarika has sung numerous songs in both Assamese and Bengali. For example, his famous Assamese song ‘Manuhe Manuhor Babe’ has been sung by him in Bengali as well, called the ‘Manush Manusher Jonyo’ and many more as such. Also, the love for Pithas is something that both the Assamese and Bengalis share. Assamese-Bengali marriages hold a lot of significance when we talk about the assimilation of both cultures. This idea of marriage is more easily and readily accepted in both societies.

Additionally, both the cultures have staple rice-based diets and maybe a shared love for fish, adda, and tea. The colour red is a cultural preference for both communities when it comes to their jamdanis/tant (traditional Bengali sarees) and mekhela-sadors (the traditional dress worn by the Assamese women). In fact, the Goalparias and the Dimasa tribe share the tradition of Shakha Pola with the Bengalis. Also, both communities celebrate Durga Puja as well as Bihu with equal enthusiasm.

I have often been intrigued by Assam’s demography, which is considerably complex because of the multiplicity of communities and ethnic groups residing in the state. This has only added to the beauty of the state, much akin to a mosaic of flowers of different hues. However, for the first time, I witnessed something that I had not seen earlier. When the issue of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) came up in the state, I found historical issues being manipulated in new contexts. As a result of the manipulation of regional and cultural sentiments, Assam’s complexities took on new dimensions. Largely, as it was later discovered, this was the handiwork of anti-national groups with vested interests.

The Indian parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act on December 11, 2019. At the time, because of the disinformation campaign on social media, heightened regional sentiments, and blatant information asymmetry, this decision was not particularly well received in the northeastern state of Assam. There was resentment expressed through protests, some of which turned violent due to the deliberate misinformation driven by vested interests.

On March 11, 2024, the Ministry of Home Affairs notified the Citizenship Amendment Rules for the further implementation of CAA. Two of the main features of CAA are that it expedites the citizenship process and grants citizenship to migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who had been subjected to religious persecution. It was restricted to the minority population who were Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis. However, because of the lack of understanding and social media misinformation campaign, a bill that would have no impact on any citizen of India, was projected by some as a bill that could target the unique Assamese identity and culture.

On the contrary, Assam is actually safeguarded by the Assam Accord, which provides constitutional, legislative, and administrative safeguards as needed to protect, preserve, and advance Assam’s cultural, social, and linguistic identity and heritage. Additionally, the Indian Constitution’s Sixth Schedule calls for the governance of tribal territories in Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram in order to preserve the rights of tribal populations in these states. However, because of the pre-existing unease between the Assamese and Bengali communities, which in turn was a creation of British Raj, protests and broad civil disturbances against the implementation of the CAA gained momentum in Assam and neighbouring states.

This feeling of apprehension between the Assamese and the Bengalis traces back to 1826, when the East India Company seized control of the entire Northeast under the Treaty of Yandabo, subsequently leading to the addition of Assam to the Bengal Presidency. After Assam was added to the Bengal Presidency, middle-class Bengalis began to migrate there and take up professional and administrative roles. Additionally, the British made Bengali the official language as well as the medium of education in the Bengal Presidency in 1836. Both of these reasons, along with a changed political ruling, caused discontent among the Assamese population, more so among the Assamese middle class, which saw the Bengalis as foreigners and as synonymous with the British. As a result, Bengalis felt excluded and alienated, leading to a certain level of unease and resentment towards the Assamese people.

Since then, this friction has existed between the two communities as a result of the sowing of seeds of mistrust and a sense of loss of tradition and history during the colonial era. It was in 1874 that Assam was detached from the Bengal presidency and was made into a separate chief commissionership. Despite their differences over the years, these two communities have consistently demonstrated peace and resilience via unity through the commonalities that they both share. Historically, due to the actions of the British Raj, the gap between the two groups had grown, with the Assam Language Movement and subsequently the Assam Movement. 

Today, Assam is massively threatened by the Bangladeshi illegal immigration issue, which is common to both the Assamese and Bengali communities. But this concern is sometimes misdirected towards the local Bengali Indians who have settled in this land ages ago. Assam’s rapid demographic change is a major result of illegal Bangladeshi immigration, yet the failure to acknowledge the same by certain groups results in rather aggressive and disputable conflicts between the Assamese and the Bengalis.

However, it is important to emphasise that, despite knowing that both of these languages have a shared sense of culture and tradition, the two are distinct from one another. They are unique and exquisite in and of themselves. In addition to the amalgamated cultures of Bengali and Assamese, the problem of unauthorised immigration must also be brought to light, since it affects not just the state of Assam but the entire country. This is not just a matter of national importance but also of Assam’s territorial integrity. Hence, it calls for an hour of need for us to show that even after persistent efforts to divide us by some anti-national parties, we will come out unified as one nation and that our foremost identity will be nothing but that of Indians.

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Akansha Sinha

Akansha Sinha is currently pursuing her graduation from University of Delhi in the domain of Political Science. She is also a research intern at India Foundation.

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