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Sylhetis were separated by Partition. Now, Indo-Bangladesh festival aims to bring them together

Silchar-Sylhet Festival, to be held this October in Assam, seeks to celebrate cross-border Sylheti culture. It will 'showcase tribal culture, cuisine, arts, crafts, entertainment'.

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Guwahati: In 1947, the Muslim-majority Sylhet district of Assam province became a part of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), causing many Hindu Sylhetis to migrate from their homeland to India as refugees. While this episode from Assam’s Barak Valley region has become a footnote in the discourse around Partition, it will be the fulcrum of a festival to “celebrate the age-old people-people connect” across both sides of the border.

The Silchar-Sylhet Festival, slated to be held in Assam’s Silchar town from 29 to 31 October, is being organised by the think-tank India Foundation “under the aegis” of the Union government’s Ministry of Culture and in association with the Bangladesh Foundation for Regional Studies.

“Sylhetis are on either side of the border… now it is time to forget the past of Partition and forge new alliances and links, especially between the twin cities of Silchar and Sylhet,” BJP leader and Silchar Lok Sabha MP Dr Rajdeep Roy told ThePrint.

According to a press release, the three-day long festival will see sessions and addresses by “ministers from India and Bangladesh, governors, chief ministers, industry leaders, litterateurs, academics, and practitioners”.

“The festival will showcase tribal culture, cuisine, arts, crafts, and local produce, entertainment and bring together eminent people from both sides to discuss and deliberate on issues of mutual growth and opportunity,” the press communique from Saturday stated.

Roy told ThePrint that discussions pertinent to diplomatic relations between India and Bangladesh are also likely to take place on the sidelines.

Several dignitaries from both Bangladesh and India are expected to attend the event.

The guest list from Bangladesh includes Minister for Foreign Affairs A.K. Abdul Momen, Minister for Commerce Tipu Munshi, and State Minister for Cultural Affairs K.M. Khalid.

From the Indian side, prominent attendees will include the Governor of Assam Jagdish Mukhi, Union Minister for Culture, Tourism and Development of North-East Region (DONER) G. Kishan Reddy, and Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Sarbananda Sonowal, among others.

Also read: Stop seeing Bangladesh as ‘East Pakistan’. Last 50 years are a missed opportunity

A cross-border Sylheti identity

The Bengali-speaking region of Sylhet was historically a part of the erstwhile East Bengal, but the British tacked it on to the newly created province of Assam in 1874 in order to boost the ‘backward’ region’s economic strength.

Silchar was linguistically and culturally closer to Calcutta than anywhere in the northeast part of India, and many inhabitants were against the move. However, according to some scholars, Hindus were more rankled than Muslims.

“[T]he Hindus of Sylhet demanded for a return to the more ‘advanced’ Bengal, whereas the Muslims of Sylhet by and large preferred to remain in Assam where its leaders… found a more powerful political voice,” wrote researcher Anindita Dasgupta in her 2008 paper ‘Remembering Sylhet: A Forgotten Story of India’s 1947 Partition’, published in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Most of the local Assamese, too, were not pleased by the presence of the Bengali-speaking “Sylhetis” due to increased competition for jobs and the fear that the perceived interlopers would try to assert cultural dominance in the region.

Meanwhile, the years from 1874 saw Sylhetis migrating to different parts of the northeast, and creating sizeable pockets in areas of southern Assam like Silchar (in Cachar district) and Karimganj.

“Over time there emerged a de-territorialised Sylheti identity in Assam/ India,” Dasgupta wrote.

Then in 1947, the Sylhet referendum was held to decide whether the district would remain with India, as a part of undivided Assam, or East Bengal, a part of the newly created Dominion of Pakistan.

The majority voted in favour of joining Pakistan, but on 17 August 1947, the announcement of the Radcliffe Line — which delineated the geopolitical border between India and Pakistan — resulted in Karimganj joining India.

Neighbouring areas of Cachar district like Silchar had also felt the effects of the Partition. In a paper on the demographic growth of Silchar, scholars N.B. Dey and Purusottam Nayak noted that the town’s population grew by 10.5 per cent between 1941 and 1951, “mainly due to Partition”.

The influx comprised predominantly Hindu refugees from the part of Sylhet that had joined erstwhile East Pakistan.

There are currently sizeable populations of Sylhetis in not just the Barak valley (comprising Cachar, Karimganj, and Hailakandi districts) but also Hojai in Assam, Meghalaya, North Tripura, and Manipur.

The Sylheti identity is marked by a distinctive dialect, cuisine, and culture. It is this cross-border identity, whether in Bangladesh’s Sylhet or India’s Silchar, that the upcoming festival aims to highlight.

The event, the press release says, has been timed to coincide with 75 years of India’s independence as well as the “50th anniversary of the liberation of Bangladesh from East Pakistan”.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Dr Rajdeep Roy is Silchar MP. 

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