Search for Black Gold in Sanaleibak Manipur

Homen Thangjam

Search for the unknown have fascinated human imagination. And explorations are mostly undertaken with the underlying motto of “for the benefit of the human race”. It is a matter of polemics whether the benefits are truly universal – opinions are divided. And in every mission of exploration and the event of discovery, serendipity plays a charming role. Otherwise, how could Christopher Columbus have discovered the America or the Scottish chemist James Young discovered natural petroleum in the Riddings colliery at Alfreton, Derbyshire and for that matter the discovery of Shirui Lily.

But what is fascinating about exploration and the search is (acknowledging the motto), each exploration is driven by certain motives. We are familiar with expeditions and explorations driven by military motives, missionary zeals and scientific reasons. Closer home, the Lushai Hill Expedition (1871–72) and the Naga Hills Expeditions (1875 and 1879–80) falls in the first category. The Story of Dr. Livingstone who discovered the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls is one such example of the second category. Exploration of the moon and the Mars perhaps falls in the category of scientificity and even the discovery of Shirui Lily. For Francis Kingdon-Ward, as recorded in his book “Plant Hunter in Manipur”, the exploration of the Shirui Kashong in 1948 was for the discovery of Shirui Lily, enter it into the temples of flora as well as include the rare flower that only grows in Manipur in the Kew Index and finally towards the plant’s preservation.

Then there are also others, which are strangely peculiar and far removed from the logic of science, the Empire and the State. For example, for the British explorer Percy Fawcett who was sent by the British Government to survey location of a mutual boundary between Bolivia and Brazil as a cartographer, it was the chance discovery of evidences of a previously unknown civilization that may have once inhabited the region that made him take several more expeditions in the thick jungles of Amazon. For him, it was to prove to the western civilization that there are other civilizations unknown to the white people. The determined Fawcett, supported by his devoted wife, son, and aide-de-camp, returns to his beloved jungle in an attempt to prove his case. Yes, more evidences of civilization he did find – the natives’ ability to conquer the jungles and adopt agriculture with geometrical precision, the true meaning of cannibalism as practiced by a particular tribe in the Amazon (eating the flesh of the loved one is to embrace the deceased’s spirit), catching only the required number of fishes by stunning them (not killing them all) using certain roots, using tides of the Amazon River to cover the entrance of the villages and others. He disappeared in 1925 along with his son on one such expedition.

I’d say Fawcett is like Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Stone Seagull who flew because he loved flying. Fawcett’s belief in a lost civilization met with ridicule for almost a hundred years by the scientific establishment, which views indigenous populations as savages. But early in the 21st century, archaeologists uncovered an astonishing network of ancient roads, bridges and agricultural settlements, throughout the Amazon. Among these sites was Fawcett’s proposed location for the city of Z. David Grann’s “The Lost City of Z”, written in 2009 is a biographical adventure drama, a tribute paid to discredited explorer.

In an article that has to dwell on oil and petroleum exploration in Manipur, the above references might sound misplaced to the learned readers. Forgive my meandering stream of thought if they appear misplaced. I am only trying to discern the kernel of search and exploration in few cited examples and compare how they are so starkly different from the ongoing search for oil and petroleum in this tiny state we lovingly call Sanaleipak(the Golden Land). Very true, missions of both Francis Kingdon-Ward and Percy Fawcett were funded and sponsored – in the case of Kingdon-Ward by the New York Botanic Garden and for Fawcett by the Royal Geographical Society and later on by the John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a consortium of American newspapers. However, these were not driven by profit motive.On the other hand, the ongoing search for Black Gold (black because of its appearance when it comes out of the ground, and gold because it makes everyone involved in the oil industry rich), in Manipur is purely an act of corporate plunder marked by exploitation and driven by greed that is bound to entail far reaching health and environmental consequences.

The search began silently under the cover of turmoil created by armed-conflict and ethnic hostility in the jungles of Tamenglong in the year 2011. So when Alpha Geo Company and Asian Oil Fields (hired goons of Jubilant Energy, which has bagged the license for exploration) started bombing the jungles as part of the survey works, the already fear-stricken villagers of Kambiron, Sibilong, Oinamlong, Boluangdai, Nungba Village, TajeiKeiphun, Keimai, Nungkao Part III and others, thought those were just routine clashes either between the insurgents groups or between the rebels and the state armed forces. Furthermore, when the villagers sighted UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), they thought, these were surveillance manoeuvres deployed by the military. In reality, the drones belonged to the companies and very much a part of the survey works (possibly the Airborne Gradiometer surveys by Bell Industries). These survey works were repeated in Tamenglong District in 2012 and 2017.

The survey works commenced without taking free and prior consent of the people.The companies did not provide relevant information related to oil exploration. People were unaware of the conditions laid down in the contracts inked between Jubilant Energy and Government of India and on how the indigenous peoples of Manipur would benefit from production of oil and petroleum. Following vehement objection and protest by the indigenous peoples of Tamenglong, Churachandpur and Jiribamduring, public hearings were organized by Manipur Pollution Control Board and Jubilant Energy in the year 2012 and this brought a full stop to the exploration and survey related works in Tamenglong. The natives are right in expressing their fears – of losing their land, of massive contamination of their land and water and of deforestation and most importantly the non-recognition of their ownership rights over their land and resources.

Flagrant violations of their rights to land and resources and fraudulent machinations undertaken by the oil companies ultimately compelled the people of Manipur to reject oil exploration.In a study by Prof. W. Naba, Jiten Yumnam and Anina titled, “Oil Exploration Plan and Peoples Struggles in Manipur”, published by Action Aid in 2017, It is reported that “Oil companies tried to misinform and seek NOCs (no objection certificates) from villagers in Tamenglong and Churachandpur by bribing leaders and even using some of the armed opposition groups.  In other cases, the village traditional decision making processes are undermined.” Indeed, villagers were able to link the sounds of blasting, sighted UAVs and movement of heavy machineries with oil exploration only when company officials visited them to seek NOCs in 2012.

In a surprise turn of event, two years after the halt to exploration works, Jubilant Energy in its Annual Report of 2014 reported completion of several surveys, viz, 2D and 3D Seismic Surveys and Airborne Gradiometer surveys apart from studies on sediments and rocks in the Manipur Oil Block 1 and 2 located in Jiribam, Tamenglong and Churachandpur districts. The total area granted for oil exploration is nearly 4000 Square Kilometres and it is estimated that Manipur has nearly 5 trillion cubic feet of oil in the Abin, Kharkhublien, Taithu, Sialman, Laimata, Oinamlong anticlines in the two oil blocks. Original plan of the Company was to drill 30 oil wells in the two blocks. Jubilant in the same report stated oil deposits in the two blocks may be more than 7 Trillions.

Come year 2017, we witness the entry of new players such as Asian Oilfield Services Limited and Oil India Ltd (OIL). Asian Oilfield bagged a Rs. 143-crore contract from the OIL in January 2017 for 2D seismic data and commenced surveys in Jiribam, Tamenglong and Imphal West districts. The survey is envisaged to cover almost the whole of Manipur. Tragedy is, the survey lines cuts through ecologically sensitive zones of Manipur such as the Loktak Wetlands, Barak River system and the Yaingangpokpi Lokchao Wildlife Sanctuary,etc.

In May 2017, villagers of Khaidem, Moidangpok and Sangaithel in Imphal West District woke up to the thundering sounds of bomb blast. Similar to events in Tamenglong, the surveys were carried out in a clandestine manner. The residents were simply unaware and unprepared. Asian Oilfield blasted multiple explosive devices during their survey without providing information on impact of the blasts and safety. Officials of Company verbally assured that nothing would happen to the villagers.

On May 17, 2017, villagers of Khaidem Village stopped the Asian Oilfield from conducting oil surveys in their village and further resolved in a community meeting in their village on May 18 to stop all oil exploration works in the Khaidemarea. Similarly, villagers of Kambiron, Sibilong and Oinamlong, etc. in Tamenglong District rejected the efforts of the Asian Oilfield to seek No Objection Certificates (NOC) for surveys without providing information.

There is a temporary halt to the exploration for Black Gold in Manipur. However, fundamental issues pertaining to profit sharing, ownership and environmental impact, remains hidden etc. As much as the corporate houses are silent on these issues, so is the Government of Manipur. Companies are riding on obsolete laws which has colonial designs and insensitive to third generation of human rights. The Oilfield Act of 1948, Petroleum and Minerals Pipelines (Acquisition of Right of User in Land) Act of 1962 and Oil Industry (Development) Act of 1974 are a few examples of such laws. All these laws state that oil in India belongs to the Indian State and hence, it has exclusive right to mortgage or sell to multinational companies. Even the North East Hydrocarbon Vision, 2030 formulated in 2016 contains no provision for recognition of community rights and role in decision making related to oil exploration and production.

Manipur’s existence within the Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot and Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot is something corporate houses and the Indian State very deliberately ignores. More than 500 varieties of orchids and more than 700 fish species are recorded to be found in the forest and rivers of Manipur. Furthermore, Manipur lies in the Seismic Zone V (zone prone to high intensity earthquakes). How can we forget the earthquake measuring 6+ on the Ritcher Scale that struck Manipur on January 4, 2015. Interestingly, the epicentre of the earthquake was in Tamenglong, which is one of the locations of oil exploration. In such a geographical reality, plunderers remain to benefit at the cost of local inhabitants.

How long the people can resist especially in a place where the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) runs amok? The state holds the record for one of the highest numbers of fake encounters (1,500 cases as per the Supreme Court of India). To achieve the agenda of corporate-state nexus (in our case oil and petroleum exploration), Indian military and para-military forces are bound to be utilised under the umbrella of AFSPA. The same has happened in the past – Tipaimukh Dam, Mapithel Dam and Maphou Dam, to mention a few. And time and again, spines of the people as well as civil society organizations are violently broken. Remember, aftermath of the BT Road incident on July 23, 2009 in which pregnant Rabina and Sanjit were brutally killed by the Manipur police. It took around a year for the Manipuri civil society organizations to stand up again.

Today, explorations are underway in areas where the indigenous peoples inhabit. This is a universal phenomenon currently fashionable. What is not universal is that these searches are no longer for the benefit of the human race or to prove a point or even for scientific purposes or to enlighten mankind. March of corporate-state is aggressive and their technology highly violent. It appears as if the march is unstoppable and so is their exploratory designs. Regrettably, alternatives is far from our sight. Thus, our only consolation will be when both the entities fulfill certain minimum standards – respect our land and resources, acknowledge our share of profit, allow us to participate in the management of resources post-production and finally, be mindful about the fragile ecological balance. On our part, too, certain responsibilities are demanded. We must learn to live together. When the Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis are fighting, corporates have made inroads with the sole purpose of plundering. We owe a responsibility to the future generation – to leave something for them.


Homen Thangjam teaches Political Science at the Indira Gandhi National Tribal University- Regional Campus Manipur. The author wishes to thank Jiten Yumnam of CRA, Manipur for his comments and suggestions.


In name of the tongue: Language based martyrdom and politics in South Assam

 Samyak Ghosh

The recall of the nation, within the public sphere, has been one of the recurrent characteristics of postcolonial Indian political life. With every passing phase, this tendency to invoke the nation and add meaning to its ever-expanding body has acquired renewed interest.1 The nation, despite our best efforts towards understanding it, has never quite had any fixity of meaning within the sphere of public political life. In other words, since the emergence of the postcolonial Indian nation-state, the category of the nation, within electoral politics, mediatized everyday politics and the unregulated out-in-the-open sphere of unorganized mass politics has been rendered highly amorphous. One has to only think of the propensity for imposing a forced homogeneity in the name of the nation that has come to characterize Hindu right-wing politics in contemporary India.2

Notwithstanding its amorphousness, the various ideas of the nation has always had a common core, thinking in terms of inclusivity and at the same time, pushing everything and everyone who do not fit, outside its limits. Thus, politics in postcolonial India has for the most been about cohering as a collective body with a shared political belief by identifying a common enemy. The reader should not overlook the apparent religious nature of such thinking and its propensity for elimination that festers at the heart of modern Indian democracy. The notion of shared political belief, mentioned earlier, works primarily by attaching itself to a range of signifiers – religion, caste, food, rituals, language etc., among which language appears to be the most prominent. It can be confidently argued that much of the cohering, as a people in postcolonial India, has been made possible around a shared political belief, based on language and linguistic rights.3

Language not only appeared as the most significant political category during the early years of the Indian democracy but has remained so even in the present, best expressed in the Hindu right-wing efforts at a forced homogenization based on the idea of Hindi as a ‘national language’. During the early days of Indian democracy much of the politics of rights and claims was based on the idea of linguistic rights or the right to use and learn a particular group or a community’s ‘mother-tongue’.4 The notion of ‘mother-tongue’, as historians and anthropologists have argued was primarily a construct, emerging out of anti-colonial nationalist politics in early twentieth-century India. It was within this sphere of anti-colonial struggle that the problem of language and linguistic rights of communities was linked with the larger idea of a nation. Within this discourse that drew sustenance from political practice and contemporary technologies, print languages were imagined as constituting bounded linguistic worlds, and their ‘frontiers’ were delineated much like that of the modern nation.5 This phenomenon of delineating linguistic worlds led to the imagining of linguistic nations existing within the body of modern Indian nation-state in the twentieth century.

Recent monographs on language based political movements in India have highlighted the importance of abstract categories like ‘passion’ and ‘emotion’ that come to lend significance to the idea of language as ‘mother-tongue’. They have stressed the need for looking into language and politics as a sociological and historical problem.6 Within this scheme of analyzing language based political movements the question of life becomes particularly important. As recent studies have shown, these movements often express themselves in the language of rights and particularly that of right to life and right to speech. And within such a discourse ‘mother-tongue’ acquires a whole new significance – they are posited alongside other fundamental rights of an individual granted by the modern nation-state.

It is precisely within this discursive formation that the conversational transaction between the various language based political movements and the postcolonial nation-state takes place. Thus, it is often a commonplace occurrence to find the absence of a hardcore secessionist stance while this is replaced by politics of negotiations, based entirely on the ideas of rights and benefits. In other words, although most of the language based political movements posit a potent challenge to the idea of the singularity of the Indian nation their conversation with the postcolonial nation-state takes place very much within the shared space of democracy. There is very little evidence in postcolonial India to argue for a contrarian position than what has been just mentioned. However, there are moments when this carefully worked out conversation between the political movements and the state appears to fall apart, exposing the inadequacies of both the collective group seeking their linguistic rights and the modern state unable to fulfill their expectations.

The space that is created due to this rupture of a democratic conversation is often found to be quickly taken over by the politics of violence. Thus, mob demonstration and destruction in public premises that represent the state (most common being the railways) and state response through an act of police violence, unleashed on the gathered collective, has almost become a naturalized event within the history of language based political movements in postcolonial India. Violence as an episodic occurrence comes to mark these political movements which almost always speak a language of non-violence. This, in most cases, is seen to have changed the political character of these movements, introducing death and martyrdom as potent signifiers of association with the ‘mother-tongue’. A narrative of impassioned belonging takes over the discursive space of the movement. It is not reasoned politics but a highly charged passionate politics that characterizes the unfolding of the movement in the public sphere which in most cases is seen as a crisis of ‘law and order’ situation in the language of the modern state, that requires regulation, and hence the justification of its response with violence.

Although violence appears as an episodic occurrence, this suddenness, this almost random event quickly turns into an enduring presence, by a mediation, of what I call politics of language based martyrdom. Apart from a few satisfying empirical accounts of language based martyrdom (Mitchell 2007; Ramaswamy 1997) there has been no attempt at positing the problem at the analytical and a more general, theoretical level. It is difficult to address all these levels within the limited scope of this article. Thus, concentrating on my archive I would like to address the question of language based martyrdom in postcolonial India at the analytical level. Towards this end, I ask two questions, how does an analytical study of martyrdom help us to better understand the location of violence within language based political movements? And to what effect does a politics of martyrdom keep these movements alive, completely bypassing the reasoned politics of negotiation?

Bengali martyrdom in twentieth-century South Assam

The death of eleven language activists on the afternoon of 19 May, 1961 at the Silchar railway station initiated a mass insurgency or a gana avyuthān in the district of Cachar. The language activists were among a larger group of volunteers and people who had gathered for an anti-government demonstration at the railway station premises. They were killed in a violence that erupted within the railway station premises when the police, following the instructions of the Assam government, opened fire on the gathered mass, protesting against the introduction of Assamese as the only official language of the state of Assam.7

The district of Cachar in South Assam along with that of Karimganj and Hailakandi forms the region of Barak Valley. The region is home to a large number of ‘Bengali speaking’ Muslims and Hindus along with the people of the Kachari Barman, the Bishnupriya Manipuri and the Kaibarta community. Thus, when the Assam Official Language Bill was passed in the legislative assembly on 23 October, 1961, there was an immense outpour of dissent, mostly led by the ‘Bengali speaking’ peoples of the region (who were in a numerical majority) and organizations like the Kachar Zilla Gana Sangram Parishad (henceforth referred to as KZGSP).8 However, it was not until this sudden occurrence of violence, when eleven language activists were shot dead, that the movement swelled into an insurgency. Following this event, there was disruption of everyday life all over the valley for the next few months and according to leading newspaper reports nearly fifty thousand people participated in an enthusiastic and impassioned unrest.9

This was a moment of intense political struggle between the postcolonial state and the collective mass of people demanding their right to use the Bengali language for official purposes. Their demand was framed within the discourse of a politics of seeking rights. The denial of the official status to the Bengali language by the Assam government was soon turned into an ‘attack’ on the fundamental rights of the people of the region, to ‘speak in Bengali’, their ‘mother-tongue’.10 However, the incident of shooting at the Silchar railway station turned the political intentions of the movement upside down. The question of negotiation or conversation was buried in the swelling passion for the dead, who were henceforth referred to in the public sphere as bhāshā śahid or language martyrs.

The political situation undoubtedly put the postcolonial state in dire straits when the limits of its responsibility were put to severe test. In fact, the intervention of the Congress party leading a popular government at the center in New Delhi was unable to solve the political crisis in the region. Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of the Indian nation-state in 1961 made several trips to the valley along with the Minister of Home Affairs, Lal Bahadur Shastri. However, none of these political trips and meetings came of any result as both the Assam Pradesh Congress in Guwahati and the Nehru led government at the center were unable to contain the people who took to the streets in mourning the dead.11 Their struggle, as I read the situation, was launched against the political legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Assam unable to protect the lives of its citizens. However, at the core of their collective dissent was the question of violence and martyrdom in the name of language.

The appropriation of the eleven language activists as ‘martyrs’ was made possible by the intervention of the Calcutta based print media and the local presses of Silchar. The Bengali language newspapers from both these regions widely circulated the idea of a language based martyrdom, thus, facilitating the formation of an imagined community of Bengali speakers who were held together by their emotional association with the martyrs. Within the pages of the newspapers, death was interpreted as a sacred text with its religion of bhakti or devotion expressed at the altar of bhāṣā jananī and banga saraswatī.12 This act was impelled by the need to counter the statist discourse where the victims of the police attack were referred to as ‘miscreants’. There was a political need to produce a counter-narrative of death where the language activists were remembered as ‘heroes’ and their death was glorified as a ‘sacrifice’.13 Thus, mass insurgency sustained itself through the production of symbols and meanings related to mourning in the public sphere.

The imagination of the language martyrs as integral constituents of a larger Bengali community was put to practice by the act of mourning. There were a wide number of activities ranging from observance of religious rites to rituals and penance that came to signify mourning during this moment. Within this sphere of mourning, death was carefully constructed as a text with its vocabulary of sacrifice, grammar of spectacle and its inter-textual history, by situating the event within a larger field of other violent deaths – the most notable comparisons being the Jalianwala Bagh massacre (1915) and the Sharpeville massacre (1960).  There was a conscious shift from reporting death to writing it as a narrative. The role that journalistic imagination played in this shift is particularly significant. The primary target of the narrative was the literate, urban middle class, who were thereby mobilized as a political group through the use of the language of affect.

In a report published on 21 May, 1961, Jugantar, the Bengali daily published from Calcutta, reporting vociferous protests across Bengal with regard to the killing of eleven language activities in Cachar, wrote,

Shocked and dismayed by the killings at India’s new Jailianwala Bagh, Silchar, today entire Bengal roared in protest expressing immense disgust at the violence. Overcoming all political differences, the leaders of the various parties of West Bengal strongly criticized the atrocities of the police forces. They added that the event is even more unfortunate because it took place when the Prime Minister was on a visit to Assam.

The comparison with the massacre at Jalianwala Bagh was one of the most common inter-texts that were circulated in print. This was picked up Anandabazar Patrika, another popular Bengali daily from West Bengal, in their reports on the event of 19 May, 1961. Jugantar also compared this event with one of the worst instances of state violence in South African history, the Sharpeville Massacre, which claimed 69 lives when police opened fire on a gathering of nearly 7000 people protesting against the controversial ‘Pass laws’.14

Within this narrative of death, the body of the martyr was interpreted as a repository of virtue. Through elaborate rituals centered on the bodily remains of the martyr, the idea of death as cessation was countered by the idea of transmission of life, as the relics of the dead travelled across the imagined space of a larger Bengali community. It is precisely during this moment that the people of Barak Valley and Calcutta were mobilized through the politics of martyrdom when they were invited to participate within the spectacle of death and were allowed to play the assigned role of the mourner. As newspaper reports suggest, the relics of the dead language activists were taken out in processions across the region of Barak Valley and were then brought to Calcutta on 23 May, 1961. Under the initiative of the Praja Socialist Party a huge procession was taken out from Lower Circular Road along with relic kept in a car decorated with flowers and incense. On 24 May, 1961, after a successful day long Bengal strike called by all political parties another procession was taken out, this time from Deshbandhu Park. The procession covered a long stretch from Deshbandhu Park, crossing Cornwallis Street, Dharmatala Street, Chowringhee Road, Ashutosh Mukherjee Road, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road and Rashbehari Avenue. The relics were later immersed in the Ganges.15

Processions carrying relics of the martyrs were taken out in far flung parts of Cachar district. A procession of nearly forty thousand people toured Karimganj with the relics stored in two silver vessels. People walked barefoot and wore black badges as a mark of mourning. The relics were kept in a nearby Kali temple until their immersion on 29 May, 1961. On 26 May, 1961, more than ten thousand Bengali Muslim peasants in Karimganj took to the streets and observed mourning by abstaining from Eid-ul-adha celebrations. In rural areas of Lala, Katalichara and Katakhal peasants and tea garden workers observed strikes and organized processions. In Lala, police intervened in a procession of three hundred people thereby wounding many. In Katalichara the police attacked the procession midway and arrested more than eighty people who were mostly tea garden workers.16

If we look closely into the newspaper reports about the mourners it will be quite clear that most of the participants were represented as ‘Bengali speaking people’. Their class, caste, religion or gender was not payed much attention to in these accounts. For the journalists reporting in the newspapers, the mourners were a collective solely through their linguistic expression and performance of grief for the martyrs. That most of these mourners belonged to communities who did not use Bengali in their everyday lives (Manipuri, Kachari, tea garden laborers) was not recorded in any account. In an attempt towards constructing the idea of a Bengali martyrdom the Calcutta newspapers consistently erased these heterogeneous presences writing of them as constituting a ‘Bengali speaking’ community.

Practices and rituals in the making of the politics of language based martyrdom

Within the narrative of a mass insurgency in Cachar lies the story of the birth of a cult of martyrs with its ideas of a deified object of devotion constructed as a counter-narrative to state perpetration of violence. In the wake of state-aided violence that tried to curb down popular protests across the region of Barak Valley, mass insurgency turned into a politics of protest, with the dead activists as the deities of devotion at its core. This imagination was accompanied by elaborate performances of veneration intended towards lending a sacrosanct character to the phenomenon of language based martyrdom. Thus, the notion of the language activists sacrificing their lives at the altar of the language goddess imagined as the ‘mother-tongue’ was turned upside down in this world of performance. It was the dead who were now remembered as the godheads and their relics were regarded as a repository of generated life and virtue.

In every village or town that the relics were carried to they were housed in the shrine of the temple. At the time of immersion people ensured that in every house eleven lamps were lit marking the dead, conches were blown from river banks as the relics, decorated with flowers and leaves of the bilva plant, placed on rafts made from the stems of the banana plant, were set sail.17 The meticulous construction of the Bengali Hindu sacred ritual described here contradicts with the urban, middle class, print accounts where the politics of martyrdom was represented as a vaguely secular act. Quite contrary to that representation we find the presence of Bengali Hindu and Bengali Muslim rituals in the performance narratives that were reported from across Barak Valley. As local newspaper reports show even in areas that were remote from the site of violence every ritual was carried out with utmost devotion.18

On 29 May, 1961, people across Cachar observed śahid dibas by performing the awrandhan vrata and congregating for readings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. They constructed śahid bedis or martyr memorials and offered obeisance to the dead activists. The volunteers representing various organizations like KZGSP adopted the practice of tying flower threads or rakhis on the hands of the police and the people on the streets. These practices were meant to bring back the memories of the swadeshi movement and the anti-colonial days in the public sphere.19

The invocation of swadeshi in the public sphere was related to a politics of affect whereby the notion of an improvisational friendship between the Bengalis in Cachar and of the regions beyond its boundaries was invoked in the public sphere. The Calcutta print media played the most significant role in this regard. Emerging as the mouth-piece of the language movement in Cachar and elsewhere the newspapers made clear attempts at creating a larger consensus and support for the ‘rightful demands’ of the Bengalis of Cachar. The Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika arranged for a fund-raising scheme in helping the people of Cachar carry out the gana avyuthān. There were a series of advertisements in the pages of the daily starting 27 May, 1961, asking the readers to donate generously for the cause of the gana avyuthān. As further reports show this was quite a successful campaign and was later used to help the family of the dead language activists and those wounded in police violence.20

Apart from the fund-raising efforts there were regular cartoons and graphic narrative panels in both Anandabazar and Jugantar attacking Jawaharlal Nehru led Congress government in Delhi and Bimala Prasad Chaliha led Pradesh Congress government in Guwahati. Kafi Khan and Rebati Bhusan Choudhury produced some of the most iconic caricatures.21 1961 was the year of Tagore centenary commemoration and there was immense institutional excitement regarding this event. Reports published in Anandabazar and Jugantar suggest that it was during this moment that the Bengal Congress government express their wish to declare Bengali as the official language of the state (which also marks the beginning of anti-Bengali protests by the speakers of the Nepali language in northern West Bengal). The government and the print media worked extensively towards reviving Tagore as a cultural icon of the state during this moment.22 However, in Cachar, Tagore found a life as the icon of resistance against state perpetration of violence, which became the subject of one of the most iconic graphic panels of the legendary cartoonist Kafi Khan.

The panel which was published in the Jugantar on 21 May, 1961 shows a teary eyed Tagore bending on his knees and pleading an answer from the almighty with lines from one his most quoted poems, Proshno (Question),

            Therefore I beseech you in tears,

            Those that have poisoned the air

            Those that have quelled your glare

            Have you forgiven them?

            Did you ever love them?

The panel further depicted Cachar burning in flames as the poet looks up to the sky. It was titled by the cartoonist in the interrogative – Tagore centenary in Cachar? 23

The proliferation of such narratives built on diverse interpretations of death and language based martyrdom and its incorporation within other significant events like the Tagore centenary moment added new meaning to the struggle for Bengali language in Cachar. As a result of this, almost all contemporary accounts of remembrance begins with the pronouncement that the Bengalis of Cachar were defending Tagore’s language at the most appropriate hour (we are prompted to ask how much of this narrative was influenced by the revival of Tagore as an icon of resistance in 1960s East Pakistan).24 The signature one-liner used in contemporary commemoration of the language based martyrdom reads, “Tagore in our hearts and Unishe in our consciousness”. This was the everlasting contribution of print to the gana avyuthān of 1961 – the making of its icon of resistance. And who could better serve the purpose than the poet who was already being used as polysemic icon in Bengal’s different worlds?


We began this analysis with a general overview of the phenomenon of the language based political movements, their vocabulary of rights, state intervention by way of violence, and the commitment to the idea of the nation. Here, I want to turn briefly to this last point before taking stock of a few general observations. As I stressed earlier, it is precisely the recall of the nation within the sphere of public politics that partially explains the fervor and passion in dying for languages. There is something in the manner of a generative grammar in the structure of most of these language movements and their politics of martyrdom. If we look closely at the event of violence in Cachar that turned into a politics of martyrdom or similar occurrences from other parts of northeast India (interesting case would be the Assamese language movement and its framing of the martyrdom question), Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu we will find that the discourse of resistance borrows largely from twentieth-century anti-colonial struggle and its framing of the ideas of patriotism, political struggle and sacrifice. The practice of resistance and its vocabulary is primarily drawn from the anti-colonial archive in turning the dead into martyrs and thus laying their life for a shared cause.

A particularly instructive case in point would be the negotiating politics of benefit that ensues once the political objective of such movements are achieved. The manner in which martyrs’ kin and friends demand an association with the ‘heroes’ of the ‘nation’ (read jāti) and bargain with the state or civil society organizations in demanding benefits like housing loans, land, pension and health benefits bears striking similarities with the similar kinds of politics of rights on the part of a patriot or a war veteran’s family. The vocabulary of the rights demanding after-life of these movements reveal a continuity with a much older language of struggle and resistance which cannot to be overlooked.

Again, in all the above mentioned cases we find the cohering of a rights demanding collective resisting the ‘unjust’ and ‘oppressive’ attack on the part of the postcolonial government. They stress the point that a near total failure of postcolonial forms of rights granting and life protecting governance creates the space for violence to erupt in public life. It is precisely at this moment that we find the colonial core of postcolonial governance exposing itself in the working of state perpetrated violence. These historical examples from the early days of Indian democracy allow us to see the limits of postcolonial governance and the emergence of popular modes of political practices. Within such practices the abstract notions of love, kinship, friendship and devotion to play a formative role in organizing a collective who desist from a language of political negotiation as a method to counter unreasoned state violence.

Finally, in all the events, martyrdom is seen to play a crucial role in organizing popular will and attributing to it the character of political practice. The phenomenon of language based martyrdom shapes most language based political movements in postcolonial India and their long after-life. As I have indicated before, these movements continue beyond their political interest, as histories that shape communities and their lives. Be it the Bengalis of Cachar or the Telegu speaking people of Andhra Pradesh their lives within the postcolonial Indian nation-state are marked by histories of violence. It is precisely in the act of remembering and commemorating, when violence is turned into martyrdom that the community comes into being. If we are to write histories of language based political struggle in the present, we have work with ideas that explain the coming together of violence, martyrdom and community formation within a single theoretical framework. It is precisely through such inquiries of the general that we can write histories of governance and its limits of responsibility in postcolonial India.


The mass insurgency in Cachar generated an enormous visual archive as has been indicated in the article. In this section, I present three such visual instances which record the history of the gana avyuthān in different ways. The first set of images is from a pamphlet published from Azad Library in Silchar and circulated during the gana avyuthān in the rural areas of Cachar district. The pamphlet was written by Alauddin Khan, a less known Bengali Muslim poet from the region. Khan calls his composition śahid gīti or a song or ballad for the martyrs. The composition is particularly instructive in informing us about ways in which such narratives circulated across the region where the language martyrs were seen as constituent of a larger Bengali Muslim and Bengali Hindu family. The second image is of the iconic panel drawn by Kafi Khan discussed in the article.

Image 1.1s1

Image 1.2s2

  Image 2




  1. Here and throughout the essay I use the word nation as meaning something close to jāti in modern Bengali and jāt in modern Hindi and not strictly in the sense of rāṣtra. My understanding of nation as jāti in working with the idea of community is informed by Partha Chatterjee’s use of the category of nation in his book, The Nation and its Fragments.

  Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (New Jersey, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 220-239.

  1. The rise Hindu right-wing politics and its influence in governance has seen this forcible imposition of homogeneity in the form of Hindi imperialism, celebration of upper-caste North Indian rituals (the most recent being the BJP led Ram Navami celebrations all across West Bengal ) and the regulation on food habits of the people who consume beef. I thank Dipesh Chakrabarty for pointing out this fascist characteristic of forced homogeneity to me.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Graduate Seminar on Research Themes, spring quarter 2017, University of Chicago.

  1. Since the beginning of the Andhra movement in 1956 language has remained as the most politicized category (other than caste and religion) in postcolonial India. There has been numerous demands made on the basis of linguistic rights of various communities and this formed a basis for the linguistic reorganization of the Indian states initiated in 1956. A particularly interesting study in this regard is the volume on Language and Politics in India edited by Asha Sarangi.

Asha Sarangi (ed.), Language and Politics in India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009).

  1. One of the most challenging tasks faced by the Congress government led by the first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru was to grant linguistic rights to the many Indian communities and fulfill their demands for separate states based on their respective languages. This was extremely tricky political affair because even as these languages like Bengali, Marathi, Assamese, Gujarati, Telegu and Tamil were emerging as majority languages within certain areas they were always involved in the capacity to produce minority languages with respect to their status. The case of Cachar and its struggle for Bengali language emerges from such a context and is therefore quite different from either the Telegu or the Tamil case.
  2. Lisa Mitchell, Language, Emotion and Politics in South India: The making of a mother tongue (Bloomington, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009), p. 10-11.
  3. Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue: Language and devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).
  4. For reports on 19 May shooting at the Silchar railway station see, Anandabazar Patrika, 20 May, 1961, p. 1, 5. Also see, Jugantar, 20 May, 1961, p. 1, 5. Accessed in microfilm form at the Hiteshranjan Sanyal Memorial Archive, JBMRC, Kolkata.
  5. Subir Kar, Barak Upatyakar Bhasa Sangramer Itihas (Silchar: Srijan Graphics and Printing, 2012), p. 55-72.
  6. Anandabazar Patrika, Jugantar, The Statesman and Times of India carried extensive reports on the uprising in Barak Valley. In Assam it was primarily the Assam Tribune that carried reports of the event. The reports in West Bengal and Assam varied to a great extent. In fact there was a concerted effort made by the literary society of Assam (Assam Sahitya Sabha) to project the movement as ‘unlawful’ and ‘miscreant activity’. For details on the differences of opinion in various newspapers see, Samyak Ghosh, “Land of Martyrs: Event, Memory, Identity in South Assam”, Mphil Thesis (2014), CSSS, Calcutta.
  7. Samarjit Choudhury (ed.), Bangla Bhasha Andolan O Jugashakti (Karimganj: Jugashakti Prakashani, 2007).
  8. Sanat Kumar Kairi, Bhasha Sangramer Purnanga Itihas (Silchar: Bimala Kairi, 2008); Kanu Aich, Bharater Bangla Bhasha Sangram (Silchar: Barak Upatyaka Matribhasha Suraksha Samiti, 2005).
  9. ‘Banga Saraswatir bedimuley byathar puja, Anandabazar Patrika, 23 May, 1961, p. 1.
  10. ‘Pradhanmantrir nikat Assam sarkarer mithya bibaran pesh’, Anandabazar Patrika, 22 May, 1961, p. 9.
  11. ‘Bharater naya Jalianwala Bagh’, Jugantar, 21 May, 1961, p. 5; ‘Silchare pulisher gulite noyjon nihata: Assame dakshin Africar abastha sristi’, Jugantar, 20 May, 1961, p. 1.
  12. ‘Pachattarhajar loker shokmichil: Adi Gangae Kacharer egaro jon shahider chitabhasma bisarjan’, Jugantar, 25 May, 1961, p. 5.
  13. Samarjit Choudhury (ed.), Banglabhasha Andolan O Jugashakti (Karimganj: Jugashakti Prakashani, 2007), p. 78-89.
  14. Amitava Choudhury, Mukher Bhasha Buker Rudhir (Calcutta: Grantha Prakash, 1961), p. 1-10.
  15. Samarjit Choudhury (ed.), Banglabhasha Andolan O Jugashakti (Karimganj: Jugashakti Prakashani, 2007), p. 83-89.
  16. Ibid; On the Swadeshi rituals see, Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal 1903-1908 (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2010), p. 266-267.
  17. Anandabazar Patrika, 27 May, 1961, p. 9.
  18. These cartoons and graphic panels were published in the May-June issues of Jugantar, 1961.
  19. For the reports on Tagore centenary see the April-May issues of Anandabazar Patrika and Jugantar, 1961.
  20. ‘Kacharey Rabindra Shatabarshiki?’ Jugantar, 21 May, 1961.
  21. Such stories abound in Subir Kar’s account of the language based political struggle in Barak Valley. Subir Kar, Barak Upatyakar Bangla Bhasha Sangramer Itihas (Silchar: Srijan Graphics and Printing, 2012).

Samyak is a graduate student in History at Columbia University and a member of the Pangsau Collective.

A Response to Mizo Student Union, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU)

The Memorandum submitted by the Mizo Student Union of JNU, to the Prime Minister of India on 1st September 2017 is, to say the least, shocking and banal. It is nothing but a message of ‘hateful propaganda and sensationalism’. It needs to be scrutinised, every word and sentence, because it lacks not only any humanistic and ethical concerns, but even worse, drives home a propaganda and a wrong articulation and presentation of history. The memorandum seems like an extension of the chauvinism of the Assam Movement that they faced, which has entered a new wave in articulating the other as the outsider or their enemies. What we can see from the memorandum is nothing but a case of the rising xenophobia and hitlerism in the state of Mizoram.

The Union is embarrassingly wrong when it writes that the Chakmas do not share any common history, ancestry, customs and traditions with the Mizos. For all we know, both are Jhummis! That’s hell of a cultural sharing, is it not? The Union also seems to assume the existence of Mizoram state, with clear distinctions between the categories of Mizos and non Mizos, and with fixed spatial boundaries as early as the early nineteenth century. Their argument that the recent protest of the Mizo Zirlai Pawl (MZP) of some Chakma students entering in a MBBS Programme has to be seen in the light of the fear of the ‘illegal’ and unnatural growth of the Chakmas in the state of Mizoram is unabashedly shameful. On the one hand, they seem to quote articles from the Constitution, at ease, but when it comes to the Chakmas they become a common enemy, with no rights whatsoever. The union appears to be fond of conspiracy theory which determines anti-minority sentiments in other parts of the country. It provocatively suggests that the Chakma Autonomous Council was formed to weaken the Mizo National Front. However, here, they safely ignore the question of rights.

One might ask, do such statements from an organisation claiming to fight for minority rights, seated high up in the ivory towers of the most reputed academic space like JNU, one of its kind? The answer is no. The social in Mizoram is influenced, controlled by many non-state actors–MZP, Young Mizo Association (YMA), Presbyterian Church and so on. They run a parallel government in the state, and this is not an exaggeration. Interestingly enough, the Union echoes the same spirit of these non-state actors in regard to the population figures of 1901 to 1941, which is even denied by the Mizoram government in its response to the National Human Rights Commission in 2014. Such narratives produced by the Union, are in tune with the way these above mentioned Organisations place themselves in the social life in Mizoram. They practice a kind of necropolitics which is borderline violent.

The constant creation of the categories of the insider and the outsider is a typical case in point here. They speak of chauvinism and jingoism that have become normalized in the everyday experience for the Chakmas in Mizoram. If the Union wishes to speak of history, we should also point out to the fact that the Chittagong Hills Tracts(CHT) is an area home to the Chakmas. Part of the CHT is in Mizoram, hence technically, if we were to adhere to that logic of ecological fixity of identity, one has to go back to how the boundaries were drawn. It was done by the British and their cartography, not the Chakmas. The dam that flooded their land in Bangladesh, led to a treaty which is constitutionally approved. Will the Union be willing to take the debate to those quarters?

To return to their notion of legal and illegal immigrants, it is public secret that the MNF harassed and killed many Burmese people belonging to the Mizo-Kuki-Chin group, back in the 80s, to which the Mizos claim their ancestry, history and roots. The YMA appreciated such acts from the sidewalks. Those Burmese, now, forms the backbone of the economy of Aizawl. Most traders who bring back goods from Burma and other parts of Maniland Southeast Asia, are primarily Burmese. However, they are accommodated into the larger Mizo society. Why is the Chakma community forcibly kept outside the larger conglomerate of Mizo society?

Hate produces ‘concrete others’ (Benhabib 1996). ‘Chakmas’ can be categorised as concrete others in contemporary Mizoram. Otherisation and hate is made available, for there are well-defined categories of who are ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (Hage 2006). In a way, the other make the self more pronounced, even defines the self. As Taylor (2001) defines, how the whole notion of defining oneself is constructed when one knows what is good or bad for oneself.  The Chakmas are prevented from experiencing any belonging–cultural and social–in their everyday. Infact, their bodily disposition, mental and material presence is questioned. Their everyday is incomplete without receiving hatred and othering.

Journalist like Sanjoy Hazarika and the whole brigade of son of the soil, khilonjiya academicians of North-east, gave statistical excuses, in creating a fear of minorities growing large. The Union’s point here is not an aberration and is in perfect sync with such chauvinist standpoints on history and politics. We would like to highlight an instance where statistical excuses are exercised in order to justify the actions of chauvinism and jingoism.

A history of a differentiated taxation, levied on the Mizos and Chakmas respectively, is used as a tool to suggest that these two communities in-fact are different from each other. Accordingly, Chakmas are considered as foreigner because they were levied a tax of five rupees by the British, whereas the Mizos and their kin tribes were levied only a sum of two rupees This account is to be found in the letter that the Superindent of Lushai Hills Shri. S. Barkataki, wrote: D.O No. II-7/50/56-8 dated Aijal 11th October 1950 to R.V Subrahmanian, Secretary to the Government of Assam for Tribal Affairs. It is a fact that Mr. Barkataki was neither a historian nor an ethnologist or anthropologist. Hence, such factual errors were corrected by his former officer, Mr. KGR Iyer, IAS, Mizo District, with his report vide No. GP.21/55/56 dated Aijal the 27th October 1955, which was submitted to the Government of Assam. The Mizos conveniently ignores and hides such historical documents and facts, on one hand, and on the other, goes on circulating only the documents such as that incorrect letter, which states different taxes being levied. Infact, Mr. Barkatai himself admitted on a later date that he had no knowledge about the Chakmas being the indigenous people of Mizoram. Even then, how can one drive home the point that one ought to be treated as different, just because the tax levied were different. Is it not a colonial way of discriminating or a kind of divide and rule?

The mistake of Mr. Barkataki was an organised attempt in order to project a community in different light. He acted under the orders of a Mr. A. Macdonald, the Superintendent of Lushai Hills who thought that declaring the Chakmas as indigenous people will lead to losing of income for the government of Assam. He writes that, “If the Chakmas are treated as non-Lushais they will be liable to pay house tax at the rate of Rs 5/- and also other taxes such as Court and Stamp duties which will bring in an additional revenue of over ten thousand annually. I am in favour of adopting this course”. However, it was Mr. A. Macdonald himself who with his Order No. 734-47G of 29 April 1946 had declared that the Chakmas are the natives of the Lushai Hills just like the “Lushais” or Mizos. This makes it clear that the Chakmas were accepted as natives, by 1946, however, in the contemporary frame of politics, in Mizoram and in student spaces such a Mizo Student Union of JNU, a repeated attempt is being made to criminalize them and even suggest that they are the root causes of disharmony in the state.

Hence, the colonial government, with the help of local administrators, managed to create a deliberate categorization and mis-representation of a community and thus aimed at economic gains from so called non-economic areas. Similar accounts are seen, which justifies the Assam Agitation, the political contours of student bodies in Arunachal Pradesh, the Nellie massacre, Bodoland violence, among others, and constantly re-produce statistical exercises and excuses.

Pangsau Collective



Benhabib, S (1996). Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Hage, G (2006). Insiders and Outsiders. In Beilharz and Hogan (eds.), Sociology: Place, Time and Division, Oxford University Press.