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The forgotten partitions of northeast India and its lingering legacies

By Binayak Dutta and Suranjana Choudhury

“I began to realize that partition was not, even in my family, a closed chapter of history.”[i]

The absence

A cursory look into the history of partition narratives in India would reveal that the narratives from Punjab and Bengal curiously complete the spectrum. Where does one find the northeast? Until recently, in terms of narratives of partition and post-partition displacement, northeast India still remained a much unexplored tract. Though some sporadic scholarship exists on Sylhet partition, they are mostly devoid of popular ongoing experiences that Partition really brings. Partition as divorced from transfer of power was a story of anxiety and pain, which most studies do not engage with. Thus this region continues to languish as an unacknowledged site of Partition experience. While recent years have been marked by the publication of a plethora of texts that have attempted to re-examine the history of partition to articulate the question of victimhood,[ii] they have only exposed the fragmentary nature of the statist project of Indian Partition history more than ever before.

When the partition proposals came on 4thJune 1947, it was decided that if Bengal was to be partitioned, a referendum would be organized under the aegis of the Central government to decide whether Sylhet, a predominantly Bengali-speaking district of South Assam, was to remain in Assam or to merge with East Bengal.[iii] While this pronouncement not only brought northeast India into the vortex of partition politics, it also brought communities of the hills and plains of northeast India into the partition discourse, even though most were not even party to the negotiations.

It is important to record that the dynamics that affected the partition of northeast India was more complex than in either Punjab or Bengal. Here ethnicity and linguistic antagonism also played a dominant role along with religion in determining the directions and dimensions of partition. It is interesting to note from extant contemporary news reports that the Assam Pradesh Congress was extremely eager to agree to the partition proposal as it would only affect the Bengali-speaking areas of south Assam. Gopinath Bordoloi, the then premier of Assam, was reported to have said, “The present plan was a definite improvement on the Cabinet Mission plan of May 16th last…there was no cause for sorrow about the division or partition of India.”[iv] Though the prospect of partition loomed large on both Cachar and Sylhet initially, a declaration by the Viceroy on the 4th of June, 1947, settled the issue.

The event

The referendum of the Sylhet district of Assam was the core of the partition experience of Assam and north east India. The Sylhet referendum, which witnessed hectic mobilization both for and against the partition of the district and its amalgamation with East Pakistan, had a vibrant and culturally creative dimension. Songs, slogans, and graffiti formed an important part of the campaign as the Congress, Jamiat-ul-Ulamai Hind and the Sylhet Communist Cadres competed with the Muslim League in this “last battle for Pakistan.”[v] With the League campaign successfully mixing the campaign for Pakistan with the question of Islamic identity, religious clergy and religious rhetoric played a key role in the campaign on both sides. But both in popular and official assessment, there was little doubt that this was not an even battle and the Muslim League had an edge.[vi]  The campaign culminated in the voting that lasted for two days, resulting in victory for the Muslim League. As Bidyut Chakraborty puts it, “The results of the referendum were translated in favour of a division of Sylhet on the basis of its demographic composition” by the Bengal Boundary Commission as no separate boundary commission was constituted by the Colonial state citing shortage of time.[vii]

The aftermath

When partition finally took place, it affected politics and the lives of the people in northeast India in many ways. It physically separated northeast India from the rest of the country, save through a small passage of 22 kilometres, commonly known as the chicken’s neck. But the loss of territory was not as significant as the loss in paddy fields, lime and cement industries and tea gardens of Sylhet.[viii]  The adverse impact of partition was noted in the Census Report of 1951, which observed that, “the far reaching effects of this loss will continue to be felt by Assam as well as India for many years to come.”[ix] Partition disrupted the natural channels of riverine communication, rail and road networks that linked the hill areas of colonial Assam through the Surma valley and had adverse effects on Assam’s economy.”[x] Partition[xi] made Assam a land-locked province as its outlet to the sea since 1904[xii] was through the port of Chittagong, which became a part of East Pakistan.

Partition of colonial Assam in 1947 also adversely affected the social and economic lives of the various tribal communities in the region. It disrupted the traditional links that the tribal communities such as the Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos had with the East Pakistani districts of Sylhet and Mymensingh respectively, who were internally split into Indians and Pakistanis, depending on their residence. The traditional inter-community linkages in the area[xiii] were terminated by closing the borders and setting up of check-posts.[xiv]  But the greatest impact of partition on Assam was through migration of refugees and demographic transformation. Partition changed the way politics came to be perceived, not only in Assam but entire north eastern India. While interprovincial borders of the colonial era became international boundaries, perceptions about population migration also underwent a change when the provincial governments and the Government of India began to discourage migration of people from East Pakistan to India by 1950.

Cartographies of Partition literatures in the Northeast

“To talk of despair is to conquer it.” Albert Camus

How does literature in the broadest sense become a means of coming to terms with life? The primary concern is not with what but with the how of representation, not with the facts as such but with the modes and forms through which specific experiences are narrativized. Creative narratives hold the key to understanding Partition experiences in a more nuanced manner because these writings essentially record aspects which are ignored in official histories. In an article published in the “Anandabazaar Patrika”[xv] titled “Deshbhag ki Amader Sahityake Sporsho Kore Ni?” Sirshendu Mukhopadhyay, the noted Bengali writer had pointed out that there has been hardly any proper documentation of Partition historiography, so naturally the writers could not find ground materials for fictionalizing. Does this argument stand valid in the context of literatures from the northeast? It would be unjustified to negate the corpus of narratives written on Partition, even if some of them have created literatures in an idiom of loss, nostalgia, and yearning. It is important to note that northeast as a geopolitical space is not a singular entity, nor is its Partition musings a homogeneous one. However, its regional segregation and exclusivity pave the way for a collective engagement with Partition.

Creative interventions from Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, and other states serve to offer interesting insights on the cascading impact of Partition on the everyday lives of people residing here. In introduction to his edited book, Deshbhag, Deshtyag :Prasanga Uttarpurbo Bharat,[xvi] Prasun Barman comments on this aspect, “The history of Indian Partition is replete with the tales of Punjab and Bengal division. Assam too was divided in the same year. We have unconsciously forgotten Sylhet which had been an integral part of the geography and politics of Assam.” (Barman, 9)

Partition is interestingly one of the chief historical events which qualify multiple strands of storytelling in the northeast. Creative reflections from the northeast haunt the margins of supposedly self-contained corpuses comprising Partition literatures from Punjab and Bengal. Debjani Sengupta while reflecting on literature’s engagement with Partition holds that the study of the histories and fictions of the Partition of Bengal remains seriously incomplete unless some account of the Bangla literatures from the northeast is included. Memories of displacement, agonies of rehabilitation, reconfiguration of lives – all these issues have been treated in various measures in writings from the northeast. Over the last few decades, writers here have started resurrecting their varied perspectives on partition through literary representations. Since the 1980s, one witnesses a steady and sustained engagement with Partition and its associated crises in literature. The list of novels which have remarkably treated the trope of Partition includes Bijit Kumar Bhattacharjee’s Potobhumi, Sekhar Das’s Bindu Bindu Jol, Amitabha Dev Choudhury’s Uponashyer Khonje, Udash Mohol, Shunyo Goli and Potaka Gachh (Barak Valley), Bimal Sinha’s Titas theke Tripura (Tripura), Uma Purkayastha’sUttoron (Shillong). A host of very engaging short fictions address themes of exile and rootlessness to signify the perpetuity of a partitioned past in all spheres of lives in the region.

Writers like Arijit Choudhury, Moloy Kanti Dey, Badarujjaman Choudhury, Mithilesh Bhattacharjee, Sunanda Bhattacharya, Kalyanbroto Chakraborty, Tirthankar Chanda, Jhumur Pandey, and many more have extensively used short stories to convey the experiences of displaced and fragmented existence amidst multiple uncertainties. Saktipada Brahmachari, one of the well-known poets from the region, gave expression to the pain and suffering connected with homelessness through his creative engagement. The lines – “I left my homeland long ago/ yet multihued yearning for home resurfaces” – signify memory of an irredeemable political and historical dislocation that cannot be left behind. Nabina Das, another established poet from the region, poignantly reflects on the fluid identity of a migrant and his struggle-ridden life – “Suleiman/sells his fish to us/names he knows like/the fish know/water, water that/flows/under the fence this side…” In the case of memoirs, autobiographical pieces, interviews too, one witnesses a steady and sustained growth of publications and critical scholarship over a span of last few years.  If this trend of engagement continues, the ‘absence’ assigned to its position will interestingly generate a serious and visible corpus of representations.

In conclusion

Over the last seven decades, both the nation and the region are trying hard to come to terms with the catastrophic event that shook the roots of the subcontinental society and politics. The unresolved state of boundary demarcations and the volatile nature of citizenship issue continue to remind us that partition in this region is not an event but a process. It is evident that despite the passage of more than six decades since partition of India and Assam, Partition continues to hover around the lives of the people like a phantom with which we are yet to reconcile.

Notes and References

[i]Urvashi Butalia, (1998) The Other Side of Silence Voices from the Partition of India, New Delhi: Viking.

[ii]Singh, Anita Inder, Partition of India; Wolpert, Stanley, Shameful Flight, 2006; Godbole, Madhav, The Holocaust of India’s Partition, 2006; Chakraborty, Bidyut, The Partition of Bengal and Assam, 2004, to name a few.

[iii]Bidyut Chakrabarty, (2004) The Partition of Bengal and Assam, London: Routledge-Curzon, p 177.

[iv]Dawn dated 10/6/1947, NMML.

[v] Statement of the Sylhet Pakistan Referendum Committee at Calcutta,The Star of India, 4/7/47, NMML

[vi]Secretary to The Viceroy Papers, Acc No.3471, National Archives of India

[vii] N. Mansergh, (1983) Transfer of Power Vol XII, London, H M Stationary Office, pp. 167-68.

[viii] Census of India,1951, Vol.XII, Part I-A, pp. 2-3.

[ix] Ibid, p. 3.

[x]Udayon Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, IIAS, Shimla, 2000, p. 148, ft.nt. no.2.

[xi] Almost the entire district of Sylhet was transferred to East Pakistan except only an area of 709 square miles and a population of 291,320 persons in the three thanas of Bararpur, Ratabari, Patharkandi and a part of the Karimganjthana which was joined with the district of Cachar and formed a new subdivision. See the Census of India,1951, Vol.XII, Part I-A, p. 2.

[xii] Since 1904, a rail link linking Dibrugarh with Chittagong was set up to carry the bulk of the tea trade from Assam. See Udayon Misra, The Periphery Strikes Back, IIAS, Shimla, 2000, p.115

[xiii] Ibid, p. 115.

[xiv] Ibid, pp.115-16 and 149 ft.nt.3

[xv] See Anandabazar Patrika, Sunday, March 13, 1988. p.13

[xvi] Prasun Barman’s Deshbhag, Deshtyag: PrasangaUttarpurbo Bharat is a seminal work on various aspects of ramifications of Partition in the northeast. It is an eclectic collection of research works and creative interventions on the meanings and experiences of Partition in the northeast. 

Binayak Dutta teaches Modern India in the Department of History, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. His areas of special interest include Partition of India studies, Migration, Displacement and Gender Studies. He has authored three books besides research papers in edited volumes and journals. He is editing an upcoming volume on Partition in northeast India. He may be contacted at

Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings and Translation Studies. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Humanities Underground, The Statesman, Cafe Dissensus Everyday, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, She may be contacted at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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