The Place I Belong to, Yet I Don’t

Shillong is my home. No other place, I can ever call home. Though I live in Bangalore now and have been here for the past 10 years, after having spent a couple of years in Kolkata and Hyderabad. Bangalore can be my second home and for two reasons at that – first, this is the longest I have stayed at any place outside Shillong; second, this place has given me a job and I have invested in buying a house here. My heart however beats only for Shillong – the place of my birth and the place where I grew up. My parents still live there.

But every so often, in different ways, I am told that Shillong is not my home. The reason being I am a non-tribal. More importantly, I am a Bengali – a Sylheti Bengali. Why? Because certain thoughtless leaders had decided my fate by signing some papers, years before I was born. They had conveniently divided the country into two nations, which later became three (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Everyone knows about the great partition of India that had happened through the two provinces of Bengal and Punjab. Hardly anybody knows about the third province, which was also affected by partition. The province of Assam. In this case the wrath of partition fell upon the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis. A lot has been talked about the sufferings of the people from Punjab. Not many are aware of the sufferings of the Bengalis from Sylhet.

Who are Sylheti Bengalis: The Sylheti people are a Sylheti-speaking Bengali sub-group which originated from the Sylhet region of the Indian subcontinent. Current population is divided between the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh, three districts of the Barak Valley and in the Hojai district of Assam in India. There are sizeable populations in the Indian states of Meghalaya, Tripura in North Tripura district and Manipur. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The merciless act of drawing a line across the map of East India affected the sub-community of Sylheti Bengali like no other. That the line was drawn by cheating the community at large, based on what suited the vested interests at that time, is a different piece of history altogether. While the country jubilantly celebrated its independence from 200 years of British Rule, this small community had lost everything. Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, belonging to Sylhet district of Bangladesh, were displaced from their homes and became refugees in their own country. Not only did they lose their assets like property, homes, and other material wealth, they had lost their identity. Their sufferings had just begun. Many of them had moved to the state of Meghalaya (part of Assam at that time), as that was logistically the easiest. Moreover, in many cases, friends and relatives were already living there. Meghalaya became a separate state in 1972. Just a few years later, trouble started with the indigenous tribes wanting the non-tribal Bengalis out of their state. The Bengalis suffered atrocities and alienation in many overt and covert ways.

The community, docile and meek by nature, silently accepted all the atrocities and humiliations hurled upon them. They never protested about being made to feel like encroachers in their own country. Instead, they chose to focus on the upbringing of their children, provide them with good education, and equip them with all they could for a better and brighter future. Fighting the stigma of being refugees and facing hardships with their limited resources, they were putting back pieces of their lives together as they tried to settle down. Starting life from scratch, some managed to buy land and built their own homes before the Land Act was passed (according to The Meghalaya Transfer of Land Act, 1971, only tribals are allowed to buy land in Meghalaya).

Their choice of selecting meekness to aggression did not quite work in their favour and the ghosts of partition continued to haunt them. Over a period, in the hope of finding peace and to protect themselves, many left to other parts of the country. Those that had to leave their own houses and property lament that they lost everything for a second time just in two generations. Many preferred to stay on, still facing alienation and humiliation, as that is home to them.

It’s been a little over seven decades now. The ghost of partition still rears its ugly head every now and then. The Hindu Sylheti Bengali remains displaced forever. They are Indians that are strangers in their own country and have no place to call their own. The community continues to struggle in their 3rd and 4th generations down the line.

Recently, I came across a couple of blog posts that are individual stories of this marginalized community of people. I will share a couple of them in the hope that some of you will care to read even though you might not completely relate. They’re written by other bloggers, but they are my stories – stories that I would have told.

Click the links below to read the stories:

Author: neelstoria

Traveling, Gardening, Trekking, Hiking, Storytelling, Writing, Nature, Outdoors, Yoga, DIY

35 thoughts on “The Place I Belong to, Yet I Don’t”

      1. I started because I thought it’s going to be living in a metro vs village. But ended up reading completely for the history. I had read Indian history from couple of sources including India struggle for independence and India after Gandhi. Have read about nagas and the Rohingyas. But this is new to me.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. There isn’t much documentation on this part of History, hence you wouldn’t have read. Most people don’t even know, which also includes Bengalis from West Bengal. Our parents and grandparents wanted to move on and hence did not talk much about it. They did not want subsequent generations to feel the way they have felt. However, our generation feels it is important to know our roots.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. I understand your pain. Though, never heard about the problems faced by the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, I know some of my Hindu friends whose parents came to India from Bangladesh between 1947-1971 and got settled in West Bengal and are staying comfortably. It never came to my mind that people crossing the borders towards the eastern side may face problems too due to the tribal nature of the state. I feel very sad for people like you but still feel it will be very difficult to change the laws now and changing it will create more problems than it will solve.It is because many evil people are waiting for any favourable change to happen so that they can create and make use of some loophole and grab the land of the tribals. However, I have heard that still some people are using some loopholes in the existing laws too and buying/grabbing the land from the tribals. So, that means good people like you cannot get any land there while the bad people seem to have no problems in getting it. This needs to be fixed. Your issue needs to be highlighted so that the administration may attempt to sort it out. I think the state may try to provide one time exception and concession for your community with specified time period of entry. Still it would be very difficult as many may not have so old documents to prove their identity which will attract further more concessions for proper implemention. It may lead to wrong people snatching the benefits. Therefore, I feel it will be practically very difficult for any govt. to properly implement this. Still, My best wishes to you and I hope somehow the govt. provides some sort of relief to you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There isn’t much documentation and hence it’s not surprising that you don’t know. This is a small community, who preferred to keep quiet and tried their best to assimilate in their new surroundings but as I mentioned the past refuses to go away. It is not easy to correct historical wrong doings, rather it’s impossible. Also, the problem is far from being straight forward, it’s layered and complicated. It’s not just about obtaining land. It’s about the identity of this community at large. The community, who pay their taxes but do not share equal rights, who had suffered atrocities but chose to leave that behind, who were forced to leave their homes and migrate to others parts for jobs and education. Yet, they aren’t able to settle down anywhere as no place is home to them. And they continue to face atrocities and discrimination in the North East despite being legitimate Indian citizens.

      Thank you so much for reading this post and leaving your thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting and revealing. Some issues get so buried under other issues that these are like non-existing. And then there are other issues that are portraited wrong for vested reasons. Kashmir is one of those. For example, it is believed that everybody in the region from Ladakh to Jammu, and even “Azad Kashmir” region is Kashmir and speak the Kashmiri language.

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    1. That is so true. This issue hasn’t been spoken much and hence got buried. The previous two generations (parents and grandparents) did not want to indulge in the past much. Rather, they tried their best to assimilate. In fact, they even refrained from passing on their pain to us. But, the past isn’t leaving us. This generation does not want to remain quiet anymore. We want to tell our story.

      Thank you so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have never heard of Sylheti Hindus before. We can only imagine without fully comprehending what the previous generations of displaced Indians experienced. Probably, Shillong can never be replaced by any other city in your mind. That’s logical. Looking forward to hearing more from you on this topic

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sylheti Bengalis are a sub-group that has their own distinctive language both spoken and written though the written language is completely lost now. Sylhet was a prosperous sub-division that consisted of four districts. During the British period it was constantly tossed between Bengal and Assam due to administrative reasons. Later during partition it was given away to Pakistan, the manner in which it was done is controversial. It is part of Bangladesh now. The Syhleti Hindus were forced to leave their homes and the idea of homeland remains elusive to date. They are a small community, politically they don’t matter so their plight continues for decades.

      Thank you for reading, Arvind, though this is no travel story and I am sure you will not be able to relate to it.

      Like

  4. The drawing of borders in what was then East Pakistan was completely thoughtless. It is the same story in Mizoram, Tripura, and Assam (not to talk of the Bengali speaking Rohingyas of Burma). Colonialism replaced language identities by a cooked up religious identity, and changed these parts for ever.

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    1. The problem had started right from partition, maybe even before. They did what they did, what suited them at that time but here generations continue to suffer. This community has no place, they belong nowhere. And worse, there is no acknowledgement of their sufferings at any level.

      Thank you for reading.

      Sharing this article I read today: https://theprint.in/opinion/73-yrs-sylhet-referendum-hindu-community-homeless-between-assam-bangladesh/455233/

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Neelanjana, for sharing this piece of history and the resultant repercussions. We have had some interaction on this where you were kind enough to share your thoughts and angst. This piece further enlightens and fills in the gaps in my understanding of this issue. As I said, it is regrettable that we are selective in choosing our battles; political mileage dictates our priorities. This generation luckily has social media to voice their story, and it should rightly put it to good use – to increase awareness and push into limelight the silent sufferings of two generations, and to keep hammering till the din cannot be neglected any longer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Narendra, for reading. You already know it’s something that’s very close to my heart and I am too emotional about it. Not sure the neglect will go away as we are a small community and politically we don’t matter. However, social media has given us the platform to at least tell our stories to those who will care to know. The previous two generations were busy making sure we get settled down, they did not want the partition scars to affect us, they even led a life of shame for no fault of theirs. We had moved on too, choosing to leave behind all the dejection, but the scars of the past keep popping up and we are no longer able to ignore the same.

      Thank you so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow- thanks so much for sharing this. Like many of the others commenting I hadn’t heard of the Sylheti Hindus before but more than that my knowledge of Indian history and partition is so limited. History classes in the US when I was young focused first and foremost on US History and then after that, other countries but mostly in terms of how their history related to our own. So for the longest time all I knew about partition was what happened to be included in the movie Gandhi. So it was presented in extremely general terms. “Some people lived here and went there, others lived there and went here and in all places there was lots of violence.” Since then I’ve learned a little more, some from books and a bit from personal accounts. Stories like yours are really useful because it changes this history from being an abstraction about a group to a set of personal stories which makes it easier for me to understand and connect with. And yet, on another level I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get my head completely around it. Such an awful thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are not at all expected to know, Todd. As you can see, people from this country itself aren’t aware and I do not blame them at all. Our country is just too diverse to know everything. The fact that you read this post, even when you wouldn’t be able to relate to it at all, means a lot to me. I have no idea about American History. The little that I know is whatever i have seen in museums when I have been to the US. That is hardly enough. History is fascinating but mostly the interest is about your own country and in a generic way for the rest of the world. We seldom go into the detail of other countries. At least for me, it is like that.

      Thank you for reading, Todd and leaving your thoughts. I really appreciate it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Very painful history. I never heard or read about Sylheti Hindus. Its really pathetic to know that the fate of Syhleti Hindus not resolved till date. Thanks for sharing a bit of history not known to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most people don’t know about us, Ramasamy Sir. It’s not surprising though. Our country is just too diverse and vast to know everything, more so, when it is about a marginalized small community. I am glad you read my post and empathized with this community. Thank you.

      Like

  8. This is a story that needed to be told, and you have told it beautifully, with all heart, and all the pain. This needs to be heard. The stories – others’ that you have shared, together with yours is bound to make a difference. One hopes sooner than later. Though I cannot share the pain as you do, yet we do get the feeling of an outsider in the land we grew up in. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Ritika. That you read this piece and even cared to leave behind a comment means a lot to me. You know that. Also, thank you for pointing out that grammatical error. 😀

      Like

  9. The caption says it all! Well written, you could convey the message across without being much aggressive, while being sensitive! Once I came across a quote by an astronaut, on being asked how he finds planet earth from outer space! He had replied it looks beautiful but he couldn’t see any boundaries that divide the nations! Because the boundaries are imaginary, man made, which divided humankind into categories, into nations! The line that was drawn to partition India, more specifically the then East Pakistan from India were ARBITRARY and made lakhs of Indians refugees in their own country. In fact, Sylhet was subjected to a referendum, post 1947 to decide its fate! The entire exercise was politically motivated and the powers that were behind it, the Congress leadership in Assam and center didn’t want Surma valley ( Sylhet district) to come together with Barak valley( Catchar in Assam), else they would be too powerful to be a part of Assam! The referendum was conducted in the monsoon, with hardly 30% participation and the Hindus were sub divided into two groups, SCs and Upper caste. They succeeded in preventing Sylhet joining India, result was Sylhetis became homeless in their own country. Lack of leadership in the community, striving to survive, the service class migrated mainly to Shillong and Assam. The Sylheti Bongs contributed immensely to the growth and development of Shillong. They established Colleges, Cultural centers, the finest Teachers, held good positions in Govt by their sheer hardwork and intelligence! This led to the repercussion amongst the local tribes, who unlike the Sylhetis, were having a strong bond amongst themselves! Violence erupted in 1979, followed by 82, 87, 92…. the first Nirvaya case of India happened in Malki locality of Shillong, yet it went unreported, no one was ever booked. Thousands were forced to flee, many died. National media never reported these, we were insignificant as a vote Bank. Even now, after 3 generations in Shillong, we r stateless! We don’t get jobs, no representation in Assembly, can’t buy property, cant even sell to a fellow Non tribal! Do I love Shillong? Yes, of course I do! It’s my birthplace! Do I hate the Local tribes… No never! In fact, few of my best friends are Khasis! But I don’t have basic right as a citizen of India, thanks to the idiotic Laws that have been passed by Congress govts over the years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can fully relate to your agony and we have been in it together. Political greed, insecurity, and shortsightedness of few leaders led to our community suffering generation after generation. We had left everything behind and had chosen to forget all the happenings, even made peace with being homeless as we continued our struggle, living our lives. Yet the scars of history refuses to leave us. We are not asking for compensation or land, just don’t call us outsiders, don’t make us strangers in our own home. I hope the next generation of people will be empathetic, will understand the impact of historical wrong doings, and learn to live in harmony and peace, treating each other as fellow human beings.

      Like

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