Partition, the break-up of colonial India in 1947, has been the subject of substantial research, but the focus has been almost exclusively on the better known divisions of Punjab and Bengal. This work presents the little-known story of the district of Sylhet in colonial Assam, partitioned and ceded to East Pakistan following a referendum in July 1947.
Unique in Partition historiography, this research presents memories of the 1947 Sylhet Referendum and Partition, using oral narratives of both Sylheti Hindus and Muslims who migrated to Assam/ India in the period 1947-50. It documents the memories of Sylheti Hindus who voted in favour of Sylhet's retention within India but were forced to leave their ancestral homes and migrate to the Indian side soon after the Referendum; it also presents the voices of Sylheti Muslims, many of whom had voted in favour of joining Pakistan, but in the end were unable to move to the country of their choice. Oral testimonies of these two groups of Sylhetis are used to reconstruct and analyse the Sylhet Referendum and Partition, especially in terms of the impact on the lives of ordinary people, as remembered six decades later.
This book adds a significant geographical area-Sylhet-to the growing corpus of history-writing on the 1947 Partition of the subcontinent.
Anindita Dasgupta is Associate Professor of History and Deputy Dean, School of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Taylor's University, Malaysia. She has pioneered studies on oral history of Sylhet's partition, and has published well-received articles on the topic.
She has been a recipient of Visiting fellowships at the National University of Malaysia and the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Malaysia.
This book presents new material on India's Partition of 1947 by telling the nearly forgotten story of the district of Sylhet (in colonial Assam) which was partitioned and ceded-barring a small Hindu pocket-to East Pakistan following the result of a referendum held on 6 and 7 July 1947. Partition, the break up of colonial India in 1947, has been the subject of substantial research in recent times, but has mostly focused on the two best-known cases-the Punjab and Bengal. This book represents one of the first attempts to document an account of the Sylhet Referendum and Partition based on interviews with eyewitnesses and integrate it to the growing corpus of India's Partition historiography.
Barely six weeks before India's Independence when the political big-wigs of the Indian National Congress and Muslim League were engaged in conversations and compromises regarding the imminent partition of Punjab and Bengal, in a quiet north-eastern corner of India-Sylhet district in Assam unknown to most people, Hindus and Muslims were braving the incessant rains and water- logged fields, and streaming into make-shift poll booths to cast their life-changing votes to decide for themselves if their district would remain with India or join East Pakistan. A little over a month earlier, on 3 June, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, had proposed that a referendum be held in order that the people of Sylhet (a Muslim-majority district in the Hindu majority province of Assam) could decide whether to stay in India or join Pakistan after Independence. Using eyewitness narratives, this book reconstructs the momentous Sylhet Referendum held on 6-7 July 1947 in which the people of Sylhet, or Sylhetis, cast votes to decide if the district would join India or Pakistan after Partition. Upon examination of the oral narratives, it becomes clear that both Sylheti Hindus and Muslims had contradictory expectations from the Referendum, and that neither community had correctly anticipated nor were emotionally, financially or physically prepared to deal with the unexpectedly contrary outcome of Partition. While it was widely hoped that the referendum would lead to a considered, unanimous and clear decision on the issue of Partition, the inescapable vivisection of Sylhet based on considerations of religious composition and geography, however, led to confusion, disappointment and large-scale displacement for both Hindus and Muslims instead. Such forced displacement of Sylhetis, the book shows, simultaneously created and erased the newly drawn national boundaries by building diasporas and 'de-territorialized' fractured identities across South Asia on the one hand, and by raising serious questions about the authenticity and citizenship of Partition migrants on the other. Through showing how the Sylhet Referendum and Partition live on in memory, this research highlights the importance of these two events in the spilling-over of the Sylheti from a local into a contested South Asian identity.
Perhaps for the first time in Partition historiography, memories of the 1947 Sylhet Referendum and Partition are retold in this book using oral narratives of both Sylheti Hindus and Muslims who migrated to Assam/India in the period 1947-50. The people interviewed for this research were them- selves eyewitnesses of the Referendum and Partition. I have used the voices of Sylheti Hindus who had voted in favour of Sylhet's retention within India but following the referendum results had to migrate out of Sylhet in 1947-50; as well as Sylheti Muslims, most of whom had voted in favour of Sylhet joining East Pakistan but afterwards became, reluctantly or otherwise, citizens of the newly-formed Indian state. The oral testimony of these two groups of Sylhetis, who are now citizens of India, are used to recon- struct and analyse the Sylhet Referendum, Partition and its impact on the lives of ordinary peoples, and how they remember it 60-odd years later.
Given that most eyewitnesses of the 1947 Sylhet Referendum and Partition are about 80 years old now (many of them have already passed away), this research assumes greater importance as it documents hitherto unavailable primary data collected through interviews of these eyewitnesses which might otherwise have been completely lost by now. Their stories are, of course, set against the background of the wider issues of nationalism, communalism and Assam's own politics of culture that created conditions for the Partition of Sylhet long before 1947.
What makes Sylhet's case particularly interesting in Partition historiography is its unique history of being separated from East Bengal' and attached to Assam for 70 years (1874-1947) by the colonial masters despite protests from Assamese and Sylhetis alike. It is this move that creates the powerful local context for its eventual Partition. The idea of the Referendum, may have been the result of the national context, or of Assam’s inclusion in Jinnah’s six-province vision of Pakistan. However, it is the local context that tells much of the real story- and explains the lack of a major outcry against Partition in northeast India, as it culled away most parts of a district that was unwelcome in Assam in the first place. However, even six decades later, the story of Sylheti remains caught within the acutely personal and ‘closed’ realms of Sylheti memory, nostalgia, imagination and living-room conversations. It is only since the turn of the new millennium that occasional attention through research papers started bringing the story of partition of Assam, and its unique experience, into the public realm. This book hopes to fill a bit of this gap in the overall Partition historiography.
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