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Barak's Woes
Subir Bhaumik Former BBC Correspondent
Barak's Woes
PHOTO : Bhasa Shahid Station, Silchar

The three Barak valley districts to the north of Tripura are part of Assam -- but its predominantly Bengali residents feel deeply alienated with the way both Delhi and Dispur have treated them so far. Beginning with the language movement of the 1960s , they have always complained of neglect and imposition. When 11 matryrs fell to the bullets fired by Assam police on 19th May , ' Amar Unishe' found a place alongside 'Amar Ekushe' after the 21 February language martyrs day that started the journey towards an independent Bangladesh.

But despite all the alienation , the Bengalis in Barak valley are not yet asking for separation from Assam. Some do but they are in a minority. The valley's leading cultural groups  Barak Upatakya Bahubhasik Samamnoy Samity(BUBSS) and the Barak Upatakya Bangiya Sahitya-Sanskriti Sammelan (BUBSSS) only asked for an Econimic Development Council since 2005.

The EDC , they say, should comprise of elected MPs, MLAs, Zilla Parishad and Municipal Committee members from the three districts of Barak valley -- Cachar, Karimganj and Hailakandi. The BUBSS leaders say they want direct Central funding of critical development projects because 'our economy and infrastructure is in bad shape due to continuous neglect by successive Assam government'. They envisage the EDC will receive its budgets directly from the Centre. 

"We don’t seek to break away from Assam as some in our region wants, but we want direct Central assistance to speed up our development," said BUBSS general secretary Gautam Prasad Dutta on the sidelines of an Annual Book Fair in the city. He said the EDC will also take in experts from the region who can advise on future development.

Unlike the Bodos, Karbis and Dimasas -- and many other tribal groups in pre-1971 Assam who broke away to form separate states -- the Bengalis have largely refrained from seeking a breakaway from Assam. Some say lack of unity among them is responsible for a strong breakaway movement , others say their own religious divide may explain  the lack of such a movement. But when the valley wanted a central university , a student group ACKSA was formed in no time and the demand was achieved shortly thereafter. 

During my recent visit to Barak valley, I found a strong demand in support of a separate EDC so that the region's development needs could be directly addressed by Delhi. 

There is no faith Dispur would ever do it but the Bengalis in Barak -- Hindus and Muslims alike -- are just yet not keen on a breakaway. But they want the EDC and speedy development . They are happy with the Modi government for pushing the broad gauge conversion that the Congress failed to expedite for 17 years -- despite party heavyweight Santosh Mohan Deb enjoying much clout in Delhi since the 1980s.

But the Barak dwellers also want the  Indian government to expedite the BCIM economic corridor project because that passes through Silchar and would help connect Barak valley to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar and China. If  Barak valley gets economic autonomy through the EDC and the BCIM corridor connecting it to the neighborhood, it will achieve speedy growth and development and could even become the trading hub of India's Northeast because of its central location in the region. After all , it is a more peaceful place than Assam's other valley watered by Brahmaputra. It is also located close to power surplus Tripura and not far from the markets of Bangladesh ( Population: 160 million). 

Bengalis in Barak valley fought for their right of education in Bengali language when the Assam government tried imposing Assamese on them in 1960.
On May 19, 11 young men and women were killed in Assam police firing.The day is celebrated as Language Martyrs Day in Barak valley like Feb 21 is in Bangladesh. Later, the Barak dwellers had to fight to get a Central university in the region. Now sustained agitation has forced Delhi to convert the rail network in the region to broad gauge. Groups in Barak valley are now demanding the Silchar railway station to be renamed Bhasha Shahid Station. But if economic autonomy is denied, it may fuel demands for a breakaway from Assam . Some may like Barak to be a separate state or atleast merged with Bengali majority Tripura. It would not be something absolutely unexpected , given the treatment Barak valley has so far received from the elites up north. To avoid such a prospect -- a further breakup of Assam -- the Centre must grant Barak valley economic autonomy without delay.  If one asks for a gun and does not get it , he may ask for a cannon, goes a Tripuri proverb. Modi will do well to remember that.

(Mr. Subir Bhaumik is a veteran journalist, former BBC correspondant and author of  two well acclaimed books ‘Insurgent Crossfire’ and ‘Troubled Periphery’) 

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