Besimari on NH 52

October 13, 2011

by Debarshi Das

National Highway 52 runs parallel to the Brahmaputra from east to west. I know this road. As the bus leaves the town, the nature of passengers gradually shifts. Dapper Assamese servicemen, busy on the phone Marwari tradesmen, bag clutching bespectacled Bengali medical representatives, dwindle. Tea tribe women labourers become numerous. Sometimes Bodo young men and women with excellent health would be prominent. And sometimes lungiclad Miyan peasants, bibis and kids in the tow, will board the bus. The picnic atmosphere becomes a bit strained then. Pleasant faces disappear.

The road has pierced through Bodoland. If you had visited the road in 2008 October, you would have found it difficult to travel on. Around 60 people were killed in the Miyan-Bodo riots. My friends could hardly suppress the glee, “This time the Miyans have had it boss!” You could see torched shells of shops passing by. Or burnt bamboo structures, remnants of dwelling places sticking out like decaying teeth in the middle of brilliant Northeast green. Dalgaon, Kharupetia are small towns, where roadside schools, health centres had doubled up as refugee camp. Miyan-bibis could be seen trudging their way to Hatigaon camp, lugging their household, suitably compressed, on the thela. The camps remained for a year or so.

Miyans have had other names too. For the old time Assamese, they are ‘Mymensinghia’. The epithet has historical substance. The British hunger for land revenue is well known. When they annexed Assam, they could not help noticing the abundance of land. Land had to be brought under the plough to extract revenue. The char land (river islands, formed by silt) of the Brahmaputra is suitable for jute cultivation. But who would do the farming? Population density of Bengal was few times more than Assam. Colonial administration took steps to settle peasants from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in the Brahmaputra valley. Most of these migrants were Muslims peasants, from the district of Mymensingh primarily. Subsequently Muslim peasants from East Bengal generically earned the Mymensinghia tag. For the last few decades efforts have been on to integrate them in the Assamese society. Mymensinghias are Naw-Axamiya (New Assamese) now. But that is official. For the middle class Assam the situation is similar to the bus on NH 52.

The bitterness seeps through at times. Day before yesterday, on October 10, four jute cultivators were killed in police firing at a small town called Besimari. Many more were injured. The farmers were demanding higher price for jute. They had blocked the NH 52 piling up bundles of raw jute. The police were brickbatted, which was paid back with bullets.

I know Besimari. At this time of the year the afternoon air hangs heavy with the pungent smell of raw jute. Besimari has rapidly emerged as a large wholesale centre for agricultural produce. The place grew on the basis of hard labour and grit of migrants. Ordinary peasants and landless labourers of yesterday have moved up the job ladder. You can now find them in business, skilled jobs, services. Besimari’s transformation from a non-descript village symbolises the rise.

On the night of October 10 however local TV news channels, Assamese or otherwise, were silent on Besimari, except for a lonely ticker on ‘compensation for the Besimari incident’ somewhere (italics mine). Next day most Guwahati newspapers put it on the front page. But it was just one of the many headlines. Not many takers could be found in the national media either. Will the bus passengers ever smile?

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