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Assamese in CHT celebrate Bihu

By Ajit Patowary

GUWAHATI, April 17 � Separated from their motherland for over 150 years, around 300 Assamese families are still celebrating Bihu, although in a low-key manner, in a foreign land under a virtually hostile atmosphere and despite having no link with their State of origin. To assert their identity, they also use the surname �Assam�.

Otherwise, these people, nearly 1,500 in number, have practically nothing to assert their identity as a distinctive ethnic group in a country, which cares little for their development and shows least regard to their culture.

These people live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of Bangladesh. One of them, Timothy Assam, a graduate youth from the Assam Basti of Rangamati district of CHT, who is now in the city, told this correspondent that their forefathers served under the British colonial rulers as soldiers of the Assam Rifles. They were deployed in 1860, along with the Gorkha Regiment personnel, to suppress the rebellion of the tribals, mainly Kukis, living in the CHT.

When they successfully suppressed the rebellion, they were allotted land by the British rulers in the Hill Tracts. Though some of those soldiers returned to Assam, most of them stayed back in Chittagong Hill Tracts. Those who stayed back had to accept the language and culture of East Bengal, which is now Bangladesh.

Though for over a century they adhered to Hinduism, following the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, around 200 families took to Buddhism, while some others took to Christianity, leaving an insignificant minority in the fold of Hinduism. Some of those families also fled to Mizoram (five families) and Tripura (10 families) in the face of atrocities by the Pakistan Army. About 300 families of these people are now living in the three villages of Assam Basti, Garjantali and Majerbasti.

The Kaptai Hydel Project on the Karnaphuli River, constructed after 1971, inundated the farmland of most of these families, making farming activities difficult for them.

In the face of the apathy of the Bangladesh government, the Assamese people and the Gorkhas living in the Hill Tracts formed the Gorkha, Ahomiya Kalyan Sangstha. The Assamese people also formed their own organisation � Ahomiya Unnayan Kalyan Sansad, which is now headed by Ashok Assam as its president. The Assamese people submitted a memorandum in 2010 to the then Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia pleading for tribal status, job reservation and other facilities for them, but to no avail, said Timothy.

These people are leading subhuman lives. Only three families among them have pucca houses. There is no high school teacher, nor a government bureaucrat among them. There are only six (simple) graduates among them and all are males, said Timothy, an employee with the Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision, Bangladesh.

The existence of these people surfaced when a three-member delegation from the State, comprising physician Dr Satyakam Phukan, North Guwahati College teacher Tapan Kumar Sarma and businessman Binoy Kumar Sarma visited Bangladesh in 2013 as part of a documentary film project on detached Assamese people.

The delegation submitted a memorandum to Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi on May 6, 2013, pleading for steps to ameliorate the condition of these people. It also submitted a proposal to the State government on November 23, 2013 for the purpose, but in vain.

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