As the time for Durga Pujo celebration and festivities arrived, Assam saw a very different scenario this year. People celebrating, what is known as, Saradio Durgo Utsav in Upper Assam peacefully were met with hostilities and violence on October 23, 2023 when a group of people came to the Puja Mandap and started pulling down and tearing the banners and posters. The group consisted of an organisation called Veer Lachit Sena. The issue purportedly arose due to the fact that the banners were in Bengali, displaying the incident as one that transpired due to linguistic chauvinism. The incident happened at several sites where puja (Hindu devotional ritual) was to be conducted in areas such as Dibrugarh, Nagaon, and Bishwanath Charali. The group attacking the Puja Pandals also consisted of a notorious Hate Offender Shrinkhal Chaliha, who is also associated with the All Assam Students Union (AAASU). Chaliha was recently released from prison June 2023 after being accused of committing extortion and maltreatment against a businesswoman. He had reportedly been arrested under the National Security Act (NSA).
Who is Veer Lachit Sena?
According to Scroll.in, the Veer Lachita Sena was founded in 2010 and most of its hostility are against Bengali-speaking communities. The report by Scroll.in notes that the organisation has seen a surge in activity in recent years. Its members reported an increase from approximately eight to ten per month in 2020 to a significant escalation which are now averaging over 50 interventions each month in 2021.
How did civil society react?
However, several groups have come to condemn this act of hostility. The Forum for Social Harmony took a stand against these actions by organising a protest in the Barak Valley. They also have placed placards in various Puja Mandaps to voice their strong disapproval with the placards stating, “Language is an integral part of life, not a tool of domination.”
The Barak Valley Bengali Literary and Cultural Conference, Silchar Sangmilito Sanskritik Mancha, and Barak Democratic Front also joined the groups issuing condemnation by releasing press statements voicing their dissent against these actions.
A leader from the Barak Valley asserted, “Veer Lachit Sena and AASU will get huge coverage on the Brahmaputra valley media by doing such act, but they should remember that Bengali people not only do protest and agitation they also know how to fight.”
Congress Working President and MLA Kamalakhya Dey Purkayastha also stated his dismay and indignation, remarking, “Bengali is prominently inscribed on the Indian Currency Note. Will they now consider boycotting it or abstaining from traveling through West Bengal?”
Meanwhile, TMC leader Sushmita Dev shared her stance on X, stating, “I condemn the fact that some radical groups have taken it upon themselves to forcibly remove the banners using Bangla bhasha in the Puja Pandals, in certain parts of Assam.”
I condemn the fact that some radical groups have taken it upon themselves to forcibly remove the banners using Bangla bhasha in the Puja Pandals, in certain parts of Assam.
It is illegal & a shame. https://t.co/S2JGhGJq4O
— Sushmita Dev সুস্মিতা দেব (@SushmitaDevAITC) October 22, 2023
Furthermore, it should be acknowledged that Bengali holds the status of being the language spoken by majority of the residents within the Barak Valley, almost in every household.
Sabrang India’s correspondent from Assam detail that this was a communal issue, and several observers see this as an issue to grab headlines and attention of the rest of the Assam population. However, this incident does not serve to define the state. Assam has also witnessed an incident of communal harmony when a remarkable instance of such unity unfolded in Rangia, Assam, despite the ongoing turmoil and amid political efforts to foster religious divides when during a Puja procession, the music and drums were momentarily silenced as a display of respect the moment the Azan, the Muslim call for prayer, from a nearby mosque was heard.