The curious case of the Surjapuri people
Guest post by Adil Hossain for AlalODulal.org
For the first time I properly encountered the Surjapuri identity was at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) during its Students’ Union (SU) elections. Apart from the dominant regional student lobbies of Azamgarhi, Ghazipuri, Bihari, Kashmiri, Saharanpuri and many others, Surjapuri students were also reckoned as a distinct community who need to be cajoled for votes separately. Now there is a ‘Bangali’ (identified as Bengali speakers) lobby too who supposedly due to the geographical proximity had often sided with the Bihari candidates in the past AMUSU elections. Now the political manoeuvring in a localised University SU election (which is often violent) reveals many regional fault lines present among the student community that also exists back in their regions. It should be mentioned here that as student wing of political parties are not allowed to participate in AMUSU elections, regional identity play a major role in forming groups and shaping its results.
So why that a Surjapuri lobby exists in the first place alongside their Bihari or Bengali counterparts, when Surjapuri people generally hails from the three eastern districts of Bihar (Kishanganj, Purnea, Kathihar) and two districts from North Bengal (Uttar Dinajpur and Malda)? Why not they are simply be called as Bihari or Bengali? The answer is plain and simple. Whenever there is an opportunity, people from these places make a distinction of their identity and see themselves as ‘Surjapuri’.
At this moment, though Government of Bihar recognises Surjapuri language as a special dialect, West Bengal government is yet to do so. Former Indian Minister of Information and Broadcasting Priyaranjan Dasmunshi (he represented Raiganj constituency) during the Parliamentary debate on Jharkhand state formation in 2000 said, “The place I came from as an MP… Here the culture is Surjapuri and Surjapuri language holds a special place…if we do not respect Surjapuri language and claims we the Bengalis, the son of zamindar or people from higher caste, have the final word to say [it] cannot sustain. This chauvinism cannot continue.” The concerns raised by the Minister have often found resonance among the Surjapuri people, however a popular movement based around identity has never been a reality here.
It is worth noting that today Surjapuri people live in areas that have been rife with struggles based on ethnic identities as well as ideology– the Gorkhaland movement in the neighbouring district of Darjeeling, the Kamtapuri movement in Coochebehar or even the Naxal movement in Naxalbari championed by likes of Kanu Sanyal. However, they interestingly seem to have been immune to such struggles, having never mobilised themselves on identity or any ideological issues on a scale as their neighbours did.
This is pertinent to ask here, that why then we could see the assertion of Surjapuri identity only in case of a Student’s Union election far away from the mainland? It can be said that such assertion in AMUSU elections is not uncommon since other students from parts of UP and Bihar also forms various sub identities based on regional lines. But interestingly except Surjapuri no other regional groups active in AMU have got the tacit recognition outside as evident from the statement given Mr. Dasmunshi in Parliament. It is also apparent that Surjapuri identity is more about a specific language and culture, rather than a particular region.
There is confusion around the Surjapuri language as well. Whereas in some sections Surjapuri language is considered to be a dialect of Hindi, others consider it as part of Rajbanshi and thus a dialect of Bengali language. However, in a PhD thesis in an Australian University a student named Toulmin while adding another name for the language ‘Nothern Deshi Bangla’ correctly argues, the debate is “not really about language at all, rather it is about social and political identity”.
This yearning for a separate social and political identity has only augmented in the recent past. Legally unregistered Surjapuri associations of Kishanganj and Islampur fiercely engaged with the Central and Bihar government for an AMU study centre in the region which is now a reality. In the last Bengal assembly elections, the Surjapuri identity played a significant role in the election campaign of both Congress and Left front candidates in Goalpokher and Chakulia constituency. The election results reflected a greater unity among the Surjapuri Hindus and Muslims against the bhatiya or badiya (Bengali speaking Muslims from South Malda and Murshidabad who migrated in the region) candidates whom they consider outsiders and a strong opponent in the region.
It also needs to be noted that the above mentioned ethnic mobilisations have had their genesis in economic negligence by the state in one form or the other. Of course, such economic negligence, especially in the last 25 years, needs to be placed within the neo-liberal era that India ushered in the 1990s. Surjapuris have not escaped such economic negligence either, which creates the expectation that mirroring the developments in their surrounding area, they would mobilise as well. The only thing is, this process of mobilisation is at the primary stage now as seen in the recent events.