Why Assam's Karimganj flew a Pakistan flag for 3 days in August 1947

Published on Aug 17, 2022 07:33 PM IST

For three days as the rest of India prepared for Independence, 1,836 kilometres of territory in India’s Northeast were in a state of flux, unaware of whether it would be part of India or Pakistan.

Locals said that for a few years, some in Karimganj celebrated both August 15 and 17 as Independence Day, but that has stopped for several decades. (Reuters File Photo) PREMIUM
Locals said that for a few years, some in Karimganj celebrated both August 15 and 17 as Independence Day, but that has stopped for several decades. (Reuters File Photo)
ByBiswa Kalyan Purkayastha

For three days 75 years ago, 1,836 kilometres of territory in India’s Northeast were in a state of flux. As India stepped into freedom, and most of the country joyously flew Indian flags, the Pakistani flag fluttered in a part of what now comes under the state of Assam. It was only on August 17, that Karimganj found itself, finally and irrevocably, part of India.

Sabyasachi Roy, a professor from Karimganj College, and the author of the book, Immigration, Citizenship and Assam, said, “From 14 to 16 August, in 1947, most people in this part were confused about whether they are Indians or Pakistanis.”

Roy said, throughout history, Sylhet, of which Karimganj is a part, was tossed between Bengal and Assam several times. It was added to the newly formed Assam province in 1874, but in 1905, when Bengal was partitioned, found itself a part of Eastern Bengal. In 1912, it was again brought back to Assam, he said. According to Hatter Itibritta, a book written by Bengali historian Achuyatacharan Chowdhury in 1910, the total area of Sylhet during the colonial period was 5,443 square miles.

Cyril Radcliffe, who was in charge of the demarcation between India and Pakistan, then awarded Sylhet to East Pakistan, primarily because a referendum was held in Sylhet on July 6 and 7, 1947, in which 423,660 of 546,815 eligible voters took part, according to Radcliffe’s Boundary disputes between India and Pakistan relating to the interpretation of the report of the Bengal Boundary Commission.

There were two symbols. Those who wished for Karimganj to be moved to East Pakistan voted on the “Kural” symbol, and those who opposed this voted on the picture of a house. A total of 239,619 persons voted for joining East Pakistan and 184,041 voted for remaining in Assam.

There was, however, Opposition from sections of Karimganj and Tripura because they argued that Karimganj was naturally separated from the rest of Sylhet by the river Kushiyara which acts as a natural border between India and East Pakistan.

Professor Roy said that the influence of Tripura was also crucial in the reversal of this decision. “Tripura agreed to join India post-Independence, but they had to travel through Karimganj because the rest of Bengal became East Pakistan. This was one of the reasons that influenced Redcliffe to change the original line and return three and a half thanas of Patharkandi, Badarpur, Ratabari and Karimganj to India on August 17," Roy said.

According to a 1995 reprinted copy of Rajmala (the Chronicles of Kings) by James Long, Tripura's last King Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Deb Barman, who ruled the state from 1923 to 17 May 1947, decided to merge the then princely state of Tripura with the Indian Union before India's Independence from British. He issued a royal edict on April 28, 1947, but before the merger, Bir Bikram died. His son Kirit Bikram Kishore Deb Barman, who was a minor, became his successor and his mother, Kanchan Prava Devi, played an important role in Tripura’s merger with India in 1949, arguing vociferously for Karimganj to be brought back to India.

Former Patharkandi MLA, 85-year-old Shukhendu Shekhar Dutta, also a retired professor of the department of economics in Karimganj College said that he was 10 years old in 1947, and has a faint memory of Pakistani flags flying in Karimganj. "All our families suffered due to the Partition and when we saw Pakistani flags flowing in Karimganj, it was even more painful," he said.

Dutta said that there were slogans, Sylhet Nisi Ganavote, Cachar Nimu Lathir Chote (we have taken Sylhet by referendum and we'll snatch Cachar by using muscles) that were rampant in those days.

On August 17, when the updated Radcliffe Line was made public, it gave much relief to the Hindus and Muslims who were against Jinnah’s Muslim League, said 49-year-old Subimal Bhattacharjee, a Delhi-based cybersecurity expert who has his roots in Karimganj. “Many people sold their land because they wanted to leave Pakistan and move to Indian territory. But when Cyril Redcliffe kept Karimganj in India, they stayed and tried to get their land back," Bhattacharjee said.

Writer and social activist Manitosh Paul, whose father migrated from Sadrakona village of Moulavi Bazaar in East Pakistan, said that for many years there was a sense of disbelief about the partition. “My father used to send money to help family members that lived in Bangladesh and they used to call that house there Desh Bari (house in the original country). In the initial years, going to our Desh Bari was not a big deal because governments on both sides were soft towards the victims of Partition," Paul said.

Locals said that for a few years, some in Karimganj celebrated both August 15 and 17 as Independence Day, but that has stopped for several decades. “Currently, only the BSF observes a commemoration on August 17 near Bisarjan Ghat in front of the Major Chamanlal Shahid Vedi on the day,” said Sudip Das, a resident of Latu, near the India-Bangladesh international border.

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