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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sujit Choudhury - Death of a Polymath
by Joydeep Biswas*

Sujit Choudhury (1937-2009) traversed a long journey through the contours of epistemology. History was his professional discipline as he taught in Rabindra Sadan Girls’ College at Karimganj in Southern Assam from 1964 to 1997. But he treaded at ease the varied avenues of literature, folklore, anthropology, mythology, politics, journalism and even film appreciation.

Born to a freedom fighter father, Mr. Bidhubhusan Choudhury, and mother, Mrs. Suprabha Choudhury, in the British-ruled India Sujit Choudhury grew up in a cultured, educated and patriotic ambience. Notwithstanding a modest economic background his father passed the Matriculation Examination in First Division and joined the famous Murarichand College in Sylhet in the Intermediate Course. But Bidhubhusan left the campus midway through to join the Civil Disobedience Movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. This cost him dearly during the tumultuous phase of India’s struggle for freedom as Bidhubhusan was arrested a number of times by the British. He was intermittently in jail for three years and was interned for a few more years. Atrocities of the British Police during incarceration took a heavy toll on his health and his right index finger got so badly damaged by the assault of a police superintendent, Mr. Bromand that he had to adapt to a different pen-grip. Later on Bidhubhusan took to journalism as his professional career. This patriotic and idealist father left an indelible impression on the young mind of Sujit Choudhury.

The Independence of India and the resultant Partition proved to be a curse to the Choudhury family like millions of other Bengali families of the then East-Pakistan. Bidhubhusan along with his family joined the worst exodus in the history of the Sub-continent. They migrated to Karimganj in the erstwhile undivided district of Cachar in the truncated Independent India in 1948 when Sujit Choudhury was an eleven years old boy.

But the memory of the pogrom and fratricidal killing engineered by the Congress-Muslim League leadership in the cunning corridors of contrived history never did fade in Sujit Choudhury. As a matter of fact, the wrong doings of history handed down to the politically migrated Bengali of the East-Pakistan to which Sujit Choudhury himself belonged turned out to be the intellectual motivation for him. He went on to author ‘Srihatta Cacharer Prachin Itihas’ (The Ancient History of Srihatta-Cachar) in Bengali which is a path-breaking work on the compilation of socio-political-economic history of undivided Sylhet-Cachar. Sujit Choudhury ignored the series of redrawings of political map of this otherwise homogenous region from 1874 to 1947 when he captured the fairly uninterrupted history of the area, better known as the twin valleys of the Barak-Surma, from the stand points of anthropology, sociology, culture and historicity.

Professor Choudhury showed enough of his academic interest in ancient Indian history in the light of folklore, mythology, theology and comparative religion. Here he subscribed to the School of Left historians of India under the aegis of the Indian History Congress with particular affiliation to the ilk of D D Koshambi, R S Sharma, Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra and Irfan Habib. His unquestioned scholarship in this genre is manifest in scores of his papers and articles in the highly referred journals, magazines and news papers including Journal of the Folklore Society, Kolkata, Journal of the Ananda Ram Baruah Institute of Language, Art and Culture, Guwahati, Journal of Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla, where he was a senior fellow from 1993 to 1995, Journal of the Department of Bengali, University of Gauhati, Pratikshan, Parichay, The Economic and Political Weekly, The Statesman, Mainstream, Point Counterpoint to name a few. His monumental work in this field, of course, is ‘Prachin Bharate Matri Pradhanya: Kingbodontir Punarbichar’ (1990) in Bengali which won him the much coveted Narsingha Das Award of the University of Delhi in 2000.

He was an avid reader with elephantine memory. Inter-disciplinarity was the hall-mark of his intellectual odyssey. North- East India was his special area of interest as we find him authoring ‘Social Background of Mizo Insurgency’ along with ‘Folklore and History: A Study of the Fockcults of the Bengali Hindus of Barak Valley’. During the fag end of his professional career he joined Assam University, Silchar as a Visiting Fellow in the Netaji Centre of Researches on the National Movement.

As alluded earlier here, he just could not confine himself in any particular disciplinary frame. As a result, one would discover him writing prolifically on modern Indian history and contemporary political development. Indian freedom struggle and post-Partition politics in the Sub-continent formed his special choice set where he would find a strong cause to write for. Mutiny Period in Cachar(ed), Barak Upatyakar Samaj O Rajniti (in Bengali) and ‘Dharma, Rajniti O Sampradayikata: Utsao O Patabhumi (in Bengali) bear testimony to his deft flexibility in the inter-disciplinary pedagogy. More than that, however, in such writings he could identify himself as an intellectual crusader against the forces hell-bent on creating divides between man and man in the name of language, caste, creed and religion. The rot in the Indian political culture in the contemporary India not only pained him, he bled profusely in his inner psyche. He could never reconcile himself to the nadir to which Indian polity stooped in his lifetime at the bright backdrop of value-based political culture in which he was brought up. The halcyon days of Indian freedom struggle were vivid in his memory as he saw his idealist father hobnobbing with the stalwarts of Indian politics during his boyhood. As an early teen-ager of the member of a refugee family he stepped into the India of his dream and meditation. Like millions of freedom fighters and like his father he cherished the dream and belief of an Independent India which would be pluralist, democratic and where every Indian will have a shared return of the colossal sacrifice the forefathers had made to liberate the country. But very soon the independent India belied all expectations with the socio-political-economic scenario drifting from bad to worse at an alarming speed. The displaced Bengali populace of Assam and the North-East India soon found themselves at the receiving end of all sorts of deprivations and state repressions. The heroic sacrifices of their fathers and grand-fathers and the pangs of the internal displacement of that generation were all very carefully dumped in the garbage of history by the ruthless Indian State. For no fault of their own the North-East Bengali became ‘foreigners’ in the Grand Indian Political Theatre. As if to add insult to the injury, the linguistic chauvinism of the Government of Assam found its ugliest manifestation with the passage of the Official Language Act 1960 which imposed Assamese as the only official language in a multi-lingual Assam. The people of Barak Valley-then the district of Cachar- condemned this draconian Act. The public outrage soon turned to be a belligerent mass movement in Cachar which left eleven people dead and scores of others injured at police firing at the Railway Station of Silchar on the fateful day of 19 May 1961. The martyrs’ supreme sacrifice did not go unrewarded. In the face of stiff democratic resistance from the people of Cachar the Assam Government became compelled to bring in amendment to the nefarious Official Language Act restoring the legitimate linguistic
right of the Bengali speaking populace of the Valley. But the sinister design of the hegemonic Assam Government has surfaced quite off and on leading to four more young language activists to lay their lives on three more occasions in this Valley during the next three decades. In all those crisis hours Sujit Choudhury rose to the occasion and lent intellectual leadership to the continuing movement. Linguistic resistance movement has become a regular reality in the Barak Valley which always drew its intellectual sustenance from Professor Choudhury. He was an ideologue of the linguistic and cultural umbrella organization, Barak Upatyaka Banga Sahitya O Sanskriti Sammelan, which fights for the democratic rights of the Bengali in Assam and the multi-cultural identity of the State. He was once General Secretary of this apolitical Sammelan which later down the years conferred on him the prestigious Rajmohan Nath Centenary Award for life time achievement in social science research.

But his obsession with the rights and status of the displaced Bengali populace of the North-East did never blur his left-progressive outlook on socio-political issues. He was a true humanist a fact which one would better discover in his valuable writings on Bengali literature. Though he was extra-ordinarily cautious in distancing himself from any claim to authoritative writing on literature, which was his first love any way, scores of papers he had to pen under what he said ‘social obligation’ proved to be real additions to the kitty of Bengali literary criticism. He was an unquestioned expert on Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, the great 20th century Bengali novelist. One of his scholarly papers has been included in a Sahitya Akademy collection of essays on Bibhutibhusan. He wrote extensively on Bengali prose many of which were published from many Indian universities. In 2004 he received the Sahitya Akademy Award for his excellent translation of the Assamese short stories of Nirmalprabha Bardoloi published from the National Book Trust. His two-part memoirs ‘Harano Din Harano Manush’ (2nd part forthcoming) in Bengali constitute unparallel narrative of the ill-fated Partition in an aesthetically tested prose.

The sudden demise of this polymath on 9 March 2009 in Bangalore, far away from his dear Karimganj, left the Valley in eerie gloom. The intellectual void that his death has created can only be partially filled up if his unfinished agenda find some takers among the young generation of dedicated researchers and scholars in this neglected periphery. Sujit Choudhury, by dint of his towering scholarship and unflinching commitment to the cause he stood for, could successfully make the centre to listen to the periphery. His passing away has now occasioned the posterity to pick the baton. History beckons at this hour. Is any body listening?

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