Universität Bonn

Abteilung für Südasienstudien

Integration and Demarcation in an Ethnically and Religiously Plural Region: Identity Formation among Young Bengalis in Assam

Research conducted by Shabnam Surita

My doctoral study focuses on the identity formation among young Bengalis in the Barak Valley, a linguistically and religiously heterogeneous region consisting of three administrative districts and a population of around 3.5 million of which the majority are Bengali speakers. Barak Valley lies in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, a region that is highly prone to geopolitical and social fragmentation. Although Bengalis can be found in almost all parts of Assam, the most important region for them lies within the geographic expanse of the Bengali linguistic continuum (erstwhile Sylhet). To the south of Assam, the Barak Valley carries remnants of erstwhile Sylhet district and is mostly Bengali speaking. In Barak Valley, Karimganj and Hailakandi have a Muslim majority while Cachar has a marginally larger Hindu population. This gives Bengali-speaking Barak Valley a unique religious composition in contrast to the Bengali heartlands – Muslim majority Bangladesh or Hindu majority Indian state of West Bengal. The direct proximity of the region to Bangladesh and today’s status of Bengali as an official language in Assam illustrate the history of the Bengali language continuum that is today geopolitically divided. This fragmentation and its consequent impact on the Bengali-speaking youth is what my study works to decipher. With the young Bengalis as my target group, my research intends to explore how young members of a specific ethnolinguistic group perceive and react to their experienced dominant demographic role on the ground, their minority status in the wider state of Assam and their historic and present ties to the Bengalis in Bangladesh and West Bengal. The study of identity formation among this group – torn between an imagined glorious past of a Greater Bengal, potential alignments to Bengalis in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal, their minority status in today’s Assam, self-assertions and their identity as citizens of Assam and India – will give us new insights on identity formation processes that are also relevant for similar phenomena in other parts of this world.

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