A voice from the margins

The Thumb Print change maker Series

 INDRANI RAIMEDHI  profiles Rehna Sultana, who is eager to give back to the community she belongs

Rehna Sultana is fast asleep in her hostel room at Gauhati University. It is past midnight and she has been studying for long hours, her spectacles lying over an open book. As she floats in the tide of sleep, a dream comes to her, of golden sands and green fields swept over by the river, the cries and confusion, the mud huts abandoned in haste, people, her people, goats, cows and chickens cramming into bobbing boats, along with their pitiful possessions. For weeks after this, life will continue precariously on the boats. Gruel will be cooked over smoky stoves, clothes will wet and dry on the bodies they are worn in. There will be fever, chills, cholera, diarrhoea. Babies will be born under the open sky, on the boat, the screams of women in labour merging with the cries of the birds flying overhead. Thus, they will hunker down on the edge of existence, the forgotten river people of the chars.

You can take a girl out of the char chapori, the riverine plains flanking the Brahmaputra, but you can’t take the char out of her. In a feat of unimaginable proportions for a minority community and that too from a land time forgot, Rehna has pushed herself through school, college, degree, and is shortly poised to get her doctorate degree. Her thesis is on the Folk Speech of Char Chapari’s Muslim people.

rehna book

And that’s not all. She has penned her first book on the theme Char-Chaparir Loka Jivan Aaru Bhasa Sanskriti, exploring the lives of the people in the char chapari and their language and culture. This pretty young woman, still in her 20s is driven by a burning zeal to tell the story of her forgotten people and free them from the prejudices of the outside world who view them as inconsequential, or with suspicion and misgiving.

“Here are the facts,” she begins “the Brahmaputra traverses an area of 800 km of Assam, forming char chaporis or sand bars as it flows. In 1992-93, there was a socio-economic survey of the region, there were 2,089 char villages with a population of 16 lakh. Ten years later there were 162 more char villages and six lakh more people. Surely the administration must pay attention to the char chapori. Spread across 14 districts, it covers a landmass of 3,608 sq. km. or 4.6 per cent of Assam’s total area. As a people we not only have to survive Nature’s changing moods, but also make do with scarce resources. From mid-May to mid-October boats are our only lifeline.”

Rehna refutes that the char chapori areas are the hide-outs of illegal migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. “There is no family planning of any kind practised by couples here. A woman gives birth to eight or nine children. When these children grow up, they build adjacent houses and that is how a settlement expands.”

Haunted by malevolent forces of Nature that displace them in a never-ending cycle, the people too display signs of instability, of enraged outbursts and sudden cruelty. Rehna says sadly – “This is most evident in the way our women are treated. They are considered no better than beasts, slapped, hit and thrashed for the most flimsy of reasons – like adding a bit more salt to the curry. When a woman is thrashed by her husband, nobody comes to help her. It is her fate. And nobody questions it. This always made me furious. And as the years flew by, I was determined not to be married off young like my sisters but to leave the char chapori, my village Sontali in Boko Circle, and do something meaningful with life. Now I know what it is. Our char areas are geographically alienated from the mainland and psychologically detached from the mainstream population of Assam. I have gone into interior char areas to gather materials on the community and the problems they face. I was met with suspicion and hostility, as I was thought of someone going to investigate citizen issues. There are some officials who blackmail these people regarding this and they fearfully pay up. My findings speak for themselves – there are large families in a society where polygamy is common. Resources are scarce. There is no access to drinking water, electricity, education and healthcare. Quacks rule the roost. Every year countless women die of childbirth complications. My life’s work will be to highlight these issues and bring succour to them.”

This feisty daughter of the liberal Nurjamal Haque and Sufia Begum is all set to make a difference. And her time starts now.

(Courtesy: The Assam Tribune Sunday Reading)