The geopolitical situation of Greater Sylhet was as such that it was bound to be looked with interest in all periods of history – ancient, medieval and modern. Bordered by Khasi Jayantia Hills in the north and Cachar in the East, the place was regularly featuring in the strategic military objectives of all ambitious kingdoms and tribes, including British in recent times. Another river that passes through Sylhet and is having a beautiful name – Surma. According to old legends, in the 12th century, king Khetrapal dug up a canal from the river Barak and named it as per the name of his beautiful queen Surama. The word literally means – beautiful and pleasing. After four hundred years when Iban Batuta, the Persian traveler came to India, he came to Sylhet and definitely sailing along the Surma. He observed the howar in the waters of Surma and named it as – Nahar-Ul-Azrak which translates as – blue-eyed river. He again sailed along Surma from Sylhet to Sonargaon to meet the Muslim saint – Shah Jalal – a meeting of historic interest and controversy, which took place in around 1307. In 1919, Rabindranath Tagore came to Sylhet by sailing through the Surma.
The Ancient and Medieval Period:
The Ancient name of Greater Sylhet was Srihatta which in Sanskrit means – a prosperous center of trading. The reason was obvious – the well navigated Surma-Barak river, the position of the place and the ancient road which enters into Assam through Khasi-Jayantia Hills through present Dowki of Meghalaya. This road was of immense strategic importance in the defence of Cachar, Assam and Greater Sylhet. This was confirmed by Captain R.B Pembarton who termed Sylhet-Cachar frontier as a matter of military importance during British war with Burma (1765). It was these two routes – the Sylhet-Cachar frontier road and the Sylhet-Assam route through Jayantia hills that always was used by Manipuris during Burmese aggression and during partition and its aftermath – the present day Syhlleti settlers in Cachar and Meghalaya. Ancient Tantric text Shaktisangam Tantra Joginitantra refers Sylhet as Silhatta. Other texts like Brihannali Tantra, Devipurana refers to Srihatta as one of the Tantric shakthipeeths. The patron deity of Srihatta was termed as Hattavasini – the goddess who resides in the prosperous marketplace. The history of Sylhet during the reign of Sultan was documented by Portugese historian D Barros who terms Sylhet as – Reino de Sirote.
Like all provinces of Bengal, Sylhet came under British influence but since then one integrating factor was there with, without and in spite of political and religion difference and that was the Bengali language. In spite of all historical upheavals, the language stood firm, strong, enriched and struggled in the artistic sense as well in the political sense and without this there is no unity except the unity of humanity. After the great war, Sylhet went to East Pakistan when partition of India came into a political reality in 1947. In 1971, there was that glorious struggle by the people of East Pakistan which culminated into the formation of independent country Bangladesh. In that Great Struggle which the people of the country fought with extreme courage also witnessed the Nazi barbarism by the invading Army of Pakistan which has no parallel in history. The situation was slowly approaching a climax and the Indian Army intervened and people of India stood behind it. It was a desperate fight by the tyrant(s) and when morning of Freedom approaches, the shadow of tyranny vanishes. It was the night of darkness, it was the long night of terror when suddenly we discovered, in the rapine and killings of the doomed armies of West Pakistan – Humanity sometimes take holiday from being human. It was no melodrama – it was the gunshot what mother’s heard when their sons were lined up by the front yard pond from where morning azan or bell-sound of prayer used to come, it was the cries of sisters which brothers-mothers-fathers heard when they were violated. It was the night of darkness and it was the night of historical histrionics. It was the worst of dreams and the worst of reality. It was the End of Hope and the beginning of a New Beginning. The fight by the people was a fight for civilization, it was a life and death fight for one’s soul and after a long, long night of Darkness and dried blood and tears, Freedom came. Those of Sylhetis who were already out of Sylhet prayed for the deliverance, waited for it and cried with tears of joy as well with the tears of agony for lost ones who perished in the struggle. We cried for those sisters who were victims of a barbarism, we pray with shivering may never be repeated. We saw tyranny, we endured it, we fought it to death and finally defeated it with our Life and survived. The futile Teutonic dream of enslaving people came to an End. They saw from Karimganj, from Silchar, from Agartala, from Shillong from elsewhere – the Indian fighters flying and the soldiers crossing and they glued their ear and soul to the radio and telefunken messages to witness those moments of history, uttered some 27 years ago by one Prime Minister in another historic night in the history of the subcontinent – which comes rarely in history when the soul of a Nation finds utterance. The struggle and endurance was a struggle against de-humanism, against strangulation of soul of a community, of erasing its tongue – the language – the Bangla-Bhasa. The fight for the land, the language and the soul became one – martyrs sang for their motherland irrespective of religion and creed and passed onto history a unique contribution and a new dimension too. After more than a quarter century, we are passing onto a New Order with new problems and new horizons. In spite of all history and with it, the bond is that of language – of our mother-tongue which we all speak – whatever passport we carry, whatever prayer we pray, whatever forgetfulness we nurture.