In Social Science, throughout the world, JSTOR is said to be the most popular search engine for national and international E-journal of various disciplines. I was just trying to locate how many academic articles have been written on Assam’s role in India’s independence Movement. The search engine has given me 4,33,391 search results relating to Assam –but unfortunately there was not a single write up on Assam’s role in India’s Freedom struggle or any part of Freedom struggle. The first page would give you result on ‘India’s Freedom Struggle’, Kuka Movement in Punjab, ‘The Left in India’s Freedom Movement’ , ‘Peasant , workers and Freedom struggle’, ‘ A study in Indian Nationalism’ and so on. Next I tried to locate in Sodhganga , which is a reservoir of Indian these conducted in all the Universities of India. There we will find thesis on “Role of Muslims in Indian Freedom Struggle’, ‘Construction of Assamese identity in 1826-1920, – but no systematic noteworthy academic study on ‘Assam’s role in India’s Freedom Struggle’. So there is apathy to look into India’s freedom struggle from periphery. The mainstream History discourse hardly takes into account the role of the peripheries like that of the Northeast India. We have looked India’s freedom struggle from below – thanks to sub-altern school. But we have not looked Indian Freedom struggle history from the peripheries, like from Northeast India or from the perspective of Assam.
The then Assam is now divided into eight North-eastern states. Assam’s fight against British imperialism can be broadly divided into two parts — a) The Pre-Gandhian phase and the b) Gandhian Phase. The pre-Gandhian phase may further be divided into two phases — 1) The Ahom ruling class against the Company from 1828-to 1858 which is known as the thirty years war launched by the decaying Ahom nobles and the second from 2) 1858 to 1900 – this phase was initially marked by a spontaneous variety farmers and peasant movement that fought against the exorbitant revenue and tax collection of the British administration. Towards the later phase Assam witnessed the emergence of a literary movement and the emergence of a neo middle class that laid the foundation of Assamese and Indian nationalism. However for a proper methodical study, Assam’s participation in India’s freedom struggle can be divided into six phases:
I) First Phase 1828-1858: Revolt by Ahom and Tribal Siems
II) Second phase of the revolt of 1857
III) Third Phase of Agrarian Revolts from 1860-1900
IV) Fourth Phase of Formation National Consciousness (1852-1920)
V) Fifth phase –Gandhian Phase ( 1920-1944)
VI) Final Phase of resistance against the Congress –1945–1947
In our analysis the Gandhian phase has not been included as there are already lot of information and analyses during the Gandhian phase.
First Phase 1828-1858:
Immediately after its takeover of Assam by the East India Company in 1826, the Britishers made effort to strike roots in the state. The defeated Ahoms and the ruling class found that their estates and paiks were almost taken away in return of petty pension, gratuity and subordinate ranks in the company offices. “This loss of power and privileges which they enjoyed as members of the ruling classes, coupled with the removal of their kith and kins from their offices made it crystal clear that their future was extremely bleak under the new arrangements.” Very soon they organised armed resistance in various forms and capacities.
The first attempt to overthrow the Briitsh raj was made under the leadership of Gomadhar Konwer — a prince of Ahom royal blood and Dhanjay Pealia Bargohain in the year 1828. Meanwhile the Britishers were withdrawing their troops to meet situations in other parts of India. The rebels thought this was the best time to regain Rongpur, the capital of Assam. Along with the Ahom ruling elites, various tribal leaders also made effort to oust the Britishers from Assam. The Khasis under Terut singh, the Singphos and the Khamtis in the south east and the Bhutias also created considerable troubles for the Britisheres. The Khasis had lost the traditional ‘duars’—which used to provide lot of revenues to the Khasis under the Ahoms. The most determined fighter was the Khasi leader Terut singh , the Siem or Raja of Nongkhalo. He organised a comprehensive attack on the Britishers in collaboration with the Ahoms and other Siems . Ultimately the British pacified the Khais by bringing under subsidiary alliance.
Emboldened with such initiatives, the newly enthroned king made a serious attack on the British, which was however, intercepted by the Lieutenant Rutherford. In 1830 there was an another attack on the Britishers under the leadership of Dhononjoy Borgohain with active assistance from Horntah ( his son), Pioli Borphukon, JiuRam Dulia barua, Jiu Ram Dhingia Deka, Rup Chand Konwer etc. and organised an army of 400 armed soldiers. Captain Neville thwarted the attempt of the rebel to destroy the firehouse of the Britishers. Most of the leaders were arrested and Pioli Phukon and Jiu Ram Dulia Barua were hanged. Thus long before Mangal Pandey was hanged and officially declared as the first martyr of India, two Ahom nobles were hanged in 1830 in the month of August for raising armed rebellion against the Britishers.
Second phase of the revolt of 1857 :
Initial phase of British rule in Assam was marked by chaos, lawlessness and tyranny. The new regime was ruthless that within six years of British administration.
The old aristocracy and gentry could therefore hardly reconcile themselves to the new Government. Some of them became desperate; they felt that their salvation lay only in the restoration of the old regime, because the hopes of the old aristocracy initially rested on the members of the royalty, who were still acknowledged by many as leaders of the people, most prominent of whom were Chandrakanta Singha and Purandar Singha. Chandrakanta the ex Raja, after making several attempts to regain his possessions, died with a heavy heart in early 1830. It was at this critical moment that Maniram Dutta Barbhandar Barua Dewan, hitherto one of the most loyal and trusted officers of the Company assumed a new role as the leader of the war of liberation.
Maniram was a true representative of the rising middle class in Assam, growing and maturing under direct British Patronage. He remained loyal to the rulers as long as co-operation with them served his interest. Beginning his career as a loyal servant and friend, he held important office of administration and excelled in every new situation. A man of dash and determination, he was the first among his compatriots to find each new avenue of success under the alien rule: yet he was also the first to raise the standard of revolt against it at an early age of 43.
As an administrative officer, he gained intimate knowledge of the miserable conditions of the nobles and the people; as Dewan in Assam Tea Company, he found a window open on the capitalist world outside; and he now looked forward for the dawn of happier days for his fellow countrymen. As he grew conscious of his class interest and his historic mission, he could no longer brook any interference of the British, whose sole objective was to raise an maintain a class of officers subservient to them. Maniram now realised that there was no future for him and his countrymen under the Colonial rule which would never allow the growth of any independent enterprise by an Indian. He threw his lot with Kandarpeswar Singha, the Charing Raja, who also like him, had been facing utmost difficulties in maintaining the royal family that was on the verge of penury. Maniram now became the Charing Raja’s friend, philosopher and guided and inspired him to action by rousing “sanguinary hopes of getting the country back to his management.”
Maniram’s second memorandum was also a “balance sheet of the administration of the East India Company for over a quarter of a century.” In it, the emphasis was laid mainly upon the grievances of the people, those higher classes in particular. To quote his word: “By the stoppage of such cruel practices as extracting the eyes, cutting off noses and ears, and the forcible abduction of virgins from their homes and by the removal of all wayside transit duties…… the British Government has (earned) for itself inestimable praise and renown but by introduction into the province of new customs, numerous courts, an unjust system of taxation, an objectionable treatment of the hill tribes…. neither the British Government nor their subjects have gained any benefit.”
About this time, there occurred the insurrection of the sepoys at Meerut, Delhi, Lucknow and Kanpur and the news reached him that Bahadur Shah had been proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan at Delhi by the rebels and many princes were regaining their lost possessions Maniram calculated the possibility of organising a similar insurrection in Assam for overthrowing the British Raj, and considered the situation there very favourable. Most of the sepoys of the First Assam Light Infantry stationed at Dibrugarh were from western Bihar, a hot-bed of the rebellion of 1857. These sepoys were sure to come forward to drive away the foreigners. There were also 500 Assamese soldiers belonging to the army of the erstwhile king Purandar Singha disbanded by the Company Government after his deposition in 1838. Further, the strength of the European army in Bengal was only 2400, some detachments of which again had to be engaged elsewhere to fight the rebels. There was also an acute transport problem. In case of revolt in Assam, therefore, the Government was not in a position to despatch an army from Bengal to meet the situation there. To add to their utter dismay, there was not a single European soldier in Assam. The number of British officers also was small and the European planters were so scattered in different parts of the valley that a safe escape was not easy for them either. The old aristocracy and gentry, the most aggrieved party of British rule, was sure to join Maniram and the hill people, too, were sure to extend their support to the rebels. Not to speak only of the Khasis in the west, there were numerous instance of rebellion of the hill tribes in the east against the British- of the Singphos who surprised the British out-post at Sadiya in 1830; of the Khamtis, who killed Col. White and others in 1839; of the Tagi Raja, the chief of the Kapahchor Akas, who killed a number of British subjects in 1835 and started up commotion among the hill tribes against the imposition of the British rule, and of the Nagas who revolted in 1849.
Maniram wanted to take full advantage of the situation and goaded the young prince Kandarpeswar Singha as well as the member of the erstwhile nobility and gentry, including certain Satradhikar like that of Kamalabari, to take up arms against the British. He communicated all the developments in other parts of India to his friends and associates in Assam through messengers in the guise of fakirs called bhats, who had been regularly visiting Assam. Before Maniram could come to Assam to take the lead, a few of his letters were intercepted by the Principal Assistant of Sibsagar, Captain Charlse Holroyd.
The event of 1857-58, however, have certain implication specific to the history of Assam. Unlike in other parts of India, where the leadership was taken by old nobility and the dispossessed classes, the nobility here was so ruined and the traditional gentry so divided, that an organised leadership of these classes did not emerge spontaneously. As a result Maniram, a representative of the rising middle class and the section of the gentry association with him, found themselves completely isolated. Even amongst this class, unity of purpose was not much, attack could not be done on the British army as all the major moves were intercepted and all major leaders were arrested. Bhikom Singh, king Kandopeswar Singha, Piuoli Barua , Madhu Mullick, Dutiram Barua , Bahadur Gaonbura, Modhu Koch etc were arrested and sent to jails in various parts of India. Moniram Dewan and and Pioli Barua were hanged publicly on 26th February, 1858.
The failed Ahom gentry’ mutiny of 1857 in Assam had many of its characteristics —
1. This was the last resistance put forwarded by the decaying Ahom ruling class against the Britishers.
2. This rebellion marked the final end of Ahom rule in Assam
3. This rebellion integrated Assam with the pan India anti-British agitation – in many occasions the Light infantry from Bihar regiment came forward to be a part of this drive. Sepoys from the other parts of India posted in Assam sided with the rebel of Assam.
4. The event of 1857-58, however, have certain implication specific to the history of Assam. Unlike in other parts of India, where the leadership was taken by sepoys and old nobility and the dispossessed classes, the nobility here was so ruined and the traditional gentry so divided, that an organised leadership of these classes did not emerge spontaneously. As a result Maniram, a representative of the rising middle class and the section of the gentry association with him, found themselves completely isolated. Even amongst this class, unity of purpose was yet to come.
Third Phase of Agrarian Revolts from 1860-1900 :
The failure of 1857 abundantly made it clear that the conservative aristocratic nobles and feudal lords can’t liberate Assam from the clutches of British colonialism. It also brought to an end the possibility of revival of Ahom conservative aristocratic noble in Assam. The masses particularly the peasantry and the labour class was largely apathetic to such mobilisation. The exploitative nature of British ruling class was yet to be realised by the masses as the annexation of Assam by the British was projected as an effort to save Assam from anarchism and misrule of the Burmese and the decaying Ahom ruling class. The advent of British rule was rather initially welcomed in anticipation of order and peace in the society.
However from 1860 we witness a new mass upsurge against the British raj. From that perspective the agrarian and peasants movement form 1860-1900 can be said to be first mass based agitation and rebellion against the British Raj in Assam.
After 1857, the Britishers decided to increase their tax and revenue collection and for the first time the ryots were asked to pay their rent (Khajana) in cash which created insurmountable problems for the farmers and artisans. Fear of tax and rent prevented many farmers to go for regular cultivation. Initial phase of British rule in Assam was marked by chaos, lawlessness and tyranny. Robertson, the commissioner found “its inhabitants emigrating, its villages decaying and its revenue annually declining” . Rutherford observed –“the dreadful extortion had beggared the ryots and rendered a large portion of the country waste in which up to our conquest, such a thing as jungle was hardly to be seen”. Concerned only with taxation, the new government was totally indifferent to the improving of economy, in other words the extortion of then governments was increasing day by day. By 1870 as per the proposal of Commissioner Hopkins more than 100% Khajana was increased. By 1893 after survey was done throughout the state, the khajana was further increased. The new Assamese jamindari and administrative neo lower middle class played a subservient role to the exploitative mechanism of the British Raj. Gunabhi ram Barua gave detailed account how the Assamese administrative gentry tricked the ryots to collect revenue by all means.
The Jayantiya Rebellion (1860-63)
The first popular rising against the new taxation measures took place in the Jayantiya hills. When a house tax and a stamp duty were imposed on the people of the region in 1860, who till then were not accustomed to paying any kind of money tax, they rose in open rebellion. In its very early stage, the rising was suppressed with an iron hand, for which it could not attract wide attention. But trouble did not end there. The Khasi people of the region were roused to action once again when a licence tax was introduced shortly afterwards, and some of their tribal customs and usages like the use of ceremonial weapons in their tribal dances were interfered with by the Government.’ All the Khasis soon organised themselves under their respective chiefs and together they rose in revolt against the British. Though their weapons consisted of bows and arrows, their suppression was not easy and it was not till the end of 1863, that they could be finally quelled.
The first agrarian revolt against the Britishers is known as the Phuloguri Dhowa in 1861 immediate cause for which was the banning of the opium cultivation. Sensing a progressive tone of the move by the Britishers, various writings and intellectuals of Assam ignored the uprising. For example the Arunodoi—the first news Assamese news paper published at the initiative of Christian missionaries, caricatured the peasants. However there is huge sub text to the whole narrative which is ignored by the writings on the uprising.
Such measures of the Government severely tolled the economy of the peasants of Assam, particularly of Nowgong, which was the largest opium-producing district in Assam. Rumours, not entirely baseless, were afloat that soon cultivation of tamul (areca nut) and pan (betel vine) would also be made taxable. This led to an agitation, mainly amongst the tribal population (Lalungs) of the Phulaguri area, about 12 kilometers from the present town of Nowgong. In September, 1861, some 1500 ryots marched to the Sadar Court at Nowgong to protest against the ban on poppy cultivation and the contemplated imposition of tax on tamul and pan cultivation. Lt. Herbert Sconce, the Deputy Commissioner of Nowgong, who was used to deal with the ryots in a high-handed and provocative manner refused to hear their complaints.
In the subsequent standoff between the Ryots and the British 39 farmers were killed, many of them were injured, three persons were hanged, seven farmers were deported to koliapani, and sixty farmers were imprisoned for one to ten years. The episode is still remembered by the people of Assam as the Phulagurir Dhawa or the battle of Phulaguri. It may be noted here that the incident was not merely a regular battle between an agitating crowd and an armed force of the Government for prohibition of opium cultivation; it was the earliest of the spontaneous popular movements in Assam against the policy of colonial exploitation.
It would be wrong to think the Britishers had banned opium cultivation thinking about the wellbeing of the people in the state. Assam was identified to be a huge market for opium which was brought from the opium trade of northern parts of India (of 1851-1852). The British government sold opium at an exorbitant price and any production in the state would have reduced the cost resulting loss in the British coffer.
The Assam Riots (1893-94)
But it did not stop the enhancement of revenue, or the supply of government opium. It had also strengthened its police force to create a sense of fear among the restless ryots. In 1868-69, the Government had increased the rates of revenue on rupit and non-rupit lands in the Assam valley districts from 25 to 50 p.c., so that the land revenue which amounted to Rs. 1001,773 in l864-65 rose to Rs. 2165,157 in l872-73.
The people, particularly, in the district of Darrang and Kamrup, reacted through their rarjmels. The people of Lakhimpur resorted to a novel way of protest. They surrendered so much of their land that only 26 p.c. of the enhanced assessment could be collected. In every place, the protests of the ryots were suppressed by a show of force, so that holding of raij-mels had to be given up by them. The people then used to gather in the Namghars or Mosques to discuss new ways of protesting the enhanced assessment. Yet they were not prepared to launch a struggle; they were only biding time to gain a better understanding of the modes of their adversary. But when they again found the government ruthlessly imposing higher rates of assessment, they rose in rebellion towards the close of the century. Thus broke out a series of protests known as “Assam Riots”, beginning with December 1893 when Sir William Ward, the Chief Commissioner of Assam made a new assessment and increased land revenue to 70-80 p.c. and in some cases even to 100 p.c. The people of Rangia and Lachima in Kamrup and Patharughat in Darrang launched thereupon a no-tax campaign declaring excommunication to be the penalty for anyone who disobeyed the raij (people). These risings, however, were not merely against the British but also against the Marwari traders, monopolising the internal trade of Assam and exploiting the peasants through usury.
The movement at Rangia started with the looting of the Rangia bazar on the morning of 24 December 1893. Raij-mels in Nalbari, Barama, Bajali and other places continued to be as active as before.
On January 21, 1894, a mouzader and a mandal were severely assaulted at a village called Kapla near Lachima in the Sarukhetri mouza of the Kamrup district. They went to that place for collection of revenue. The mouzadar died a few days afterwards. Seventy five persons were arrested in this connection but a mob forcibly forced their release.
There was a similar movement at Patharughat in the district of Darrang in January 1894. Since the middle of that month, the ryots through their mels not only protested against the increased rates of revenue but also resisted those who would be paying revenues to the Government. To deal with the situation, J.D. Anderson, the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang, himself arrived at Patharughat on 27th January with a party of military police under Lt. Berrington. Next morning about 2,000 ryots assembled in front of the rest-house where Anderson was encamping to lodge their protest against the enhanced rates of assessment. Anderson asked them to disperse but the people would not listen. Instead, they began to throw sticks and clods of earth to Anderson. Berrington then ordered to open fire, which brought death to fifteen and severe injury to many ryots.
Fourth Phase of Formation of National Consciousness (1852-1920) :
The Assamese sense of belonging was based on a signification literary movement of the second half of the 19th century. British colonial officials in 1836, a decade after the takeover of Assam had decided that the language of rule in Assam would be Bengali. The earliest assertions of Assamese cultural pride – grew as a reaction to that decision. Reaction to such imposition was twofold. The middle class intelligentsia `strongly reacted to such a move by Britishers and secondly, a renaissance of Assamese society took place where the literary movement launched by the Assamese elites played the most dominant role. Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan Petitioned to Moffat Mills in 1852 against instruction in the “vernacular schools” being imparted in the foreign language” that is Bengali. According to Prof Amaledu Guha, “His contribution to early nationalist ideology apart, Dhekiya Phukaom also gave vent to Assamese national pride”. Dhekiyal Phukan reminded the Government that the Assamese were no way “inferior in their intellectual capacities to any other Indian Nation”. Through the literary movement, the educated Assamese middle class not only strengthened the Assamese language but also tried to instil new progressive ideas to the people.
It was only after 1st World war that a distinct national consciousness, backed-up by political organizations began to take shape. Before this, the struggle for legitimate status of the Assamese language, which was replaced in 1837 by Bengali had begun. Ananda Ram (1829-59) Dhekiyal Phukan and the American Christian missionarises, who in the meantime were writing grammars and dictionaries of Assamese played a decisive role in the establishment of the language. According to Prof Maheswar Neog, the Christian missionaries by publishing Assamese grammar, News papers, dictionary, school and other science and literature books have immensely contributed for the growth Assamese language and literature. By publishing ‘Arunodoi’ for a period of thirty seven years the Missionaries had created a new bunch of Assamese nationalist writers and thus instilled confidence in the ambit of sagging morale which was created by the replacement of Assamese by Bengali as the court language.
The Assamese language gained its legitimate status in year 1873. Ananda Ram Barua along with Gunabhiram and Hem Chandra Barua generated a linguistic consciousness and generated love for their own language. The establishment of the Asamiya Bhasa Unnati Sadhini Sabha (ABUSS) or Assamese Language improving society on 25 August, 1888 by a few Assamese students in Calcutta is a landmark in the history of Assamese language and literature.
The Assam Association in 1903 marks a significant step in the growth of Assamese nationalism. The Association served as the mouth piece of the Assamese middle class in articulating their needs, grievances and aspirations. The Association was instrumental in organizing the new generation to fight against the Britishers. The first student organization of the valley Assam Chatra Sanmilan came into existence in 1916, and L.N. Bezbarua was chosen as the president. Soon after the Assam Sahitya Sabha was established in 1917, which was considered to be linchpin of nationalism in Assam.
One distinguishing feature during this period was the growing settlement of Muslim population in Assam. Thus on the one hand the Assamese middle class had to face stiff competition from educated Bengali middle class patronized by the Britishers and secondly the elites were highly apprehensive about the increasing migrant population. Throughout this period the Bengalis outnumbered the Assamese both in numbers and representation in Government services, profession and business. On the one hand both the groups had fought against the common enemy of British imperialism; they also fought against each other for jobs, land and domination.
The Assamese middle class in the period of 1920s became highly apprehensive about the continuous immigration of East Bengal people to the region. The most worrying for the middle class was ‘that these immigrants would in due course, further tilt the provinces’ demographic, cultural and political balance in favour of the Bengalis’. Muslim immigration from Bengal began to be viewed as a calculated move to turn Assam into a Muslim majority province, so that she could qualify herself for inclusion into the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Prof. Amalendu Guha gives a very detailed account about the problem in his serial work planter Raj to Swaraj — “ Landless immigrants from overpopulated East Bengal – of them, 85% were Muslims – found land in Assam’s water logged, Jungle infested, river-rine belt . Used to an amphibious mode of living and industrious, these immigrants came by rail, streamers and bits up the Brahmaputra to reclaim those malarial areas. All that they wanted was land. From their riverine base, they further pressed themselves forward in all directions in search of living space in the areas held by the autochthons. It was then that an open clash of interests began to take place….”.
All these organizations and west educated middle class leaders like Lakshminath Bezbarua, Jananath Bora, Kamalakanta Bhattacharyya, Ambikagiri Roy Choudhury, Chandranath Sharma and others contributed immensely to the growth of Assamese nationalism. Thus the search for a cohesive Assamese identity went along with Pan Indian nationalism. However, in some cases the regional brand of nationalism overshadowed Pan Indian nationalism.
The formulation Assam province varied from an independent, separate nation to the autonomies self reliant state. For example Kamalakanta Bhattacharyya (1855-1936), editor of the Journal Assam Hitashi advocated for an independent, self-reliant nation. Two important issues that had helped in the Assamese nationalism is the restoration of the language and secondly the sense of insecurity which primarily emanated from unchecked infiltration from West Bengal. “The fear of being inundated and overtaken by “stronger” nationalities was attempted to be confronted by stress on separate identity of Assamese people which could be ensured through economic progresses & cultural advancement”.
Meanwhile the movement for driving out the Britishers had already started in Assam. The members of Assam Association formed Assam provincial congress committee (APCC) in order to contribute to the national efforts. Ambikagiri Rai Choudhury, a notable writer, poet & a nationalist, however did not allow Assamese nationalism to be merged into Indian nationalism. Roychoudhury clearly distinguished `Asamiya Swaraj’ from `Bharatiya Swaraj’ and argued that the `Swaraj’ for India might not bring Swaraj for Assam.
The Assamese elite conceived of nationalism not so much in the larger Indian context as it was in the context of Assam. They talked more aggressively about Assamese nationalism and less of Indian nationalism. The appearance of newspapers and periodicals such as the Arunoday (1846) the Assam Bilashini (1871), the Jonaki (1889), the Bijulee (1890) the Assamiya (1918) the Times of Assam (1923) the Bonti (1927) the Avahan (1929), the Assam Tribune (1937) to mention the more important one, had made immense contribution in the growth of Asomiya nationalism.“The rise in the level of political consciousness of the people was reflected in the articulation of regional demands which included rights of “Sons of the soil” and safeguard against unchecked and unlimited immigration from nearly provinces” -says Prof. Mishra.
Assamese press during this period can be divided into two categories – a) nationalist press tilted more towards Indian nationalism and b) News papers more leaning towards the cause of Assam and the Assamese than Indian nationalism. Papers like Assam Bilasini ( 1913-1924), Weekly Asamiya (1918-1947), Bi-weekly Asamiya (1930-1942), and Assam Sevak ( 1937-1943) would fall into the first category and used to suffer at the hands of the British administration for their support to the Nationalist struggle.
Prof. Sunil Pawan Baruah who had written the pioneering book ‘Press in Assam: Origin and Development’ said in one of his writings — “…it is to be remembered that notion of nationalism of most of the News papers of Brahmaputra valley was different from the concept of nationalism as understood by the country …..In fact some sort of uneasiness and apprehension of economic and cultural domination by the outsider’s influenced to a certain extent, the tone of the Assamese press in the pre-independence period and even after independence, this attitude prevailed…” . Chetona ( 1919-1927), Deka Asom ( (1935) and Dainik Batori (1935) were a few papers that would fall into second category (B) that we have mentioned above. The first daily News paper of Assam, Dainik Batori (1935), didn’t support the Non-cooperation movement initiated by the Congress.
Intellectuals like Ambikagiri Roy Choudhury, Jnananath Bora, Chandra Nath Sharma were under the apprehension that British domination might be replaced by the domination of non-Assamese Indians over the Assamese. Ambika Roy Choudhury continuously emphasized on the need of developing national consciousness. It was at the insistence of Roy Choudhury that in 1926 the Asom Sangrakhini Sabha, later known as Asom Jatiya Mahasabha was established to protect the interest of the Assamese. Ambikagiri’s idea about the India and other smaller nationalities can be grasped from the following excerpts:-
“India is not a country; it is a continent – a totality of many countries. According to their own social systems, customs everyone is a nationality – and as a result of combination of all these nationalities is growing the great Indian Mahajati – therefore India is the Mahadesh of the Indian Mahajati. Though the people of various provinces may be of same ideology yet they have distinct customs, dresses, eating habits, social norms and distinct natures, system of thoughts are different literature and culture are different. None of them want to disappear.”
“He viewed India as not one nation but as a combination of nationalities who aspire to protect their identities within the Indian Mahajati.” .
Final Phase of resistance against the Raj & Congress –1945—1947 : Cabinet Mission and Grouping System :
Assam was not only fighting against the British imperialism, then undivided Assam was also fighting against the insensitive attitude of the central Congress Leadership. Assam had continuously fought for keeping its distinctiveness against the divisive plan of making Assam a part of East Pakistan.
A search for a cohesive Assamese identity went along with Pan Indian nationalism. Following trends of Assamese nationalism were noticeable during the time of nationalist struggle from 1830-1947—
1. Fight against the domination by another regional group, i.e. the Bengali. This was done in a subtle manner by persuading the Britishers to accept the Assamese as distinct language. The attempt was to assert Assamese language and literature.
2. The second trend was a pan Indian identity which the congress leaders were successful to establish with the help of anti-British nationalist struggle that had engulfed the entire nation.
3. The third trend was a more inward looking that tried to fiercely protect Assamese identity from the aggression of immigrants from East Bengal. These groups of leaders were highly critical about the insensitive attitude of Congress leaders towards Assam. A few nationalist leaders even tried to establish Assam as in independent Sovereign State, if Assam’s interest is not protected within the Indian Union.
Assam’s fight with the center remained the core of her politics even before the attainment of the independence. In its early period of formation, the Indian Political leaders were in a hurry to form the Indian Nation-State. In the process feelings and grievances of some of the communities living in the periphery remained unanswered. The Indian ruling elites had shown great insensitivity and nonchalance to some of the fundamental questions of Assam. The upcoming generations, and the regional ruling elites have nurtured these feelings of the centre and in later period, extremist groups like ULFA & others utilized them for gaining legitimacy to their anti-Indian stand and advocate secessionism.
One of the significant aspect of 1942 Quit India movement was the overwhelming participation of the people and various political groups, cutting across the ideological differences. “The people resistance in the face of massive repression proved finally that they were with the congress and its brand of politics.”
On 16 May 1946, the Cabinet Mission declared its statement, the most important features of which were that it recommended for the unity of India, a three-tier constitution-the centre, groups and provinces and an interim Government with the support of the major political parties till the constitution was complete. To expedite the composition of the constitution making body, the Mission suggested the inclusion of representatives from the recently elected provincial Legislative Assemblies. Each province was to be allotted a total number of seats proportional to its population, approximating a ratio of one to a million. The population was divided into three major communities, general, Muslim and Sikh, which were to have equal representation. The representatives would be divided into three sections, A, B, and C. Bengal and Assam were included in section C.
As soon as the statement was declared by the Cabinet Mission there was sharp reaction in Assam against the group¬ing clause which had tagged the province with Bengal in section C to frame the group and provincial constitutions.
The Grouping system divided the provinces of the India into three sections of A, B and C. Sections B and C comprised of six Muslim dominated provinces. Section C was to consist of Bengal and Assam.
Nirode Kr. Barooah in his seminal work says – “The problem with Assam was that since this Hindu- majority province would be together with the Muslim predominated Bengal in one section. The acceptance of the Section would automatically mean opting for the group and getting thereby submerged in Bengal. In fact there can be no doubt that the grouping provision was especially made to be an essential feature of the Cabinet Mission plan to satisfy the Muslim League.”
The imposing nonchalant and insensitive attitude of the central leaders greatly disheartened the Assamese leaders, needless to say such mental set-up of all India Political leaders continued even in the period of sixties and seventies – causing an unbridgeable gap between the centre and Assam. Leaders like Gopinath Bardoloi, Bishnuram Medhi, Bimala P.Chaliha and others could not think of initiating drastic steps against the centre as these leaders had tremendous faith and respect for Nehru and their comrades in freedom struggle who now happen to be holding important posts in the central ministry. Unfortunately, legacy of freedom struggle was no longer romantically imbibed by the third generation regional ruling elites and hence developed a strong sceptical view about the centre.
“Thus, for the Assam Congress leaders, the 16 May (1946) statement became almost like a call for another struggle for independence and this time also against their own big brothers at the centre.
Nehru went to the extent of suggesting that the Assam Assembly adopt a resolution refusing to sit in the Group and a clear directive be given to the Assam representatives to the Constituent Assembly in this regard. Sardar Patel too expressed his solidarity in favour of Assam Congress and he fully backed Assam’s stand. Finally, when the Assam delegation met Gandhi, he categorically told them to stay out of the Group. The Congress Working Committee headed by Azad expressed its support for Assam’s stand and endorsed Nehru’s suggestion regarding a resolution by the Assam Assembly. But surprisingly, when Azad and Nehru met the Cabinet Mission on 10 June, 1946, they did not raise the issue of Assam’s objection to the Group.
It was at this moment of grave crisis that Gandhi came to Assam’s assistance and told a delegation of Assam Congress leaders ………. “If Assam keeps quiet it is finished. No one can force Assam to do what it does not want to do. It must stand independently as an autonomous unit. It is autonomous to a large extent today. It must become fully independent and autonomous……. As soon as the time comes for the Constituent Assembly to go into sections you will say, `Gentlemen, Assam retires’.
Azad and Nehru, however, continued to hold the view that Assam’s stand was helping the Muslim League and also acting as an obstruction to freedom. Nehru is reported to have told a three-member delegation from Bengal, which asked him as to why Assam was being let down after being given such high hopes by him, “Assam could not hold up the progress of the rest of India and support to Assam would mean refusal to accept the British Prime Minister’s statement of December 6 and letting loose forces of chaos and civil was” (Transfer of power: IX,510).
Assam’s contribution to the freedom struggle of India goes back to the period 1828 and in the year 1830 two Assamese were hanged by the Britishers for raising armed rebellion. They may not be the first ones to have laid lives for the ouster of the British Raj, but their contribution had hardly been recognised. In addition the first woman martyr from Assam Mangri Orang elias Malati Mem who was killed in the year 1921. ‘Who’s who the Indian martyrs’ published by the GOI in 1969 mentions only four martyrs from Assam. In another book – “Woman in the Indian Freedom Struggle’ published by National Archive of India has not mentioned a single woman rebel from the state. Some of the woman rebel who laid their lives were — Konoklata Barua (died in 1942), Mangri Orang ( 1921), Kumoli Devi ( 1942) Tileswari Barua ( 1942—died at the age of 12 years –perhaps the youngest woman martyr in the history of India ), Khouholi Devi (1942) , Tileswri Koch, Konika Devi ( 1942). Freedom struggle in the region was not only a movement against the Britishers, there were also multiple movements utilised by the smaller nationalities to find their place in future independent India. In the pre-Gandhian phase, the aristocratic novelty fought against the Britishers for losing their domination and class interest. During the agrarian phase, the farmers not only fought against the exploitative British ruling class but also against the cohort of Indian officials of British regime. During Gandhian phase, Assam’s participation in the freedom struggle was comprehensive, nevertheless the Assamese middle class not only fought against the Britishers but also against the hegemony of Bengali middle class who effectively replaced Assamese as the official language. Bengali domination has perennially created a fear psychosis among the natives of the state. Since then, the protection of linguistic identity remains the core of Assamese nationalism the manifestation of which is felt even today.
(This paper was presented by Prof. Nani G. Mahanta, Professor of Political Science, GAuhati University at the national seminar on “Revisiting Indian Independence Movement” organised by India Foundation at New Delhi on 18th March, 2017.)
(This article is carried in the July-August 2017 issue of India Foundation Journal.)