The British initially, as mentioned earlier, retained Lower Assam only, as it was deemed profitable from a revenue point of view. David Scott, Assam’s first British administrator willed to restore Upper Assam (the eastern portion of the state as opposed to lower Assam, i.e. the western part) to the Ahom descendent, Purandar Singha, on the payment of a tribute. However, his successor, Major Francis Jenkins vehemently opposed this idea and brought Upper Assam into British hands by 1836. It was a momentous decision, as it saw the entry of “commodity capitalist structures” into Assam. As Jayeeta Sharma remarks, “While the original conquest of Assam can certainly be understood in terms of P.J. Marshall’s theory that East India company’s expansion usually occurred in a piecemeal and haphazard manner, driven on by short-term opportunism of the men on the spot, the future character of British rule would be determined by the newly discovered prospects for Assam’s economy”. There are two main events which would contextualise the annexation rather than Jenkin’s justification of “misgovernance”. The first is the Charter act of 1833 which allowed British settlers to take up land ownership in Assam “to offer a better prospect for the speedy realisation of improvement than any measures that could be adopted in the present ignorant and demoralised state of native inhabitants”. And the second is the discovery of a wild plant in Upper Assam which is quite similar to the Chinese tea plant. Immediately, the “profitless, primeval jungle” transformed into the possibility of a “smiling cultivation” (Sharma). However, the construction of this Planter’s Raj along with the introduction of British administration created a number of significant changes in the province in geographical, economic, linguistic, demographic and cultural terms.
The first change was that Assam was redrawn to be a political frontier of India’s North-East, completely opposed to its “historical positioning at the cultural and ecological crossroads of South and South East Asia”. The British also emphasized upon “control” and “encroachment” of the surrounding “numerous, savage and warlike tribes”. The Ahom kings had a much looser relationship with the hill tribes based upon barter, trade, gift and tribute ties. The British view of these tribes as the “marauders” led to the policy of segregation and containment, often through incorporations of these regions within the province of Assam. This binary construction of the Ahoms and the hill tribes as “Assam sovereigns and their savage neighbours” led to the formation of strict boundaries between the plains and the hills (Sharma). It is needless to speak about the adverse effects of this demarcation which we see right to this day in the separatist demands of different tribes from North-East India.
Such a policy is the result of what Jayeeta Sharma calls as the “ethnographic imaginings of non-western people ...(as a) part of the processes by which British colonialism ordered and separated groups into tribes and castes within a discursive framework built around ideas about savages and primitives, and about hunting, pastoralism, agriculture and commerce”. Obviously, the Scottish enlightenment theorists’ influence moulded the company servants to follow such policies. Later, by the beginning of the twentieth century, after the introduction of the inner line system in 1873, the hill tribes were thought to be pacified enough to be regarded as “noble savages”. However, by then, “a situation emerged whereby the Assam plains began to be regarded as an extension of a larger Indic schema, while the hills were constructed as an externality”. Colonial separatist policies served to break the intersection that Assam was between Indic and Sinic worlds to its west and east. Despite the entry of Sanskritic cultural and political ingredients, the Ahom rulers never quite lost sight of the cultural motifs of their Thai ancestors. But after the colonial ethnographic redrawing of boundaries, caste Assamese Hindus, Muslims and Sikh groups started claiming affinity with “Indic ritual status and territorial affiliation. As Jayeeta Sharma opines, the Orientalist theories of “Aryan” and “non-Aryan” were used to construct a rigid boundary between “caste” and “tribe” populations, as descendents of the “Aryans” settled amongst Mongoloid races. The result was the numerous agitations which have peppered the North-Eastern states and are continuing till this date. Even the decolonization of India in the last half-century hasn’t been able to reverse the impact of British colonial policies. Mongoloid races from the hill tribes of the North-East are still looked at as the ‘subnational’ (Baruah 5) ‘other’ within a primarily Aryan dominated nation-state. It remains to be seen if the “Look East” policy of the present day administrative set-up can do something to re-establish the connections severed in the past, first by British imperialism and then perpetuated by the new nation-states in Asia (Sharma).
Colonial engineering was supposed to regenerate and lift the stagnant and backward state which was completely within the feudal fold, a system which consolidated itself under the Ahoms. By the eighteenth century, the “economic and social contradictions” resulted in a civil war between the Moamarias and the Ahom kings (Guha 84). However, the merchant capital had hardly developed like in the other parts of India. Surplus extraction was the form of revenue being collected with a very negligible presence of merchant and usury capital. There was no land tax and the nobility had “khels” or “parganas” under their control in which they collected revenue in kind. The people of the land were divided into “gots” consisting of three or four “paiks” each. The paiks were called upon to work as soldiers, labourers or cultivators. The state flourished within this system and it was a common saying that for the people in Assam “akalu nai, bhoralu nai” (neither is there famine, nor plenty). A British official, Lt. Rutherford acknowledges this fact. “There is not a doubt that Assam until the arrival of the Burmese was in a most flourishing state and we could not afford the same system”. And since they could not afford the same system, they introduced a new system based on direct money taxation coupled with elected representatives called Choudhuries who were responsible for collecting the revenue. But this move by David Scott to introduce money-economy to the region backfired because of the atrocities committed by the Choudhuries who had both judicial and police authority (Lahiri 237). They extorted the ryots i.e. the peasants under them mercilessly. That, coupled with the inexperience of the natives regarding the use of money along with the scarcity of genuine coins forced the peasants to migrate from one waste land to another, as it was not required to pay any revenue for the first three years after settling on waste lands. Others fled to inhospitable Bhutan. In a narrative left by Captain Boyle regarding the state of affairs, he writes, “The system hitherto adopted has been hateful in the extreme and that its direct tendency has been to reduce the ryots to a state of poverty and dejection of the most distressing nature and to enrich a few worthless beings at the expense of the whole population of the country” And he continues later, “the inhabitants instead of finding in the British Government a power which would protect them in the enjoyment of their hearths and homes, have fled by hundreds in all directions not only to the neighbouring zemindaries of Bengal but what is much more painful to contemplate, to the lawless regions of Bhutan” (qtd. in. Lahiri 231).
It was not as if David Scott was sitting idle all these days from 1826 to 1832. He kept reporting the state of affairs to the Company headquarters but the board of directors did not find reasons enough to really incur anymore expenditure in the unprofitable region. Scott required more administrators and he did not get them, and the author of History of Assam, Sir Edward Gait plainly acknowledges the fact in his book (Gait 278). The question of permanent control over the entire province was yet to be decided. Actually, the presence of tea was already detected in 1823 by Mr. Robert Bruce. But it could not be decided until 1832 whether cultivation would be economically viable, as the species was different from the already established Chinese tea plant. However, the economic profitability of the industry was certain by 1833 and the Company decided to go forward with tea cultivation in the state. Permanent control was put in place and Upper Assam was also brought under British rule. Mr. Robertson and then Captain Jenkins succeeded David Scott, who breathed his last in August 1831, as the Commissioners of the state (Gait 333). They abolished the “Choudree” system replacing it by the ryotwari system which helped a lot in the rehabilitation of the peasants who had fled the atrocities of the Choudhuries. A system of European control and inspection was introduced. Land was distributed “under the guarantee of Pattas (title deeds) countersigned by the collector and a great number of Europeans was appointed to run the administration” (Lahiri 237).
The changes did regenerate the economy for the cultivating classes, but trouble loomed on the side of the erstwhile aristocracy, who were impoverished because of the abolition of the Paik system. They had to now either “sink to the level of ordinary cultivators” or take up administrative white collar jobs under the British Government (Gait 286). There was also the prospect of becoming tea planters, but colonial policies made it a Herculean task. The Charter granted to the East India Company in 1833 allowed Europeans, for the first time to hold land outside the Presidency towns on a long term lease or with freehold rights. That paved the path for a colonial plantation economy. Francis Jenkins, in 1833 had already advocated the settlement of Englishmen of capital on Assam’s waste lands. He thought that a scheme of colonization “offered a better prospect for the speedy realization of improvement than any measures that could be adopted in the present ignorant and demoralized state of native inhabitants”. The scheme caught the fancy of the board of directors in Calcutta. Meanwhile, the prospects of cultivation of tea were gradually improving with the formation of the Tea committee in early 1834, the starting of the Government Experimental Tea Gardens and the first successful manufacture of Assam tea in December, 1837. The Assam Company was started in 1839 and in the next year it acquired two thirds of the Government Experimental Gardens, rent free for the initial years. A special set of rules called the Wasteland Rules of 1838 were framed to make wastelands available for cultivation on attractive terms. Wasteland was offered on lease for forty five years with a lot of concessional grants. Indigenous aspirants were not discriminated against as such, but the rules were framed in such a manner that they were excluded from any concessions (Guha, Planter 7-12). Under the rules, one-fourth of the land could be enjoyed tax-free for life and the remaining land would also be tax-free from five years to twenty five depending upon the productivity of the soil. British planters acquired almost seven lakh acres of tax free land in Assam, while indigenous planters had to pay revenue of two to three rupees per acre. Maniram Dewan, a prominent figure in the struggle against the Raj during the 1857 mutiny was one of those who had to suffer because of British discriminatory policies. He succeeded in acquiring two tea gardens, but they were not on wastelands and therefore had to pay very high rates of land revenue. This policy of excluding indigenous tea planters resulted in very few native takers of the gardens when they were for sale later and thus most of the gardens went into the hands of industrialists from other states of India (Misra 50-52).
Maniram Dewan was a member of the erstwhile nobility class who lost their privileges after the abolition of slavery in 1843. But he was one of the rising Assamese middle class who were to take over the cudgels of leadership in the coming years. Anandaram Dhekial Phukan (1829-1859) also was one of them. While Dewan had turned extremist and took an anti-British stand, Phukan, from an enlightened Brahmin land-owner family and educated in the Hindu College of Calcutta, believed in the “regenerative role of British rule” and served the Government till his death (Guha, Planter 16-21). Both had submitted memorials to A.J. Moffat Mills, but considering the opposite trends of their political consciousness, we need to analyse the rise of the middle class from both points of view. The British have affirmed their rule over the province and have manipulated the policies to help them in their economic exploitation. Resistance wasn’t much except from some noblemen who had lost their positions. However, Dewan and Phukan symbolized the growth of the sub-national Assamese identity, something which was going to affect the future of the state in a way that continues till this day, unabated. That, along with the language debate, will form the next part of this paper.
Assam was in a state of waste when the British entered the state. The erstwhile feudal nobility was already plagued by infighting and the Burmese invasion and consequently was in no position to rescue the state from the consequences of feudal decay. It is no surprise that the new Assamese elite would welcome the return of law and order and the “benefits”of British rule. Anandaram Dhekial Phukan, one of the early leaders of the Assamese elite, had written,
No greater benefit could accrue to the people of this country than the deliverance from the Burmese invaders whose barbarous and inhuman policy depopulated the country and destroyed more than half the population, which had already been thinned by intestine commotions and repeated civil wars (qtd. in. Gohain 5).
This was the kind of support that the British got from the new Assamese elite. Interestingly, however, this new middle class was not formed out of the ranks of the erstwhile nobility. The advantages of British modes of employment, education and trade now were “cornered by caste Hindus who had served the former rulers as their clerks and bureaucrats”. The decline of this Ahom nobility was because of the abolition of slavery and forced labour by the British (Gohain 5). The Imperial Gazetteer of India remark of 1909 proves the point,
The native gentry were, however, impoverished by the abolition of the offices they had formerly enjoyed and by the liberation of their slaves, and they had some grounds for feeling discontented with the British rule (qtd. in. Gohain 14-15).
The two directions the new Assamese middle class was to take gets clear from this remark. Maniram Dewan’s rise and fall is an example of the other side of the rising Assamese middle class. A friend to the British in the beginning, Maniram worked as a Dewan in the Assam tea company. However, being an independent spirited person, he went on to start two tea-estates of his own. His venture was a success while the ones of the British weren’t. Immediately, Maniram was burdened with a revenue assessment which was increased manifold. Obviously, colonial policies determined that whoever might turn out to be better than the British had to be eliminated through justifiable means. Maniram was later hanged by the British, as he was found plotting against the colonizers along with the successor of the former ruling house. The British Magistrate who hanged him, exemplified the vindictive British attitude by declaring: “Hanging first, trial afterwards” (qtd. in. Gohain 6).The uprising was brutally suppressed, and the Assamese middle class wasn’t going to try anything rebellious until the days of the Non Co-operation (Gohain 5-6).
Maniram Dewan had pleaded for the restoration of monarchy in his memorials to Moffat Mills. He also resented the loss of privileges incurred by the Ahom nobility and protested the employment of Sylhet Bengalis and Marwaris when a “number of respectable Assamese were already out of employ”. He was also against the new form of taxation, the treatment of the hill tribes, the sale of abkari opium as well as the discontinuing the puja at Kamakhya. However, he did welcome the abolition of slavery and punishment through mutilation. His demands obviously were revivalist in nature, betraying the orthodoxy of the old feudal nobility. Nonetheless, even if he might not be progressive enough to launch an adequate struggle against the British, his role in the 1857 revolt places him in the people’s imagination as the staunch anti-imperialist and he lives in the folk songs and patriotic literature of Assam (Guha, Planter 16-17).
Anandaram Dhekial Phukan on the other hand was a product of the modern age of enlightenment who considered the British occupation as the best thing to happen for the rise of the state’s fortune. He was influenced by the reforms of Peter the Great and advocated the rise of modern science, trade and commerce and the elimination of superstition. His Few Remarks on the Assamese Language was to become a very important document in the sub-national feelings of the Assamese middle class, which is later elaborated in the section devoted to the language debate. But, on the whole he was a British supporter and worked in a position as high as Sub-Assistant Commissioner. Moffat Mills, who was quite irritated with Maniram’s memorandum, was quite impressed by Phukan’s memorandum which had schemes of improvement but did not ask the British to hand over the reins of rule. Another person who followed the line of Phukan was Hemchandra Barua, though the later was far more radical, being an atheist and one who refused high posts under the British. His unorthodox ways shocked the people so much that people hesitated to cremate his body in the traditional Hindu manner after his death. He was the editor of the first English newspaper in Assam, Assam News (1882) and also wrote the first scientific dictionary of the Assamese language, tracing the etymological roots of the Assamese words. However, even Baruah was not adverse to British rule which he saw primarily to be an agent of peace and progress. This class of the Assamese middle class is strongly reminiscent of the Bengali Bhadralok who are from the ranks of caste Hindus rather than the nobility, who have the support of western education, are free from superstitions and yet are attached to traditional mores and cultivation of vernacular literature, and yet are not strongly opposed to British rule because of the land holdings facilitated by the British and the administrative jobs under the rulers. The Assamese middle class was a complete child of British administration, even more than his Bengali counterpart. But a proper development of a trading class never took place, because of which the Assamese middle class never had economic power and had to give up economic privileges to the people coming from other states, especially Marwaris and Bengalis. This, along with the affiliation with a nobility class made the Assamese middle class highly reactionary, the effect which could be seen in the Assam Agitation of 1979-85 and the subsequent rise of militant organizations like ULFA.
The rise of the middle class co-incided with another aspect which was to become one of the most important factors of the rise of Assamese sub-national chauvinism. It was the language debate. The middle class was entirely dependent upon the white collar sector under the British. But, they found a new competitor, and a strong one at that, for these jobs. They were absolutely dominated by the Bengalis whose inflow had started right with the annexation of Assam. Armed with the impact of the Bengali renaissance which had already happened in Bengal, the migrant population started taking up the jobs being offered by the British administration. In April 1831, Bengali was made the language of the court, and soon these Bengali settlers made the judicial and revenue departments their sole preserve. They were also required for teaching purposes in the government schools as there were very few local teachers who could teach in Bengali, which had since been made the medium of instruction as well (Nag 41-45). The Assamese were given the jobs based on their family lineages as compared to the Bengalis who got them because of their English education. The Assamese were also crippled by some stereotyped ethnographic opinion by British authorities. Henry Hopkinson says in a letter to the secretary, Government of India ,
I used the phrase ‘very inefficient’ in a comparative sense to express my opinion that the native of Assam as a body is inferior to those in other parts of India; . . . the Assamese cannot be expected to go more than a certain level of efficiency which their whole race is capable only . . . there is nothing an Assamese can do or will do that cannot be got much better done elsewhere. (qtd. in. Nag 45)
Finally, in 1838, Bengali was made the official language of Assam.
When Jenkins was made the Commissioner of Assam, he found that most of the bureaucratic jobs were in the hands of the Bengalis who had mostly accompanied David Scott. These functionaries did not understand any language other than their own, and it was a natural step that Bengali was made the first language in the offices and schools of Assam. The Bengali policy was what Jenkins would write, something which will prove “expedient under every circumstance for the gradual amalgamation of the people with our subjects in Bengal” (Nag 51). To convey education in Assamese was considered “ruinous” to the Assamese population, while education in Bengali was supposed to enlighten the Assamese population. A letter by Jenkins illuminates the British policy:
All the elementary and preliminary step towards the education of Bengalis have been successfully overcome . . . There are vast numbers of educated individuals who have made themselves masters of the western world, the means of pushing forward their intellectual improvement at almost an equal pace with the most favoured countries of Europe. They are in fact independent of foreign aid and nothing could impede or prevent the full development of the native mind . . . it must be equally our policy and the duty of the government of India, by all means in its power to assimilate the many nations and tribes under our rule into one people and if the early introduction of Bengali in this lately conquered province of Assam would be in any degree productive of blending the people of Assam with the people of our earlier acquired provinces and of civilization, I think the Government have course to rejoice at the chance of necessity which made Mr. Scott, Mr. Robertson adopt Bengali as the official language of our courts (qtd. in. Nag 51-52).
This language policy was fervently opposed by the Assamese middle class, especially because it restricted their options for education and jobs in a Bengali dominated scenario. They found a most unlikely ally in the American Baptist Missionaries, for whom the introduction of Bengali as the state language proved to be a stumbling block in their proselytising work. Therefore, they took up the task to establish a separate identity for the Assamese language. The influences of missionaries like Nathan Brown and Miles Bronson led Moffat Mills to make strong statements on the language question as he questions the viability of the continuation of Bengali as a state language when there were already enough Assamese youths ready for employment but being barred by a language which is different from their mother-tongue (Nag 52-53). The missionaries also found support from the rising educated Assamese middle class youth, especially Anandaram Dhekial Phukan who complained in his memoir to Moffat Mills that the primary textbooks being in a different tongue had few takers He wrote strongly, “. . . the reason assigned for the substitution of the vernacular is that Bengali is the language adopted in the court as if the object were to make the Assamese a nation of judicial officers” (qtd. in. Nag 53). In 1854, the debate was given a new turn by William Robinson who opined that Assamese was a mere dialect of the Bengali language. It was now to the supporters of Assamese language to prove an identity of their own. Dhekial Phukan then came up with his Few Remarks on the Assamese Language, published by the Baptist Missionary Press, Sibsagar, and was distributed free to the British officials. He countered the idea that the Assamese had no literature of their own by providing a list of works in ancient Assamese literature, “sixty two religious works and Puranas and over forty dramas based on events from the celebrated epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana”. The struggle went on for over quite a long time and despite the strong resistance from Henry Hopkinson, the next commissioner, Assamese was finally given its due in 1873 (Nag 52-59).
Though the job was done for the time being, the polarisation between the Assamese and the ‘outsiders’ had already happened and the nascent subnational feelings were waking up in the Assamese. By the time of the mutiny, the Assamese middle class was put into shape to take over the reins of leadership. But the fact remains that British policies were responsible for a lot of troubles that Assam and the other North-Eastern states were to witness, both before and after independence. In the name of development, the British had set the stage for an imperilled frontier that is still troubling the homogenization of India as a nation-state.
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