Volume 23 - Issue 24 :: Dec. 02-15, 2006
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Assamese identity

The Assamese too had to overcome regional conflicts before attaining homogeneity.

I HAVE been dismayed by Sukanya Sarma's highly tendentious and opinionated review of Amalendu Guha's Planter Raj to Swaraj ("Unique struggle", October 6). Its stance also seems to support the design of the forces that want to break up Assam into numerous petty states and autonomous regions in perpetual friction. The review seriously misrepresents Guha's Marxist project and by force attempts to assimilate it into post-modern and subaltern streams.

While Guha pays close attention to the travails and struggles of the people, he does not show any subaltern interests in their "voice", but Sarma makes a great play of their alleged "voices" in his book. She even makes the absurd claim that his "data on the annual consumption of opium" and "data on land revenue arrears" represent the "the voices of forgotten and unheard struggles".

More dangerously, she has dismissed the historical development of Assamese nationality as a fiction and derides it as a mere "ethnic card" in the hands of politicians. Guha himself admits in the preface to the new edition that he was mistaken in not giving it due weight. Actually, Assamese nationalism was born in colonial times to attain national identity and solidarity under extremely restrictive constraints.

Sarma rejects Guha's use of the term "peasant" by pointing out that certain tribal communities were only partially dependent on (shifting) cultivation for subsistence. But such expectations can hardly undermine the seriousness and extent of the peasant militancy in Nagaon, Kamrup and Darrang districts that rocked Assam in the last four decades of the 19th century. Further, she denies the existence of slavery in pre-colonial Assam by quoting a general remark by D.D. Kosambi, who had denied the historicity of a "classical European type of slavery", which was the mainstay of production in Greece and Rome. But domestic slaves were quite common in India, and sometimes they were employed (like today's bonded labourers) in domestic production.

Sarma makes an outrageous and demonstrably false assertion that "in the 19th and 20th centuries the Assamese included only the inhabitants of the old districts of Sibsagar and Lakhimpur, and parts of Nagaon district. The rest were Kamrupias, Kamatapurias and Goalpariyas". (Does that mean that the people of Kamrup and Goalpara became Assamese only in the 21st century?)

Like any other modern nationality, the Assamese too had to overcome regional differences and conflicts in the process of attaining required homogeneity. If the reviewer's tall claim is to be accepted, it is a mystery how three Kamrupias are regarded among the founding fathers of modern Assamese nationality. Ambikagiri Raychoudhury was the most ardent and forceful champion of Assamese nationalism; Banikanta Kakoti founded on a scientific basis the independent existence of the Assamese language; and Sarat Chandra Goswami was the founder-secretary of the most powerful national cultural institution of the Assamese, the Assam Sahitya Sabha.

Further, the indissoluble bond that links Upper Assam with Lower Assam is the 500-year-old social and cultural legacy of Sankardev, whose ideas and attitudes permeate entire Assamese society in different degrees. This link united various Vaishnava monasteries and their devotees, called Satras, long before the advent of the British.

Yet another ridiculous claim is that in the 19th and 20th centuries the entire population of Assam could be divided between the landed gentry of Upper Assam called Dangoriyas and the care-worn, overtaxed raiyats of Lower Assam called Dhekeris. They were in fact cases of poor raiyats in Upper Assam and quite a few wealthy and powerful landed families in Kamrup, not to speak of the trustees of temples and heads of monasteries. In the said period only six persons went to England from Assam and five of them were from Upper Assam.

However, one person died in England, and we do not know much about another two. Among the rest one went to South America as a doctor, and only Balinarayan Bora and Ananda Ram Baruah returned to India. Again, Balinarayan Bora, an engineer by profession settled in Kolkata and contributed to Assamese literature through his magazine Mou, while Ananda Ram Baruah came back to Assam to become the first Indian Civil Service officer from Assam and a celebrated scholar on Indology. Ananda Ram Baruah was very much from Lower Assam. I do not know what Sarma has to say about this.

Paresh Malakar

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