The History of Assam

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Item Code: NAG058
Author: Priyam Goswani
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2022
ISBN: 9788125046530
Pages: 307
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 300 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


This text cover an important period in the history of modern northeast India from the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 that marked the beginning of British expansion in the region till partition in 1947. It discuss the history of the colonial province of Assam which included most of modern Assam Meghalaya Nagaland Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Besides detailing the colonial expansion and associated political developments this volume also analyses the important social cultural and economic changes during the period. A key aspect of this volume is its focus on the growth of political consciousness in the region and the impact of the pan-Indian national movement on the society and politics of the region.


Some important features of this book are:


v Lucid and simple text written with students in mind.

v Highlights at the beginning and suggested readings at the end of each chapter.

v Maps to contextualize the discussions.

v Timelines in different chapters that will help students easily recall important milestones.


Written by an authority on the subject with over three decades of teaching experience this textbook will be indispensable for all courses on modern northeast Indian history.


About the Author


Priyam Goswani is professor department of history Gauhati University Guwahati.




This book deals with the polity society and economy of colonial Assam from 1826 to 1947. Although it has been primarily written keeping students in mind I hope this book with its extensive bibliography notes and references will prove to be an engaging read through the history of this period for all those interested in its study. Though there are innumerable studies on multiple aspects pertaining to this period many of these are research oriented and detailed micro-studies. I have made an attempt in this text to present the history of colonial Assam in a comprehensive and lucid manner so as to trigger the readers' interest and curiosity. I shall consider my purpose served if the book is able to generate new ideas and questions in their minds.


The book has evolved from my research on the society and economy of colonial Assam and from the discussions and interactions that I have had with my students throughout my teaching career. I hope that I have succeeded even if only partially in providing a cohesive and critical analysis of this period. Post Independence the names of certain places have changed for instance Gauhati is now known as Guwahati Sibsagar as Sivasagar and Nowgong as Nagaon. For the purpose of clarity the earlier names have been used in this text. I owe a great deal to my students who inspired me to write this book several of my friends and colleagues for their valuable suggestions and my family for their constant support. I am also grateful to Orient BlackSwan for taking the initiative in publishing this work.




The annexation of Assam by the British bound her fate almost instantly with that of the other regions of the East India Company's domains in India. The transition from the old order to the new was swift and was characterised by a complete overhauling of the administrative machinery which brought about far reaching political economic and social changes in Assam. The Treaty of Yandabo (1826) which was signed at the end of the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-6) marked the beginning of British colonial penetration into northeast India. Under the terms of the treaty the King of Burma renounced his claim on Assam and the contiguous petty states of Cachar andJayantia. The withdrawal of the Burmese provided the British with the opportunity to create spheres of influence in the region. In the decade before the war the insecurity on the northeastern frontier had threatened the security of Bengal and it had therefore become imperative to ensure that the region did not relapse into further anarchy. Apprehensions of a renewed Burmese invasion loomed large and so despite their earlier pledge that they would return once law and order had been restored the British decided to stay on. Initial considerations of strategy however soon gave way to larger economic ones. Surveys and explorations conducted by a band of intrepid explorers and surveyors in the meantime had revealed the enormous economic potential of the region. This fitted in neatly with the British search for overseas markets. Nineteenth century England had seen a change from the phase of merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism where emphasis shifted from revenue collection and trade to new forms of surplus appropriation. As European trade diminished the vacuum was sought to be filled by the development of trade with China Tibet and Burma. It was hoped that Assam would not only serve as a forwarding agency but also as a rich hinterland of Bengal as well. British commercial enterprises were enthusiastic at the prospect of getting thousands of new customers for their industrial products.


The annexation of Lower Assam in 1828 provided the British with a firm foothold that enabled them to extend their suzerainty in the region very quickly. Within a decade the entire Brahmaputra Valley and the neighbouring principalities of Cachar and Jayantia and the Khasi Hills were subdued. The control of the routes to Bhutan Tibet China and Burma followed soon after. Meanwhile R. B. Pemberton in his lengthy Report on the Eastern Frontier of British India (1835) had given details of military and commercial routes that connected Bengal with Bhutan Tibet Sikkim China and Burma through northeast India. The fond hope of extension of commerce to Tibet and China found expression in the words of Jenkins Agent to the Governor- General Northeast Frontier when he wrote:


There is every prospect of bringing all the races of hill men bordering on this province under the same control as our Assamese subjects and at no distant period of opening out through them a direct route with the Tibetan and Chinese province from which we are divided by narrow ranges of hills but from which we are absolutely shut out by the intractable rudeness of intervening mountaineers. With these high expectations the Company embarked upon a determined process of penetration into a region that had remained practically isolated from the rest of the country for centuries. By the end of the nineteenth century the Lushai Hills the Naga Hills the Garo Hills and the adjoining areas were also brought under British control. Colonial penetration into Assam and the neighbouring hill areas was accompanied by sweeping political economic and social changes resulting in a spectacular transformation of the region within a very short time. Many of the changes were positive when seen in isolation but when viewed in the overall colonial framework it is apparent that they were part of the general process of underdevelopment. The former autonomy of the villages was eroded and indigenous crafts declined; the introduction of a monetary economy and systematic revenue maximisation led to escalating poverty while industrialisation resulted in dramatic demographic changes. Along with all these changes came improvements in the transportation and communication network which broke down the isolation of the province both physically and metaphorically and opened her up to new forces ideas and thoughts. The cumulative impact of all these was immense and far-reaching.


In any agricultural economy progress in the agricultural sector must be concurrent with industrial growth if overall economic development is to happen. In Assam industrial growth and development had no links with the agricultural sector. Many of the village industries had died out under pressure from new forces and the organisation of those that survived still remained very primitive. The position of the artisan with respect to capital or the fact that he also cultivated some land underwent no change. The worst effect of this decline in traditional crafts and the failure of new industries to take their place was that the economy of the province came under foreign domination. The tea plantations coal mines oil refineries and railways all undoubtedly implied significant changes; but viewed in its full spectrum the development transformed the province into a raw material producing and capital absorbing region. This lead to stagnation in agriculture suppression of local industry and economic domination over the region by outsiders. The superimposition of the colonial economy on the traditional rural economy had its impact on the growth of urban centres as well. A distinct feature of industrialisation is the emergence of satellite towns in and around industrial areas. In Assam industrialisation did not create links within the region. The tea coal and oil industries procured all their requirements directly from Calcutta and had virtually no links with the surrounding areas thereby sapping all possibilities of the growth of urban centres. In fact even as late as 1941 the urban population of Assam was less than four percent of the total population of the province. Improved communication networks facilitated the active penetration of foreign consumer products in the local markets. Hence the new townships that emerged were due more to the growth of commerce than that of industry and an important factor that determined the growth of an urban area was the construction of a road or a railway line-in its vicinity. As the local economy was restructured and the control of the government on the land and resources solidly entrenched Assam was systematically grafted into the scheme of colonial extraction and domination where enclaves of prosperity existed amidst a stagnant economy.


Colonial rule in Assam triggered a series of sweeping changes not only in its polity and economy but in society and culture as well. The British had brought along with ~hem new institutions knowledge ideas technology beliefs and values. Within a few years of their occupation of Assam they had laid the foundations of a modern state by surveying land settling the revenue creating a bureaucracy of officials codifying the law and instituting law courts introducing Western education establishing industries and a communication network thereby opening her up to the outside world. In this setting the activities of the American Baptist missionaries and the Bengal Renaissance had a profound impact on Assamese society. As the nineteenth century progressed the changes became more and more perceptible. By the middle of the nineteenth century they were distinctly visible. With improved means 01 communication and with hopes of greater employment opportunities students began to leave for Calcutta for higher education. In Calcutta they came into contact with the liberal ideas of the West which they enthusiastically grasped and brought back with them when they returned home. These youth educated in English and imbued with' modern' ideas started the process of change in Assam. A wide variety of important issues were discussed and debated upon by the emerging intelligentsia and in the process ideas and attitudes underwent a profound change. In course of time these ideas .filtered down to the common man and although illiteracy was still rampant the gradual infiltration of radical ideas instilled in the minds of the people a spirit of rational enquiry. There was a growing demand for social reforms and the eradication of certain social evils. A small section of the provincial population emerged to form the provincial elite and it was this vocal group that took upon itself the task of organising public opinion. The emergence of the press 'and modern Assamese literature helped in the dissemination of ideas and information and this in turn resulted in the growth of a political awareness which found expression in the formation of a number of socio-political organisations.


Although there was a strong regional identity no voice was raised for Assam's identity as wholly independent of the Indian one. Late nineteenth 'century Assamese literature had already created a framework alluding to the rightful place of Assam within India and Sonar Asom (Golden Assam) was never conceived as being outside Bharat Varsha. But the educated elite felt it necessary to infuse ideas of regional consciousness before they could begin thinking in terms of the larger Indian consciousness. Authors like Tillottoma Misra (Literature and Society in Assam) Benudhar Rajkhowa (Mor Jivan Dapon) and Haliram Dhekiyal Phukan (Assam Buranji) etc. have written about it. Hence the focal point of intellectual discussions of the time was the question of the existence of Assam as a distinct cultural religious and linguistic entity and until the beginning of the twentieth century the predominant concerns of the people were those relating to regional issues The high rates of taxes the question of immigration the condition of the tea garden labourers and the language question were some of the major causes of apprehension.


The government's economic policies in particular had adversely affected the people and the peasantry had been reduced to penury. In course of time rural poverty became so acute that every assessment of land revenue raised a storm of protest. Attempts were made at the grass roots level to collectively resist the government's policy of upward revision of revenue. The ryots convened mels to give vent to their discontent. The mels under the leadership of gosains dolois or other influential people were originally constituted as authorities on socio-religious matters. But gradually their base was broadened and was converted to raijmels or popular assemblies for the redressal of all grievances. The popular raijmels were soon converted into more representative and more broad-based organisations. Known as ryot sabhas they were formed with the active support of the Assamese intelligentsia. The emerging intelligentsia however was not in favour of the aggressive policy hitherto followed by the raijmels. Instead it advocated constitutional agitation through prayers petitions memorials and public meetings and believed that only through such means could political awareness among the people be aroused. Thus the ryot sabhas which followed were more leadership oriented unlike the raijmels where popular sentiment had dominated.


Newspapers and public associations also made their appearance simultaneously. These organisations advocated social reform inspired the youth of the province to qualify themselves for higher positions and worked for the all round progress of the society. The scope of their activities was broadened by the creation of the enlarged province of Assam in 1874 and soon after began to develop political overtones. Jorhat emerged as the centre of activity. The Jorha: Sarbajanik Sabha was founded in 1884 under the initiative of Jagannath Barua. Like most other organisations of the time the Sabha did not believe in direct confrontation with the government but nevertheless espoused the cause of the people even at the risk of displeasing the government at times. The Sabha contributed significantly to social and political awakening in Assam and paved the way for democratic and popular movements in the province. Although its focus was on the particular needs of the province it was able to establish strong links with pan-Indian aspirations. In fact many of its members including Debicharan Barua and Lakshrninath Bezbaruah attended the annual sessions of the Indian National Congress as delegates. However after Jagannath Barua's death in April 1907 the differences of opinion between the members of the organisation widened and resulted in a virtual termination of its activities.


For some time the Assamese intelligentsia led by Manik Chandra Baruah had increasingly felt the necessity of a more broad based provincial organisation to articulate the wishes grievances and aspirations of the Assamese people. The Assam Association was formed keeping these objectives in mind. The Association played a significant role in serving as the mouthpiece of the people of the Brahmaputra Valley during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Although the Association had been initially formed to focus on regional issues and to press for regional demands it gradually merged into India's mainstream politics. Like the Brahmaputra Valley the Surma Valley comprising of the districts of Cachar and Sylhet was also very active politically.


The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next thus saw a new awakening in the province. The common bonds established by British rule a uniform administrative set up improved means of communication the impact of Western thoughts and ideas and above all shared discrimination and frustration at every step induced the people of the region to look beyond the provincial boundaries and establish a commonality of purpose with mainstream India. The Indian National Congress provided the common forum. It was in this backdrop that Assamese nationalism merged with mainstream Indian nationalism while maintaining a distinct Assamese identity.


The Swadeshi agitation the Home Rule Movement revolutionary activities contemporary world events and the stirring speeches of nationalist leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal all combined to create a new awareness among the youth. Students in Assam translated this awareness into action by creating a platform for concerted action on matters of regional and national interest. The Assam Students' Conference founded in 1916 though not a political organisation helped to create a cadre of student leaders who actively participated in the national movement that followed.


The Assam Association had been following the political developments in the country avidly but for most people the concept of swaraj was still vague and incomprehensible. The seventeenth session of the. Assam Association held at Tezpur in December 1920 endorsed the Indian National Congress' August 1920 resolution on non- cooperation and stated that the object of the Assam Association was to work for the attainment of swaraj. This was symbolically reflected in the merger of the Assam Association with the Assam Provincial Congress Committee in 1921. From then onwards Assam identified itself completely with the national movement. As in other provinces in Assam too popular response to the repressive measures was massive and ordinances were defied openly even at the cost of severe repression.


With a large number of men behind the bars women came out in thousands defying prohibitory orders to demonstrate their solidarity with the freedom struggle. Women's power had been strengthened in the meantime by the organizational activities carried out during the preceding years of the movement and the formation of the Mahila Samities. The Government of India Act 1935 inaugurated electoral politics in Assam. In the elections of 1937 the Congress under the leadership of Gopinath Bardoloi emerged as the single largest party. But the Congress decision to not form a government led to the formation of a coalition government under Sir Syed Mohammed Saadullah the leader of the Muslim group in the Brahmaputra Valley. The subsequent fall of the Saadullah ministry in September 1938 led to the formation of the first ministry of Gopinath Bardoloi. Briefly the entire decade was one of political instability in the province.


Assam was profoundly affected by the Quit India Movement. It had a strong popular base and attempts were made at several places to form parallel governments. Jinnah's demand for the inclusion of Assam in Pakistan was strongly resisted by the people of Assam and it was in this backdrop that the Assam Provincial Congress emphatically protested against the Grouping Plan of the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946). With the acceptance of the Mountbatten Plan the anti-grouping movement in Assam came to an end. The focus of political activity now shifted to Sylhet where the referendum was held on 6 and 7 July 1947. The creation of East Pakistan left Assam virtually isolated being connected with the rest of India by the narrow Siliguri Corridor. With Independence came new challenges of fighting the colonial legacy of under-development facilitating economic development and bringing about social reform. In Assam an additional problem has been that of immigration. Partition set in motion forces whose impact is felt even today. The northeastern region of India is home to a large number of tribal communities.





Lists of maps figures and tables









Decline of the Ahoms and the emergence of the British



Foundation of the company's rule



The company's expansion in the Brahmaputra valley



Consolidation of power



Expansion to the south: Cachar and the central hills



Expansion to the south and Manipur and the frontier tribes



Economic transformation of Assam



Social transformation of Assam



Growth of political awareness



Assam and the national movement(1905-34)



Struggle for independence (1935-47)






Select bibliography






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