Assam: The very idea of India is under threat - Part I OF IV
AmareshMisra 28 August 2012, 05:29 PM IST
Swami Vivekanand called it the second most beautiful place on earth after Kashmir. Today, the wonder that
was Assam is a mass of decomposing bodies, petty politicking, strewn hopes, unfathomable despair and a fear
that says: only man is vile.
In Assam, it does not matter whether the conflict is ethnic or communal or over land or some other issue. Any
of these reasons—or all combined—might have triggered the violence. But more than 90 people (numbers go
up each day) do not get killed—more 400,000 are not rendered homeless—because some Johnny come
lately—whether a Bodo or an Assamese Muslim or an `infiltrator’—decides to fight the `other’. For the
violence to attain such a gruesome character and a pitch that refuses to abate—an organized hand—or
multiple forces—have to be at work.
See the injustice and conspiracy: Sreenivasan Jain, the NDTV journalist, catches refugees living in camps openly
saying that Pradeep Brahma, the Bodo People’s Front (BPF) MLA, fired at Muslims and SanthalAdivasis with his
own gun. After the Assam visit of Ms. Sonia Gandhi, the Congress president, Pradeep Brahma is arrested. Now
BPF is part of the Tarun Gogoi led Congress government in Assam—why would a senior party arrest a member
of its own coalition unless there is solid proof? But, as far as the SanghParivar and BJP are concerned, this
argument falls on deaf ears. Bajrang Dal announces an Assam Bandh protesting the arrest of Pradeep
Brahma—and to demand—hold your breath—the arrest of BadruddinAjmal—the leader of United Democratic
Front (UDF)—one of the leading opposition parties of Assam with 18 MLAs—several of them Hindus!
Has anyone—even a prominent Bodo leader like HagramyMohilary—demanded BadruddinAjmal’s arrest? On
what grounds, what evidence are Bajrang Dal cadres making this insistence? Is there any evidence of UDF
cadres indulging in anti-Bodo violence? Is there any complaint of a UDF MLA—like Basheer Ahmed—the MLA
from Bilashpada—near Bodo areas—even lifting a finger at any Bodo?
Are we going to have two laws in India—one for Muslims and another one for non-Muslims? By demanding
Ajmal’s arrest, the SanghParivar has just entered the league of anti-national forces like ULFA who seek the
dismemberment of India. Ordinary Bodos have condemned any sort of violence. But some Bodo outfits—like
the Christian dominated National Peoples Front of Bodos (NDFB)—which still fights for a separate Bodoland—
do not like even the BPF. Along with the SanghParivar and ULFA, they too demand action against UDF MLAs
none of whom has ever been found inciting violence.
The conflicts within Bodos, external funding for the NFDB, the problem of armed militant militias living in
designated camps in Assam and the Northeast, who transgress their limits openly and start killing Muslims in
any such situation, the troubles of modern Assam since Independence, will be dealt with in the second part of
Right now, it is necessary to rise above sectarian mindsets to say that apart from people in flesh and blood, the
very idea of India as a diverse, multi-cultural, multi-national country is under attack in Assam.
Assam’s composite culture
Assam’s history is truly plural. Apart from the proliferation of indigenous tribes since times immemorial, nontribal groups (brahmin priests, kayasthas, peasants, labourers, clerks, government officials, traders,
entrepreneurs) from outside the area (undivided Bengal, Bihar, present-day Uttar Pradesh and other HindiUrdu speaking areas) have constantly arrived, assimilated—and reshaped—Assamese society.
For instance, Assam’s name derives from a long rule (1228-1826) of upper/eastern, and parts of central Assam,
by the Ahom dynasty of Chinese origin. However, even at the height of Ahom power (late 17th-early 18th
century), the Koch Rajbongshi dynasty reigned in parts of western or lower Assam. Enjoying Kshattriya status,
Koch Rajbongshis split in late 16th century into two main branches: western and eastern. In the 19th century,
the British created the Cooch-Behar state from the western Koch Rajbongshi kingdom.
By then, a third political entity—the Bodo-Kacharis—had dispersed all over Assam after losing their Barak
valley kingdom to the British in 1832.
Ahom rule was truly ecumenical. Early on, medieval era tribes like Barahis and Marans—of Austro-Asiatic and
Tibeto-Burman descent—became part of the Ahom ethnic group. Then Khasis from present-day Meghalaya
were admitted in the Ahom army on terms that they would retain their ethnicity. Finally, Bodos, Jaintiyas,
Daflas, Karbis, Rabhas, Lalungs, Singhpos, Garos, Khamtis, Bhors, Lyngngams—even a small number of Lushais
and Kukis—were settled on Ahom lands—after similar guarantees.
Under Chilarai, the Koch-Rajbongshis rulers of lower-western Assam defeated the Ahoms in a 16th century
battle. For a brief period, Chilarai, successfully created another political federation based on the loyalty of
mainly Barak and Surma Valley tribes. In the post-Chilarai era, the Bodo-Dimasa rulers of the Barak valley and
parts of Surma valley also integrated several Naga tribes in a federal structure.
Ahoms introduced—in contrast to the traditional jhum cultivation—the technologically superior, wet rice
farming in Assam. Sankardev, a 16th century Bhakti saint, pioneered the Vaishnavite creed that extended till
Manipur. In Assam, his disciples included Chandsai, a Muslim, Govinda, a Garo, Paramanda, a Miri, Jayananda,
a Bhutia, Narahari, an Ahom, Madhav, a Jaintia and Damodar, a Bania. Under Ahoms, Vaishnavism co-existed
with Shaktism. The Kamakhya temple—one of the most important seats of Shakti worship in India—was part
of Ahom lands.
Muslims in Assam and Northeast India
Today, one hears of Bodovs Muslim clashes—it is instructive that Ali Mech—perhaps the first person to
embrace Islam in Assam (14th century)—belonged to an indigenous tribe with Bodo links. Soldiers left behind
by BakhtiyarKhilji’s invading army in the 13th century, and other prisoner of wars, settled in Assam. Quite a
few intermarried with women of local tribes.
Also, in the 14th century, a Muslim saint named GiasuddinAulia came to Kamrupa. He established a dargah at
pua mecca in Hajo about 30 km west of Guwahati. Other religious leaders like Ajan Fakir, Khandakar Peer,
Manik Fakir, Nawaz Peer also came to Assam and adopted the local language and culture.
As early as the 15th century, a distinct brand of Asamiya Muslims began emerging with different surnames and
titles. During the reign of Ahom ruler SwargadeoRudraSingha in the early part of the eighteenth century, some
Muslim families proficient in different crafts and arts were invited from Delhi to reside in Assam and offer their
services. These families were Pharsiparia, Aakharkatia (experts in making cannon balls, locally known as hiloi),
Silakatia and Khanikar.
During the Ahom-Mughal war, Assamese Muslims fought hand-in-hand with their Hindu brethrens. In the
decisive battle of Saraighat (1671)—that led to Ahom victory under LachitBarphukan—BaghHazarika alias
Ismail Siddiqui—led an Assamese force of one thousand Muslim soldiers against the Mughals.
Shah Hussain Khan and Ramzan Khan—two Assamese Muslim nobles—fought against the late 18th centuryearly 19th century Burmese invaders. In the Hadirachaki war, local Muslims fought against the Burmese forces,
under the command of Mir-ud-Daula.
Incredible as it might sound today—under the successful rule of Dimasa-Bodos—Sylhet—in present-day
Bangladesh—close to Silchar in Assam’s Barak valley—emerged as a major centre of Sufism and Muslim
learning. Sylheti became a foremost language at par with Assamese—both these languages formed the
eastern dialects of the great Bengali language family. While Sylhet’s chieftains became Muslims under the
influence of Shah Jalal Yemeni, a great Sufi saint, several other political principalities of the Barak and Surma
valley and East Bengal amalgamated Hindu-Muslim, even Buddhist features. For a long time, Chakmas of
Chittagong (East Bengal) were Buddhists with Muslim chieftains.
Chiefs of Jaintia—located in present-day Meghalaya—believed in a matrilineal line of succession. In the 17th
century, a Jaintia chief gave his sister in marriage to the Mughal Governor. Her son—a Muslim—became the
next ruler. But his sister married a non-Muslim Jaintia. So when the British annexed the state in the 1830s, it
was a mixed Hindu-Muslim-tribal-Jaintia kingdom!
The composite culture of Assam saw Radharam—as the chief of South Karimganj district—resisting the British
in the 18th century. Most fighters in Radharam’s army were Muslims. The chief actually was called
NawabRadharam! More importantly, he was known as a Kayastha with mixed “tribal blood”!
Such features—the co-existence of Hindu, Muslim and local tribes—leading to the creation of a new breed—
born out of intermixing and intermarriages or non-conventional liaisons—are to be found in such abundance
that it is difficult to classify/separate Northeastern and East Bengal identities.
The great Manipuri chapter
Beyond Assam, Hindu rulers of Manipur merged Vaishnavism with Sanamahism, the traditional religion of the
Meitei people, whose rulers controlled the area till 1947, and still constitute the majority (60% of the total
population). Meitei-Sanamahi-Hindu-Manipuri princes carried multiple identities. They were also, often raised
in Naga households. Pamheiba was one such 18th century warrior-Prince. His exploits were not limited to
victory in warfare and crushing Burmese excursions. Despite being a staunch Vaishnavite Hindu, following the
traditions of that era, Pamheiba declared himself `protector of the poor’, openly announcing the adoption the
Persian-Muslim Garib Nawaz title on his coins and royal standards!
Has anyone ever heard of such a thing—a mixture of tribal and Muslim elements—constituting a composite
culture? Why is it that this unique history of Assam and the northeast was not taught to north, west and south
Indians? What kind of politics waves its murky hands behind this exclusion?
Indeed, Muslims of Manipur—mostly outsiders who settled in the area in waves beginning from the 14th
century—and intermarried locals—carry their own Meitei-Pangal identity. The Muslim population of Manipur
touches the 9% mark; however, it is impossible to find Muslim Pangals residing outside Manipur in any
noteworthy numbers. Under the rule of MeidinguKhagemba (1597- 1652 AD), a Muslim personal law board,
under a Qazi, was established by orders of the King. Manipuri Muslims played a major role in the preservation
of the Meiteilon-Manipuri language and script, to an extent that even today universities and colleges in
Manipur offer courses in Meiteilon.
It seems that all over Assam and northeast India tribes, Hindu sects, Muslim Sufis and warriors, Brahmins,
peasant castes and Kayasthas interacted with élan. Bodos, Ahoms, Kochs, Sutiyas, Karbis, Mishims, Bengali
Hindus, Muslims, North Indian Brahmins, Vaishnavites, Buddhists, worshippers of Sakti, and Kayasthas,
followers of tribal deities of Chinese, Burmese, and Tibetan derivation—just to cite a few examples—formed
part of this truly remarkable amalgamation of different races, modes of land tenure, forms of worship,
imported peasant cultures of the plains and the hill culture of the tribes, clerks and paiks.
The British annexed Assam after the first Anglo-Burmese war. The war resulted in the treaty of Yandabo
(1826). Due to Burmese atrocities, people and leaders of Assam welcomed the British initially; but then the
British raised land revenue and began rack renting the peasantry. Several new taxes were introduced and
peasants were made to labour on lands colonized by the British East India Company (BEIC). It can be safely
assumed that the British introduced features of European-style feudalism in Assam and the northeast.
Assam: The very idea of India is under threat- Part II
02 September 2012, 06:06 PM IST
War of independence in Assam
As a political-military force, the British entered Assam during the first Anglo-Burmese war—prior to that the
Maomoria rebellion (see `Last Days of Ahom Monarchy’, written by SL Baruah, 1993, New Delhi, `A History of
Assam’, written by Edward A Gait, 1906, Calcutta and `Medieval and Early Colonial Assam’, written by
AmalenduGuha, 1991, Calcutta)—a fight between Ahom rulers and the Vaishnavasattras—in which the latter
got the support of another Ahom court faction—severally weakened the Ahom polity. Taking advantage of the
unsettled conditions, the Burmese invaded Assam committing numerous atrocities on the people.
Due to the mayhem caused by the Burmese, people and leaders of Assam, the Ahom Raja, and some North
Eastern tribes, welcomed the British initially. But the real, imperial nature of the British became apparent soon
after the treaty of Yandabo (1826) between the British and the Burmese. For several years, British officials
kept avoiding a settlement with Ahom rulers. After much delay and dithering, the British signed a treaty with
PurandarSingha, the Ahom King, in 1833.
Belonging to an old elite family of Kayastha administrators of north Indian (Kannauj)
origin, ManiramDewan (originally ManiramBarua), was a vital link between the British and the Ahom Kings.
Working as part of the British bureaucracy in the 1820s, Maniram was also given the additional charge of
borbhandar (Prime Minister), at PurandarSingha’s court in 1833.
Maniram discovered the potential of tea plantation in Assam. He surprised Bessa Gam—a local Singpo chief—
by turning up at his village one fine morning, in the 1820s—with Robert and Charles Alexander Bruce—of the
legendary Bruce Brothers fame—credited with identifying tea in Assam—in tow. But BEIC Calcutta officials
refused to acknowledge the genuineness of Maniram’s discovery. However, after 1833, when the BEIC lost its
tea trade monopoly with China, BEIC officials were forced to eat their own words.
On 1st February, 1834, Governor General William Bentinck established the Tea Committee. Maniram met
Dr.Wallich, the same man who had rejected his samples earlier, as a representative of PurandarSingha.
Besides monopolising tea plantations and trade, the British had other evil designs in mind. A 26th February,
2009 Assam Tribune article, written by Dr. HK Goswami, observes that soon after Maniram’s meeting with Dr
Wallich, “Jenkins, the North-East Agent of the Governor General, visited PurandarSingha’s territory on a factfinding mission...one man who strongly defended the Raja was ManiramDewan, Chief Counsellor of the Raja.
PurandarSingha was deposed in 1838 on the plea of bad governance and default in payment of the tribute and
the British annexed his territories."
All through the 1840s and 50s, the BEIC administration annexed several states in India on the trumped up
charge of bad governance. But, despite Jenkins’ adverse comments, Maniram outflanked the Governor
General’s Agent, becoming in 1839, the Dewan of the Assam Tea Company at Nazira, drawing a salary of 200
rupees per month.
But Maniram felt suffocated working under the British. A surprisingly well researched Wikipedia entry on
ManiramDewan notes that “in the mid-1840s, Maniram quit his job due to differences of opinion with
company officers...he established his own tea garden at Chenimora in Jorhat, thus becoming the first Indian to
grow tea commercially in Assam...Maniram established another tea plant in Sibsagar. Apart from the tea
industry, Maniram also ventured into iron smelting, gold procuring and salt production. He was also involved
in the manufacturing of goods like matchlocks, hoes and cutlery. His other business activities included
handloom, boat making, brick making, bell-metal, dyeing, ivory work, ceramic, coal supply, elephant trade,
construction of buildings for military headquarters and agricultural products. Some of the markets established
by him include the Garohat in Kamrup, Nagahat near Sibasagar, Borhat in Dibrugarh, Sissihat in Dhemaji and
DarangiaHaat in Darrang”.
Here we have—in the person of Maniram—much before Tatas and Birlas appeared on India’s business stage—
the first example of a modern, Indian entrepreneur. Imagine an Indian in the 1840s and 50s, establishing not
only tea plantations but extending activities to a whole range of goods and products, staggering by even
today’s standards. In fact, Tatas began as British middlemen in the China opium trade in the 1850s and 60s.
Birlas also started their businesses as middlemen in about the same period.
But rather than becoming a comprador (intermediary) bourgeoisie subservient to Imperialism, Maniram chose
Independence and the path of a nationalist bourgeoisie. Like Americans today—the British—then the foremost
Imperialist world power—tolerated even encouraged, compradors. But they regarded Independent, nationalist
entrepreneurs as an anathema. The Wikipedia entry further notes that, “Maniram faced numerous
administrative obstacles in establishing private tea plantations, due to opposition from competing European
tea planters. In 1851, an officer seized all the facilities provided to him due to a tea garden dispute. Maniram,
whose family consisted of 185 people, had to face economic hardship.”
Another Assam Tribune article notes that “As a matter of fact, Maniram wanted to build up a self-dependent
economy. Incidentally, former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in his Republic Day speech of 2005 stressed on
making entrepreneurial course ‘compulsory’...it may be surmised that what Assam thought 143 years ago ...
the credit for this goes to the father of modern Assamese nationality—ManiramDewan”.
Soon, Maniram’s “property was auctioned at a very nominal price to George Williamson”.
Misery of Assam and the North-East
Maniram’s disenchantment with the British occurred against the backdrop of widespread discontent in Assam
and the northeast. After 1826, the BEIC had gone on to acquire territory after territory including Meghalaya,
Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur. Despite treaties and agreements with various
tribes, the essential British policies of rack ranting the tribes and peasantry produced revolts.
The Singhpos and the Nagas were the first to rebel, the Anglo-Naga war extending from 1835 to 1852 AD.
Under British rule, peasants of Assam in particular had to pay three times the land revenue they delivered
under the Ahoms. Minor delays in payments—overlooked in the Ahom-paik system of decentralized revenue—
which favoured local factors and leniency—saw properties both of small peasants and distinguished
upper/eastern Assamese service-military gentry—being attached. Erstwhile lords and labourers alike were
reduced to penury. Plus, the British began importing Santhals from Bengal to work as indentured labour in the
tea gardens, being set up by the British in both upper (eastern) and lower (western) Assam. By the 1850s,
economic hardship became so severe, that apart from Ahoms, several erstwhile Koch and Bodo men of
influence were working as labourers in tea gardens.
British Impact on Local Culture
But the worst part of British rule was the interference in local culture. It was the British who began identity
politics in Assam. Large sections of specific tribes—the Kukis and some Naga sub tribes to begin with—were
converted to Christianity. British administrators also began insisting on `pure bloodlines’; chieftains with
mixed religious or tribal heritage were shunned.
Simultaneously, the impact of the Bengal renaissance and the BrahmoSamaj movement was felt in Assam.
Even though Assam lacked a Bengal style, pro-British, colonial middle class, AnandramDhekialPhukan began
his pioneering work to revive Assamese literature and initiate social reforms.
However, Maniram refused to go over to the reformist-collaborationist, pro-British, Bengal-renaissance side,
which distorted and confused reformist-modernist figures like DebendraNath Tagore, the father of
RabnindraNath Tagore. Instead, ManiramDewan, the indigenous modernist, took the revolutionary path.
In a famous petition/manifesto presented before Moffat Mills, the British Sudder Judge, in 1853, Maniram
clearly stated Assam’s main problem: the loss of political-social and economic power by indigenous forces of
all classes under British rule. He denounced the setting up of unfamiliar, phirang Courts with alien laws, the
emergence of the dalaal, the high British revenue, the desecration of royal tombs and temples (like
Kamakhya), the loss of occupation, the introduction of opium, and the system of collecting rents through
mouzdars (rent collectors—mostly Bengalis and Marwaris from outside Assam). In an almost stunning bid to
achieve a pan-Assam-North East unity, Maniram further wrote that the "objectionable treatment" of Hill Tribes
(such as the Nagas) was resulting in constant warfare leading to mutual loss of life and money.
Freedom Movement in Assam
In 1857, ManiramDewan formed an underground network of revolutionaries. His main hope lay in the JorhatSibsagar based 1st Assam Light Infantry (ALI) and the Gauwahati based 2nd ALI. The Assam regiments were a
mixed cauldron with Poorabias from western Bihar (Arrah) rubbing shoulders with mainstream Assamese
Muslim warriors, Nepalis, Manipuris, Jarrowas and Doaneas (the last two born out of mixed Assamese-Singhpo
Especially after the revolt of Bengal Army Regiments at Danapur (near Patna), Bihar on 25th July 1857,
Poorabia elements of the Assam Infantrybegan talking about British overthrow and the installation of Bahadur
Shah Zafar as India’s Emperor.
Dewan’s circle’s inimitability rested in its diverse nature: it included Mayaram and Krishna Chandra
Mazumdar—two Golaghat based Assamese of Bengali origin—Madhu Malik—a Dibrugarh Bengali—Ganesh
Chaudhary, Umakant and Khageshwar—of mixed Bengali-Assamese heritage—PiyaliBarua, DitiramBarua and
MarangikhowaGohain—three major Ahom figures—and Ramdas and VisnhudevMahanta—two
sattraVaishnavite spiritual leaders. Thus 1857 bridged also, the fault-lines and political lacunae left by the
Ahom-sattra struggle that was instrumental both, in the Burmese invasion and the military march of the British
The pan-Assam unity achieved by Maniram included UrbidharBarua, MayaramBarbora, ChitrasenBarbora,
Kamala CharingiaBarua, MahidharSarmaMuktear, LukiSenchowaBarua, and DeoramDihingiaBarua.
BahadurGaonburha and Sheikh Formud Ali—two leading Muslim personalities of Assam—helped Maniram—
who was in Calcutta in May, 1857—establish direct linkages to ShiekhBhikun and Noor Muhammad—two
Muslim Subedars of Assamese origin—posted in the Nogore detachment—of the Sibsagar based 1st ALI unit.
Acting on Maniram’s advice—KandarpeswarSingha—the grandson of PurandarSingha—the last Ahom King—
met Sheikh Fomud Ali and BahadurGaonburha. Soon, Subedars Sheikh Bhikun and Noor Muhammad were
corresponding with KandarpeswarSingha (also called Charing Raja) secretly.
Promising to double the salaries of all ALI Sepoys, the Charing Raja gave his consent to lead the Assam
revolution. In keeping with precedents set by Begum HazratMahal—representing Nawabs of Awadh in the
1857 war—at Lucknow—and Peshwa Nana Sahib—at Kanpur—KandarpeswarSingha agreed to rule Assam
after expelling the British as a vassal of Bahadur Shah Zafar! Mughals were never able to capture upper Assam
from Ahoms. But in a revolutionary, political moment of Indian history, Ahom and Mughal houses united in
struggle against British rule!
The Role of Bodos and Kochs in 1857
Maniram had also enrolled in the freedom movement personalities like Madhuram Koch—a Koch Rajbongshi
figure who owned a tea plantation but was relegated by the British to the status of labourer; Rupahi and
LumbaiAideo—two Assamese women pensioners; and Usubar, Laochiklang and MaaluSikhla—three Bodo
The inclusion of Bodo warriors in the anti-British, 1857 plot was a masterstroke. Imagine the Indian history in
which Bodos fought for India’s freedom struggle under the leadership of Bahadur Shah Zafar, a Mughal King!
Revealed in an obscure book written by a descendant of one of the Poorabia survivor of 1857 in Assam (San
SattavankiAnkaheeKahani, written by PremDuttPandey, 1957, PrayagaSahityaSammelan, Allahabad), this
aspect presents a great challenge before Indian and Bodo historians. Even Bodos in general seem unaware of
their heroes who fought against the British in 1857. This is just the beginning; more work—especially with
regard to Bodo sources—needs to be done in this field.
After losing completely, their Barak valley based kingdom to the British in 1832, Bodo-Kacharis had spread—by
1857—to nearly all parts of present-day Assam. Members of the Bodo-Kachari nobility migrated as far as Kashi
(see BenaraskaAnoothaItihaas, written by Shiv Kumar Dwivedi, Hindi, 1962, PrayagSahityaSammelan,
However, a large section of Bodos, settled in the Darrang area on the Bhutan border, were never part of the
Barak valley kingdom. Darrang-KokrajharBodos either survived as roving, Independent tribes—practicing jhum
cultivation not bowing to any authority—or as nominal subjects of the western Assam, Koch kingdom.
Usubar, Laochiklang and MaaluSikhla were all Darrang-KokrajharBodos. They followed the martial traditions,
codes of fierce Independence, and the religion—revolving around the worship of Bathou—of the roving tribes.
Folk songs—celebrating the struggle between Bodos and Bhutias of present-day Bhutan—survive to this day.
Famous Bodo warriors—men and women—of yore include Bachiram, Daoharam, Cheobar, GambariSikhla, and
BirgahriSikhla. The song recalling the heroism of Bachiram is legendary:
(Ride on horse Bachiram
Bhutiyas are coming in a body)
Interestingly, in the `The Oral Poetry of the Bodos: Ethnic Voices and Discourses’, written by Anil Kumar Boro,
Department of Folklore Research, Guwahati University, Assam, the author mentions the depiction of Lord
Bathou as Lord Siva (or Sibrai). The Anil Boro article goes on to mention GibiBithai, a traditional Bodo scripture
that provides an astounding Bodo world view.
In this, Lord Siva is opposed to Lord Brahma, God of the white skinned people, and Lord Vishnu, God of the
dark skinned people. It seems that Bodos carried their own interpretation of history that spoke of the coming
of white skinned Aryans and dark skinned (Dravidians?) from the western parts of the Indian sub-continent to
their lands. Of Tibeto-Burman stock, Bodos not only resembled the American Red Indians. Their religion,
warrior folklore, and sense of peripatetic sovereignty, recalled the North American warrior tribes who put up a
heroic fight against European settlers during the early history of the USA.
Assam: The very idea of India under attack - Part III
18 September 2012, 11:52 AM IST
All castes and communities fought together during the freedom movement in Assam
(Continued from Part II)
As one goes down the annals of Assam’s history, it’s truly numbing composite culture hits hard on the face.
150 years ago, people knew how to integrate and sustain complex, heterogeneous, plural and composite
We had left Part II of this series at identifying the unusual nature of Bodo peripatetic sovereignty embedded
deep in the tribe’s economic practice. In India, the initial British East India Company (BEIC) policy in Assam and
the NE region was to subjugate different tribes with different treaties—and create identity politics through
encouraging separatist tendencies—so that convergence for a common purpose between people of different
ethnicities and religions becomes impossible.
1857: Blow to British Rule in Assam
Yet, the 1857 war in Assam gave the first blow to the western-British strategy of separatism. It all started with
the case of Usubar, Laochiklang and MaaliSikhla, the three Bodo warriors of the Darrang-Kokrajhar area.
Usubar used to trade in hides with Bengali dealers. It was on one of his visits to Calcutta in April 1857 when he
first heard of the hanging of SepoyMangalPandey at Barrackpore.
Role of Bodos and Assamese Bengalis in 1857
Laochiklang’s story is astonishing; as a Bodo warrior, his great-grandfather fought as a mercenary in the
Maratha army that attacked Orissa in the 1760s. From Cuttack, Laochiklang’s father came back to Darrang with
his family, somewhere around 1830s. At stake, was a blood feud—Bhutiyas had killed a member of
Laochiklang’s father’s tribe. After the death of his father, Laochiklang fulfilled his father’s desire of revenge
against Bhutias—but only after valuable help rendered by Ali Bengali, a migrant Muslim-Bengali peasant, who
became Laochiklang’s friend.
If India was America, filmmakers like John Ford might have created a beautiful western out of the LaochiklangAli Bengali story—of tussle and concord—enmity and friendship—between the wandering nomad and the
settled peasant. Ali Bengali used to travel to Calcutta to collect money from uncles who worked in the
Behrampur Cantonment. He heard of the 1857 rising from them.
Ali Bengali’s information inspired the Bodo warrior to involve MaaluSikhla’s tribe. Sikhla belonged to a Bodo
tribe that migrated to eastern/upper Assam in the 16th century, without severing ties with their native
Kokrajhar soil. Sikhla’s people worked as mercenaries in the small Sutiya kingdom of Sadiya, before joining the
Ahom army. Maalu was said to have carried the warrior might of 2 elephants.
After Ali Bengali managed to convince some Bengali youngsters, the mixed Bodo-Bengali crowd of would be
revolutionaries, went to Dibrugurh to look for a Bodo Prince, belonging to the Kachari-Bodo ex-royal house.
This mysterious figure seems to be Sri Mohemo Boro Prachanda, mentioned by Maniram Dewan in an
unsigned letter, translated by C. Holroyd, the chief British military officer of upper Assam in 1857 (see letter
link: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=JCnLlpHhtUgC&pg=PA95&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false ).
Poorabias and the Sibsagar-Jorhat-Guwahati risings
On 29 August, 1857, a revolutionary meeting took place at Subedar Sheikh Bhikun’s house in Nogore, upper
Assam. BholaPandey and Ram Sahai Singh, two PoorabiaSepoys from Arrah, delivered lectures. The plan to
restore the Ahom dynasty under the overall superintendence of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the Delhi based Mughal
Emperor and leader of the 1857 anti-British, national revolt, was set into motion.
Pages 140-142 of `Urban History of India: a Case Study’, written by DeepaliBarua, mention the panic that
seized European tea planters, Christian missionaries and British civil and military officials in August-September,
1857. Major Hannay, commandant of the 1st ALI at Dibrugarh wrote a letter to the Commissioner of Assam
detailing how the Sepoys in his regiment—both Manipuris and Hindustanis—had made common cause and are
MohimaBoroProchanda entertained Usubar, Laochiklang and MaaluSikhla at Dibrugarh and established
linkages with Narendrajit Singh, the Manipur prince residing at Cachar who had sworn loyalty to Bahadur Shah
Zafar. A wary Major Hannay began assembling non-Hindustani Sepoys from different detachments—like the
Gurkha contingent located at Sadiya—to Dibrugarh.
In his 29th August 1857 mail to the Governor-General in Calcutta, the British Commissioner of Assam asked for
immediate help “to save the province from impending danger”. Accordingly the Governor-General-in-Council
despatched a purely European force under Lt. Davis of the Naval Brigade to Dibrugarh.
However, just before the 29th August 1857 secret Sepoy meeting, HarnathBarua, the unpopular, pro-British
daroga of Sibsagar, intercepted some letters sent by ManiramDewan. Along with Hindustani Sepoys like Ram
Tohal, Balwant, Kriparam, Chandan Singh and Hidayat Ali—Sheikh Bhikun and Noor Muhammad—the
Assamese Muslim Subedars of the 1st ALI—were arrested. Later, a military court martial sentenced them to
transportation for life—BholaPandey and SheoSahai Singh managed to escape.
Apprehending KandarpeswarSingha at Jorhat, British authorities caught ManiramDewan and PiyaliBarua as
well. Soon several of Maniram’s associates, mentioned in Part II of this series, were also arrested one by one.
The Bodo-Bengali-Sutiya revolutionary group however reached Guwahati by October, 1857. En-route the
Kalitas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalita_caste) of middle Assam joined them. At Guwahati—led by Paltan
Singh—a distant relative of Raja Kunwar Singh of Arrah—more than 100 Hindustani Sepoys of the 2ndALI
defected—this fairly big group of Hindustani-PoorabiaSepoys, Bodo and Sutiya warriors began harassing the
`loyal’ 2nd ALI detachments sent against them. Chegan and BedanSutiya—as well as MachiramKalita and
Fear of civil outbreaks in middle and eastern/upper Assam areas immobilized the naval force under Lt. Davis
that arrived at Dibrugarh on 2nd October. Madhuram Koch, a proud Koch Rajbongshi village headman, now
working as a labour contractor, led the labour discontent.
1857 in Meghalaya, Manipur and other areas of North-East
Citing new documentary evidence, an article written by David Syiemlieh, published in the 15th June 2007 issue
of People’s Democracy, discusses 1857 events in North-East and East Bengal: “when news of the mutiny at
Meerut reached Chittagong in November that year, three hundred sepoys of the 34th Native Infantry posted in
the port town mutinied...from Sylhet they entered Cachar where the Sylhet Light Infantry confronted them...at
Latu a battle took place...Major Byng, the Commandant of the Sylhet Light Infantry was killed...the mutineers
Then part of the Sylhet district, Latu came under Karimganj district of Assam, India after partition. Till today, 26
graves of brave Hindu and Muslim soldiers like Rizbul Khan, Sher Khan, Shamsher Khan and Ayodhya Prasad
Singh—all 34th BNI Sepoys from Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—can be seen at the battle site.
Jaintia and Khasi chiefs from Meghalaya—smarting under the tyranny of treaties imposed by British
authorities—also began sending emissaries to establish contacts both with 34th BNI Sepoys and the
Laochakling led Guwahati band.
WJ Allen, Judge of the Board of Revenue, entrusted by the British establishment to report on the
administration of the Cherra Political Agency cites specifically the case of Raja Rajendra Singh, the former
Jaintia Raja, who was planning an uprising in consort with the Cherra Syiem (chief). According to Allen, “the
Government’s first reaction to this report was that Rajendra Singh should be seized if possible and that he be
sent to Calcutta (http://pd.cpim.org/2007/0715/07152007_1857.htm)”.
Apart from Jaintias, Khasis of Meghalaya had also fought the British in the pre-1857 phase. In the 1820s, U
Tirot Sing, the Khasi king of Khadsawphra Syiemship, locked horns with the British over construction of a road
supposed to link Brahmaputra valley with the Surma valley (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tirot_Sing).
The Singhpos of Assam and present-day Arunachal Pradesh had also tried to help Ahom aristocrats like
GomadharKonwar, RupachandKonwar, PiyaliBarphukan and JuramDhingiaBarua during the 1828-29 antiBritish rebellion in upper Assam.
34th BNI Sepoys and the Guwahati band—who quickly ran out of resources—were able to make a gallant
stand against the well equipped, formidable Sylhet Light Infantry—plus British army detachments—
accompanied by pro-British Kuki levies—in two battles fought in the Hailakandi area—in late December, 1857.
In January 1858—along with Narendrajit Singh—the Cachar based Manipuri Prince—the Guwahati band and
34thBNI Sepoys—plus several other tribal forces which had joined them en route—entered Manipur. There,
with the active cooperation of Pangal Muslims of Manipur, another chapter of the 1857 war began that lasted
till the Anglo-Manipuri war of 1891.
Back in the Barak valley, Gonjer Ali, the Zamindar of Pratapgarh, and Ghaus Ali Khan, the Zamindar of
Pritampashawere punished for helping anti-British warriors.
The Dibrugarh rising
In February 1858, ManiramDewan and PiyaliBarua were hanged at Jorhat jail after a brief trial—immediately,
under the leadership of Madhuram Koch, tea plantation workers struck work in Lakhimpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh
and Sibsagar. It was only after the arrest of Madhuram Koch that the British were able to restore `normalcy’.
At Dibrugarh, where Lt. Davis’ detachment stood isolated amidst a rising sea of hostility, British soldiers
snapped. Dibrugarh fell victim to a massive hike in prices of essential commodities; after drunk sailors began
assaulting the civil population in the immediate aftermath of the Jorhat hangings, Dibrugarh people rose in
The Late 19th Century in Assam
In the post-1857 period, peasant outbreaks became endemic. The 1861 Phulaguri-Nowgong uprising was
followed by fairly large peasant uprising in Kamrup (Rangiya and Lachima) and Darrang (Pathuraghat) in the
1890s. Several Marwari brokers, revenue collectors appointed by the British, and Police officials were killed.
At the socio-political level, JagganathBarua, a tea planter, established the Jorhat SarvajanikSabha in 1875.
RadhanathChangkakati attended the 1887 Madras session of the Indian National Congress (INC). Haridas Ray, a
substantial cultivator, participated in the 1889 Bombay session. MeghnathBannerjee, a Hindu-Bengali medical
practitioner represented Assam in the 1892 Nagpur session.
Assam became a separate province in 1873; writings in Assamese went hand in hand with Bengali in the
region. The two languages were hailed as sisters. Mafijuddin Ahmed and Zainur Ali were part of the litterateurth
professional class of the late 19th and early 20 century.
BhabakantaBarua, ManiramDewan’s grandson, started Durga Puja celebrations in Dibrugarh, Assam; with
generous help from Muslim and Bengali friends, Bhabakant built a common hall for mass celebration at Panch
North-East in the late 19th Century
In Meghalaya, earlier, immediately after 1857, Rajendra Singh’s followers—the Dolois and Sirdas the BEIC tried
to lure—confronted the British in 1860 under the leadership of U Kiang Nongbah
Led by, Pa Togan Nengminza in 1872, Garos began an armed struggle. Then, in the 1890s, at Mizoram,
Ropuiliani, the first woman chief of Mizoram, inherited the anti-British tradition of 1850s Mizo warriors like
Restlessness in present-day Arunachal Pradesh saw TajiMideren, leader of the Mishmi tribe, killing three
British officers near the Dikran River in 1905. Taji died on the gallows at Tezpur in 1918. Assam was dragged
into the 1906 partition of Bengal controversy by the British. British Assam authorities tried dividing people on
Assam in the 20th Century
Assam retained its status as an Independent province. But the damage had been done. By the 1910s, Bengalis
and Assamese were celebrating Durga Puja separately; the Lucknow pact of 1916 between Mahatama Gandhi
and Ali Brothers—and the subsequent growth of mass level nationalism—revived elements of unity.
Forces in Assam—represented by the Assam Association (formed in 1906)—who flirted with the idea of staying
aloof from the INC—understood that the province’s interests would be served best if they joined the national
Formed in 1916, the Assam Students Conference took the lead during the Non-Cooperation movement. By
1921, Assam Congress Provincial Congress Committee came under the leadership of Prasanna Kumar Barua
and MaulaviFaiznur Ali.
In August, 1921, Mahatama Gandhi paid his first visit to Assam. He landed in Dibrugarh. Ali brothers, Azad
Sobhani and Jamnalal Bajaj accompanied him. Ali brothers addressed Muslims and Jamnalal Bajaj held
meetings with Marwaris, looked upon with suspicion by the local populace because of their pro-British role in
During the Non-cooperation movement, Tarun Ram Phukan and BishnuramMedhi (a member of the Kalita
caste and Assam’s second post-Independence Chief Minister) emerged as new leaders in Assam. By the early
20thcentury, Ahoms—who once ruled upper Assam—had been reduced to the backward status. But in 1921-
22, the Secretary of the DibrugarhAhom association took over as the President of the local Congress
ArjunGhatowar, a tea garden labourer of the Dibru-Darrang Tea Estate, emerged as a labour leader with
Congress leanings. Massive labour strikes hit upper Assam as ArjunGhatowar was arrested.
The abrupt withdrawal of the Non-Cooperation Movement by Mahatama Gandhi proved catastrophic for
communal harmony in India. But in Assam, communal harmony received a boost because of the strong roots
of Jamiat-e-Ulema Hind. Formed in 1919 this organization of Muslims of the reformist-progressive Waliullahite
(not Wahabi) Deobandi School spoke in favour of Hindu-Muslim unity. Jamiat also, was against the Muslim
League and what would later, in the 1930s, take the shape of the pernicious `two nation theory’. The Civil
Disobedience movement (1930-1934) was a relatively smooth affair in Assam.
North-East in the 20th Century
In the 1920s and 1930s, revolutionary enthusiasm reached a feverish pitch in present-day Nagaland. The
messianic movement unleashed by HaipouJadonang combined religious, social and political activities; the
concept of a `Naga Raj’ gained credence.
On 29thAugust, 1931, Jadonang was hanged; the mantle of Naga leadership was picked by Rani Gaidinliu, a
charismatic girl-revolutionary who joined the Naga movement in 1929, when she was only 13. By the time she
turned 16 in 1932, Gaidinliu had achieved cult status. In that very year, she was captured by the British and
sentenced for life. In 1937, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited Gaidinliu in Shillong Jail, and personally gave her
the `Rani’ title.
1940s in Assam and the Barak Valley
In Assam, formation of the Syed Sadullah (Muslim League) led coalition Government in Assam after elections
following the 1935 Government of India Act, did little to calm grassroots unrest. The emergence of a second
coalition government under GopinathBardoloi, the Congress leader, was too short-lived to do anything
In this vacuum, labour movements and Communist Party tactics began gaining momentum.
KedarnathGoswami, the Socialist President of the Dibrugarh Congress Committee, led strikes of steamer ghat
workers against the Assam Railway and Trading Company.
A new generation of Congress leaders with Socialist-Communist leanings—like BenoyBhushanChakravarty and
NilmaniBarthakur—gained credence. In 1938, strike by Tea workers spread to twenty one gardens leading to
panic amongst the European Planters.
Incredibly, in 1939, even the non-unionised Digboi oil refinery workers resorted to a strike. Chowka Singh, a
follower of Subhash Chandra Azad, had been mobilising oil refinery workers for some time. JawahalLal Nehru
also gave speeches at Digboi condemning capitalist exploitation. The oil sector strike began in 1939 and was so
successful that eight platoons of Assam Rifles had to be brought in to crush it.
The tumultuous era was here to stay; during the Quit India Movement students attacked several symbols of
government, uprooted telegraph lines, exploded bombs, and conducted underground operations. The 1942
Quit India movement martyr’s list includes names such as Madan Chandra Burman and ReutaramBodo (both
tribals) of Palasbari, LakshamikantHazarika, ThagiramSut, BolaramSut and BogeshwariPhukanan of Burhampur,
KhahuliNath, and seven others, of Dhekiajuli. Women comrades were at the forefront in 1942. The martyrdom
of teenager Kanaklata at Gahpur and several others is still remembered with pride.
It is instructive that Muslim freedom fighters like Abdul MutlibMazumdar prevented the inclusion of the Barak
valley into East Pakistan. They opposed the Muslim League tooth and nail. The nation and people of Assam
owe a debt to such personalities.
Assam: Illegal immigration is not the issue
19 September 2012, 10:21 AM IST
Assam: The very idea of India under attack - Part IV
(Continued from Part III)
Barring Sikkim, the British India Assam province (formed in 1873 and then again in 1912 after a 6 year,
unsuccessful merger with East Bengal during the failed British move to divide Bengal in 1906) comprised all
areas of today’s North-East region of India. Post-1947, from 1960s onwards, when Nagaland acquired separate
statehood, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh achieved statehood, through an
intricate process, that reached fruition only by the late 1980s.
Undivided Assam was home to 200 tribes out of the 430 recognised tribes in India. Back then, an estimated 25
per cent of the North-East's 31 million inhabitants belonged to tribal groups.
Presently, Scheduled Tribes (comprising of 23 notified groups), form 13 per cent of Assam’s population
(around 30 million). Out of the total ST population, Bodos constitute 40.9 per cent, making them the single
largest tribal component of Assam’s tribal mosaic that includes a host of plains and hill STs like Miris, Karbis,
Rabhas, Kacharis, Lalungs, Barmans, Borokachars, Deoris, Hajais, Mechs, Dimasas, Hajongs, Singhphhos,
Khamptis, Garos, Chakmas, Hmars, Khasis, Jaintias, Syntengs, Lyngngams, and Kukis.
The 1980s in Assam
In the 1980s, the All Assam Students Union (AASU), began a movement targeted specifically against nonAssamese, chiefly Bengali and Hindi-Urdu speaking Hindus and Muslims. The AASU metamorphosed into the
Assam GanaParishad (AGP), which ruled Assam for two terms and joined the BJP dominated NDA Government
Despite holding initial promise—like addressing Assam’s backwardness—the AASU led movement degenerated
into chauvinism. Thousands of Bengali Muslim men, women and children, living since ages in Assam, were
killed in the horrific Nellie massacre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nellie_massacre). Complex factors—
including the dubious role of forces bearing loose affiliation with AASU or downright communal entities like
RSS that had infiltrated both the Assam state machinery and AASU—lay behind Nellie. The massacre marked
the grim culmination of the identity politics of the era, started by the British in the 1830s.
Since Nellie, displacement of alleged `migrants’ became widespread all over the North-East. Following is a list
of displaced communities in post-Independence Assam, given by M BurhanuddinQasmi, a Mumbai based
Assamese intellectual, in an article written for the `Radiance Weekly’: (a) Na-Asamiya or the New Assamese
Muslims, Bengalis, Santhals and Nepalis from Assam; (b) the Bengalis from Tripura, (c) the Reangs from
Mizoram; (d) the Nagas, Paite and Kukis from Manipur, (e) Chakmas from Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram
Bodos began demanding a separate State from 1980s onwards. Broadly, there were two components—mass
and armed struggle—in the Bodo movement. Initially, organizations like All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) were
joined in by several Bodo underground groups. Details of the internecine fight between Bodo groups—leading
to several assassinations of Bodo leaders by Bodos themselves—are beyond the scope of this article
(seehttp://frontlineonnet.com/stories/20120824291601000.htm). But it can be safely assumed that led by
HagramyMohilary, the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) emerged as the dominant group by 2003. Earlier, the
Government of Assam and India had signed a Bodo peace accord in 1993 with the then leading Bodo outfits.
Later, in the 1990s, other Bodo groups—including the BLT—denounced the accord and resumed armed
struggle. In 1998, severe BodoVs non-Bodo violence erupted in lower Assam. Bengali Hindus were killed in
The 2003 BTC accord
In 2003, a new accord initiated by the NDA Government (with the approval of the Tarun Gogoi led Congress
Government in Assam), created a Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) having power over 40 subjects—excluding
law and order—in four contiguous quarters of Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalgiri and Chirang, forming a compact
27,100 square kilometre Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BATD) area. These four boroughs in turn, were
of Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon,Barpeta, Nalbari, Kamrup, Darrang and Sonitpur of lower Assam.
The BATD thus comprised almost 35% of the total land area in the Assam State. The Sixth Schedule in the
Indian Constitution provides for the creation of autonomous districts/areas/regions/councils within a State.
Assam already has functioning autonomous councils in North Cachar Hills and KarbiAnglong in Assam’s Barak
But the 2003 NDA Government included a strange clause in the BTC agreement. Clause 4.1 of the agreement
says that “provision of Para 1(2) of Sixth Schedule regarding Autonomous Regions will not be applicable to
Now, if one looks at the Sixth Schedule, the said Para allows for formation of autonomous regions within
autonomous Districts in areas where several tribes live together. Bodos make up for 30% of the total
population in the four districts and 3082 villages marked as coming within the BTAD. Clause 3.2 of the BTC
agreement says that 95 villages—apart from the 3082 already included—would also form part of BTAD—
provided they possess “not less than 50%”of tribal population.
It is these 95 villages where violence is rearing its head again and again. One can see why—tribal population of
these villages is well below 50%. According to some estimates tribal population is as low 25% in these villages.
The BTC agreement specifically states that no Indian/ non-tribal citizen shall be barred from inheriting or
purchasing land in the BTAD areas. So owning property by non-tribal people in BTAD is legal.
Severe lacuna in the BTC agreement can be seen in two respects. First, though the agreement is specifically
with the Bodos, a general definition of the tribal population has been mentioned in an indiscriminate manner.
In fact, though rights of non-tribals are classified, tribes other than Bodos living in the BTAD areas have not
been specified in terms of their rights and privileges. It was this lacuna that led to the 2008 violence, where
Bodo groups attacked SanthalAdivasis of Bengali-Bihari origin who have been living in lower Assam for the past
One may infer from this that the 2003 BTC agreement gave preferential treatment to Bodos. The politics of
that period—wherein the BJP led NDA Government was trying to woo Bodos as a political force—definitely
played a part. It is instructive that it was during NDA rule—with RSS backing—that British era identity politics
was given a formal, legislative shape.
Problems of the RSS mindset
Bodoland politics expose the RSS mindset. The RSS likes to projects itself as a `nationalist’ force and an
`uncompromising’ pillar of Indian unity and integrity (ektaaurakhandata). But the RSS believes in xenophobicright reactionary-chauvinistic—not democratic—nationalism. In the Indian context, where diverse polities with
different ethnicities operate, RSS often finds itself in the classic Catch 22 situation. Its adherence to a larger,
homogenous- prejudicial idea of India comes in conflict with the variety of right reactionary sub-nationalisms
that attract it naturally! An alliance between a national and a regional right reactionary force is obvious—as
was seen in the 2003 understanding of the NDA with BLT cadres. At the same time, this unity represents a
contradiction because the regional right reactionary trend tends to gravitate towards separatism. And
separatism of any form corrodes the very idea of monolithic India that the RSS seeks to champion!
ULFA also after all is a product of AASU and AGP type politics, which has a clear cut alliance with the BJP. The
Bodo situation reveals not only the limitations—but the anti-national element—of RSS type thinking. Why is it
that other, democratic movements for autonomy in Assam—like the JayantaRongpi led undivided ASDC in
KarbiAnglong— never ever sided with the RSS or the BJP?
The current BTC comprises of 40 elected and 6 nominated (by the governor of Assam) members. Out of 40
elected seats, 30 are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (not Bodos exclusively), 5 for non-tribal communities and 5
are left open for all sections. The agreement provides for a 12 member Executive Council with adequate
representation for non-tribal communities. Currently, HagramaMohilary—the erstwhile chief/militant of BLT—
is BTC’s Chief Executive.
Roots of the current violence in Assam
But what is the hidden truth behind current violence in Assam? The BTC agreement clearly states Bodo militias
and other armed groups will surrender their arms. Law and order in BTAD does not come under BTC
jurisdiction. But the fact is that several Bodo militants were allowed to keep their arms.
A strange political practice has caught root in Assam and the North-East. When one militant group—
representing a certain ethnic identity—enters into an agreement with the Government of Assam or India or
both—another one sprouts in no time. It can be said that insurgency has become a form of employment in
Assam, a State which records one of the highest unemployment figures in India. Otherwise also, thekedaari—
grabbing road and other government contracts—is one of the most lucrative businesses—something which
young people easily take to due to lack of an alternative—in Assam. Several ex-militants enter
into thekedaari after joining the mainstream.
One of reasons behind the current violence is actually a petty conflict between two thekedaars who used to
work together in the BTC area. Individual violence in this instance seems to have led to chain reactions that in
time acquired dimensions of colossal human tragedy (death of more than 100 and the displacement of over
Right after the 2003 BTC agreement with the BLT, a little known outfit formed in the mid-1980s—the National
Democratic Front of Bodos (NDFB)—began a struggle aimed at establishing Bodoland, a sovereign country. At
one point, the NDFB occupied terrorist camps in South Bhutan. The Indian army had to conduct intensive
operations with the co-operation of the Bhutan Government.
Strange Phenomenon of Militant Camps
In 2005, a `ceasefire’ agreement was reached between the NDFB and the Assam Government. According to
this agreement, NDFB militants—holding arms—were confined to camps in certain designated areas. The
Indian army was supposed to protect these designated camps and armed militants were not allowed to cross
marked geographical boundaries.
Similar designated militant camps—with full Government protection—exist all over North-East. Kuki and Naga
militants—responsible for the butchering of hundreds of Manipuris—have also lived in such designated camps.
In 2005, in the KarbiAnglong area, Dima militants killed and displaced hundreds of Karbis. Most of Dima
attackers emerged from the designated DimaHalamDaoga (DHD) camps. Led by PrithviMajhi, the then Assam
assembly speaker, an investigative team specifically blamed the DHD designated camp at Dhansari in a mixed
The 25 October 2005 issue of the The Telegraph quoted Raj Bhavan sources as pointing the needle of
suspicion in the direction of G. C. Langthasa, the then Assam minister of Hill areas, mines and minerals, animal
husbandry, veterinary and PWD. The Telegraph article further wrote that “Langthasa is under suspicion for
visiting DimaHalamDaoga (DHD) camps in KarbiAnglong just before the violence escalated”!
During the current violence, Prafulla Brahma and other Bodo leaders were seen visiting designated NDFB
camps. Both BLT and the NDFB clashed several times in the 2003 period. Before 1990, most Bodos were
Hindus. Now unofficial figures claim that the rise of Christian missionaries in the area has resulted in more
than 15% Bodos being converted to Christianity. The NDFB is supposed to be dominated by Christian Bodos—
so, by encouraging separatist tendencies, RSS—the arch `Hindu’ organization—has actually weakened
Hinduism and given a fillip to Christianity!
In 2006, HagramaMohilary formed the BodoPeoples Front to contest elections. In the 2011 assembly elections,
BPF worked as a Congress ally. BPF even has a Minister in the present Gogoi cabinet.
While concluding it is important to bear in mind Assam’s history and the following points:
1. Assam’s indigenous, composite culture has to be made the bedrock of a new politics of development,
democracy and employment generation in Assam—old frameworks are dated. The thekedaari culture needs to
2. The question of illegal immigration is a non-issue. It is raised frequently by vested interests which do not
encourage people to people unity in Assam and want to usurp power by playing the sectarian-identity politics
card of the British era. After all, beyond a ridiculously low number, the AGP, which came to power in Assam for
two terms, was unable to furnish proof of illegal immigration.
3. Yet, to satisfy charged emotions and perceptions, a cut off date—say 1971—can be proposed. People and
families found to be residing in Assam after that date can be deported.
4. Government of India, Assam—and all political parties—should desist from encouraging sectarian-exclusivist
trends in ethnic movements—flirting with sectarianism leads to distortions and ultimately, separatism.
5. The proud traditions and history of each and every tribal and ethnic group needs to be respected.
Democratic trends within ethnic movements—like the KarbiAnglong based undivided ASDC—which seek a
solution of their problems within the framework of the Indian Constitution—should be encouraged.
6. Political parties should desist from the practice of forming designated camps for militants. Like Mafia
elements in UP, Bihar, MP, Jharkhand—even Maharashtra and Gujarat—these camps work as Independent
entities. Militants residing in these camps treat their areas like a master would treat his servant in the feudal
era. It is as if they possess a license to kill and maim hapless men, women and children—not only of `rival’
ethnicities—but their own people as well. The promise of security—given by the Indian State to its own
citizens—gets reduced to a farce.
7. Again like Mafia elements—who enjoy State and political patronage and actually work to perpetrate an
oblique form of State terror on ordinary citizens—the sectarian militants of ethnic movements should be seen
8. Sectarian militants of one tribal/ethnic group should not be used to suppress the democratic aspirations of
others. The political parties have indulged in these games. Sooner or later, they will have to pay the price.
9. Secular-nationalist forces need to launch a severe campaign to root out anti-Muslim and anti-minority
perceptions in Assam.