If the three ingredients - the man, the moment and the milieu-constitute the recipe for human greatness, these too occasionally conspire to bring about individual tragedies. Maniram Dutta Barua (1806-1858), popularly known as Maniram Dewan, undoubtedly the greatest Assamese of the first half of the 19th century is a poignant illustration of this truism.
First, the man. Maniram was born on April 17, 1806, into a family tracing its lineage to the early 16th century, when it had migrated from Kanauj to Assam. His paternal forebears had held high offices in the courts of the Swargadeos, or Ahom kings, "(my) ancestors ...., for 300 years," so wrote he in a petition to A.J. Moffat Mills, judge of the Sudder Court who visited Assam in 1853, "were Chang Kagutees, .... when the country fell into the hands of the Burmese, your petitioner's father was upheld in the office and dignity of a Bar Kaguttee..." Maniram himself became a confidante and counsellor of Purundar Since ha, the titular Ahom king elevated to the throne in 1833, and his son Kameswar Singha and grandson Kandarpeswar Singha. Despite being Kayasthas, his family had assumed the status of nobility under the Ahoms; "rank and respectability" not only enhanced Maniram's influence on the court and the subjects, but also imbued in him a fierce sense of independence and patriotism, as also an aristocratic pride that would break rather than bend.
True, his petitions to Moffat Mills, as also those on behalf of Kandarpeswar Singha to the Supreme Government at Calcutta, were couched in rhetoric of utmost subservience. But this was in accordance with the prevalent practice. One must remember that the bourgeois `moderates' who founded the Congress in the post-1857 period and initiated the thrust towards India's independence too had phrased their petitions in a similar, ingratiating manner. Maniram, in fact, belongs to this middle-class stratum notwithstanding his aristocratic lineage, and shares many of its traits. While, in the rest of India, the nucleus of this class was formed by zamindars, traders, professionals and intellectuals, in Assam, due to the absence of a fully defined trading-class, it was drawn from the landed gentry as well as service holders of the Ahom royalty
A product of the British conquest of India, the Indian middle-class was infused with the spirit of enterprise and a hankering for progress absent in the feudalistic medieval order it replaced and provided leadership in every field. In Assam, where the commercial ethos was almost entirely absent, it imbibed capitalist values from the British and, in a somewhat idiosyncratic inversion of the all India pattern, took up the role of businessmen and gave a new direction to Assamese entrepreneurship.
Maniram was, so to say, at the very fount of this stream of bourgeois formation, endowed with its intelligence, enlightened progressivism and enterprising spirit, qualities that the British, on the lookout for natives capable of aiding them in running the administration, recognised soon enough. From the very commencement of British rule he was "consulted as to the internal resources of the whole province as well as its in come expenditure; and subsequently appointed by Captain Nobeen (Nueufville), Sheristadar and Tuhseeldar of the District." Encomiums about his intelligence and enterprise are reiterated in British records.
Yet a vital difference did exist; the post 1857 middle class thrived under British patronage and owed allegiance to the foreign masters. Its leading lights were cooperators with the British and received Rai Sahib or Rai Bahadur titles for their loyalty. The nature of Maniram the man, on the other hand, and the milieu in which he had been reared, did not permit subservience. This lies at the core of his tragedy. That he later chose to compete with European planters to open out tea gardens in the teeth of opposition is telling testimony to his courage and independent spirit.
No doubt, in the early phase of British rule, Maniram does appear to have cooperated with the conquerors. But it was the moment rather than the man which dictated such an attitude.
He grew up during the bleakest period of Assam's history, when the state-machinery, buffeted by the Moamariya uprisings, had totally collapsed due to subsequent Burmese incursions. He was barely 11 years old when the first Burmese hordes swarmed over the land, killing, burning, unleashing a reign of terror the likes of which few regions of India had seen. Thus, when the British fought them during the Firsts. Burmese War (1824-26), and succeeded in wresting Assam through the Yandabu Treaty (1826), not merely the royalty and upper class, but the people of entire Assam, looked up to them as saviours. Taken in by the conqueror's assertion that they would renounce all claims of conquest over Assam and her dependencies" once the Burmese had been ousted, and restore them to the rightful ruler, the youthful Maniram could be no exception, and viewed them as a temporary presence.
His myopia was prolonged by the fact that the British, after dithering for years, did install Purundar Singha in 1833 as a tributary native rule of Upper Assam. Maniram's association with them had begun much earlier. During the 1817-1824 phase of Burmese reign of terror, his family had fled along with the royals to the safety of Bengal, where he first made acquaintance with the Europeans. By the time the family returned in 1824 with the British, the latter had been sufficiently impressed with his acumen and ability to appoint him in 1828, at a relatively young age of 22, as Sheristadar and Tuhseeldar. Afterwards, when he was made a borbhandar or Prime Minister by Purundar Singha, they readily acknowledged his authority to negotiate on behalf of the Ahom Swargaded.
The rapport did not last long, even less Maniram's myopia! At first the British had balked at annexing Upper Assam because Burmese atrocities had depopulated the region and they could not earn adequate revenue. But the Opium Wars with China had endangered the lucrative tea-trade with that nation and the East
India Company desperately required an alternative source of tea. The discovery of wild tea bushes in Assam, and the presence of vast tracts of jungles which could be opened out for tea planting, made them forget their pledge to re-establish a native government. Thus, on the pretext of misgovernment and default in payment of tribute, Purundar Singha was deposed in 1833 and direct administration of his realm passed into British hands.
The ugly face of British imperialism now lay exposed. Ever loyal to king and country Maniram fought tooth and nail on behalf of the king. His relationship with the foreigners had suffered during the short period of Purundar Singha's rein, primarily because he had sought to speak as an equal before them, souring the `good opinion' they had of him. When his king was deposed, Maniram resigned from the posts of Sheristadar and Tuhseeldar, alienating the new masters further. He was divested of most of the privileges accuring to him as a borbhandar, including the twelve beesoyas under him.
While the loss of power and prestige left him undaunted, the entrepreneur within him now came to the fore. He was perceptive enough to understand the motives of the colonialists in annexing Assam, and that tea was the industry of the future. Most European historians of the brew do not acknowledge Maniram's contributions towards the setting up of one of the most lucrative industries in the annals of colonialism. The truth is that it was he who first brought the existence of indigenous Assam tea to the notice of the British. In his pamphlet Tea in Assam (1877) Samuel Baildon does give him credit, though somewhat inaccurately Stanley Baldwin also mentions him in his book, Assam's Tea.
Maniram's association with tea began even while the British were contemplating its cultivation in Assam. It was Maniram Dewan whom Charles Alexander Bruce contacted in January, 1825, and was directed to the Singpho chief with whom his brother, Robert Bruce, had contracted for a supply of tea plants and seeds. In 1835, when Lord Bentick's Tea Committee came to Assam to study the possibilities of tea cultivation, Maniram met Dr. Wallich on behalf of Purandar Singha and placed a memorandum before him regarding the prospects. He was also the first to open out private tea gardens in India, long before Lt. Colonel F S. Hannay Commander of the Ist Assam Light Infantry, who is considered to be the first to have done so by European historians.
Aware of the lucrative opportunities offered, Maniram was determined to stake his share in the tea industry But he had to learn the techniques of tea cultivation and manufacture before striking out on his own. This, rather than the paltry Rs 200 per month he received, was the reason why he joined the first tea company in India, the Assam Company, as a Dewan or land-agent in 1839.
Having acquired the rudiments of tea-craft, Maniram Dewan, as he came to be known now, resigned from the Assam Company in 1845 to open out his own tea plantations. The effrontery of the native upstart in daring to compete against the white masters invited vehement protest from the European tea planters. Since it could not legally prevent him, the administration put numerous obstacles in his path. His application for land grant at the nominal price offered to Europeans was summarily refused, and he had to purchase land at great cost to open out two tea plantations, Cinnamore at Jorhat, and Selung (Singlo) in Sibsagar. His landed property at Jorhat now contains the Cinnamora Tea Estate and Tocklai Experimental Station. His residence was where the factory is located now and is even today called the Dewan plot or Dewan number. Thus, by the time Hannay came into the picture, Maniram already had two running gardens. His success was met with hostility by both the administration and planters.
They did not have to wait long! It was not merely personal travails which caused Maniram's disillusionment with British rule and a
burning hatred of the Boga Bongals. A true patriot, he could transcend individual concerns and note the evils that subjugation by foreigners had brought to his beloved motherland. Not content to keep his thoughts to himself, he boldly put them into words in a second petition submitted to Moffat Mills in 1853: “the people, he wrote, "have been reduced to the most abject and hopeless state of misery from the loss of their fame,
honour, rank, caste, employment etc... The abolition of old customs and establishment in their stead of Courts and unjust taxation; secondly, the introduction of opium in the district, for the gratification of opium-eating people, who are daily becoming more unfit for agricultural pursuits; thirdly, the making of this Province khas and discontinu-
ing the poojahs at kamakya, in consequence of which the country has become subject to various calamities, the people to every species of suffering and distress, and the annual
crops to recurring failure. Under these several inflictions, the population of Assam is becoming daily more miserable .... by the introduction into the Province of new customs, numerous Courts, an unjust system of taxation, an objectionable treatment of Hill tribes,theconsequences of which has been a constant state of warfare with them.
Under the revenue settlement of Military officers, while a number of respectable Assamese are out of employ, the inhabitants of Marwar and Bengalees from Sylhet have been appointed to Mouzadariship; and for us respectable Assamese to become ryots to
such foreigners is a source of deep mortification ...."
The panacea offered by Maniram is the goal he strove for ever since the annexation of Assam, and reveals his unflinching loyalty to the Ahom rulers: "In the shasters it is written that
rulers ought to practice righteousness and govern their subjects with justice while studying their welfare. These are not now done ...May we therefore pray that, after due investigation and reflection, the former native administration be reintroduced..."
Native rule, of course, was furthest from the minds of the imperialists! Instead, the petition alerted them to the dangers posed by such critical elements and Maniram became the administration's foremost suspect. Rather than take any heed of his plea, Mills dismissed the petition as a "curious document!"
By 1857, as the rest of India, Assam too was a cauldron of simmering discontent against British rule, with disaffected elements awaiting an opportunity to overthrow the white usurpers. The Sepoy Mutiny, regarded by Indian historians as the First War of Independence, appeared to provide just that. Maniram was in Calcutta in May, 1857, when North India and parts of the East flared into a rebellious blaze, petitioning the government on behalf of Kandarpeswar Singha for restoration of his kingdom. When the news that Bahadur Shah Zafar had been proclaimed emperor and dethroned rulers were wresting back lost territories reached him, Maniram saw another route to a goal that petitions had not been able to reach.
Through a series of carefully coded letters he informed Kandarpeswar of the developments, and urged him to rise in rebellion against the British with the help of sepoys at Dibrugarh and Golaghat. Accordingly, a plot was hatched in the royal abode, influential individuals were roped in and arms and weapons gathered. The group contacted Subedars Nur Mahammad and Bhikun Sheikh as well as some Jemadars of the sepoys and obtained their support. The date of the uprising was set to coincide with Durga Puja, when Maniram would return to Assam and crown Kandarpeswar as the Swargadeo.
Unfortunately, due to betrayal by the prince's own relatives, the British authorities uncovered the plot before it could be put into operation. On September 7, 1857, Kandarpeswar was arrested along with his accomplices. Maniram was taken into custody at Calcutta and brought to Jorhat to stand trial. Altogether 30 individuals were tried by Captain Charles Holroyd, district officer of Sibsagar, appointed special commissioner to preside over the `Conspiracy Case'. The trial itself was a farce, based not on hard proof but hearsay evidence of dubious witnesses, particularly that of Haranath Parbatia Barua, daroga of Sibsagar. The accused were neither given a fair hearing nor allowed to cross examine witnesses; Holroyd was both the jury and judge, without allowing the accused the rights of appeal in another court.
Though not tried along with the others, Kandarpeswar Singha was first sent to Alipur jail, and finally interned at Guwahati. Dutiram Barua, Bahadur Gaonbura and Sheikh Formud Ali were exiled to the Andamans. Two Assamese women, Rupahi Aideo and Lumboi Aideo, had their properties confiscated. Maniram was identified as the kingpin of the conspiracy and, along with Peali Barua, another member of the group, hanged on February 16, 1858, at the Jorhat jail.
People from all over flocked to Maniram's residence that fateful day to bid Peali and him a final farewell. A pall of gloom settled over the realm after the hangings, but his detractors rejoiced. The European planters in a joint letter to the administration recommended that the police officer who had arrested Maniram be rewarded and the Dewan's property confiscated and auctioned. A vindictive administration was all too willing to oblige them, the bulk of his landed estate, including Cinnamora and Selung tea gardens, being purchased at a throwaway price by George Williamson. The `taming' of the spirited Dewan was a two-pronged warning. It sent out an ominous signal to Assamese entrepreneurs that the White colonialists would brook on competition except on their own terms. It also served as a warning to disaffected elements that outspoken criticism and open defiance would not be tolerated, total subservience being the order of the day. The moment and the milieu had certainly been inauspicious for the spirited and independent-minded Maniram, leading to personal tragedy Yet, ironically, the man remained untamed! Within decades after his death he was magnified into a myth, enshrined in ballads and bihu-geets, his tale told and retold by the fireside. It was this legendary imageof a patriot who fearlessly took on the mighty British, of an untamed martyr who, having enjoyed his last puff on his favourite hookah at the foot of the gallows, went laughing to his death - which fired up the imagination of those who later waged the non-violent war for India's independence, and sounded the death-knell of imperialism.
(by Arup Kumar Dutta. Mr Dutta is the award-winning writer of Cha Garam The Tea Story)