History of Assam

From 4th Century B.C. to the Present Assam pioneered the writing of history in the Indian subcontinent. The Ahom kings were meticulous in recording history in hand-written tomes called buranjis.

The early history of Assam is obscure, although there are numerous references in the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the Tantras to a great kingdom known as Kamrup that encompassed the Brahmaputra Valley, Bhutan, Cooch Behar, and the Rangpur region in eastern Bengal. The legendary king Narakaxura, whose son Bhagadatta distinguished himself in the Mahabharata war, ruled Kamrupa from his capital at Pragjyotishpura, the site of a famous temple dedicated to the Tantric goddess Kamakhya, near modern Guwahati.

Among the early sources of the history of Assam is the writings of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen-tsang), who in 640 AD, attended the court of King Bhaskar Barman, an ally of the great Gupta monarch Harsha of Northern India. Stone and copper inscriptions dating from the seventh to the twelefth century indicate a succession of Hindu dynasties, but it is unclear to what extent the indigenous population of Kamrupa had embraced Hinduism beyond the royal patronage of brahmans.

On the eve of the movement of the Ahoms to Assam in the early thirteenth century, any semblance of a centralized kingship in the region had collapsed into a fragmented system of tribal polities and loose confederacies of petty Hindu rajas, called bhuyans. The Ahom, a Shan tribe from which the name Assam is probably derived, crossed the Patkoi Mountains from Burman in 1228 AD and by the sixteenth century had absorbed the Chutiya and Kachari kingdoms of the upper Brahmaputra, subdued the neighboring hill tribes, and integrated the bhuyans into the administrative apparatus of a feudalistic state.

During the latter part of the sixteenth and much of the seventeenth centuries, the Ahom repulsed a succession of Mughal invasions of their territory from Bengal as they moved to annex the eastern portion of the powerful Koch kingdom (1682) and to consolidate their rule over the entire Brahmaputra Valley. The kingdom of the Ahom reached its height under Rudra Xingha (reign, 1696-1714), the renowed military strategist and patron of the buranji, or Ahom chronicles. Rudra Xingha established extensive trade with Tibet and built the great city of Rangpur.

During the latter half of the sixteenth century, the revered gossain (teacher, saint) and Assamese cultural hero, Shankara Deva, inspired a popular Vaishnavite movement that sought to reform the esoteric practices of Tantric Hinduism and to limit the prerogatives of the brahmanas attached to the Ahom court. The Ahom came to sponsor an extensive network of Vaishnavite monasteries, whose monks played an important role in the reclamation of wastelands for wet-rice cultivation throughout the Brahmaputra Valley. Because of the repudiation of caste privilege, Shankara Deva's Vaishnavism appealed to the broad tribal base on which the Ahom had erected their state.

From 1769, disaffected population of the kingdom, under the leadership of their "Mahanta's" (religious leaders), took part in a series of uprisings against Ahom rule that devastated upper Assam. The leader of the first uprising was Ragha Maran. His two wives Radha and Rukmini also participated in the battles against the royal army. Afer their victory, Ragha's son Ramakata became the king and Ragha became the Barbarua. At the request of king Gaurinath Xingha (reign, 1780-1795), the Governor General of British India, dispatched a mission to Rangpur, the Ahom capital, which restored peace to the kingdom.

Civil strife, however, persisted. In 1817, the Burmese took advantage of the dissensions within the Ahom nobility and overran the Brahmaputra Valley. The Burmese, who came at the invitation of the Bar Phukan (Governor) Badan Chandra who conspired against the king, killed one in three person in Assam over a period of five years. Fearing incursions on their own territory, the British drove the Burmese from the Brahmaputra Valley, and under the conditions of the treaty of Yandaboo, between the Burmese and the British, annexed the Ahom kingdom in 1826. In 1838, all of northeast India became part of the Bengal Presidency of British India.

Rapid steps were then undertaken to develop the region for agricultural and commmercial revenues. The British dismantled the Ahom ruling structure, made Bengali the official language, and staffed administrative and professional positions with educated Bengali Hindus. Coal, limestone, and iron mines were opened and the government offered incentives to European entrepreuners to start plantations for the production of rubber, chinchona (from which quinine is derived), hemp, jute, and most importantly, tea. Because the native population of Assam was economically well-off and hence, unwilling to do plantation labor, the British developed and extensive system of contract labor that recruited impoverished tribals from southern Bihar, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh (current states). By the turn of the century, more than one-half million of these "coolies" were employed on 700 plantations producing 145 million pounds of tea annually.

In 1874, Assam was separated from Begal, and was constituted into a separate province by itself, with its capital in Shillong. In 1905, on the initiative of the British Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, the province was amalgamated with east Bengal following the paritition of Bengal into the west and the east. In 1912, the partition was nullified, and Assam was made a separate provinve once more.

Early in the twentieth century, the government of India, made vast tracts of land available to predominantly Muslim farmers from the provinces of East Bengal for settlement and cultivation. Nepalis were employed as diary herders and similarly encouraged to colonize new lands. The subsequent immigration of Indian traders, merchants and small-scale industrialists, such as Marwaris and Sikhs, stimulated capital development in Assam and strengthened its ties to India. As a result of this enormous influx of migrants, Assam has been the fastest-growing region of the Indian sub-continent throughout the twentieth century. It has transformed the ethnic composition of the state and gradually diminished the political and economic prerogatives of the native Assamese. As a result, ethnicity and migration have become prominent issues in Assamese politics.

Following Indian independence in 1947, the Assamese won control of their state assembly and launched a campaign to reassert the preeminence of Assamese culture in the region and improve employment opportunities for native Assamese. This led to the alienation of some tribal districts. In addition, many in the tribal districts were demanding independence from India. Thinking it would satisfy the tribals, the Indian Government parititioned former Assamese territories into the tribal states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh over the next twenty years. This was seen by Assamese leaders as a deliberate division of their constituency.

Following the Pakistan civil was in 1971, nearly two million Bengali Muslim refugees migrated to Assam. Their illegal settlement and then their electoral support for Indira Gandhi's Congress government further aggravated Assamese fears of Bengali cultural domination and central government ambitions to undermine Assamese regional autonomy.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were persistent disputes between the government and Assamese students and some Assamese political factions over the rights of illegal immigrants to citizenship and suffrage. The grass-roots political movement demanding safeguarding of the interests of the natives was peaceful and was whole-heartedly supported by almost all native people of the state. The natives considered it as an war for survival against the onslaught of uncontrolled migration of millions from Bangladesh and elsewhere. The state government and the Government of India responded by the use of force to suppress the movement. Many demonstrators were killed. This led to some of India's worst communal violence since Partition toward the end of the movement.

In 1985, a treaty was signed by the Assamese and the Government of India. This was followed by an election in which a very youthful, student-led government by the Asom Gana Parixad party came to power. There was a lot of expectation among the people. But, internal bickerings and charges of corruption, led to the downfall of the Axom Gana Parixad Ministry in 1990 although they came back to power later.

The 1990s have seen the demand for the independence of Assam from the centralized Indian goverment by organizations such as the militarized group called ULFA, The United Liberation Front of Asom. Many other groups have come up demanding autonomy or independence. The Indian government has responded with widespread use of extra-ordinary force and other measures. There have been many armed encounters between the Army and the groups seeking independence. This period also has been marked by great violations of human rights by the Army and the police. Mostly unable to apprehend the militarized groups, the government has taken to harrassing innocent civilians at the slightest pretext in order to teach them a lesson. Many civilians have been beaten, many women raped, and many others killed by the Army, the police and the paramilitary forces.

Photo of King Rudra Singh who ruled from 1696-1714 was obtained from an appendix in the book titled "Buronjiye Poroxaa Nogor" (Towns Touched by History), by Lila Gogoi, published by Borthakur Book Stall, Sibsagar, Assam, India, January 1957. Lila Gogoi's book had obtained the picture from a book titled "Hastibidyarnawa" (Knowledge of Elephant Raising), published in 1734 AD. The books was written by Sukumar Borkaath under the orders of Queen Ambika. The book has a large number of color paintings. The artists were Dilbor and Dukhaai.

Sources:

  1. Encyclopedia of Asian History, Volume 1, Charles' Scribner's Sons, New York, 1988
  2. Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, ed. James Hastings, Volume 2, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 21, Macropaedia, 15th edition, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1990.
  4. The Statesman's Year Book, ed. Brian Hunter, 128th edition, 1991-92, Martin's Press, New York, 1991.
  5. Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume III, ed. Paul Hockings, G.K. Hall and Company, Boston, 1992.