Review of Arupjyoti Saikia’s The Quest for Modern Assam A History (1942-2000): Stranger no more

Saikia’s voluminous work brilliantly captures every moment that has shaped the contemporary history and politics of Assam

November 10, 2023 09:01 am | Updated 09:01 am IST

Tiwa tribesmen perform their traditional dance for Wanchuwa festival in Bormarjong village, Assam. The festival is related to agriculture, their main occupation.

Tiwa tribesmen perform their traditional dance for Wanchuwa festival in Bormarjong village, Assam. The festival is related to agriculture, their main occupation. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

The political movement of the late 1970s and early ’80s in Assam, that shaped the politics of Assamese sub-nationalism, also gave rise to a popular sentiment that was both a complaint and a question. Has Assam’s contribution in India’s freedom struggle and, subsequently, in the making of the modern Indian state been adequately recognised?

There is rich scholarship, both in terms of history as well as anthropology, but the perception of neglect by administrators and academics alike built a narrative of “disconnect” with mainland India.

Tribal women wait outside a polling station at West Karbi Anglong district, Assam.

Tribal women wait outside a polling station at West Karbi Anglong district, Assam. | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar

Arupjyoti Saikia’s The Quest for Modern Assam: A History (1942-2000) examines some of these questions in the chapters dealing with the birth of a new nation (‘Birth Pangs’) and the State’s equation with the Centre (‘Assam in a Federal India’). How decisions like grouping of States or redrawing of boundaries, often thrusted upon the local leadership, led to the politics of identity that the region is now known for.

A convoy of Assam-bound trucks outside Siliguri during the Assam blockade in April 1980.

A convoy of Assam-bound trucks outside Siliguri during the Assam blockade in April 1980. | Photo Credit: Sushanta Patronobish

Definitive account

Saikia’s voluminous work provides the most definitive account of Assam during the tumultuous years of World War II and the years leading up to India’s independence in 1947.

The author, who teaches history at the Indian Institute of Technology-Guwahati, considers 1944 as a starting point when the British Indian Army and the Japanese troops fought a decisive war in the frontiers of India’s north-eastern region.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with the families of victims of the Nellie massacre at a relief camp in 1983.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with the families of victims of the Nellie massacre at a relief camp in 1983. | Photo Credit: PIB

Saikia has brilliantly captured every moment that has shaped contemporary history and politics of Assam, from the State’s “strained” relationship with the Union Government, the divide within the Congress party over “large-scale” infiltration from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the popular protests including the anti-foreigner movement, the Nellie massacre, the emergence of a new breed of student leaders and the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 by the Rajiv Gandhi government.

The author noted how Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s Partition Award changed the geography of undivided Assam — which then included Nagaland, NEFA [North-East Frontier Agency or present-day Arunachal Pradesh], Mizoram and Meghalaya — in August 1947.

“Just a month earlier, Assam’s geography had been strikingly different. A referendum held in Sylhet, the south-western-most district of Assam, in July 1947, saw voters choosing to join Pakistan. In August, as Sir Cyril Radcliffe announced his Partition Award, Assam’s geography was changed with the stroke of his pen,” Saikia observes.

Illustration shows Naga warriors of Assam. They are a Tibeto-Burman speaking mountain tribe from northeastern India and neighbouring Burma.

Illustration shows Naga warriors of Assam. They are a Tibeto-Burman speaking mountain tribe from northeastern India and neighbouring Burma. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Several fault lines

The author writes about the fault lines of language, religion, culture and customs; attempts made by the British administrators to merge Assam’s hill areas with parts of Burma (Coupland Plan); apprehensions expressed by the hill tribes at the prospect of being governed by the Assamese-speaking ruling elite and Assam Premier Gopinath Bordoloi’s “lengthy report” in the Constituent Assembly to protect the political destiny of Assam’s tribal population.

“Eventually, this report became the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, a special provision assigning more legislative and administrative powers to local communities. This little-known instrument of the Indian Constitution held the possibility of political empowerment for many; its full potential remains untapped to this day,” writes Saikia.

Burmese Armed Forces celebrate Resistance Day, when Burma Defence Forces under the late General Aung San marched out to fight against the Japanese occupational forces.

Burmese Armed Forces celebrate Resistance Day, when Burma Defence Forces under the late General Aung San marched out to fight against the Japanese occupational forces. | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

The author effectively portrays the “chaos” that Assam witnessed because of a combination of events, such as the Japanese occupation of Burma and cutting off the “rice bowl”, Congress’ Quit India call, migration from East Bengal under the “Grow More Food” campaign and the redoubling of the war efforts by the Allied Forces.

Assam became a theatre of war as Allied Forces carried out a pushback against the Japanese by building supply lines from Ledo in Upper Assam to Myitkyina in Burma and Kunming in China.

“Dibrugarh, a prosperous plantation town, would see the fast expansion of a small, existing all weather air strip. The rapid upgradation was part of the American strategy to airlift military cargo to China, with supply planes flying over the Hump [ part of eastern Himalayas] to Kunming,” writes the author.

Refugees from Burma.

Refugees from Burma. | Photo Credit: The Hindu photo archives

By July 1942, the author noted, the number of people who fled Burma reached 600,000, of which Assam received two-thirds. “Unlike the Chinese, who had an effective evacuation plan that ensured very few casualties, as many as 80,000 Indians perished on the way,” Saikia writes to highlight the callousness of the British administrators.

Like a master story teller, he reconstructs the social, cultural and political landscape of Assam while narrating history. Assamese classics like Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya’s Mrityunjoy and Yaruingam and Jyotiprasad Agarwala’s Lovita — depicting the turbulence of a society going through war and resistance — are beautifully woven into readings of history.

Written in an engaging style to provide a wide canvas of unfolding events, Saikia is meticulous about referencing and indexing the source material for his work. Of the 851 pages of the hard bound book, over 300 pages are devoted to detailed notes on sourcing, bibliography, index and acknowledgements.

Anyone who wants to know more about Assam or the Northeast, this book will certainly be a prized possession.

The Quest for Modern Assam: A History (1942-2000); Arupjyoti Saikia, Penguin, ₹1,299.

sandeep.phukan@thehindu.co.in

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