Tuesday, 19 June 2012

History of Assam

The history of Assam is the history of a confluence of people from the east, west and the north; the confluence of the Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman cultures. Politically, it has been invaded, but has never served as a vassal or a colony to an external power till the advent of the Burmese in 1821 and subsequently the British in 1826.

The history of Assam is known from many sources. The Ahom kingdom of medieval Assam maintained chronicles, called Buranjis, written in the Ahom and the Assamese languages. History of ancient Assam comes from rock inscriptions and the many copper plates and royal grants the Kamarupa kings issued during their reign. Proto history is reconstructed from folklore, epics like Mahabharata, and two medieval texts compiled in the Assam region—the Kalika Purana and the Yogini  Tantra.


Paleolithic cultures:

The earliest inhabitants of the region are assigned to the Middle Pleistocene period (781,000 to 126,000 years ago) in the Rongram valley of Garo Hills. The Paleolithic sites, which used handaxe-cleaver tools, have affinities to the Abbevillio-Acheulean culture. Other Paleolithic sites include those in the Daphabum area of Lohit district in Arunachal Pradeshwhich used stone tools from metamorphic rocks. The cave-based Paleolithic sites at Khangkhui in Ukhrul, Manipur, is placed in the Late Pleistocene period.

There exists evidence of a microlithic culture in the Rongram Valley of Garo Hills that lie between the neolithic layers and virgin soil. The microliths here were made of dolerite, unlike those from the rest of India. Shreds of crude hand-made pottery indicate that the microlithic people were hunters and food-gatherers ash.

Neolithic cultures:

Early Neolithic cultures based on the unifacially flaked hand-axe in the Garo hills have developed in line with the Hoabinhian culture, and it is conjectured that this region was the contact point for the Indian and the Southeast Asian cultures.

The Late neolithic cultures have affinities with the spread of the Mon Khmer speaking people from Malaysia and the Ayeyarwady valley and late neolithic developments in South China. Since these cultures have been dated to 4500–4000 BCE, the Assam sites are dated to approximate that period.

These neolithic sites, though widely spread, are concentrated in the hills and high grounds, due possibly to the floods. These cultures performed shifting cultivation called jhum, which is still practiced by some communities in the region. Some typical sites are Daojali Hading in Dima Hasao, Sarutaru in Kamrup district and Selbagiri in the Garo Hills.

Metal age:

There exists no archaeological evidence of Copper-Bronze or Iron age culture in the region. This might seem as an impossibility given that corresponding cultures have been discovered in Bengal as well as Southeast Asia. It can only be conjectured that metal age sites in the region exist but have not yet been discovered.

Megalithic cultures:

Though the metal age seems to be missing in Assam, the Iron Age Megalithic culture of South India finds an echo in the rich megalithic culture in the region, which begins to appear earlier than the first millennium BCE, and which continues till today among the Khasi and the Naga people. The affinity is with Southeast Asia. The megalithic culture was the precursor of the fertility cult and the saktism and the vajrayana Buddhism that followed.

Mythological Assam:

Protohistoric Assam is reconstructed from epics and literature from early times (Mahabharata, Kalika Purana, Yogini Tantra, etc.). The earliest political entity seems to have been led by a non-Aryan Danava dynasty with Mahiranga mentioned as the first king. This dynasty was removed by Narakasura. Naraka appears to be a generic name for many kings belonging to the Naraka dynasty. According to legend, the last of the Naraka kings was killed by Krishna and his son Bhagadatta took the throne. Bhagadatta is said to have participated in the Mahabharata war with an army of "chinas, kiratas and dwellers of the eastern sea", thereby indicating that his kingdom, Pragjyotisha, included part ofBangladesh. The last in the Naraka dynasty was a ruler named Suparua.

Ancient Assam:

The historical account of Assam begins with the establishment of Pushya Varman's Varman dynasty in the 4th century in the Kamarupa kingdom, which marks the beginning of Ancient Assam. This dynasty was most likely of aboriginal origin, but drew its lineage from Narakasura. The kingdom reached its zenith under Bhaskarvarman in the 7th century. Xuanzangvisited his court and left behind a significant account. Bhaskar Varman died without leaving behind an issue and the control of the country passed to Salasthamba, who established the Mlechchha dynasty. After the fall of the Mlechchha dynasty in the late 9th century, a new ruler, Brahmapala was elected, who established the Pala dynasty. The last Pala king was removed by the Gaur king, Ramapala, in 1110. But the two subsequent kings, Timgyadeva and Vaidyadeva, though established by the Gaur kings, ruled mostly as independents and issued grants under the old Kamarupa seals. The fall of subsequent kings and the rise of individual kingdoms in the 12th century in place of the Kamarupa kingdom marked the end of the Kamarupa kingdom and the period of Ancient Assam.

Medieval Assam:

The beginning of Medieval Assam is marked by the rise of the Khen dynasty of the Kamata kingdom, established by Prithu in the western part of the old Kamarupa Kingdom, and the beginning of attacks by the Turks of Bengal. The Kamata kingdom, named after the capital at Kamatapur, was frequently attacked by the rulers of Bengal, and Alauddin Hussain Shah finally removed the last Khen king in 1498. But Hussein Shah and subsequent rulers could not consolidate their rule in the Kamata kingdom, mainly due to the revolt by the Bhuyan chieftains and other local groups. In the 16th century Viswa Singha of the Koch tribe established the Koch dynasty in the Kamata kingdom. The Koch dynasty reached its peak under his sons, Nara Narayan and Chilarai.

In the eastern part of the old Kamarupa kingdom, the Kachari and the Sutiya kingdoms arose, with portions of the north bank of the Brahmaputra rivercontrolled by the Bhuyan chieftains. In the tract between the Kachari and the Sutiya kingdoms, a Shan group, led by Sukaphaa, established theAhom kingdom. The Ahom kingdom in the course of time expanded into the Sutiya kingdom to its north and pushed the Kachari kingdom further south. After the death of Nara Narayan of the Koch dynasty in the late 16th century, the Kamata kingdom broke into Koch Bihar in the west and Koch Hajo in the east. The rivalry between the two kingdoms resulted in the former allying with the Mughals and the latter with the Ahoms. Most of the 17th century saw the Ahom-Mughal conflicts, in which the Ahoms held the expansive Mughals at bay epitomized in the Battle of Saraighat of 1671, and which finally ended in 1682 with the defeat of the Mughals at Itakhuli—and the Ahom kingdom reached its westernmost boundary. Though the Ahom kingdom saw itself as the inheritor of the glory of the erstwhile Kamarupa kingdom and aspired to extend itself to the Karatoya river, it could never do so; though an Ahom general, Ton Kham under Swargadeo Suhungmung, reached the river once when he pursued a retreating invading army in the 16th century.
After the Ahom kingdom reached its zenith, problems within the kingdom arose in the 18th century, when it lost power briefly to rebels of the Moamoria rebellion. Though the Ahoms recaptured power, it was beset with problems, leading to the Burmese invasion of Assam in the early 19th century. With the defeat of the Burmese in the First Anglo-Burmese war and the subsequent Treaty of Yandaboo, control of Assam passed into the hands of the British, which marks the end of the Medieval period.

Colonial Assam:

British annexation of Assam:

After the Burmese occupied Assam, the British began their campaign against the Burmese. In 1824, lower Assam (originally Koch Hajo) was formally annexed. The following year the British defeated the Burmese in upper Assam leading to the Treaty of Yandaboo. In this war against the Burmese the Ahoms did not help the British. In March 1828, lower Assam was formally annexed. In the same year, the Kachari kingdom was annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse after the king Govinda Chandra was killed. In 1832, the Khasi king surrendered and the British increased their influence over the Jaintia ruler. In 1833, upper Assam became a British protectorate under the erstwhile ruler of the Ahom kingdom, Purandhar Singha, but in 1838 the region was formally annexed into the British empire. With the annexation of the Maran/Matak territory in the east in 1839, the annexation of Assam was complete.

Colonial rule

Bengal Presidency (1826–1873): 

Assam was included as a part of the Bengal Presidency. The annexation of upper Assam is attributed to the successful manufacture of tea in 1837, and the beginning of the Assam Company in 1839. Under the Wasteland Rules of 1838, it became nearly impossible for natives to start plantations. After the liberalization of the rules in 1854, there was a land rush. The Chinese staff that was imported earlier for the cultivation of tea left Assam in 1843, when tea plantations came to be tended by local labor solely, mainly by those belonging to the Kachari group. From 1859 central Indian labor was imported for the tea plantations. This labor, based on an unbreakable contract, led to a virtual slavery of this labor group. The conditions in which they were transported to Assam were so horrific that about 10% never survived the journey. The colonial government already had monopoly over the opium trade.
There were immediate protests and revolts against the British occupation. In 1828, two years after the Treaty of Yandaboo, Gomdhar Konwar rose in revolt against the British, but he was easily suppressed. In 1830 Dhananjoy Burhagohain, Piyali Phukan and Jiuram Medhi rose in revolt, and they were sentenced to death. In the Indian rebellion of 1857, the people of Assam offered resistance in the form of non-cooperation, and Maniram Dewan and Piyali Baruah were executed for their roles. In 1861 peasants of Nagaon gathered atPhulaguri for a raiz mel (peoples' assembly) to protest against taxes on betel-nut and paan. Lt. Singer, a British officer got into a fracas with the peasants and was killed, after which the protests were violently suppressed.

Chief Commissioner's Province (1874–1905):

In 1874, the Assam region was separated from the Bengal Presidency, Sylhet was added to it and its status was upgraded to a Chief Commissioner's Province. The capital was at Shillong. The people of Sylhet protested the inclusion in Assam. Assamese, which was replaced by Bengali as the official language in 1837, was reinstated alongside Bengali. In 1889, oil was discovered at Digboi giving rise to an oil industry. In this period Nagaon witnessed starvation deaths, and there was a decrease in the indigenous population, which was more than adequately compensated by the immigrant labor. Colonialism was well entrenched, and the tea, oil and coal-mining industries were putting increasing pressure on the agricultural sector which was lagging behind.
The peasants, burdened under the opium monopoly and the usury by money lenders, rose again in revolt. Numerous raiz mels decided against paying the taxes. The protests culminated in a bayonet charge against the protesters at Patharughat in 1894. At least 15 were left dead and in the violent repression that followed villagers were tortured and their properties were destroyed or looted. In 1903, Assam Association was formed with Manik Chandra Baruah as the first secretary.

Eastern Bengal and Assam under Lt. Governor (1906–1912): 

Bengal was partitioned and East Bengal was added to the Chief Commissioner's Province. The new region, now ruled by a Lt. Governor, had its capital at Dhaka. This province had a 15-member legislative council in which Assam had two seats. The members for these seats were recommended (not elected) by rotating groups of public bodies.
The Partition of Bengal was strongly protested in Bengal, and the people of Assam were not happy either. The partition was finally annulled by a royal decree in 1911. The Swadeshi movement (1905–1908) from this period, went largely unfelt in Assam, though it stirred some, most notably Ambikagiri Raychoudhury.
Beginning 1905 peasants from East Bengal began settling down in the riverine tracts (char) of the Brahmaputra valley encouraged by the colonial government to increase agricultural production. Between 1905 and 1921, the immigrant population from East Bengal increased four folds. The immigration continued in post colonial times, giving rise to the Assam Agitation of 1979.

Assam Legislative Council (1912–1920):

The administrative unit was reverted to a Chief Commissioner's Province (Assam plus Sylhet), with a Legislative Council added. The Council had 25 members, of which the Chief Commissioner and 13 nominated members formed the bulk. The other members were elected by local public bodies like municipalities, local boards, landholders, tea planters and Muslims.
As Assam got sucked into the Non-Cooperation Movement, the Assam Association slowly transformed itself into the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (with 5 seats in AICC) in 1920–21.

Dyarchy (1921–1937):

Under the Government of India Act 1919 the Assam Legislative Council membership was increased to 53, of which 33 were elected by special constituencies. The powers of the Council were increased too; but in effect, the official group, consisting of the Europeans, the nominated members etc. had the most influence.

Assam Legislative Assembly (1937–1947): 

Under the Government of India Act 1935, the Council was expanded into an Assembly of 108 members, with even more powers. The period saw the sudden rise of Gopinath Bordoloi and Muhammed Saadulah and their tussle for power and influence.

Post  Colonial Assam:

In 1979, Assam flared into Assam Agitation (or Assam Movement) a popular movement against illegal immigration. The movement, led AASU and AAGSP, set an agitational program to compel the government to identify and expel illegal immigrants and prevent new immigration. The agitational programs were largely non-violent, but there were incidents of acute violence, like the Nellie massacre. It ended in 1985 following the Assam Accord that was signed by the agitation leaders and the Government of India. The agitation leaders formed a political party, Asom Gana Parishad, which came to power in the state of Assam in the Assembly elections of 1985.