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Cover of "The Quest for Modern Assam"

Book Review: Book on Assam History Feted for Innovative Approach and Scholarship

Book Title: The Quest for Modern Assam

Author: Arupjyoti Saikia

Publisher: Penguin Allen Lane

No theories, no postulates. The Arupjyoti Saikia’s “The Quest for Modern Assam”, instead depends primarily on data drawn from a rich range of official archival records, secondary sources such as newspaper clippings, past research works, and even literary works which emanated during Assam’s street-fighting decades on the eve of decolonisation and the years after Indian independence, to build a compelling narrative which connects the dots of the state’s turbulent recent past.

In this journey, the Japanese invasion during WWII which virtually was Assam’s cataclysmic baptism to the new world order is the flag off point. The broad architecture of the book rests on three building blocks – Assam’s inherent sense of an unjust deal under Independent India’s federal dispensation; new energies released by the awakening of identity consciousness amongst its disparate ethnic communities and; a pervasive fear of the Assamese of demographic marginalisation.

Together with a prologue and epilogue the book runs into a voluminous 852 pages, 546 pages of which constitute the body and the remaining 306, notes and references. Each of the book’s 13 chapters deal with different strands of developments which shaped modern Assam, but because British Assam was virtually the entire Northeast, except for Tripura and Manipur, these chapters are also equally a profile of the frictions and tensions which went into the making of Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.

The book demonstrates convincingly the debacles Assam faced during the decades since the 1940s were virtual existential struggles. In the run up to Indian independence for instance, the book highlights several distinct dangers of Assam losing its identity. For instance, if the Cabinet Mission Plan had been accepted, Assam likely would have been grouped in Section C with Bengal. This would not only have reduced Assamese speakers to a minority status, but also left the state with the distinct possibility of being included in East Pakistan at Partition.

Ethnic divisions within the Assamese society also became visible during these years, and even the Ahoms showed indication they considered parting ways with the caste Hindu Assamese to join Jinnah’s league. The known rift with Bengali migrants too stiffened, ultimately leading to the Sylhet Referendum and the latter’s inclusion in Pakistan. Several of the 25 Khasi and Jantia chieftainships had also been left in a dilemma, and some like Cherrapunjee and Nongstein had preferred Pakistan. Like them many Garos too had landed properties in the adjoining Sylhet and Mymensingh provinces which were in addition a major market for their produces. Some of the figures are telling. Khasi Hills produced 12 lakh mounds oranges annually before partition. In 1948-49 this dropped to 2.4 lakh mounds and in 1949-50 shrunk to 12,000 mounds.

Post independence years threw up more challenges of administering Assam’s hills which were left as either “Excluded” or “Partially Excluded” areas under the British. The Constituent Assembly formed the Bordoloi Committee to prepare a report on the matter and during the preparation of this report, much of which ultimately were included in the 6th Schedule of the Constitution, outlining an autonomy structure for Assam hill tribes, the characters of the different hill tribes also become evident.

The Nagas were never in doubt they were not Indians and rejected the 6th Schedule. The Mizos were more transactional. They earlier had weighted their options of joining India or Burma but after opting the former, they accepted the 6th Schedule. The Khasis, with Shillong as the capital of united Assam, were more integrated and had little problem with the 6th Schedule. In the case of NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) India decided to leave the tribes here in isolation for some more years so continued with the British model of direct administration by the Assam Governor, but not on behalf of the Assam government but of the Ministry of External Affairs much to the disappointment of Assam.

Expectedly, these were also years that the Assamese wounded pride reasserted itself aggressively pushing for unifying Assam under one Assamese linguistic nationalism. This unfortunately had the opposite effect, alienating the state’s linguistic minorities even more, leading ultimately to bifurcation of these districts from Assam. Similar bifurcation demands by its plain tribes such as Bodos and Karbis also grew.

Although it does little to upset the integrity of the narrative, the book’s weakest may be in its picturisation of the Japanese invasion, depending much on newspaper clippings and not the growing volume of researched works on the subject. Hence it says the Japanese were logistically strong, when it was the exact opposite. Overconfident of taking Imphal and Kohima quickly Japanese troops entered India with 15 days ration and ammunition, but the battles lasted four months bringing disaster for them. It also mentions of a crucial battle in the village of Ukhrul, but this battle was in Shangshak.

This review was first published in The Telegraph. The original can be read HERE

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