The vast Assamese literature reveals various registers of literary culture in operation.


This writer was recently invited as guest faculty in the Department of History, Dibrugarh University, Assam, to speak on the interconnections between literature and history, on the one hand, and on religion and political culture, on the other. Ideological struggles and politics of identities influence the writing of history, not only at the broader national level, but also in fascinating ways in different regions. Indeed, assertive identities and political and cultural aspirations of the people in different regions are articulated in the vast vernacular literature and through recourse to interesting local histories. The visit of this writer to Dibrugarh University coincided with the UGC sponsored national seminar on revisiting colonial Assam (1826-1947), 29-30 March 2018.

The seminar was inaugurated by the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Professor Alak Kumar Buragohain, who referred to India-Bhutan relations, especially with Assam, history of which goes back to pre-colonial Ahom rule. Professor Buragohain advised that history needs to be revisited or rewritten as per the requirements of the time and done with a sense of responsibility. He also emphasised on the understanding of history as a scientific discipline, as history was science in the sense that it was about exactness and accuracy in arriving at the truth; scientists search for truth relating to the matters of the present, similarly historians search for what exactly happened in the past.

Following Assam’s colonial conquest, Edward Gait and other administrators and officials produced distorted histories, which means there was need to go back to the local archives or record rooms, muhafizkhanas in districts, to search for reliable historical documents. The British use of the so-called wastelands and forests, massive exploitation of the natural and human resources, including deployment of women in tea-plantation, are themes which require careful study.

Speaking on the occasion, Professor Ashok Kumar Patnaik of Utkal University stressed on the need to properly study local history of places like Assam and Odisha, in relation to the dominating presence of Bengal. Professor Patnaik also said that regional identities and aspirations were articulated in terms of other identities and in relation to the nation in modern times, with reference to the British in the colonial period and with the independent Ahom kingdom serving as points of departure.

In his special lecture on revisiting 19th century Assam (issues, concerns and possibilities), Professor Ranjit Kumar Dev Goswami, former Shankardeva Chair Professor at Tezpur University, emphasised on the need to take into cognizance the long-term historical trajectory of Assam, especially the significance of the 17th and 18th centuries when a host of markers of Assamese identity were shaped. The vast Assamese literature, whether belonging to the neo-Vaishnavite movement of medieval saint Shankardeva, historical literature of the Buranji kind, lexicography, Assamese translation of the Ramayana or the literature produced by the Baptist Mission reveal various registers of literary culture in operation. They ranged from classical Sanskrit and domineering presence of Bengali, to the gravitational pull of the mother-tongue—Assamese. The clash of languages and ideologies, inspirations from Bengal renaissance, the inter-dependence between nature and culture, colonial health and medicine together shaped Assamese identity over a longue durée, which is reflected in the literature. Thus, viewed from this literary perspective, history was not so much a pure science, but a textual unconscious, which needs to be accessed.

Speaking on this occasion, Professor Arupjyoti Saikia, of IIT Guwahati, elaborated on what he called anxiety and enigma in Assam in the last years of the British rule, 1942-46. Private papers of anxious British officials reveal that the British retreat was full of drama around three big themes—defending the frontier, making commercial profit and dealing with the hill people. These matters were complicated by the region’s crucial involvement in the Second World War, with Assam becoming one of the epicentres.

Japanese raids on Assam and evacuation of thousands of refugees of different nationalities from Burma, war-time efforts of military engineers and commanders, tea plantation labourers deployed in the making of roads and airfields and massive exploitation of natural resources (such as tea, oil, coal, jute and timber) together created quite a theatre. Thus, according to Professor Saikia, the liquefaction of the British Empire left behind a legacy of ethnic and political faultlines such as the question of the Nagas and other hill people as well as massive environmental concerns, which the postcolonial state has found it difficult to handle.

A large number of other papers addressed similar concerns with reference to a host of important themes and issues in the history of Assam during the colonial period in this seminar, which was ably organised by historians Chandan Kumar Sarma, Bipul Choudhury and Kakoli Gogoi. Senior professors Jahnabi Gogoi Nath and Biswajit Baruah also deserve commendation for hosting this fine show of crucial importance to the history and identity of Assam.