A glimpse of the Northeast freedom struggle


The Northeast participation in India’s freedom struggle is a tale of valour and courage which started in the 19th century itself with a mass peasant uprising against the British and resistance by the hill people. The political events in the rest of the country culminating in Independence in 1947, found a strong support and response in this region. Prof. Chandan Kumar Sharma describes the Northeast struggle and the leaders who spearheaded them.

The Northeast region of India went into the hands of the British starting with the occupation of Assam in 1826, after a decade of Burmese control of the land. Till then, the region remained mostly independent of the control of the Delhi Sultanate or any other external power. Assam especially faced many incursions, but thwarted them. Thus the independent spirit of the Assamese people showed in the immediate challenge to the British rule by a group of the erstwhile nobility led by Gomdhar Konwar. Their attempt, however, was suppressed in 1828 and Gomdhar and his associates were imprisoned. One of his associates Piyali Borphukan was hanged.

Meanwhile, British expansion to the hills faced fierce resistance by the hill tribes. The Khasis led by U Tirat Sing fought valiantly against the British from 1829 to 1833. However, the resistance finally succumbed to the British and Tirat Sing was imprisoned in Dhaka jail. Between the 1830s and 1860s, the hill tribes such as the Singphos, Khamtis, Nagas, Garos, etc., offered stiff challenge to the British expansionist policies toward the hills, causing heavy losses to the latter.

The effect of 1857 was also felt in Assam and Maniram Dewan, the first Indian tea planter, who initially helped the British expand the tea industry in Assam but fell out with them subsequently, was the key figure in the plans to drive out the British from Assam. However, these plans were foiled and Maniram and Piyali Barua were hanged in 1858. Many close associates of theirs such as Bahadur Gaonburha and Farmud Ali were arrested and interned.

The Phulaguri peasant uprising

While the above attempts were mostly confined to some individuals and elites and large scale popular participation was mostly missing from them, in 1861, the peasant uprising at Phulaguri of Nagaon district of central Assam against the repressive agricultural policies of the British government heralded a new era of peasant protest in the state. Hundreds of peasants, tribal and non-tribal, had marched to the district headquarters to submit their petition to the Deputy Commissioners (DC) regarding their grievances. But the DC behaved with them abrasively and refused to entertain the peasants’ request. The infuriated peasants met at a series of traditional raij mels (people’s assemblies) to deliberate on the future course of action. On 18 October 1861, when a police party under an Assistant Commissioner Lt. Singer arrived at the spot of an assembly and tried to disperse the latter, the infuriated peasants attacked the police with their lathis and killed Lt.Singer. The armed peasants, however, could not withstand when the military launched an attack on them the next day. Thirty nine peasants were killed, many wounded and 41 were arrested. Though most of the peasants in Phulaguri upsurge belonged to the Tiwa and Kachari tribes, peasants of other castes, especially from the Koch and the Kaibarta (fishermen) community, were also involved. Bahu, a Kaibarta leader of the rebels was interned at the Andamans.

After the Phulaguri uprising, the peasantry of the districts of Darrang and Kamrup stood against the oppressive increase in land revenue by the British government, again through the instrumentality of the raij-mels. When the land revenue was raised by almost 80%, these resentment culminated in the violent protests of 1892-94 in various parts of the adjoining areas of Kamrup and Darrang districts by the peasants known as ‘Assam Riots’ in the colonial administrative parlance.

The popular peasant movement of the period started with the Phulaguri upsurge and were rounded off with the uprising at Patharughat in the Darrang district which witnessed a series of mels where peasants vented anger against the government and pledged not to pay the increased land revenue. When on 28 January 1894, a troop of armed forces attempted to attach property of the defaulting peasants; many peasants surrounded the police force and compelled them to beat a hasty retreat. Soon popular reinforcement arrived and advanced towards the DC of Darrang district who was camping nearby. In the skirmish that followed between the armed forces and the stick wielding peasants, according to official figures, 140 peasants died and about 150 sustained injuries and the uprising was suppressed. On 29 March 1894, Rash Behari Ghosh questioned the propriety of the government’s new revenue policy and expressed his resentment at the repressive policies on the Assamese ryots in the Imperial Legislative Council.

With the brutal suppression of the peasants at Patharughat, the violent peasant insurgencies in Assam came to an end and the middle class Assamese elites now rallied around an association called Sarbajanik Sabha which believed in addressing the problems of the local population through petition, memorandum etc., to the colonial administration rather than coming in direct confrontation with the latter.

Meanwhile, the British made a number of expeditions to the hills of the present day Arunachal Pradesh to dominate the tribes like the Abors, (now called Adis), Akas (now called Hrussos), and so on. The latter fought hard but were subdued by the superior firepower and policies of the British. In early 1891, the British attempt at intervening in the affairs of the Manipur kingdom faced staunch opposition from the prince Tikendrajit Singh and others. This followed the killing of a number of senior British officials. The British then resorted to a big military expedition to defeat the Manipuri force. Tikendrajit and his associate General Thangal were captured and hanged.

Like the Indian National Congress of the time, the Assam Association pursued constitutional methods for redressing the grievances of the native population. However, its elitist character deterred it from taking a clear stand during the partition of Bengal in 1905 when many parts of Assam were engulfed by public protests against merger of Assam with East Bengal.

The Assam Association

While Sarbajanik Sabha played some role in articulating the Assamese interest, with the death of Jagannath Barooah, its leading light, the Sabha gradually faded away. Meanwhile a new middle class political association of moderate views namely, the ‘Assam Association’ came to the fore in 1903 which also had many members from the Sabha including Jagannath Barooah. Leading members of the Assam Association included almost the entire emerging Assamese middle class (barring those in the colonial service), such as Manik Chandra Barua, Jagannath Barooah, Raja Prabhat Chandra Baruah, Faiznur Ali, Ghanashyam Baruah, etc.

Like the Indian National Congress of the time, the Assam Association pursued constitutional methods for redressing the grievances of the native population. However, its elitist character deterred it from taking a clear stand during the partition of Bengal in 1905 when many parts of Assam were engulfed by public protests against merger of Assam with East Bengal. It was the first occasion when Assamese public opinion and action found direct articulation with a much larger ‘Indian’ issue.

Nevertheless, the Association successfully fought for Assamese representation in the Legislative Council of the newly formed state of Eastern Bengal and Assam. After the reunion of Bengal in 1911, Assam became a Chief Commissioner’s Province with its own Legislative Council. However, with the coming of a new generation of leaders such as Tarun Ram Phookan, Nabin Chandra Bardoloi, Chandranath Sarma etc., the Association assumed a more articulate role in tune with the contemporary national ethos. They lent full support to the Home Rule movement of 1916 demanding national self-governance. The Association also sent a two member delegation (Nabin Chandra Bardoloi and Prasanna Kumar Baruah) to London to press for its demand for Assam the status of a Governor’s Province as part of the Indian Constitutional Reforms.

The countrywide protest against the repressive Rowlatt Act, the Jallianwalla bagh massacre, Khilafat Movement and finally, Gandhiji’s call for Non- Cooperation in 1920 left a huge imprint on the younger generation of the Assam Association leadership. They announced full support to the Non-Cooperation Movement. They disbanded the Assam Association and founded the Assam Provincial Congress in 1921. Students of Cotton College at Guwahati left the college en masse and went to the rural areas to spread the message of non-cooperation. They also campaigned against opium use which was widespread in the state. Many lawyers also abandoned their practice in support of the movement all over Assam. It was during 1921 that Gandhiji visited Assam for the first time which left considerable impact on the Assamese leaders and masses. Gandhiji himself wrote highly about his experience in Assam in Young India. National schools were set up at different parts of Assam. Hartals, boycott of foreign goods, picketing, were organised all over Assam. T.R. Phookan, N.C. Bardoloi, Chandranath Sarma, Gopinath Bardoloi and a few others were among the main leaders of the non-cooperation and the civil disobedience movements in Assam. Hundreds were arrested including Phookan. Respected leaders like Rohini Choudhury (who became a member of the Constituent Assembly later on) and Md. Tayyebulla were handcuffed like common criminals. Police atrocities on common people reached such a level that Gandhi had to send Madan Mohan Malaviya and Rajendra Prasad to Assam in 1922 for a field report which confirmed such atrocities.

The countrywide protest against the repressive Rowlatt Act, the Jallianwalla bagh massacre, Khilafat Movement and finally, Gandhiji’s call for Non-Cooperation in 1920 left a huge imprint on the younger generation of the Assam Association leadership. They announced full support to the Non-Cooperation Movement.

In 1926, Congress had its session in Guwahati under the leadership of Phookan and Bardoloi with dedicated assistance from many other leaders and hundreds of volunteers including women. Phookan was also elected to the Congress Working Committee for 1926-27. However, due to his differences with the AICC on the civil disobedience movement of 1930, he resigned as the President of the Assam Congress and the mantle of the latter passed on to a younger generation of Congressmen including Bishnuram Medhi (as President), Gopinath Bardoloi, Siddhinath Sarma, Md. Tayyebulla and Ambikagiri Raichoudhury, under whose leadership the civil disobedience movement spread like wildfire in every nook and corner of Assam. This gradually brought an end to the era of Phookan and Bardoloi, the most prominent and respected leaders of the time.

Around this time, the Zeliangrong Nagas fought the British under the leadership of a teenage girl named Gaidinliu. She asked her people not to pay taxes to the British and launched a heroic insurgency against them. However, she was captured in 1932 and was imprisoned for life to be released later in 1946. Many of her associates were executed.

Post 1935, besides those mentioned above, other important leaders of the freedom movement in Assam included Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed (who later became the President of India), Debeswar Sarma, Siddhinath Sarma, Omeo Kumar Das, Bijoy Chandra Bhagawati, etc. This was a period which saw Congress and other parties experimenting with constitutionalism and government formation in different states of the country. This period also witnessed the rise of Muslim League politics and Assam became an important playground of League politics. It is important to note that Assam’s demography changed radically because of large scale immigration of poor Muslim peasants from East Bengal under the patronage of the colonial administration, and later on the Muslim League ministry under Sir Syed Muhammad Saadulla.

When Congress declared the ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942, the common people of Assam plunged themselves into it. Underground and disruptive activities also accompanied the mass movement.

Underground leaders like Jyotiprasad Agarwala played a critical role in guiding the movement during this period. Many demonstrators were arrested and imprisoned. A 16-year old girl Kanaklata and Mukunda Kakoti were shot dead when trying to hoist the tricolour at a police station. Kushal Konwar was hanged because of his alleged role in derailing a military train. Altogether, 29 people, men and women, were killed and 50 more were injured at police firings during the Quit India movement in Assam. In various places, ‘independent states’ were also established.

The period from mid-1940s was the most critical period in the history of Assam. As per the Grouping Scheme of the Cabinet Mission, Assam was wrongfully grouped in the Group C as a Muslim majority state which meant that it would be merged with East Pakistan after Partition. There was widespread protest throughout Assam. Gopinath Bardoloi played the role of an indomitable statesman during this hour of crisis when all Congress leaders gave a go ahead to this scheme. It was only Gandhiji who offered moral support to Bardoloi. His untiring efforts with full support from tribal leaders like Rv. Nichols Roy, Rupnath Brahma and others finally saved Assam and it became a part of India. Bardoloi became the first Chief Minister of the state. His contribution was recognised with a posthumous Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour, in 1999.


Prof. Chandan Kumar Sharma

The writer is Professor in the Department of Sociology, Tezpur University, Assam. He was educated in Cotton College, Guwahati and Delhi School of Economics, Delhi. His special areas of interest include issues concerning identity politics, environment, development, immigration and culture, with special reference to the Northeast region of India. He is also the Co-ordinator, Maulana Azad Centre for Research on Northeast India at Tezpur University.