Looking back into the future

Print edition : August 13, 2004
in Guwahati

ON April 7, 1912, at a meeting held in Kamakhya, an ancient centre of pilgrimage near Guwahati, and attended by about a dozen persons, a research organisation called Kamarupa Anusandhana Samiti (subsequently also known as Assam Research Society) was founded. Its objective, as stated in its prospectus issued in December 1914, was "to carry on researches within the area covered by the sacred province of Kamarupa" (emphasis added). The initiative for founding such a research organisation, with its focus on the sacred history and geography of the land of Kamarupa, was taken in the course of the deliberations of an older and corresponding research organisation, the Uttara Vangiya Sahitya Parishad (Northern Bengal Literary Council), which had then been meeting at the same venue. The broader inspiration and ideal behind the endeavour, in Kamarupa/Assam as well in several other provinces, has been acknowledged to be the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal.

As the prospectus notes, the idea of founding such an organisation was not original. There had been an earlier proposal to form a `Historical Research Society for the Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam'. But this never took concrete shape because of the dissolution of the Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam, announced at the Coronation Durbar in Delhi on December 12, 1911 by King George V, just a little over six years after the experiment was implemented and less than four months before the founding of the KAS.

It is one of those impossible-to-settle debates whether the Partition and the tragedy that preceded, accompanied and followed it on both sides of the border could have been avoided if the `vivisection of Bengal', the highly emotive description of the administrative and political initiative taken by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, in 1905, admittedly to weaken Bengali (Hindu) nationalism and Indian nationalism, had not met with such forceful and violent opposition principally, though not solely, from the Hindu Bengalis in the province.

In the event, less than 40 years later, the very same class that had so violently opposed the partition of Bengal had to acquiesce, in far bloodier circumstances, to Partition, one of the two central features of which was indeed the partition of Bengal, a re-implementation of the old plan with virtually the same relocation of the eastern parts of Bengal as a constituent part of a sovereign country, Pakistan - though these ceased to be a part of Pakistan a quarter of a century later in even bloodier circumstances. These reflections are not a digression; they have a bearing on one of the themes of this essay.

THE KAS had 12 founding members, almost all of them involved in matters of study and research, though not all of them were professionally engaged in study, teaching and research. Overwhelmingly high-caste Hindus, they were from the professional class - scholars, teachers from traditional Sanskrit schools (tol), members of the bureaucracy and so on. One finds much the same kind of spread among the 45 ordinary members, including four from outside Assam (none of them, incidentally, a woman), mentioned in the appendix to the prospectus. The division and distinction between intellectual workers and those labouring in `non-intellectual' professions (though this did not evidently include manual labour) was neither clear nor absolute in those days. It is not so even now, though the exceptional departures from what is now considered the norm tend to be obscure, more eccentric individuals labouring in dim self-effacement than acknowledged members of a scholarly fraternity. One feels confronted with a wholly original, indeed unique, world of scholarly endeavour and engagement when one goes through the membership lists of organisations such as the KAS.

Two aspects of these endeavours that resulted in the foundation of the KAS and its subsequent activities deserve to be noted. One, these were almost entirely the result of private initiative; the KAS itself was (and continues to be) very much a membership organisation, with a constitution and rules and regulations governing all its activities. Although, like all such endeavours of those times, the organisation secured official patronage of sorts (the Government of Assam made a grant of Rs.250 on December 18, 1915 and, from the following financial year, increased this to an annual recurring grant of Rs.1,000), its activities were sustained essentially by the labours of the members and the `munificent patronage' (a favourite expression of these rather impoverished scholars) of well-to-do private individuals, zamindars and others.

For instance, the original proposal to establish such a society was made by Khan Chaudhuri Amanatullah Ahmad, a zamindar of Koch Behar, and supported by Rai Mrityunjoy Chaudhuri Bahadur, a zamindar of Rangpur (now in Bangladesh), both then active in the Uttara Vangiya Sahitya Parishad. The first list of patrons published in the prospectus includes not merely Sir Archibald Earle, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, but also two leading members of the feudal royalty: Maharaja Jitendranath Bhupa Bahadur of Koch Behar and Raja Pratapchandra Barua Bahadur of Gauripur, Assam. And apart from the Chief Commissioner, the two other Europeans included among the patrons, E.A. Gait and P.R.T. Gurdon, were there as much for their scholarly engagement with Assam as for their official positions.

Secondly, the concept of Assam envisaged in the universe covered by the KAS (Kamarupa, the ancient name of Assam, itself an imaginary construct based on puranic geography) clearly included areas of what would now be northern Bengal and Bangladesh, not to speak of Koch Behar which was seen as an integral part of ancient Kamarupa - and is even now seen as having many cultural commonalities with Kamrup and areas to its west, the so-called Lower Assam. "The jurisdiction of its research work", recalled An Account of Kamarupa Anusandhana Samiti issued in 1993 marking 80 years of its work, spread "over the area formerly included in the sacred and ancient kingdom of Pragjyotisha-Kamarupa, comprising modern Assam and the neighbouring [S]tates (sic) of North Bengal including Koch Behar and East Bengal (presently Bangladesh)". Eighty years down the line, one of the defining elements of this initiative, the sacredness of the terrain and, by inference, also of the work undertaken, remains constant.

Indeed, the history and culture of Bengal, in particular the adjoining districts of northern Bengal, including Koch Behar, was seen not so much as an extension of the history and culture of Kamarupa but as an integral part of that history. The KAS set up a branch in Rangpur, with the secretary of the Rangpur Sahitya Parishad functioning as its secretary. Not surprisingly, there was a significant Bengali presence (indicated and identifiable so by the use of the honorific `Babu', while the Assamese names were preceded by the honorific `Srijut') at every level of these endeavours, indicating the strong intellectual inspiration and material support that these received as much from Bengal as from within Assam.

Most significantly, the universe of `Kamarupa', part of the sacred territory of puranic geography as perceived and presented in these efforts, saw Assam not as a remote and isolated outpost of India, as the colonial government did by marking off on its maps large parts of the Province as `excluded areas', `partially excused areas' and `unadministered areas', but in inclusive terms, as part of a larger cultural and geographical terrain that was linked not merely to Bengal but to the broader pan-Indian and even more inclusive universe of `Bharatavarsha' from puranic times - hence its `sacredness'. Thus, Narakasura and Bhagadatta became historical figures in this imagination, not imaginary constructs of myth and legend. Indeed the location of Assam in such a pan-Indian context was the central theme animating the scholarly works produced by many of these intellectual leaders identified with the KAS. As a scholar has argued in a recent essay, the investing of names, either of persons or places, with a puranic epic identity served the purposes of both Indian nationalist historians and colonial administrators ("What is in a Name? Politics of Spatial Imagination in Colonial Assam" by Bodhisattva Kar; Centre for Northeast India, South and Southeast Asia Studies, Guwahati, 2004).

WHILE such an attempt to identify the Kamarupa of myth and legend with a part of historical India could be seen at its most innocuous as a bit of harmless fantasy, the active and living linkages such efforts saw and sought between Kamarupa and contemporary Bengal had other implications for the colonial government still confronting the aftermath, in the form of political protests and radical political mobilisation, of the division of Bengal. These had acquired a momentum and dynamism of their own, taking directions that the colonial government could neither foresee nor control despite the annulment of the partition.

As many historical accounts citing contemporary intelligence reports have noted, `terrorists' from Bengal were routinely moving from Bengal to Assam to escape the police. Volume One of the Political History of Assam (1826-1919) published by the Government of Assam in 1977, part of a three-volume project sponsored by the State government, refers to the cases of "Jadu Gopal Mukherjee, an outstanding revolutionary carrying a price of Rs.20,000 on his head" eluding the police and keeping up his activities in Assam during 1915-16. Then there was the case of "Nalini Ghose and some other revolutionaries who had been hiding in Fancy Bazar and Athgaon in Guwahati, who were arrested after armed clashes with the police on 18-19 January 1918 and later tried and sentenced by Special Commissions under the Defence of India Act".

Such sparks, initially (and quite wrongly) seen as essentially a malignant importation from Bengal to disrupt the imagined tranquillity of Assam, could not anyway be contained, for the objective conditions for such unrest to thrive were present very much in the socio-economic situation in the province. Nevertheless, the knee-jerk reaction was to isolate the province from what were seen as malignant infections. The establishment of a separate department of historical research under the direct control of the government, with the domain of its research activities defined and confined to `Assam' in contradistinction to the universe of Kamarupa was, at that point of time, as much a political necessity as a path-breaking endeavour to expand historical research in Assam.

Like any such voluntary efforts, the KAS did the tasks it had set for itself, sometimes exceedingly well, sometimes in a workmanlike, perhaps even a pedestrian, manner. Its own summing up of its achievements on the 80th anniversary of its founding is modest. It also notes, as if in passing, that the KAS "also paved the way for the establishment of sister institutions in the State, like ... the Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies", suggesting an organic continuity between the two structures.

Such, perhaps, is the case now. But such was not the case when the colonial government took the initiative to provide for a separate Department of Historical and Antiquarian Studies (DHAS). Rather, the argument of this essay is that the initiative of the colonial government was intended to facilitate and encourage a different focus to historical studies than had been provided by the KAS, in the circumstances of its birth as well as in the direction its work had taken in the first decade of its existence. These went beyond the obvious differences that had been evident from the beginning in that the focus of the KAS was more in the direction of collection of artefacts having a bearing on the ancient history of Kamarupa with puranic undertones - monuments and inscriptions, temple architecture and archaeology, copper plates, ancient coins and so on - while that of the DHAS was more specifically historical, dealing with periods and events identifiably having a focus in recorded history.

KAS says: "Since its inception, the Samiti has been steadfastly working towards the fulfilment of its objective to carry on research in matters relating to history, archaeology, ethnography, etc, and to collect books and manuscripts, coins, copper plates, statues, carved stones, anthropological articles, etc, in short, all things that should find place in a literary museum of such a society and also the establishment of a Government Museum in Guwahati... "

In the course of time, the KAS has now become little more than an adjunct of the Assam Provincial Museum (now Assam State Museum, "a purely government institution but [with] its management... left with the Board of Trustees") it facilitated in bringing into being than its primary moving force. Having been from the beginning and always a department of the State government, the DHAS has not had so many ups and downs, except those that are part of the fate of any government department. However, the bottom line for any scholar, or even a journalist, a visit to these institutes that share as much an inspiring past as a decrepit present and uncertainties about the future, is a depressing experience.

WHAT is in a name? After asking this rhetorical question and dismissing it, the same poet has rather something different to say in his more mature years about names and nomenclature (Othello, Act Three, Scene Three).

Names, like every other physical and cultural artefacts and other creations of the human intellect and imagination, are unique, with an element of magic. It is hardly necessary to press this point, for even now there are societies where people will not reveal their real names but go throughout their lives under a name meant for use in the public domain. For, men and women too, like the cat in another poet's imagination, have names that only they know.

The same uniqueness is a feature of changes in names and nomenclature, a process of reclaiming one's history that has been distorted out of all recognition - and not merely by the colonial rulers. In Assam and the northeastern region, for instance, the nationalist assertion by various minority communities almost always incorporates their own reinvention as well as their local habitation and name, their land and their personal names, in terms defined by them. Instances of such reinvention are to be found among every people of the region.

So, Kamarupa of the puranic epic became a serviceable name, Kamrup, to denote a revenue district created after occupation and conquest by the British. However, Kamarupa itself became Asam, another ancient name, but of a later date, which in due course got anglicised to Assam.

However, it retained in Assamese spelling and pronunciation its subtle uniqueness, not easy for foreigners to comprehend in all its nuances. The Assamese spelling and pronunciation, in their reverse transliteration into Roman script letters and attempts at phonetic spelling, are now represented by two other versions of the name: Asom and Axom, the latter a still to be accepted innovation intended to represent the sound and pronunciation of the uniquely modified Assamese retroflex fricative, represented in an oversimplified spelling simply as `s'. The United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the voice (and deeds) of an exclusivist Assamese nationalist assertion, claims it is fighting for the liberation of `Asom', not Assam.

The journey from Kamarupa to Assam and possibly to Asom and, who knows, maybe even beyond, is in no way unique. New names for old, like another siren call of new lamps for old, holds promises as well as perils. However, in the present situation in Assam, one is not even clear what the direction these calls will take, let alone worry about what is waiting at the end of the journey.

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