The gallantry of the peasants of Pothorughat

The killing of 140 unarmed peasants protesting against the increase in land tax by the British at Pothorughat in Assam in 1894, 25 years before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, finds no mention in the mainstream discourse on India’s freedom struggle but has lived in oral lore for more than a century.

Published : Feb 05, 2021 06:00 IST

Senior residents  of Pothorughat at the “Martyrs Column” built to commemorate the peasants killed in the 19th century uprising.

Senior residents of Pothorughat at the “Martyrs Column” built to commemorate the peasants killed in the 19th century uprising.

THE peasants uprising at Pothorughat in Assam on January 28, 1894, is a glorious chapter in the Indian freedom struggle. It took place 25 years before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 when British troops opened fire and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in Amritsar, Punjab. But the gallantry of the Pothorughat martyrs is often ignored in the mainstream historical discourse of India’s freedom struggle. The British military police opened fire indiscriminately killing and injuring several unarmed peasants who had assembled peacefully at Pothorughat to protest against a hike in land revenue. The site of the historical uprising is about 16 kilometres west of Mangaldai town, the headquarters of Darrang district in northern Assam.

Oral lore

The official colonial account put the death toll at 15 and the number of injured at 37. However, according to Doli Puran , a ballad giving a vivid description of the uprising, 140 peasants died in unprovoked firing by the British military police. “ Sat kuri raij mori thakil dat selei pori [140 people succumbed],” the balladeer Narottam Das recounted in his oral lore of the uprising. (Source: Pothorughat , a compilation of articles on various historic peasants struggles of Assam, edited by Prasanna Kumar Nath and published in 1994 by UDAS on the occasion of the centenary year celebration of the Pothorughat peasants’ struggle.)

The compilation includes a reprint of Doli Puran. Narottam Das was an eyewitness to the uprising and described the events in his songs. (Doli in Assamese means earth/soil. The unarmed peasants are said to have thrown clods of soil at the police who were firing at them.)

Dineswar Sarma, historian and freedom fighter, collected and published the songs in Pothorughator Ron (Battle of Pothorughat), a historical account in the Assamese language, in 1957. He wrote in his account: “The official report is not reliable. From the account of the local employees and those who survived bullet wounds, served prison terms, and paid penalties, and are still living, we came to know that about 140 people died and 150 were injured…. Bodies of all those killed were buried together in a deep trench.” Also read: Price of inaction in Assam

A booklet titled “Patharughat at a glance”, published in 2017 by the Darrang District Committee of the Assam Union of Working Journalists, includes a reprint of an incomplete list of 64 peasant martyrs that was published in a local souvenir, Kheraj, in 2009. However, more than the actual count of the casualties, it is the gallantry of the peasants that has inspired the people of Assam for over a century.

The Colonial Account

The colonial account bears testimony to the fact that the British rulers resorted to indiscriminate and unprovoked firing on unarmed peasants to crush their revolt.

J.R. Berington, officiating commandant of the military police and District Superintendent of Police, stated in his report: “This morning, the 28th, I went with a party of military police and armed civil police to attach the property of a defaulting ryot. This was by the order of the Deputy Commissioner. On the way, I saw 200 men advancing towards me. I went to meet them and halted about 100 yards from the enclosure. The crowd made a rush up to within three paces of the guard. Fearing that my men would be rushed, I fired a shot from my revolver into the ground, which had the effect of making the crowd retire 100 yards. I then called the tahsildar, and in company of several mandals, and had 13 men identified among the crowd. Their names were taken down by the tahsildar. I also ordered four men to accompany me. I did this because two of them were exciting the crowd and two of them did not give satisfactory answers as to their residence. The attachment of property being finished I marched back to rest house and reported to the Deputy Commissioner. About 1 p.m. when we were having breakfast, the sentry reported that a large number of men were coming down the Mangaldai road towards the rest house. I immediately turned the guard out, and the Deputy Commissioner gave orders to allow all the people to assemble in front of the rest house. The Deputy Commissioner addressed the people in Assamese (a language which I do not understand) and subsequently ordered them to disperse. As they did not do so, the guard, by my order cleared the crowd. There were then about 800 to 1,000 people collected. About half an hour afterwards the sentry reported that a body of men with lathis were coming down the road. The guard was again turned out and advanced at the double on the crowd, which fell back through the jungle surrounding the rest-house along the Mangaldai road, and came into the maidan, where a crowd of at least 2,000 was assembled. I gave the order to extend from the centre, and the men advanced in extended order. The crowd then began advance on us, throwing sticks and clods of earth. Many of them were armed with split bamboos and were arming themselves with other bamboos from a pile near the village. The men were then being hit, the Deputy Commissioner and myself were also hit, and a crowd was gathering behind us. I then fired a shot from my revolver over the heads of the crowd, and, seeing, that this had no effect whatever, and the crowd being in overwhelming numbers, I asked and obtained permission from the Deputy Commissioner to open fire. This did not deter the crowd for an instant, who continued to press my men so closely that I called them together and retired, firing, to the bund of Mangaldai road, which was immediately on our rear. We retired about 50 yards along the Mangaldai road, firing all the time, and the crowd pressing on us all the time.” (Source: Assam Secretariat Proceedings reprinted in Patharughat , a souvenir published on the occasion of the Krishak Swahid Divas in 2017 by the Darrang District Administration and edited by Akhil Ranjan Bhatta.)

Report on peaceful assembly

It was J.D. Anderson, the then Deputy Commissioner of Darrang district, who ordered the police firing on the peasants as they remained firm on their demand for the lowering of revenue rates. His report revealed that the assembly of peasants at Pothorughat was peaceful.

“As the crowd was obviously unarmed, and showed no signs of an immediate hostile situation, I directed Mr Berignton to allow them to come into the open space in front of the rest house. They came up the road quietly enough and filled the whole of space between the river and the belt of trees surrounding the rest house. I made some of them sit down, and then addressed them in Assamese. I told them that they must not hold any more mel s [gatherings], and that if any such mel s were held, they would be by dispersed by force. I informed them of the orders passed by the Government of India as to the rates of revenue, and then directed them to disperse, going among them freely and talking to them of the inevitable consequences of a refusal to disperse. They remained firm, however, and without in any way assaulting or abusing me, simply refused to budge. I was finally compelled to direct Mr Berington to disperse them.”

In a detail report to the Commissioner of the Assam Valley Districts, Anderson wrote: “On the 26th, I left Tezpur with Mr Berington in command of 12 sepoys of the Balaipara Guard, and 17 constables and two head constables, Armed Civil Police. We reached Patharughat on the 27th without let or hindrance of any kind. On the way I took down a notice from a tree, inviting all and sundry to attend a mel at Patharughat in the name of the raiz , as the Deputy Commissioner was coming and might be induced to lower the re-assessment rates. Ki jani khazana bridhi nakara (may be the revenue will not be hiked) were the words.”

The notice of the Pothorughat raij mel (assembly of people) which Anderson took down, has been preserved at the Assam State Archives.

Land revenue

The 48.57 per cent increase in land revenue imposed by the British government in 1894 pushed the peasants to the wall and the powerful institution of raij mel united them, irrespective of caste, creed and religion to raise the banner of revolt against exploitative revenue collection.

Kanak Chandra Sarma, retired bureaucrat and writer, in his article in Assamese, Pothorughat Bidrohor Prothom Parba: 1869 or Proja Pratiroadh, includes a list of the amount of land revenue collected in 1893 and 1894 (during revenue settlement) for all mouza s (revenue collection units) under the Pothorughat Revenue Circle—Saonapur, Hindughopa, Roinakuchi, Lokrai, Diplia and Lorakuchi. The list shows an increase in land revenue of the circle from Rs.56,679 in 1893 to Rs.84,032 in 1894. ( Source: Unabingsha Satikar Asamar Krishak Bidroh : A collection of articles in Assamese on the peasant’s movement in the 19th century with special reference to the revolt of Pothorughat, edited by Kamalakanta Deka and published by Nandanik Sahitya Chora, Pothorughat)

Dineswar Sarma’s account says that until around 1841, peasants in Darrang had to pay a plough tax of Rs.3. When the land revenue was raised for all classes of land in 1842, after a cadastral survey, it caused great resentment and suspicion among the peasants.

“Total revenue collected in Darrang district by the British government in 1832-33 was Rs.41,506. This increased to Rs.1,35,454 in 1842-43 after the colonial rulers raised the revenue on agricultural land. In 1862-63, this amount increased to Rs.7,43,689. Collection of revenue in increasing amount to the tune of several lakhs gave rise to discontent and rebellion among the people.” Raij mel s were organised in every village and people decided to stage protests against the hike. Also read: Gridlock in Assam

Dineswar Sarma noted: “The first revolt by the peasants of Pothorughat against the exploitative land revenue was held in 1868. When the Deputy Commissioner, the Sub-Divisional Officer and the police superintendent got wind of a brewing revolt they rushed to Pothorughat. The peasants lodged a protest against the hike, but the Deputy Commissioner refused to listen to them. The protesters chased the three British officials. They managed to flee the scene and took refuge in the dak bungalow. The protesters advanced towards the government building to set it on fire and were on the verge of a clash with the police. Although the situation did not escalate in 1868, the protest followed with frequent meetings held in villages under the Pothorughat tahsil. When revenue rates were hiked again in January 1894, the simmering discontent of more than 25 years gave rise to an organised rebellion. Raij mel s were held in villages. People took leadership roles and started campaigning. At the call of the conveners of the raij mel in Hindu and Muslim villages of Pothorughat, a larger raij mel was held in the ground near the Pothorughat tahsil office where the people decided not to pay the land revenue if the rates were not decreased.”

The Mangaldai District Krishak Sabha, as part of its third annual session in 1982, initiated the observation of martyrs day to commemorate the uprising. In his presidential address at the time, Abul Hussain, the president of the reception committee stated that there were only four primary schools in Pothorughat area between 1870 and 1888. He said the 1921 non-cooperation movement rekindled the desire in historians and freedom fighters such as Dineswar Sarma to revive the memories of the Pothorughat uprising.

Kalicharan Sarma, an 89-year-old resident of Pothorughat, recollects: “On the night of August 14, 1947, the people of Pothorughat marched to the burial site to pay floral tributes to the martyrs of the uprising. We chanted Ram-Rahim in chorus and scores of people waited until midnight to listen to All India Radio’s live broadcast of the oath-taking of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his Cabinet colleagues.” The unity of Hindu and Muslim peasants was a strong binding force behind the powerful uprising and the people of Pothorughat and all other villages that took part in it take pride in the communal harmony that continues to bind them even today, he said.

Filled with childhood memories of growing up listening to the first-hand account of the uprising, he said: “When I was about 12 years, Torok Deka of Chengapara village and Niranajan Deka of Goalpara village, who were wounded in the firing at Pothorughat would often visit our village. We used to request Niranjan Deka to show his bullet wound scar whenever he visited us. He would remove his shirt to show us the scar on his shoulder. He also used to narrate how scores of peasants fell to bullets. Those who were wounded like him lived to tell the tale.”

Krishak Swahid Diwas

A memorial complex and a martyrs column has come up at the historic site over the years. The Assam State government and the local people observe Krishak Swahid Divas on January 28. It was at the initiative of the then Assam Governor, Lt Gen. (retired) S.K. Sinha, that the Army constructed the “Krishak Swahid Memorial” at Pothorughat in 2001.

The Indian Army has been paying tribute to the 140 peasant martyrs in full military style and honour on January 29 every year since 2000.

Mostak Hussain, a former All India Assam Students Union (AASU) leader who is currently associated with Pothorughat Sahitya Chora, a literary body, said the observation of peasant martyrs days gained momentum after the AASU started organising Krishak Swahid Divas centrally in 1984. “Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal was the AASU president during the centenary year celebration in 1994,” he said.

Bhargav Kumar Das, a senior journalist who has been associated with initiatives to document the uprising, expressed strong resentment that the site where the British buried the martyrs was dug up recently to construct a farmers training institute. Also read: Fretful wait for the Assam Accord’s implementation

Dilip Saikia, elected representative of the Mangaldai Lok Sabha constituency, raised the issue in Parliament and urged the Union Culture Minister to develop Pothorughat as a national memorial and honour the martyrs at the national level.

L egend has it that Pothorughat got its name after a boatman named Pothoru Sheikh and the ghat (the passageway to the river) from which he used to ferry people across the river Digaj, a tributary of the Nonai. His great-grandson has preserved the oar of his boat. “My father [Jafar Ali] has told me that my great-grandfather used to ferry people across the Digaj river. On the day of the raij mel on January 28, 1894, Pothoru Sheikh was hit by a bullet fired by the British police and became a martyr,” Samsuddin Ahmed Hazarika, a retired teacher, said.

Ambika Nanda Sarma, a retired principal of the Gandhi Smriti Higher Secondary, resents the fact that the condition of the farmers of this historic place has never improved despite the supreme sacrifices made by their forefathers. “It is unfortunate that even today it is difficult for peasants of Pothorughat to lead a comfortable life,” he said. The 89-year-old resident of Pothorughat said during his growing up years, he used to memorise the verses of Doli Puran .

The uprising has not only lived in the oral tradition, it is also etched in the collective memory of the Assamese people.

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