Conflicted Assam: Colonial integration and post-colonial disintegration


Assam—one of the northeastern states of India, is a vibrant terrain but this terrain has hardly been studied in detail in the light of its boundaries as drawn by the British colonialists. The consistent tensions within the state, as also in the other states in the northeastern region, requires the need to contextualize the discord and understand it more historically—one that elucidates the relationship between integration of territories and the social assimilation of its people.

Assam exemplifies an instance of ambiguity between the two. The host of dissidence demands the urgency to probe into the backdrop in which the state had been incorporated in the Indian nation. The outcome of this exercise reveals a daunting picture of the consequences of accepting colonial parameters in the process of independent nation building.

Assam under British rule

One strand of beliefs says that the name “Assam” originates and describes the might of the Ahom dynasty which ruled Assam for six hundred years in the medieval period. The Ahom rulers obtained help from the British during the Burmese invasion. The British defeated the Burmese in three subsequent battles between 1824 and 1826 and were finally able to establish its domination in Assam, Manipur, Rakhine (Arakan) and Taninthayi (Tenasserim).

Assam became a part of British India in 1826 with the signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo with the Burmese. The unit Assam then consisted of a much larger area than today. Present-day Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland were under British Assam.

After the British established their rule, Assam was considered to be a land frontier of Bengal and was placed under the Bengal Presidency till 1874. Sanjib Baruah (1999) points out that the continuous treatment of Assam as a land frontier of Bengal and with the colonial policy makers encouraging immigration from densely populated Bengal to sparsely populated Assam set in motion a tussle among the people of Assam and the Bengali speakers. The economic transformation that took place due to the introduction of “modern” industrial agencies— tea plantation, petroleum drilling, railways, etc initiated an economic force that gave further impetus to immigration. The migration that took place during the British period, created competition for new political and economic opportunities, thrown open to the public.

The people of Assam became highly apprehensive about the “educated Hindu Bengalis”, the “hardworking Bengali Muslims” and “the enterprising Marwaris” (Srikant 2000:4-5). Also during 1826-1874 when Assam was made a new division of the Bengal Presidency, the lower rung of this order of administration almost wholly comprised of Bengali Hindus imported mainly from Sylhet. It was then that the colonial rulers established Bengali as the official language of Assam. The boundary altercation between the states of Bengal and Assam continued till Independence. But the most significant corollary of this experiment with the boundary has been that it created the binary categories of indigenous and immigrants.

Another divide that was incited during the colonial rule is the one relating to the tribal/non-tribal people. As Baruah had alluded, the institution of the line system and segregation of the hills detached the historic interaction and assimilation among the hill dwellers and the plain dwellers. Baruah refers to colonial author Leo Rose and says that the British policy was generally based upon the principle that all independent hill principalities should be deprived of whatever plain areas they controlled at the foot of the hills. This further accentuates the British idea of overlapping natural boundary with the administrative boundary.

The British considered the foothills as the natural boundary between “India” and the hill principalities and that all plain areas belonged by right to whoever ruled northern India. This was also to impede the plain dwellers from providing revenue to the hill rulers, thus making these rulers weak and dependent on the British. Together with these, laborers on a large scale were brought in from present day Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh to work in the gardens and fields.

The radical policies introduced were a sharp break from the past. This juncture hence saw the emergence of the binary opposite categories: the indigenous and the immigrants; the plain people and the hill people; the tribal and the non-tribal; and the hill tribal and the plain tribal. These categories have existed and dominate the social, political and economic life of Assam till date.

Bernard Cohn in Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge (1996) brings to the fore that colonialism was much more than a temporary overpowering of the home administration; its appendages grow much deeper and the power it acquires is through the knowledge it generates about the colonized people. The colonial state in India in the late nineteenth century introduced some of the major instruments of control of populations and resources. The three crucial ways in which the people of Assam were made the subjects of British colonial knowledge were through: Census and Cartography, Anthropological Surveys and Administrative Policies and Acts.

These processes that were initiated in the colonial period consolidated into creating a knowledge base which formed the basis of control and power of the British over the colonized masses. This created a discourse turning the masses into subjects of the knowledge and objectified their identity. This objectification led to the emergence of a discourse—the ethnic discourse which then permeated the socio-political milieu of the region making it difficult for any other form of identity to emerge.

Assam in Independent India

The discourse of ethnicity that emerged from the macro facet of British colonial discourse had a pervading impact in the way that it colors the imagination about the region even now. The popular, official and intellectual approaches towards the northeastern part of India are loaded with the British colonial perspective about the land and its people. A cursory look at the writings— official, academic or popular of the post-colonial times—displays the continuation of the approach. The unchanged fragmentary understanding about the region underlined by ethnic diversity has provided the precursor for the assertions in the region to take ethnic route. Writers, belonging from and outside Assam, writing about the region echo similar ideas about the ethnic divisions. Publications from Assam’s premier literary organization Assam Sahitya Sabha has been buttressing similar ideologue about the people and the land, that Assam is a region crisscrossed by ethnic diversity.

“The Negritos came to India in the pre-historic time and moved as far as Assam. There are a few specimens of the aboriginal Negritos amongst the Nagas of Assam and the races and tribes living in the jungles of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and South India. The Negritos discovered the use of bows and arrows. They collected their food and did not produce food themselves. A mode of tree worship practised by them was subsequently adopted by other races. Secondly, the Austric race also collected food like the Negritos but the latter discovered the method of cultivation by means of pointed instruments like hoes and spades. Another of the racial characteristics was their rearing of the elephants. The Khasi-Jaintias belong to the Mongoloid race though they speak Austric languages. The influence of the culture and civilization of the Austrics, described as Nisada and savara in the old Sanskrit literature is widespread in the hills and plains of Assam. Matriarchal system of society and the worship of Mother Goddess Kamakhya are also two of the contributions of the Austric race. Afterwards, the Mongoloid who conquered the Austrics may have adopted many of their customs and manners. The speakers of the Santali, Savara, Munda, Khasi and Kol languages are the surviving specimens of the Austrics. Banikanta Kakati and Birinchi Kumar Barua have discussed about the contribution of the Austric race.

“The Mongoloid or Kirata race came to Assam at different times and through different routes. The Mongoloids were for sometime the ruling race in Assam, Manipur and Tripura and North Bengal and were the patrons of learning, religion, language, literature and culture of ancient Assam. The ruling princes of the Barman, Salastamba Pal, Ahom, Kachari, Chutia, Koch, Khasi, Jaintia, Manipuri, Tripuri and Nepalis are the crowning glory of the Kirata race. The various contributions of the Kiratas in the field of dance and song language, literature and culture are well marked. W.C. Smith has observed thirteen characteristics of the Kirata race. Of these, chewing of betel-nuts, freedom in marriage, use of the handloom and cultivation in the old methods will always point out to a cultural fusion of the Kirata under-current in the development of the Assamese race. The Ahom rule and the Ahom contribution to Assamese culture are also some of the manifold contributions of the Mongoloid or the Kirata race.” (Shastri and Bhattacharya 1958)

Colonial ethnic discourse that emerged as a micro discourse from the macro discourse of British colonialism has gone about coloring the imagination of the region. The colonial period was a moment when all aspects of the life of the colonized masses were objectified turning them into subjects of the colonial power – knowledge combine. We argue that it is the continuation of the discursive colonial knowledge in the form of narrative, interpersonal relationship and political and governmental policies that incite the particular trajectory of the assertions.

A wide range of tensions has been clamped together under the rubric of ethnic problems and focuses on Assam in order to answer the question as to the why of ethnic politics. It sustains: a) Assam is a region distinguished by its ethnic diversity, and b) the demands raised by various quarters at different points of time had a single commonality amongst them—all rallied upon their ethnic exclusivity while placing their demands. The argument is that it has been an unwavering practice to imagine Assam, so also the entire northeastern India, as a region crisscrossed by wide ranging ethnic diversities, which are different not only from rest of the country but also amongst themselves.

All the narrative about the region—governmental, sociological, political, anthropological, as also the literary and romantic description about the region— stresses the variance amongst the people. In such an academic and social context where categorization and their consequent politicization are regarded as self explanatory, it is pertinent to ask as to what constitutes these categories. A study of the existing literature on Assam reveals that there is a gap between the presumption that the ethnic diversity as pre-given and ethnicity as the most important tool of political mobilization in Assam. It is working on in this gap the paper seeks to understand critically the underpinnings that empower ethnicity as the defining feature of socio-cultural and political expression in Assam. We recognize that the diversity amongst the population is figuratively placed in order to express lack of homogeneity and naturalize hostility.

It is our contention that the predicament lies not in the presence of diversity but in its discursive narration and representation. We maintain that the ethnic discourse in its present form had emerged during the colonial period as enabled by documenting and cataloguing of the population. In other words, the discursively constructed identity of the colonial times is a quandary that surfaces time and again ins post-colonial situations.

Post-colonial disintegration: revisiting the ULFA stir

Assam in recent years, as also the entire northeastern region, has seen the rise of socio-cultural groups which most of the times have corresponding political counterparts. But what has been most overwhelming within the social life of Assam is the rapid emergence of insurgent organizations. The insolent eruption and existence of identity-based groups manifests the socio-political processes that Assam has been undergoing. The most significant among them probably has been ULFA—the United Liberation Front of Assam. ULFA fervently invaded the socio-political scene of Assam in the early 1980s. It is today a banned extremist outfit.

ULFA, as it is commonly known, has been successful in acclaiming to itself to be the most intimidating form of military nationalism that continues to spur terror even to the present day. The idea it adheres to is that Assam as a territory, people and culture has never been a part of India. Furthermore, the colonial pattern of exploitation of the resources of Assam without paying dues to the development and progress of the region and its people nullifies the Indian State’s authority to govern the region.

In its official website ULFA states that ‘To liberate Assam, (a land of 78,529 square K.M.), through armed national liberation struggle from the clutches of the illegal occupation of India and to establish a sovereign independent Assam” as its objective and goal. In the same website ULFA validates its choice for violence as a measure to counter the “colonial occupation” of the Indian state in Assam.

The ULFA since its inception has been responsible for innumerable deaths, bomb blasts, kidnappings and extortion. The key issues that it earmarked were control over the natural resources of the region, the rate and pattern of development, demographic changes and the question of preserving the traditional culture from being contaminated. However, the importance of ULFA lies not on its terror activities but in the all pervasive effect on the society of Assam. The support and sympathy it received from the masses during the initial phase of its inception was phenomenal. In those years, criticizing the ULFA was an assured means of earning unpopularity in Assam. For M.S. Prabhakara (1990), “ULFA is a state of mind in Assam.”

ULFA’s demand for secession was fostered by its ability to repudiate Assam’s political and cultural history with that of India. By articulating a distinctive disjuncture, it elucidated that ULFA was not a mindless terrorist organization but was an outcome of the gross malevolence that was being meted out to the people of Assam since a very long time. An important terrain that can be marked that has enabled the ULFA to formulate its idea of separate peoplehood for the people of Assam is the general feeling of exclusion. The attitude of the Indian “mainlanders” conform to the view that Assam together with the other northeastern states as a geographical and cultural entity is distant from mainland India.

ULFA responded to the larger sentiment of marginalization and exclusion within the nation by delineating an idea of separate peoplehood; exclusive of the nation. The idea of a people within a nation, adorning the triple attributes of people as a sovereign entity, which exercises power by means of democratic procedure; the people as citizens of a state, holding equal rights before the law; and people as an ethnic community undifferentiated by distinctions of honor and prestige, but held together by common political destiny and shared cultural features, was fragmented by ULFA’s formulation of identity. For the ULFA, the people of Assam were not sovereign or citizen subjects of India but were complete nationals belonging to a territory unfairly occupied by the Indian forces.

While on one hand the “mainland” has substantially undermined the social integration of the northeastern region in the national folds which was already struggling with underdevelopment and economic wretchedness, ULFA overturned the sense of marginalization to articulate an identity of the people of Assam that completely negates correlation with the “mainlanders”. In ULFA: United Liberation Front of Assam: A Political Analysis (1994), Samir Kumar Das locates the problem in the seamless and totalizing nationalism that Indian State subscribes to. According to him this form of nationalism is “inappropriate” in two complementary ways; on the one hand, this is what enables the state to ascend to the much-vaunted hegemonic position; on the other hand and almost in the same vein, the hegemonic state, in the name of ostensibly advancing universality and rationality, actually helps in disorienting the smaller cultural identity-groups and ethnic minorities.

The interlocutor that we have marked earlier “The Narrative of Exclusion”, based on which ULFA has formulated its demand for secession, sides with Das’ views that it is the State’s inability or withdrawal to constitute itself into a nation that has insulated various sections of the population to assert themselves for dismembering from the State.

Das’ perception that ULFA is an “ethnic” uprising, however, needs further analysis. Does ULFA represent the angst of a group that can be “ethnically” distinguished; if yes then whose cause does it represent? If no, then what are the contextual inadequacies that hinder it from being called to represent any other political objective? The inability of the State to find a solution of the critiques posed by ULFA and ULFA’s vehement rejection to find a solution within the Constitution of India and demand for complete sovereignty to retract its grievances of exploitation, exclusion and territorial subjugation forefronts the need to understand the distance of the region from the Indian nation.

The instance of ULFA foregrounds that the organization emerged and accrued large mass support by capitalizing on the popular feeling of neglect and exclusion amidst the inhabitants of the region. ULFA in framing the “national” identity of the people of northeast India adopted the available discursive perception about their identity and origin. The idea that the people of the region are distinct and different from rest of the country has been the rallying point of the ULFA for the demand of secession. This idea stems from the fact that the region is perceived as “exotic” and the people “alien” even till the present times by the rest of the country.

This paper reckons that the British colonial administration’s practice of drawing and redrawing boundaries along with narrative about the inhabitants established an identity discourse of the people. This discourse permeates into every aspect of life. The ideas propounded by this colonial discourse still colors the imagination about this region. Time and again groups seeking redress to a variety of issues coalesce on this already existing discordant discourse. Unless the outlook of the post-colonial nation towards the region is substituted by a sense of belongingness and inclusion, it will be difficult to contain identity-based assertions banking upon this feeling of exclusion.


  1. The usage of the word "specimen" when referring to tribal communities says something. The word "specimen" is used to refer animals plants etc., not human beings.

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