A century ago, a telegram was the crispest form of conveying death. But one of the grimmest of such wires in Assam was a tad elaborate.
“Crowd of over 2,000 ryots refused to disperse when ordered, and attacked me and police escort under Mr Berington. Was compelled to order firing. Casualties, so far as known, twelve killed and wounded. Police casualties nil. Been in Patharughat rest-house, waiting for reinforcements ordered from Ghagrapara yesterday. Can hold our own at present. Suggest strong reserve at Mangaldai in case of further trouble.”
This message was sent from Mangaldai by the Deputy Commissioner, Darrang to Secretary to Chief Commissioner of Assam on 28 January 1894 immediately after the British police force opened fire on peasants at Patharughat. The peasants were protesting the exploitative measures of the British government, and many paid for it with their lives.
Why and how did the incident, considered a milestone in the history of Indian nationalism, happen?
The primary objective of the Raj was the development of a British-owned tea industry in Assam. With the introduction of ryotwari system, the status of a peasant changed from paik (tenant of the state during the Ahom rule) to ryot (small peasant connected to a market economy). Wasteland Rules were framed to grant large swathes of land to British planters and to systematically marginalise the natives from the plantation industry.
By the end of the 19th century, the British Government succeeded in establishing a plantation economy in Assam to a great extent. But it realised local public resources were inadequate for building an infrastructure for the planters. A tax policy was framed with a dual strategy – to increase the public revenue resources as well as to squeeze the peasantry so much that they would be forced to give up their traditional occupation and join the labour market. Between 1826 and 1893, the land revenue rates were enhanced several times, crippling the farm economy. Similarly, introduction of abkari opium through a policy in 1851-52 and ban on cultivation of poppy (not its trade) in 1860 hit the economy of the peasants but benefited the planters.
The peasants began expressing their anger. In 1861, a police officer died after a violent protest by the people of Phulaguri in Nagaon district. During 1893-94, thousands participated in demonstrations and rallies for several days, particularly in Kamrup and Darrang districts. At the same time, the peasants of Patharughat and neighbouring areas under Sipajhar tahsil of Darrang district united under the banner of Raijmel (peoples’ assembly) to challenge the enhancement of tax.
The Phulaguri insurgency of 1861 and ongoing disturbances in various parts of Kamrup and Darrang districts made the colonial administrators uneasy. The news about holding of regular mels at Patharughat invited the attention of JD Anderson, the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang district. To prevent such a meeting, Anderson took district Superintendent of Police JR Berington and his men along to Patharughat on 27 January 1894. On the way, Anderson saw a notice for a Raijmel. Pasted on a tree, it invited everyone to a meeting at Patharughat with the objective of placing a demand before the Deputy Commissioner to lower the reassessment rate.
Anderson tore off a portion of the notice that read: “...ki jani khazana briddhi nakare (Maybe the tax will not be hiked)”. The next morning, he sent Berington and his men with the tahsilder for attaching the property of a ryot who had been served a notice to pay tax. Berington returned in an hour and reported that he had to confront a mob while doing his job, and that he fired his revolver into the ground to keep them from coming close.
Shortly afterwards, a large number of ryots approached the rest-house where Anderson was camping. As they were unarmed, he met them in an open space within the rest-house complex and read out the orders of the government. He also told them holding mels was illegal and punishable. But the ryots refused to move unless their demands were met. Thereupon, Berington had them pushed to an open field nearby where a huge crowd was waiting. The crowd started hurling sticks, bamboos and clods of earth at the sepoys. Under orders of the DC, the SP and his men fired continuously on the assembled ryots.
The official report said 15 persons died and 37 were wounded, but the actual figures were much higher. As narrated in the Dolipuran, a ballad composed on the basis of folk memory to commemorate the Patharughat uprising, “Sat kuri raij mori thakil dat chelei pori” (140 peasants died in the revolt).
What made the poor, illiterate and unarmed peasants risk death against a tyrannical British force?
A peasant was not merely an empirical ryot, a man of flesh and blood; he was also a conscious human being who felt – like others of his ilk – that the colonial government was overtaxing him. A class of peasantry thus developed. The principal actors of the revolt were not the dominant groups of the indigenous society but the commonest of commoners. The members of Raijmel, irrespective of their caste/tribe differences, were united by economic hardship against a common enemy. The peasants were integrated into a group or raij, so much so that to disobey the order of the Raijmel was a crime and would result in punishment. Through the Raijmel, they challenged the orders of the government and vowed not to pay enhanced tax. They motivated themselves to face any consequence. The democratic ideal – raijei raja (people are sovereign) – made Raijmel the embodiment of people’s power that the colonial government perceived as a threat.
The Patharughat revolt is a golden episode in the history of Indian nationalism, history that the peasants created. Significantly, it coincided with the cultural nationalism initiated by the Assamese intelligentsia and Christian missionaries to safeguard Assamese language and culture.