People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
July 15, 2007
Echoes Of The 1857 Uprising In North-Eastern India
David R Syiemlieh
HISTORY texts generally ascribe the origins of the 1857 uprising to unrest in the military establishment at Bengal and its outbreak in Meerut in May of that year. The geographical extent of the Revolt was confined, the general texts inform, to northern and central India. The impression students of history are given of the uprising is that many parts of the sub-continent, including the North East, were left unaffected by that event and its aftermath. Pioneering studies of the history of the North East however have indicated that the region was involved in discontent leading to the uprising, as well as in the Revolt of 1857. Research in recent years has further located and made use of material to show that the region, including some of the hill areas, were caught up with the rest of India in reaction to British rule. The literature on the 1857 uprising in North East India should enable historians writing on the subject to incorporate the history of the region into broader histories of 1857.
Assam’s involvement in the uprising of 1857 is only to be read in literature with focus on the region.This was first researched in some detail by Benudhar Sharma and published in time for the centenary observance of the Revolt. More concise history is told by H. K. Barpujari (Assam in the Days of the Company). Assam was annexed in 1826 after the expulsion of the Burmese and the signing of the treaty of Yandaboo (24 March 1826). Some months before the treaty was signed the British had occupied Assam to as far north as Bishwanath where an officer was stationed. Assam suffered annexation though its weak rulers had not gone to war against the British. Rather the Ahom state ceased to exist following the conclusion of the First Anglo-Burmese War. Of the two Ahom princes who had taken refuge under the British, Chandra Kanta was pensioned and removed to Kaliabor. Purandhar Singha was not provided any pension as it was believed he had considerable wealth. Subsequently in an experiment, Upper Assam was returned to Purandhar Singha for five years (1833-1838) after which the British resumed its administration. Among the many effects of colonial rule over Assam one that may be linked with the origin of the revolt in these parts was that alien rule deprived the Ahom nobility of their rule over Assam and the privileges which came with their position:
It fell heavily on a class of people long accustomed to a life of ease to change their habits so abruptly and to take up other vocations particularly demanding physical labour. They possessed neither land nor much of moveable property: the state provided hitherto all their requirements through the service of the pykes while their comforts and dignities were maintained by the slaves who could be procured in those days in abundance. The socio-economic changes in the wake of British occupation naturally brought irritation and suffering in every home that had depended on the services of others.
The woes of the dispossessed nobility are reflected in the sorry conditions of the two Ahom princes. Chandra Kanta died in 1839 leaving his family in despair and financial straits. Purandhar Singha’s condition was relatively better, but he too complained to Government to increase his pension, which, when it was eventually granted he could not enjoy as he passed away in October 1856. The case of the princes and the nobility was taken up by Maniram Dewan. Early in his career he had served with distinction under the British administration. Then followed one misfortune after another. He had to forego the benefits of the mauzas allowed to him by Purandhar Singha, and his tea garden enterprise did not get him the revenue concessions given to European investors. Maniram subsequently became Dewan of the Kandarpeswar Sinha, grandson of Purandhar Singha. He petitioned the government on behalf of the prince and the disposed nobility when A. J. M. Mills, Judge, Sadar Dewani Adalat, visited Assam in 1853. Mills believed Maniram was instrumental in fomenting discontent and could not be relied upon. When the uprising broke out in North India, Maniram Dewan was in Calcutta continuing his campaign to place before the authorities the case of Kandarpeswar and his own.
The extant literature on the subject of the sepoy unrest in the Brahmaputra valley, which is drawn largely from archival material, shows that Maniram Dewan influenced the unfortunate prince to raise the standard of revolt by inciting the sepoys at Jorhat, Gauhati, Dibrugarh and Golaghat. Alarmed at the upheaval spreading to Assam, tea planters left their estates and sought shelter in Gauhati. American Baptist missionaries at Gauhati were concerned about their safety. When news reached Assam of the sepoy mutiny in Chittagong, of which something will be said presently, the Chairman of the Assam Company appealed to the Government of India to dispatch a European force “without a moment’s delay”. In early September 1857, the correspondence of Maniram Dewan was intercepted. This implicated him and the Raja in plans to overthrow British rule. Kandarpeswar was apprehended in Jorhat. This was followed by the arrest of Maniram Dewan in Calcutta and a number of his associates in Assam. Maniram Dewan was brought to Jorhat, tried and sentenced to death. He and an associate, Peali Barua, were hanged on the day the verdict was delivered, on 26 February 1858. Kandarpeswar was not brought to trial due to his young age and because the correspondence produced in the trial of Maniram Dewan indicated that he had been drawn into the “conspiracy” by the Dewan.
Amalendu Guha has shown that the attempted uprising in the valley was not without popular support. Assamese workers of the Assam (Tea) Company struck work in support of the rebels. “Had an outbreak occurred, there can be no doubt that they would have sided with the rebels,” the Company reported in March 1858. Madhuram Koch, the labour contractor, was sentenced to seven year’s imprisonment in January 1858.
The diary of a British soldier stationed at Dibrugarh has added information about the events leading to, and the duration of, the military disturbances in upper Assam. George Carter a sergeant in the 2nd Bengal Fusiliers in Ambala was transferred in 1856 to duty with the 1st Assam Light Infantry (ALI). He reached Dibrugarh on 22 February 1857. Carter kept a diary. Its importance as a source on 1857 had gone unnoticed till traced and presented at a conference of the North East India History Association (1989). On 3 June 1857 Cater learnt about the outbreak of the mutiny in upper India through the Calcutta Phoenix Extraordinary. He noted in entry of 7 June:
The rebellion as far as I can glean from natives has been foreseen for some years by them in an indiscreet manner: there is a prophecy among them which has been talked of till they believed it would be a true one: namely, that after the completion of a hundred years from the time the British took Bengal (viz. 100 years after the Battle of Plassey 23 June 1757) the British in India will expire (Coompnee Ke Raj Murjage).
Carter notes that there was little worry in June of any disturbance taking place in Dibrugarh. By the middle of August 1857 Lt. Colonel Simon Hannay, Commanding Officer of the ALI contemplated “open precautionary measures”. Hannay told Carter on 17 August that agents from northern India were in Gauhati and “trying to arrange a rising amongst our Sepoys in connection with the Assam Raja”. An entry of two days later notes that the mutiny had reached Golaghat and Dibrugarh. Nothing untoward occurred as measures were taken to augment the position of the ALI with the arrival of Gorkha troops from Sadiya further north. Carter mentions the panic created in the military establishments and the concern that the artillery was almost exclusively composed of Hindustanis. Colonel Hanney drew up plans for the defense of Dibrugarh. Meanwhile Captains Holroyd and Captain Lowther are noted in the diary as having gone down to Jorhat where Kandarpeswar Singha was apprehended with incriminating documents linking him with an intended uprising in Assam. Arrests then followed in the battalion. Carter mentions the names of jamedar Noor Mahammed, native doctor Hadaiat Ali and sepoy Shaikh Muhammad.
BARAK VALLEY ATTACK
East Bengal and the Barak valley too were affected by the Revolt. When news of the mutiny at Meerut reached Chittagong in November that year, three hundred sepoys of the 34th Native Infantry posted in the port town mutinied. They looted the Collector’s office, decamped with Rs 27,8267, took three elephants, freed prisoners, and marched towards Sylhet through Tripura. From Sylhet they entered Cachar where the Sylhet Light Infantry confronted them. At Latu a battle took place. Major Byng, the Commandant of the Sylhet Light Infantry was killed. The Deputy Commissioner of Cachar, Captain Stewart, took steps to be informed of the advance of the group into the district. He took measures to prevent their entry in to the Lushai hills. The mutineers were able to get the support of a number of Manipuri princes. Some of the princes had lived in Cachar from around the 1830s under the watch of the British authorities. The princes, among whom mention is made of Norindrojeet Sing, intended to use the mutineers to enter Manipur and usurp the government of the state. Pursued by the Sylhet Light Infantry and the Kookee Levy on their entry in to the district, 110 of the mutineers were killed by early January 1858. 12 women and 7 children accompanying the men were taken prisoners. Later that month the numbers killed in pursuit increased to 167. The remnant of the mutineers continued to be harried. Reports indicate that by early February 185 soldiers were killed. The remnant of the mutineers dispersed.
A book on the colonial connection with Cachar makes mention of the Revolt (J.B. Bhattacharjee, Cachar under British Rule in North East India). There was little to write about until the publication in 1981 of The Mutiny Period in Cachar and search in the official records in archives located at Silchar and Calcutta. This is a collection of letters written by civil and military officers relating to their efforts to quell the advance of the mutineers into and beyond Cachar.
Word of the disturbed state of affairs in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys had also reached the Khasi-Jaintia hills. Several of the Khasi himas (states) had some thirty years earlier confronted the British intent to secure a foothold on their hills in what has been called the Anglo-Khasi war of 1829-1833. The himas were not annexed. Their Syiems (chiefs) were made to sign treaties and brought under British political control. Further to the west the Jaintia state was annexed in early 1835 and the Company’s demands of tribute going back to a treaty signed in 1824. In 1857, W. J. Allen, Judge of the Board of Revenue was deputed by government to report on the administration of the Cherra Political Agency. He reported that “exaggerated rumours” of the fall of the British power had caused some excitement among the Khasi chiefs. Mention is specifically made of the former Jaintia Raja Rajendra Singh’s intrigues with the Cherra Syiem to recover his lost possessions. The Government’s first reaction to this report was that Rajendra Singh should be seized if possible and that he be sent to Calcutta. Allen cautioned that this would be making the Raja and the whole proceedings of more importance than they deserved. On 15 September the former Raja had made an offer of assistance volunteering “to proceed to Hindustan with my own troops about 2500 (Cookees, Khasees and Moneepuries) to fight against the enemy of the British Government as I am bound to assist the Government agreeably to the Treaty…. made on the 10th March 1824”. He asked for a steamer to convey his troops and to furnish them with muskets. Rajendra Singh had no army. He had many years earlier forfeited his position as Syiem when the plains portion of his state was annexed. The British authorities suspected he was intending to use the disturbed situation of 1857 to reassert his claims over Jaintia. The Government did not agree to the proposal. Subsequently the former Jaintia Raja was ordered to reside in Sylhet under the watchful eyes of the authorities.
The annexation of Indian states by the British prior to 1857 was a prime factor in the origins of the sepoy and feudal revolt. Apparently the Assamese and the Khasi–Jaintia’s concerns of the political control of their states too was a significant explanation why they too were to become involved in the uprising. In Assam as in other parts of India the instigation of the sepoys to mutiny and their leadership was taken over by the “disgruntled” aristocracy, though the mutiny did not assume serious dimensions as it did elsewhere in north India. There was no European regiment in the Brahmaputra valley. No European officer of the local corps was killed. The sepoy unrest though, had the military and the civil administration concerned about the safety of the Europeans (including the American missionaries). The mutiny in Cachar did not originate from within the district. The line of the former rulers whose state was annexed in 1832 made no attempt to join and support the sepoys once they entered the District. Manipuri princes on the other hand wanted to take advantage of the mutiny in Cachar. There does not appear to have been much popular support in both the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys and in the Khasi- Jaintia hills. This will explain why the attempt if feeble could be controlled and prevented from escalating. The people therefore have little memory of the uprising other than the ballads which are sung in Cachar. Nevertheless it is clear that the region was affected by the events of 1857-58, which was a reflection of the widespread discontent against British colonial rule.