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A Peep Through 19th Century Assam: Evaluating Maniram Dewan – by Amalendu Guha

Amalendu Guha

[This blogger’s note: Written at the age of 24 just few months after the completion of his M.A, this is one of the first published article of Dr. Amalendu Guha. It was published in the Special Independence Edition of the daily Assam Tribune on 10th August, 1949. Though the language is way too rustic compared to the eloquent Later Guha, the stamp of a historian-in-the-making is undeniably visible in the arguments presented in this short article published less than two years after Independence.]

amalenduOur history suffers from two types of deviation, imperialistic and patriotic. Consequently our national heroes have always been either under-estimated or over-estimated. The more glaring example of this is Maniram Dewan of Assam. While in the patriotic dramas and essays he is depicted as a champion of the cause of freedom, the British historians took note of him merely as “a clever but untrustworthy and intriguing person”. In evaluating the true role of Maniram Dewan in Assamese history we should not be guided by any kind of motive, good or bad. If we are unbiased we shall find that Maniram Dewan was undoubtedly a man of exceptional abilities, but not an unselfish and consistent fighter for country’s freedom. In fact his greatness lay not in patriotism, but in the undaunted spirit of enterprise and innovation.

Born in the year 1806 Maniram was the contemporary of Haliram Dhekial Phukan (1802-1832) and Jajnaram Khorgharia Phukan (1805-1838), but he outlived them by two decades. Together they represented the first half of the 19th century which was nothing but a series of disasters and degeneration. Those were the dark days, the days of political and cultural decadence. Civil wars were followed by invasions, and invasions ended in the ascendancy of the British Power in the year 1826. Henceforth began a new period of Assamese history in which Maniram Dewan played a vital role. In lower Assam, the Phukan brothers and in Upper Assam, Maniram were the only persons who were equally esteemed both in the Ahom and British Courts. But Maniram’s role was somewhat different from that of the Phukan brothers. While both Haliram and Jajnaram had definite sympathies with the new era, Maniram’s sympathy was with the “ancien regime”. He was out and out a defender of the old aristocracy. Again, while the Phukan brothers were influenced by the foreign bourgeois culture, Maniram was impressed by the foreign bourgeois economy. He was eager to avail of the economic opportunities created by the new regime; but at the same time he wanted to retain the aristocratic privileges of the old days. This contradiction in him represented the whole of transitional period. Maniram was the bridge between the old days and the new days; between feudalism and capitalism; between conservatism and progress. He was subjectively reactionary, but objectively revolutionary. He represented contradiction as well as compromise; he served the British for a period of long twenty nine years which ended only in his “martyrdom”. Indeed the impact of Maniram’s personality was equally felt in the political, economic and cultural fields.

The Last of the Aristocrats

In every aspect of his life he was thoroughly aristocratic. He had a good knowledge of the Buranjis (Chronicles) without which the education of a Dangoria (elite/aristocrat) was never regarded to be complete. He lived throughout in pomp and splendour, and therefore was widely known as Assam Rajah in Calcutta and Kalita Rajah in the province. When in Calcutta, he was in Latu Babu’s house and moved in the distinguished circles there. Maniram was not free from the aristocratic vices too. He had several wives and hundred eighty-five family members, dependent on him. He began his career as an envoy of the Ahom King and also died while upholding his cause.

In 1825, Maniram was sent to Calcutta as a special representative of the Ahom Court. Then again in the thirties till 1838, he served Rajah Purandar Singh as his Chief Minister. After the dethronement of Purandar, Maniram engaged himself in various business enterprises and services, but never lost the hope of restoration. In 1853, he submitted to Mr. Mills two memorandums: one on his own behalf and another on behalf of the Jubaraj (Prince). Mr. Mills writes about Maniram in connection with the memorandums:

“He abuses the whole system insinuating more than he does to express and exaggerating facts and sets forth in details the grievances under which the upper classes are said to be labour. His real motive in decrying the company’s administration and comparing it with that of the Assam rulers is to get the country restored to the management of Rajah Purandar Singh’s descendant.”

We should not forget that Maniram protested against the oppressive British rule, not on behalf of the people but on behalf of the upper classes – Dangorias – who were hit hard by the abolition of certain feudal privileges such as slavery, forced labour and cruel punishment. The revolt of 1857 was the last chance for Indian feudalism for restoration. So Maniram took interest in it, got arrested and was ultimately hanged to death in 1858.

The First of the Bourgeoisie

The last of the aristocrats was also the first of the bourgeoisie of our province. In him we find initiative, enterprise and business-mindedness which were then typical qualities of the foreigners. His knowledge of the economic conditions of Assam was indispensable for the British rulers. He was employed as a Sheristadar and Tahshildar. He re-organised the land settlement in Upper Assam and tripled the revenue income from that area. He prepared a report on the washing for golds in the rivers of Assam. Through Captain Jenkins, this report was published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1838.

Maniram was not only an economic surveyor but was also a practical businessman. In his career as a contractor, he successfully supplied with rations and coolies to the military troops even under immense transport difficulties. In the forties, he made an attempt to exploit the coalfields of the Namsang Hills. But he failed because the price offered by the Government did not cover the cost of production. We come to know from the pages of “Arunodai” that he opened a weekly market at Arjunguri near Sibsagar town which greatly facilitated trade between the Nagas and the plains people.

The most revolutionary incident in the history of modern Assam is the discovery of tea and the establishment of the tea industry. Maniram’s name is associated with the discovery as well as development of the industry. Opinions differ as to who was the first person to take notice of the tea plant growing wild in Assam. Some say it is Robert Bruce; some say it is Maniram Dewan. The controversy has not yet been settled. But there is no doubt about the fact that Maniram had continued interest in tea. In the formative period of the Assam Company he served as the Dewan and established several gardens on its behalf. For the Company, his service as Dewan was indispensable because his knowledge of the economies of Assam was unparalleled. Maniram had no intention of continuing only as an employ. He himself owned two gardens and was growing as a rival to the British capital represented by Assam Company. That is the reason, I think, why Maniram’s death sentence was hurriedly decided upon, though there was no sufficient proof for treason against him. After his death, his gardens were consfiscated; and for a long time there was no Assamese enterprise to compete with the foreign capital.

Representative of Decadent Culture

The study of the chronicles (Buranjis) was an indispensable part of education for the Dangorias and in this regard Maniram did not lag behind. He even followed the aristocratic convention of writing a chronicle the Buranji Vivek Ratna – the compilation of which was finished in 1838. In terms of content, the Buranji is very rich. There are discussions on religion, social customs, tribal people’s history, various functions of Ahom nobility, Royal ceremonies, origin of opium cultivation and many other topics of interest. But in form, the Buranji is a glaring example of the disintegration of the Assamese culture. The racy and chaste style of old Buranjis is no more there. On the contrary it is definitely not pure Assamese. The language seems to be a peculiar mixture of Bengali and Assamese with a sprinkling of words from Urdu and English too.

There is another instance of his coming under the Bengali influence. He began to use “Dutta” as his surname as the title “Barua” was non-intelligible to the Bengali society of Calcutta. A funny story is associated with his acceptance of the new surname.

Though acquainted with modern life, Maniram never thought of printing and publishing his work; rather he remained true to the Ahom tradition of keeping the Buranjis as secrecy for the privileged few. But his contemporary Haliram wrote and published a buranji in Bengali in 1829 with the motive of free distribution among the learned. Maniram did not like to break with the past. He could be a bourgeois in business, but could not be a bourgeois in culture. Haliram stood for female education, Jajnaram stood for Western enlightenment, Anandaram stood for restoration of the mother tongue and against zamindari system; but Maniram fought for lost privileges of the few. Hence, he could not ally himself with the Assamese Renaissance Movement which was gathering strength in the forties and fifties.

A Fighter for Freedom?

Maniram is popularly known as the first Assamese martyr in the war of independence against established British authority. But this is a half truth. He was not the first martyr; nor was he a martyr for the cause of complete independence and to the cause of popular freedom. Peoli Barphukan and Jeoram Doley Barua executed in 1830 were the first martyrs in our revolts against the British. But they as well as Maniram championed the discontent of the privileged class. Maniram, of course, was more intelligent in not revolting openly against the British. He rather believed in compromise. It is clear from the memorandums submitted to Mr. Mills that he wanted the restoration of the Ahom state only as a dependency under the British Crown, nothing more than that. He was the man who helped the British administrators in their military operations for subjugating the Garo and the Khasi Hills. He served the new regime faithfully for twenty-nine years. Yet he was unwelcomed by the British because he was a clever man and aspired to be a rival to the British businesses. So, the opportunity was not missed to remove him forever with the charge of treason. In his last letter written from jail to his second son, Maniram observed that:

 “I have seen the British might and machinery in Calcutta and what preparations were made there to meet the powerful host armed with deadly weapons, where are the men and materials for fighting the British? Is it to fight and drive out the British with bamboo pop-guns? As the man in power is resolved to take my life without weighting all circumstances, there is no help …” (sic)

Maniram’s life ended in frustration. History did not move backward, but only rushed forward. The hopes of the old aristocracy were buried in the grave. But a new upsurge of popular hopes was continuously growing under the leadership of the Arunodai, Anandaram, Gunabhiram and Hemchandra Barua, which can be named as Assamese Renaissance Movement.

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