In the history of colonised India, the extraordinary tale of Assam is often overlooked

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Originally Published in DNA India (online) 6 November, 2016. Article by Aneesh Gokhale

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The old soldier, wearing a worn-out sepoy uniform, let out a puff of smoke. He wanted to talk about his inspiration – Maniram Dewan.

“I was there when the Ahom dynasty was destroyed by the Burmese invasion. The British annexed everything. Purandar Singha, the ruler, was sent to Upper Assam. Maniram Dewan was his official. The British deposed Purandar Singha soon afterwards over non-payment of tribute.”

“Maniram Dewan, then took up service with the British and introduced them to the tea crop. You would believe he became rich after that?” He laughed sarcastically. Somebody became rich — the colonialists! The new laws that favoured European cultivators. A few mauzas of land given to Dewan were confiscated by Charles Holroyd, a British local.This was just one of the steps taken against the Assamese. People could not pray at the Kamakhya temple. The Satras were stifled. Their laws made us poor and their soldiers dug our burial vaults for their treasures.”

“And in 1851, Purandar Singha died. The only eligible person left was an 11-year-old boy named Kandarpeshwar Singha. But Maniram Dewan still tried to petition a local British officer AJ Mofat-Mills and explain to him Assam’s problems. Nothing came of it.”

The old sepoy shifted in his seat.

“So he went to Calcutta— to meet Lt Gov John Campbell, hoping for a patient ear. But the colonialists were stubborn. But as luck would have it, the fires of 1857 were burning at Meerut, Kanpur and Lucknow. The bazaars and chai-addas were not spared either. The British Indian Association, Calcutta, which Maniram frequented, became a hotbed for activity. Whispers about a Proclamation of Bahadur Shah Zafar spread. The Nawab of Bareilly would later send a copy of the proclamation to Maniram Dewan. As Hindustan was engulfed in the fire for freedom, Maniram extended the struggle to Assam”. The others were listening intently.

“His modus operandi was simple — to inspire the Indian sepoys in Assam to revolt against their white masters. There were two regiments in Assam — Guwahati and Dibrugarh, and smaller groups at Jorhat and Golaghat.

Dewan communicated with other leaders like Nanasahib, Kunwar Singh, Khan Bahadur Khan too.” Many eyebrows were raised.

“Like other places sanyasis, muktirs and fakirs carried his messages to the soldiers. The British were to be deposed and Kandarpeshwar Singha placed on the throne. The whole province was aflame, and the British had no clue.”

“Why did he fail then? And how?” the other person asked.

“By August 1857, Awadh and Bundelkhand were up in arms. The British sensed something was under way in Assam too — but did not know what. Sepoys were restless, waiting for the signal. But Maniram had not received a crucial supply of arms, picking October instead as the month to rise against the British. And then tragedy struck” . Was there a hint of choking in his voice?” the listener wondered.

“A messenger mistakenly delivered a gupti stick to the Daroga of Shivsagar, thinking he was Maniram’s man. A letter signed by Maniram Dewan was brought out. It said: “At this present moment, the growl of the tiger is heard everywhere. As many as thirteen to fifteen thousand firangis were killed. In the west, all gardens have been destroyed along with their owners. Few that escape, mad dogs devour by the way. Old hunters are extinct. We sent for new hunters, still the tigers are numerous. The owners of your residence are in great fear. They might decamp at any time. When this happens, keep your ears open and bring the forces there over to your side.”

“The British swung into action. Dewan, Kandarpeshwar Singha and their associates were jailed. Some were sentenced to prison, some sent to Andaman Islands. Maniram Dewan and Peali Barua were hanged in February 1858.” He saw the Union Jack fluttering over a neighbouring building.

“Hope on a day in the future, they are not forgotten.”

Aneesh Gokhale is the author of ‘Sahyadris to Hindukush’. He tweets at @authorAneesh.