Gandhi’s four visits to Assam

India, Sept. 27 — On the birth centenary of Gandhi, an Assamese anthology on Gandhi’s four trips to Assam was published. Aptly titled Mahatma in Assam and brilliantly curated by two Gandhians, Omeo Kumar Das and Liladhar Barua, one can learn much from it about Gandhi’s tryst with Assam. Of his four visits, the first and last stood out distinctly for their political importance. Gandhi’s first visit in August 1921 had an electrifying impact in this frontier province. Its saga of anti-imperial resistances had not yet caught the imagination of most Indians.

Mahatma Gandhi

Even before Gandhi arrived in Assam, his call for Non Cooperation had created havoc for the European tea planters. The life of the tea plantation workers had taken a turn for the worse. The raging movement inspired them to desert their ruthless planters. Some tea gardens witnessed massive exodus of workers. In southern Assam, things had turned violent. While some workers could escape to their distant villages, most were unlucky; they were caught and ruthlessly punished by the police. Their pains compelled the politically conscious workers of railway and steamer companies in Eastern Bengal to strike in solidarity.

Though sceptical of such political strikes, Gandhi carefully wrote his views in Young India (YI). He reproduced a passage from a speech by CF Andrews about the starving workers’ refusal to touch “the steaming cooked rice” provided by the government. Condemning the Bengal government and the planters for their brutality, Gandhi saluted the moral courage of the workers. However, he did not endorse the actions of either the workers or the planters. One planter retaliated by writing a long letter to Gandhi, which was also published in YI. This planter took pride in his divine wisdom to alleviate “the sufferings” of the workers. In a rejoinder, the wittier Gandhi reminded the planter that he was nothing more than a “kind cattle-keeper” and that the planters’ ploys were nothing but to keep the worker as a “serf for ever“.

Gandhi was accompanied by, among others, Krishna Das whose Seven Months with Mahatma Gandhi: Being an Inside View of the Indian Non Co-operation Movement of 1921-22 (published in 1928) is one of the finest accounts of Gandhi’s first visit to Assam. Gandhi was received on the bank of the Brahmaputra by thousands of cheering people led by several eminent Assamese public figures, including Nabin Chandra Bardoloi and Tarunram Phukan. They would now have to help Gandhi to make him familiar with Assam’s rich natural and literary heritage and also with its industrious population.

For the next two days, Gandhi stayed with Tarunram Phukan, a leading Congressman, the first Assamese barrister, and also a skilled hunter. That evening, Gandhi spoke to a gathering of no fewer than 25,000 people. Gandhi’s speech in Hindi was translated into Assamese by Phukan. As the end, Gandhi asked the crowd to throw the foreign garments that they were wearing into the fire. He himself lit one small heap. A frenzy seized the entire crowd and they consigned whatever they wore to the flames. Das conceded that his “pen fails to portray the fit of divine enthusiasm that seized the audience“.

Gandhi’s public speech next day had an unusual subject. Years earlier, in Hind Swaraj (a book he wrote in 1909) he inadvertently described the Assamese as a wild and savage tribe. Gandhi now offered a public apology for being a poor student of history and for being so little read about the region.

Gandhi then travelled to several other towns. His train journey to Silchar through the stunning mountainous route was full of excitement. He could see the province’s wonders: its ancient heritage, the magnificent Brahmaputra, “blessings” of annual floods (as Gandhi put it), monsoon, plants, crops, and accounts of opium smoking. Gandhi was bowled over by Assam’s scenic beauty. That landscape would even inspire Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s secretary, to write poems. He learnt about the varieties of cotton, silk and dye produced there. The Assamese skill of weaving touched him deeply. Of the many treasures that were shown to him, Gandhi was greatly impressed by Hastividyarnava, a 16th century illustrated elephant treatise. Everywhere he went, he spoke to Assamese men and women and even the Marwari merchants, who had monopoly over trade. At Dibrugarh, the centre of Assam’s plantation world, Gandhi met the planters, the actual rulers of Assam. Garden workers sneaked into the meeting, an otherwise impossible scenario.

Gandhi made another three short trips in 1926, 1934 and 1946. Those were more organisational. But by 1946, Gandhi had to handle Assam’s domestic political misfortunes with political maturity. Assam was unsure about her own political future; the air was also thick with communal polarisation. When the British Cabinet Mission plan created a political imbroglio, Gandhi sided with Assam and asked the people to remain steadfast.

Meanwhile, Assam’s Gopinath Bardoloi-led Congress government created an extraordinary political and humanitarian crisis by evicting recent settlers from East Bengal. These large-scale evictions had moderate sanctions from Gandhi. On January 22, 1947, at a prayer meeting in the North-Western Frontier Province, Gandhi was asked about these evictions. Holding in mind Gandhi’s views on Hindu-Muslim unity, that was a tricky question. Asserting that this was not a Hindi-Muslim question, Gandhi reiterated that he could not endorse any forcible occupation of government lands. He admitted that his views were based on whatever he had seen in Assam in 1946. However, Gandhi acknowledged that the Assam government would be “guilty of crime against humanity” if it had indeed evicted lawful residents. He also expressed his readiness to hear another perspective so that he could even advise an impartial commission of enquiry. None of these happened during Gandhi’s lifetime.

(Arupjyoti Saikia is a professor history at Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati)

Source from HT media

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