Peeping into the Cobwebs of History
-Rajesh K. Jha
In the middle of unending expanse of paddy fields in the interior of Darrang district of Assam, I was struck by a pillar which looked distinctly like a memorial of some sort. Curious, I stopped near the place where the pillar stood. It looked conspicuous in that area. On closer scrutiny, I found that the plaque erected on the entrance of the memorial mentioned a fact which shocked me. Here was a place where 140 farmers were killed by the British in 1894. They were staging a peaceful, unarmed protest against the imposition of very high taxes in that area. The challenge to the British authority infuriated the Deputy Commissioner of that area so much that he ordered firing.
Patharughat is a small village in the Darrang district of Assam. About 17 kilometres away from the district headquarters at Mangaldoi, the place has been a witness to a great massacre of peasants who rose in revolt against the British protesting hike in land rent. The people of this area had enjoyed a number of exemptions from land related taxations under the Ahom and Koch rulers of Assam. However, after annexing Assam under the treaty of Yandaboo in 1824 which marked the end of the first Anglo-Burmese war, the British set out to establish a new administrative set up withdrawing the exemptions and arbitrarily increasing land revenue each time they conducted land surveys.
The middle of the 19th century saw a large number of peasant uprising in Assam. In the wake of the British government taking over direct control of India from East India company, it took several stringent measures to shore up the revenue. The existing rate of revenue on land, stamp duty, excise duty etc. were doubled. In 1861, the cultivation of poppy was also banned. All this led to severe discontent among the farmers which was reflected in peasant uprisings in various parts of Assam. Some of the important rebellions in this period were the Phulaguri uprising of the Tiwa’s in Naogaon district in 1861, Rangia and Lachima revolt in Kamrup in 1893-94. However, the Patharughat Rann of 1894 was the most gruesome of all. It led to the killing of 140 people in the police firing on unarmed peasants. Unfortunately, these uprisings have found no place in the popular history of the country.
An important aspect of these movements was the role of the village panchayats known as Raijmel in Assam. The Raijmels were the assemblies of common people where they gathered to discuss the issues that confronted their society at that point of time, especially the social issues. Slowly, this institution gained popularity and people from neighbouring villages also started coming. The British government was alarmed and it banned the Raijmel. However, the ban was lifted later in the face of stiff opposition by people.
The peasants of Patharughat had been demanding the reduction in land revenue for some time. In 1868 also, they had risen in protest against the increase in tax on land and marched to the local administrative headquarter before their leaders persuaded them to retreat. Once again in 1894, the villages around Patharughat were boiling in anger against the arbitrary and hefty increase in land tax. The peasants decided to hold a Raijmel or public congregations in Patharughat on 26 January 1894. Handwritten posters were put up all around Patharughat. One of these posters is still kept in the government archives in Guwahati. The Raijmel decided that they would not pay the enhanced rent.
The local revenue officials requested the peasants to wait for two days when the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang J.D. Anderson was expected to visit the village. However, the British government took it as a challenge and a police party was sent to the village to attach the property of the defaulter peasant. Mob surrounded the police party. Afterwards, they marched towards office of the Tehsildar of Patharughat where the Deputy Commissioner J. D. Anderson had been camping.
More than a thousand people assembled in front of the Dak Bungalow. When the British officials including the Deputy Commissioner Anderson refused to budge on the demand for reduction in land revenue, the anger of the peasants boiled over. The crowd tried to move into the Dak Bungalow where Anderson and other district officials were camping. There was a scuffle and the police started lathi charge. Enraged farmers retaliated and wounded the Police Superintendent Barrington on the head. The police started firing. Some people fell to the bullets but the rest of the people continued to march forward. The final death toll in the brutal firing against the unarmed peasants reached 140. More than 150 were injured. However, the Darrang District Gazette 1905 records the death toll at 15 and 37 wounded.
It is said that people were not allowed even to collect the dead bodies for days. Dogs and vultures feasted on the dead bodies of the farmers. Brutality of the British during the Patharughat uprising is unparalleled. Folk songs of the area still recount with deep agony the killing of the unarmed farmers. People still wet their eyes when the folk songs recollect the story of this great sacrifice of the peasants more than a century back.
The uprising was remarkable for two factors- its non-violent nature and involvement of both Hindus and Muslims in the process. The Deputy Commissioner himself in his report on the incident points out that the peasants were armed with bamboo sticks and clods of earth. Clearly, if they had any intention of being violent, they could have carried spears and daos which are easily available in any peasant household. It was a spontaneous response against the arrogant British officers who refused to listen to their demands.
In its editorial dated February 14, 1894, the Amrit Bazar Patrika wrote, ‘In the Deccan the fury of ryots was directed against money-lenders, in Bengal against indigo-planters, in Pabna against zamindars, but in Assam, at this moment, it is open rebellion against the government.’
The Red Horns Division of the Army has constructed a memorial structure at Patharughat. It is said to be the only memorial in the country to be constructed by the Army, in memory of peasants or civilians. Since 2000, on 29 January every year, people pay their homage to the peasants of Patharughat for their exemplary sacrifice against British oppression.
The incident at Patharughat happened about 35 years after the great uprising of 1857 and about 25 years before another similar massacre took place in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab. Both 1857 and Jallianwala Bagh are well documented and remembered as important milestones in the struggle against the British to gain freedom. It is sad that so few people outside Assam know about the Patharughat rebellion which is among many of the forgotten but glorious episodes of Indian history.