Background Note: Decentralisation, Indian State and the Question of Asom's Self-Determination

Asom was the first territory in the region to be occupied by British colonialists after the Treaty of Yandaboo between the British East India Company and the Burmese monarch in 1826. The territory under the former Ahom kingdom, the Jaintia kingdom, the Kachari kingdom, etc. were all handed over by one occupying force to another, where none of the people of the region was a party. Asom  was used as the base to gradually extend colonial occupation to the adjoining hill and plains regions, including the Matak kingdom, the Naga territory, the Manipur kingdom, the Mizo territory, as well as that of various independent tribal communities.


A colonial form of governance and rule was imposed on the basis of an extractive and exploitative economy in the nineteenth century. The requirements for land for the tea plantations was aggressively acquired from the peasantry in the Brahmaputra valley,  as well as the ancestral land of various tribal communities on the foothills, dispossessing them of their land and pushing the latter further into the hills and forests. Forced labour of the tribal communities and the peasants was used to implement colonial projects of road-building, clearing of forests, and so on. Members of the tribal communities of central and eastern India, who were brought in their thousands to Asom and made to work in the tea gardens in conditions almost similar to slavery, allowed the European companies to make super-profits. Timber and other forest produces were extracted in a large scale, destroying important sources of livelihood for the local population. To ensure full control over the natural resources, forest reserves were declared and were made out-of-bounds for the people who were dependent on it. With the discovery of coal and petroleum in the second half of the nineteenth century, excavations were taken up by using cheap labour in inhuman conditions, thus laying the foundations of another extractive industry. At the same time, the Inner Line was promulgated to segregate the plains-dwellers from that of the hills and to prevent the hill communities from making any claims to their resources in the plains which they formerly possessed. Exorbitant rates of land revenue, poll tax, hearth tax, plough tax, and an assortment of other demands on the people made the lives of the working masses miserable. The colonial state-orchestrated infusion of opium along with a prohibition of the local production of the crop made a considerable section of the people destitute, and became a source of colonial extraction, second only to land revenue in importance. There was also a planned assault on the traditional institutions of the society -- both in  the plains and hills-  through which even the masses could participate in public affairs and democratically make decisions. There was also a simultaneous process by which the colonial state nurtured and patronised a class of local compradors who became a bulwark of colonial rule and exploitation over time.


The loss of political independence of Asom was complete when its territory was made a part of the Bengal presidency after annexation in 1826. Though Asom was reconstituted as a separate province in 1876, the paramount power was vested on the Commissioner of Assam who was responsible to the British power in Calcutta and London. In 1906 Assam was allowed 'representation' in the Legislative Council of the newly constituted province of Eastern Bengal and Assam. In 1909 Asom had 5 representatives out of the 40 member legislative council. The colonial government had to concede to the growing opposition in Bengal and Asom against the partition of Bengal and against tagging of Asom with Bengal respectively. The centralised, bureaucratic and military state of British India brought in 'reforms' through Government of India Act 1909 ostensibly to make governance more 'representative' and 'responsible'. Assam Legislative Council came into being in 1913 after Asom was again made a separate province under the Chief Commissioner. After the passage of the Government of India Act 1935, the Assam Legislative Assembly came into being in 1937. This system of legislature was continued even after the transfer of power in 1947, with almost no modification of the colonial political, administrative, judicial and executive structure. Like in the colonial period, though a legislative system  with councils and assemblies of 'people's representatives' were put in place, this was nothing more than a window-dressing for the authoritarian military organisations of the colonial state that represented the class-interests of European capitalists and their local compradors. The legislative councils and assemblies that came up were mere appendage to the colonial state, without any legitimacy in the eyes of the people, nor were they in a position to formulate government policy. They were nothing more than glorified debating clubs.


The colonial control and power was exercised militarily as well administratively. After the region was conquered, it was fortified with an elaborate network of military posts with a standing army organised on European principles. The new regions that were added to the province of Assam through military campaigns were also defended with the power of the gun. They were instrumental in suppressing the anti-colonial struggles in the valley as well as the tribal communities in the hills. Most of the garrisons and military posts of the colonial army exist even today, now occupied by the Indian army.


Apart from the direct use of force and threat of state violence, the colonial state also set up an administrative and revenue mechanism from the provincial level to the village level. The new class of English educated petty-bourgeois Assamese trained in England and Calcutta, most of whom were earlier beneficiaries of the Ahom state and had their roots in the feudal landed elite, now became the office-bearers of colonial administration. They were placed in the provincial and district headquarters, in towns and mufossils as administrators and in clerical jobs under their senior British officers, while those who passed the ICS were given relatively higher status and responsibility in the colonial hierarchy. They had the responsibility to oversee, facilitate and justify the unbridled exploitation of the resources of the region, and to quell any opposition to colonial exploitation- be it coming from the peasants and workers of the valley, or from the various nationalities and communities. Ironically, many of them were also active in the literary movement in the late nineteenth century, and are credited for establishing Assamese as a modern language, and laying the foundations for the modern Assamese nation. A great majority of them were outspoken apologists of the British colonial rule.


At the same time, a class of middlemen were created in the countryside to strengthen the colonial mechanism of rule in the rural and interior areas, who were selected on the basis of their property, privilege and power. This was essentially the feudal rural gentry of the Ahom era, as well as the priestly class that retained their feudal possessions and privileges intact during the colonial rule. By employing them in the posts of gaonbura (village headman), mauzadar (revenue collector and head of the mauza - an administrative unit), mohurrir (the village revenue officer), not only the feudal base of this class was strengthened but also that of the colonial rule. They were bolstered by a retinue of strongmen who were instrumental in revenue collection, recovery of debts, auction of property, and generally in maintaining the stranglehold of the feudal classes over the working population. These nodes of rural political power was backed up by a colonial police force - raised from among the natives but commanded by British officers - which was at the beck and call of the rural colonial officers.


Many of these rural colonial functionaries or their family members and acquaintances doubled up as money-lenders, distributors of excise opium and liquor, merchants of the local produce, and so on. But they were vastly outnumbered by an alien class traders and money-lenders from Marwar region. They were locally known to the Assamese as the keyas (Keya is a variety of grass that springs up everywhere) because within a few decades of the advent of colonial rule, they spread quickly across the entire length and breadth of the country. In fact, the Marwari traders followed the colonial conquistadors to the remotest of outposts, and were engaged in a variety of economic activities. They traded in commodities that were collected or produced by the people under terms of unequal exchange that proved to be highly disadvantageous to the people. They also engaged in money-lending and usurious practices, the more affluent ones even financing British capitalist entrepreneurs to set up and run tea plantations in Asom. Nonetheless, their trading and financial network was firmly established in the entire North Eastern Frontier Province of British India, reaching out to every village through fares and shops, and remitting the earnings to their home country.


The combined effect of the pressure from colonial land revenue and other taxes, the tyranny of feudal relations in social and economic life in the countryside, the exploitative conditions in the tea and coal industries, the prevailing colonial rule that encouraged destitution, indebtedness, intoxication and unbridled exploitation of Asom's working people was a series of militant struggles. In fact, these struggles were a continuation of the initial anti-colonial struggles of the people of Asom that were waged from the very inception of colonial rule, raising the question of political power and the injustice of foreign occupation. Gomadhar Konwar led the people of Asom in their first struggle for independence from the occupying forces in 1827, just a year after Asom's annexation. They overran a British arsenal at Rangpur and set up an independent kingdom, but were defeated in the battle of Mariani in 1828, and was subsequently exiled in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Following his spirit of independence, Piyoli Phukan, Maniram Dewan, Bahadur Gaonbura and others struggled to recover the lost independence of Asom, and were martyred in 1857. Peasants were the main force in Asom in three major the anti-colonial struggles during 1857. In the following decades, there were long-drawn militant struggles waged against the feudal forces, British capitalists and the colonial authorities by the peasants and workers of Asom. The armed struggle of peasants in 1894, in which 140 peasants were shot dead in the Battle of Patharughat by the British forces after they annihilated a British police officer and some of his troops, is but one such example. Similarly, there were 210 recorded incidents of confrontation between workers and owners of tea plantations between 1904-05 and 1920-21. Railway and coalfield workers too carried out militant strike actions against the highly exploitative terms and conditions of work.


In the neighbouring regions, the struggles waged by the Khasis in 1829-30, the 'Singphos' from 1830-31, the Akas from 1829, Khamptis from 1839, Garos from 1848, 'Abors' from 1848, Lushais from 1840, Nagas from 1849, Manipuris from 1891 as well as by others were to defend their freedom and win independence from the colonial aggressors. The British government unleashed a prolonged reign of brutal repression campaigns, blockades, massacres, collective punishment, burning of villages and fields, undertook policies of using one community against the other, buying off a section of the traditional leadership among the struggling people. Such policies were continued to be used throughout the entire period of colonial occupation, but all these means failed to destroy their aspiration for independence. Rather, the imposition of an external and oppressive rule and the collective struggle against it stimulated the process of the unification of various tribal communities into nations. It is only in this historical context that the ongoing struggles for self-determination and independence by the various oppressed nationalities of the region can be truly appreciated.


After the transfer of power from the British imperialists to the Indian expansionist rulers in 1947, the colonial economy and its political edifice remained unaltered.  The British military set-up, which was one of the main pillars of colonial rule in the region, too remained unchanged. When the oppressed nationalities rose up to demand the right of self-determination, including secession from India, the Indian ruling classes, much like their colonial predecessors, never hesitated to unleash state terror by using the army to subdue the people. The Naga people, who were forced into waging an armed struggle after all their demands for an independent Naga country was repeatedly turned down from 1929 onwards, the Indian ruling classes sought to crush the democratic aspirations of the people through military might. Draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 (AFSPA) were first promulgated to give the Indian armed forces complete immunity in their suppression of the Naga freedom fighters. In fact, even the Indian air force was brought into action to crush the armed liberation struggle of the Mizos in 1960s, resorting to carpet bombings that killed thousands of Mizos and destroyed hundreds of villages. Such was the ferociousness of Indian state's vengeance on the Mizo people in the late sixties, more than half of the total Mizo people lost their homes, and were forced into 'strategic hamlets' in order to separate them from the freedom fighters of the Mizo National Front. Similarly, disillusioned by the politics of the revisionist Communist Party of India, which betrayed Indian big-nation chauvinism on the nationality question rather than upholding the Leninist principle of nation's right to self-determination including secession, Hijam Irabot initiated the formation of Communist Party of Manipur in 1948, and  prepared for revolutionary class struggle.


This was the period when Bishnu Rabha of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India (RCPI) and his co-workers Satrasing Terang, Tarun Sendeka and others declared that "This independence is fake", and organised the workers, peasants and other oppressed sections of Asom's society for a revolutionary armed struggle. Though Bishnu Rabha left his underground life to join parliamentary politics after 1954, and the RCPI degenerated politically and ideologically thereafter, it was a phase of militant peasant struggles which forged a class unity among the oppressed working people of the region.


Bishnu Rabha's pronouncement proved to be correct, and the people of Asom had to continue the struggle even for their basic rights, as they did during 1960-61 for the recognition of Assamese as the official language of Asom in place of Bengali, which was officially considered the first language. The youth of Asom played a leading role in this movement for the restoration of Assamese language and culture, as they did in the next decades when the government-patronised settlement of East Bengal immigrants in Asom led to a deep feeling of resentment and insecurity about the future of the people of the region. This also led to a thorough investigation into the neo-colonial and exploitative foundations of the entire socio-economic structure of the region, and the manner in which the long-established ties of colonial bondage still continued to bleed the people of Asom and its resources. It was widely recognised that the policies of the Indian state -whether under the British or the Indian ruling classes - turned the independent economy of Asom into a dependent one, and the benefits of the rich resources of the region are plundered by Indian and multinational companies, be it in the case of tea, petroleum, coal or timber. That Asom was deliberately kept underdeveloped to facilitate drain of resources. The anger of the people against the Indian state sprang up in the form of Assam Movement in 1979, and continued till 1985. Militant demonstrations took place to stop the oil refineries and other extractive industries, in which many agitators were martyred. More than 700 people lost their lives to the bullets and batons of the Indian armed forces, while innumerable persons sustained grievous injuries. The agitators boycotted the general elections of 1983, but a bloody election was conducted by deploying more than 300,000 armed police forces, so much so that the ratio of policemen to the votes cast was 24:1! Between February 1and 15th of that year, more than 150 people were martyred. The movement, which gave voice to the genuine aspirations of the people against lack of political power, economic exploitation, and against a feared loss of identity, however, got dissipated with the Assam Accord in 1985. The Indian ruling classes sought to communalise the movement by terming it as a conflict between indigenous Hindus against immigrant Muslims, and also orchestrated pogroms against the East Bengal settlers to sow communal hatred. At the same time, various other means were adopted to divide the struggling people on ethnic, linguistic and cultural lines in order to weaken the movement. The promises of this Accord still remain unfulfilled, even as the young leaders of the agitation got co-opted into the quagmire of Indian parliamentary politics.


The Indian ruling classes, threatened by the resilient anti-colonial, anti-feudal, democratic and national self-determination movements, sought to continue the occupation of the region by false promises, by appeasing the masses with various constitutional and administrative measures, or by co-opting the leadership of various movements, etc., even though repression through the armed forces and draconian laws was the primary means it resorted to. The carving out of several states from Asom, be it of Nagaland in 1963, or Manipur and Mizoram in 1972 were a part of this method without taking into consideration of the genuine aspirations of various nationalities. In the same way, the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, promulgated in the 1950s, which provides for greater autonomy to the hill communities through district councils, have been applied to Asom, Mizoram. Meghalaya, and Tripura, and later extended to address the movements of the Boros, Mishings, Rabhas, Lalungs and other tribal communities in the plains of Asom. In the same vain, special constitutional provisions such as the Article 371 A of the Indian Constitution recognised in paper the supremacy of the Naga social and religious practices, their customary laws, ownership of land and resources etc. Along with it, India has used 'peace talks' and 'negotiations' as a means of extending its war on the people of this region, showing more keenness to weaken the movements through agreements and negotiations than to address peoples' genuine demands.


These institutions, provisions and mechanisms, however, have not been able to mask the continued Indian military occupation of Asom and other neighbouring territories belonging to various nationalities. Much like the legislative councils and assemblies of the days of the Raj, the present state assemblies have become ornamental bodies and puppet institutions, without having any power or possibility to oppose and challenge the policies of the Indian state. It is the governors, mostly retired army generals appointed by the central government, who has the last say in the affairs of the region. The so-called democratically elected government in Asom led by the AGP was dismissed in November 1990 and Operation Bajrang started after the imposition of presidents' rule. The road-show of the so-called largest democracy in the world is run here at gunpoint. The political class of Asom, be it the Congress or the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), the CPI-CPI(M) or the Bodo People's Progressive Front (BPPF), are the willing regional allies of the Indian ruling classes. They have become mere cogs in the entire exploitative structure.


The struggle for independence and freedom of Asom has taken many forms, articulating the aspirations of its people through various struggles. The struggle for a free Asom entered the phase of armed struggle in 1979, and it still continues in spite of the two decades of severe military repression and brutalities. More than 11,000 people have laid down their lives in this struggle for freedom. The Indian state and its constitution has proved to be a failure in the last 63 years to even address, let alone respect the democratic aspirations of the people of Asom. It is the responsibility of the democratic and progressive sections outside Asom to stand by the inalienable right to self determination of the people, including the right to secede, as it has been internationally recognised right of all peoples. It is the duty of the freedom-aspiring forces of Asom to seek greater unity with the democratic and revolutionary forces outside, so as to strengthen the collective struggle for democracy and freedom.


The right to self determination of the oppressed nationalities, including that of Asom, is a historic necessity, and is a part of the struggle for the decolonisation of South Asia. Demands for a truly federal structure in the political system of India with autonomy for the constituents have been repeatedly raised in Asom as well as outside. All Assam Students' Union (AASU), Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), and now even the former members (the 'pro-talk' group) of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) are raising the demand for autonomy and federalism within the Indian constitutional framework and the existing socio-political system. Though the Indian constitution talks of a federal structure providing various instruments of autonomy, such measures have hardly been put in practice. In fact, the same Indian constitution takes back the provisions of federalism it provides through other clauses finally making Indian state a strong unitary one. What's more, with the welling waves of peoples' movements in the subcontinent, the Indian state is making itself ever more centralised, militaristic and fascist. Going by the experience of the last six decades, it will not be wrong to conclude that these measures have been utterly ineffective in addressing the fundamental political, social and economic issues raised by the various movements in the region. Only a revolutionary social transformation of the present society and dislodging of the ruling classes in India and Asom will open up the possibilities for the democratic aspirations of the oppressed classes and nationalities.


As has been with movements in Asom in the recent past, various class forces in this movement for self-determination are ideologically and politically led by the petite bourgeoisie, an oppressed class in the present semi-feudal and semi-colonial economic and social set up. The other exploited classes, be it the workers or peasants, which together constitutes an overwhelming majority of the people of Asom, have participated actively in every movement that has so far come up in order to demand the rights of the people or to defend their interests. This has also been the history of heroic sacrifices of the workers and peasants. However, the workers and peasants of Asom have generally been following the leadership of other classes so far, and only for brief periods have they acted independently to become 'a class for itself' in place of 'a class in itself'. They followed the leadership of the comprador and feudal classes under Indian National Congress till 1947, or of the national or petty bourgeois, thereafter. The question is, can the national bourgeois play its historic role by successfully leading the struggle against feudalism and imperialism in the context of an oppressed nationality? What will be the role of the workers and peasants in this struggle in the future? Will they continue to remain revolutionary class forces organised and led by other classes, or will they look for ideological, political and organisational independence? Will there be any role of a workers' and peasants' alliance in Asom, led by a proletarian consciousness? Can there be unity and solidarity among the revolutionary classes of Asom, Nagalim, Manipur, India and other neighbouring countries through an internationalist outlook? What will be the path for creating a new and better society in Asom, free from exploitation, oppression and hierarchy? Except for a miniscule minority of compradors, puppets, agents and their henchmen, the vast majority of people of Assam, like those of Nagalim, Manipur, or Kashmir constitute a revolutionary alliance of liberation forces that can certainly reach their goals. In any case the central questions raised here hinge the possibilities of the oppressed people of Asom achieving the full pledged decentralisation of power and the right to self-determination.