On 26th of February 1858 two men Maniram Dewan and Piyali Baruah were hanged in Jorhat. This is the story behind the first martyrs from Assam in the freedom struggle of India.
By Somashis Gupta
I always wondered which variant of tea is better, the Darjeeling or the tea from Assam. I must say after countless noisy slurps I am still in a state of limbo. Hence I keep switching my brews from time to time. Today as I write this, a pot full of Gingia premium finds its place at my desk. Sipping the same I will take you to a journey back in time. Time indeed, 200 years is a long time.
Anila lay counting the stars through the broken roof as they slowly faded into half-light. She would ask Jinten Khura (uncle in Assamese) to get it fixed today, she noted in her mind. Ratan the white rooster had just started crowing but not yet insistent – a time when only dim shapes of people would be visible. Suddenly Horen her 16 year old brother comes running, shouting loudly “Goras (Englishman) are coming, Goras are coming.”
Jumping on her feet instantly Anila ran to the direction she had seen her mother going earlier. She wanted to escape as far as possible. It was just a few months back she saw her father being whipped by the British Sahabs and taken into slavery. These instances were common those days, the 1830s of Assam. Perhaps the capitalist greed was far higher than human values. Why so? Well the Brits found an alternative to Chinese Tea.
Let’s go back a bit earlier in the year 1823. Times were uncertain. The Burmese king of Konbaung Dynasty looked upon Assam with an Eagles eye for expansion of their territory. Meanwhile somewhere in the town of Jorhat an Englishman Robert Bruce was in a meeting with Maniram Dutta Baruah. Who knew that this meeting will change history, this meeting will be the cause of wars, this meeting will boost the trade of slaves. It was a meeting where Robert was introduced to Tea grown by the Singhpos.
On the other side of the story, General Sir Archibald Campbell was signing a treaty with Governor Legaing Maha Min Hla Kyaw Htin. It was the treaty of Yandabo, 24th February 1826. It was a peace treaty. Peace sounds good, but this peace came with a cost, the cost of complete control over the land of Assam and Manipur without the consent of Ahom Kingdom or Kachari Kingdom. East India Company was the new ruler of Assam.
The next decade saw major changes. The tea leaves from Assam were officially classified as a tea variety and named Camellia sinesis var.Assamica. A tea committee was constructed who assessed the commercial potential and scientific nature of the Assam tea. A market for the Assam Tea began to be evaluated in London. This led to a lengthy process of withdrawal of agricultural lands and forests to allow significant shares of this province to be converted to tea plantations.
This was the same time when Anila’s village was raided by the Goras like many others in Assam. Anila was fortunate enough to escape the hostility. She found refuge in a nearby village, but she lost her house and her land. It was at this village a baby boy was born to Rameswar Baruah. This boy has his story which is…. Well let’s just say his was called Piyali, as of now.
Year 1839 was a year when The Assam Tea Company was established. Maniram who was awarded the title of Dewan because of his loyalty to the Brits, was appointed as a one point contact for internal administration of the company. But History has its own way to form. Soon Maniram Dewan realized the company’s methods of processing tea were exploitative. They implemented unfair taxes and were grabbing the lands of presents by force. Maniram resigned and started his own garden Chenimore Tea estate in 1834, the first Tea Garden owned by an Assamese.
The quickly gained popularity of Dewan was not to the liking of the British Officers. It obstructed them to run the Tea trade in their way. He faced numerous obstructions for tea plantation. Captain Charles Holroyd, the chief officer of Sibsagar seized all the facilities provided to him due to a tea garden dispute. Maniram, whose family consisted of 185 people, had to face economic hardship.
Meanwhile Piyali Baruah was growing up amidst an environment of suppression. Besides the atrocities the government also levied unrealistic taxes. Piyali along with Dhananjoy Burghagohin and Jiuram Medhi started a small scale revolt which was crushed down as fast as it started. But as it is said you can destroy a movement but not the ideas. The war did not end.
Meanwhile Maniram filed a petition in the Sadar Court, Calcutta. He wrote that the people of Assam had been “reduced to the most abject and hopeless state of misery from the loss of their fame, honor, rank, caste, employment etc.” He pointed out that the British policies were aimed at recovering the expenses incurred in conquering the Assam province from the Burmese, resulting in exploitation of the local economy.
He also protested against the unjust taxation system, the unfair pension system and the introduction of opium cultivation. He expressed dissatisfaction to the “objectionable treatment” of the Hill Tribes and the desecration of the Ahom royal tombs and looting of wealth from these relics. He proposed the native administration of the Ahom kings be reintroduced. The judge dismissed the petition as a “curious document” from “a discontented subject”, Maniram moved to Calcutta to gather support for the reintroduction of the Ahom rule.
He networked with several influential people. During the same time the Indian sepoys started an uprising against the British rule on 10th of May. Maniram saw this as an opportunity to restore the Ahom rule. He sent coded letters to Piyali Baruah in Assam to organize a movement. He urged Kandarpeswar Singha the Ahom king to launch a rebellion against the British, with help from the sepoys at Dibrugarh and Golaghat.
This movement was joined by the Subedars Sheikh Bhikun and Nur Mahammad, On 29 August 1857, the rebels met and planned a march to Jorhat, where Kandarpeswar would be installed as the King. However, the plot was uncovered before it could be executed. Maniram was arrested in Calcutta and taken to Jorhat. On the trial Maniram was identified as the kingpin of the plot along with Piyali Barua.
On the 26th of February 1858 Maniram Dewan and Piyali Baruah were hanged at the Jorhat Central Jail.
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” –Soren Kierkegaard
Acknowledgements and Sources
I would like to thank Mr. Inderjit Dutta and Dr. Phulokeshwar Hazarika for helping me with information.
Other sources include Wikipedia, NE Now news, The Sentinel, Quora.com and indianculture.gov.in.
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A devoted foodie with keen interest in wild life, music, cinema and travel Somashis has evolved over time . Being an enthusiastic reader he has recently started making occasional contribution to write-ups.