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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Patharughat Explained: The forgotten peasant uprising of Assam in 1894

Today a "martyrs column" stands where the incident took place — Patharughat, a small village in Assam's Darrang district, 60km northeast of Guwahati.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati |
Updated: January 28, 2021 6:03:27 pm
The 'martyrs column' at Patharughat, Assam (Credit: Darrang District Administration)

Twenty five years before the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, more than a hundred peasants fell to the bullets of the British on January 28, 1894 in Assam. The unarmed peasants were protesting against the increase in land revenue levied by the colonial administration, when the military opened fire. Today a “martyrs column” stands where the incident took place — Patharughat, a small village in Assam’s Darrang district, 60km northeast of Guwahati.

What led to the Patharughat uprising?

After the British annexation of Assam in 1826, surveys of the vast lands of the state began. On the basis of such surveys, the British began to impose land taxes, much to the resentment of the farmers. In 1893, the British government decided to increase agricultural land tax reportedly by 70- 80 per cent. “Up until then the peasants would pay taxes in kind or provide a service in lieu of cash,” said Patharughat-based Kamalakanta Deka, a professor of Assamese at Patharughat Higher Secondary School. “Across Assam, peasants began protesting the move by organising Raij Mels, or peaceful peoples’ conventions.”

According to Guwahati-based author Arup Kumar Dutta, who has written a book — Pothorughat — on the incident, despite these gatherings being democratic, the British perceived them as “breeding grounds for sedition”. “So whenever there was a Raij Mel, the British used to come down on it with a heavy hand to disperse them,” he said.

That is what happened on January 28, 1894. “When the British officers were refusing to listen to the farmers’ grievances, things heated up,” said Deka. “There was a lathi charge, followed by an open firing which killed many of the peasants present.”

As stated in Dutta’s book, “Official records, as mentioned in the Darrang District Gazette, 1905, edited by BC Allen, placed the casualties in the Patharughat incident as 15 killed and 37 wounded.”

However, unofficial sources claim it was a much higher number. Dutta writes: “Doli Purana, ostensibly written by an eyewitness named Narottam Koch, has the line Sat kuri raij mori thakil dar chelai pori which translates to imply that 140 were killed.”

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Why was the incident significant?

The introduction to Dutta’s book describes the incident as one of the “most tragic and inspiring episodes in the saga of the indian freedom movement.” However, it rarely features in mainstream historical discourse of the freedom struggle. “Even within Assam, especially the younger generations, know nothing about Pothorughat,” sad Dutta, “While the British would keep meticulous records, there was little archival material related to this incident.”

According to Deka, for the larger Assamese community, Patharughat comes second only to the Battle of Saraighat, when the Ahoms defeated the Mughals in 1671. “It is extremely inspirational for the Assamese community, like a national awakening,” Deka said.

While many often refer to the episode as as the “Patharughat Ron” or the “Battle of Patharughat”, Dutta said it was a “misnomer.” “It was a peaceful protest and a precursor to the Civil Disobedience movement, which was later propagated by Mahatma Gandhi.”

In the introduction of his book, he writes that it was “one of the few occasions in the history of the pre-Congress, pan-Indian anti-imperialist movement, when, in the absence of a well defined leadership, the masses organised themselves to resist the autocratic designs of the British.”

What about the site today?

A martyrs column was erected at the site on 28 January, 2001 by the Army and unveiled by SK Sinha, former Governor of Assam.

Every year on January 28, the government and local people pay respects to the martyrs of the incident (Krishak Swahid Diwas) in an official function. On January 29, the Indian Army pays its respects in military style. According to Deka, over the years, films, theatre, folktales and, serials have been made on the subject. “That is how it’s slowly entering popular imagination,” he said.

On January 28, 2021, Assam CM Sarbananda Sonowal will inaugurate an Integrated Training and Skill Development Centre for the farmers near the site. According to Darrang DC Dilip Kumar Borah, the centre will be equipped to teach farmers new skills and technology. “Not only that, those who come to get educated as well as experts who come to teach from various parts of India will learn about the unique history of Patharughat,” he said.

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