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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Assam’s colonial police stations are getting restored more than a century after they were built

Almost eight decades after a band of freedom fighters died trying to hoist the Tricolour in three police stations in Assam, the colonial heritage structures — the oldest built in 1902 — are being restored by the government.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati | Updated: May 11, 2019 1:35:18 pm
Directorate of Archaelogy, Chatia Police Station The restoration of the century-old Chatia police station in Assam was completed by the Directorate of Archaelogy last month. Photo Courtesy: Directorate of Archaelogy, Assam

On September 20, 1942, when the Quit India movement was at its strongest, a teenage girl led a procession to a police station in middle Assam. Bullets were fired and the young girl died on the spot, the Tricolour clasped in her hands.

Over the years, the legacy of Kanaklata Barua, the 17-year-old martyr of Assam’s Gohpur, has lived on: in history text books, in newspaper clippings and in commemorative speeches every August 15 in Assam. However, the Gohpur police station, established in the 1902 — where Kanaklata and freedom fighter Mukunda Kakoty fell to British bullets — lay forgotten, despite being one of the most important sites of Assam’s role in the fight for India’s independence.

In 2018 — nearly eight decades after the incident — the state government decided to accord the site a “heritage” status and so began the process to preserve the dilapidated old Assam-type (signified by sloping roofs and front verandahs with columns) house. Along with it, two more police stations atop which the freedom fighters had unfurled the national flag in 1942 were chosen: Chatia and Dhekiajuli, and a budget of 1.5 crore (50 lakh for each station) sanctioned.

Directorate of Archaelogy, Chatia Police Station Before and After: The Chatia police station was one of the three to be chosen as a heritage site (along with Gohpur and Dhekiajuli) for restoration by the Assam government. (Photo Courtesy: Directorate of Archaelogy, Assam)

Last month, the restoration of the Chatia police station — located in Biswanath district —  was complete. “This is the first time we have undertaken such a massive colonial-era restoration project — work on these buildings are usually overseen by the district administration,” says Deepi Rekha Kouli, Director, Directorate of Archeology, Assam. “But this project was a special one.” 

The hub of the freedom movement

Even if Assam’s oldest polices stations are in Naharkatia and Dibrugarh, established in the 1850s, it is possible that the government chose the three in Gohpur, Chatia and Dhekhiajuli because of the area’s association with the Quit India Movement. 

“These were the main pockets of the andolan, where the leaders would go underground to hold meetings,” Avinibesh Sharma who runs Vintage Assam, a website dedicated to digitising facets of Assam’s history. “Gohpur is especially remembered for the martyrdom of Mukunda Kakoty and Kanaklata. It was an important hub for the freedom movement.”

When the Directorate of Archaelogy approached the police stations, all three were still functioning. In fact, one of them — the Dhekiajuli station — has the town’s traffic wing still operating out of it. The station has not been handed over for restoration yet. 

Very few know that it was in this station that Tileshwari Barua, a 12-year-old, was martyred on the same day as Kanaklata Barua. Till date, the Dhekiajuli town in Sonitput District observes September 20 as Martyrs’ Day. 

Directorate of Archaelogy, Chatia Police Station For the workers, the RM Nath Handbook of Civil Engineers, a colonial-era guide book of architecture as well as the “Father of Indian Conservation, Sir John Marshall’s Conservation Manual from 1901 become extremely important references. (Photo Courtesy: Directorate of Archaelogy, Assam)

Local Elements

Before the Directorate of Archaelogy approached them, the Gohpur police station was being used as the resident-cum-office of the sub-divisional police official for several years. “Yet, the wooden posts were damaged, the iron was rusting and windows were broken,” says Ajit Kumar Borah, the officer overlooking the Gohpur restoration. Before they started work, the team  — comprising Borah, Kankan J Saikia and Nabajit Dueri — prepared a comprehensive inspection report by documenting the site’s condition.

They found that the Chatia (earlier spelled Sootea) police station — built exactly like Gohpur, with four rooms and barracks behind —  was in a similar condition. “There was very little information as to how these building were originally built. All we knew was that it was built in 1914 and the historical significance of the 1942 event,” says Saikia, in-charge of Chatia restoration, adding: “We had earlier worked on Ahom-era monuments and maidams, but never something like this.”

Directorate of Archaelogy, Chatia Police Station A window pane during restoration at the Chatia police station. (Photo Courtesy: Directorate of Archaelogy, Assam)

Over the first few months, the team documented the site, unearthing layers of “faulty renovation” done “quickly” over the years. “Many times, the original layers would get hidden,” says Saikia.

For the workers, the RM Nath Handbook of Civil Engineers, a colonial-era guide book of architecture as well as Sir John Marshall’s Conservation Manual from 1901 proved to be extremely important references. But many times, local knowledge — they were privy to only because they were born and raised in in Assam — came in handy.

Directorate of Archaelogy, Chatia Police Station Even if Assam’s oldest polices stations are in Naharkatia and Dibrugarh, it is possible that the government chose the three in Gohpur, Chatia and Dhekhiajuli because of the area’s association with the Quit India Movement. (Photo Courtesy: Directorate of Archaelogy, Assam)

Many homes in the Bishwanath and Sonitpur districts are now made of reinforced concrete cement or RCC but earlier used to be “kaccha” mud ghars. “Bamboo huts were plastered with mud (mixed with earth, cow dung, husk etc) — and the walls were made with jute, sand, cane and ekra, a fibrous plant that grows by the riverside. We found that even the walls of these police stations were made with the same materials,” says Saikia. “And we stuck to those ethics.”

A fight for freedom fighters

The fact that there have been many attempts over the years by the government to preserve the police stations is apparent. “Many officers living there would question us. They would say ‘Are you just going to take measurements and leave’?” says Saikia, adding that many additions such as toilets, rooms etc were incorporated in all three stations. “These weren’t restorations but just additions.” The team also found an underground chamber and in it, an iron locker which was probably used to store explosives in the olden days.

These materials will eventually be put on display at the station. While it isn’t confirmed whether the sites will be converted into museums, it is the most likely outcome. “The Assam police is keen on providing old weapons, tools and artefacts to exhibit — this will capture the transition of the police force to modern times,” says Kuladhar Saikia, Director General of Police, Assam.

Directorate of Archaelogy, Chatia Police Station The sites will be converted into a museum eventually. (Photo Courtesy: Directorate of Archaelogy, Assam)

With the Chatia restoration complete and Gohpur underway (Dhekiajuli will eventually be handed over, according to Assam police officials), the project is being perceived as a positive step in heritage conservation as well as commemorating Assam’s role in the freedom struggle.

However, members of the Assam Freedom Fighters’ Association, while appreciating the government’s efforts with these three stations, have a few reservations. According to Dwijendra Mohan Sarma, general secretary of the Assam Freedom Fighters’ Association, there are nearly 231 freedom fighters in Assam, old and ailing, and in need of assistance. “Family members of some are selling vegetables on footpaths, some are daily wagers —many land up at our head office in Guwahati claiming government pension, but the government pays little heed. What about them?” he asks

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