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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 35, August 17, 2013 - Independence Day Special

Excellent Commentary on Assam-Centre Relationship in a Crucial Period

Sunday 18 August 2013


by Yogesh Puri

Gopinath Bardoloi, “The Assam Problem” and Nehru’s Centre by Nirode K. Barooah; Bhabani Print and Publications, Guwahati; 2010; pp. 675.

“...The subject I have touched in this book and the material used for the purpose are still largely untouched and unknown….No one else has cared to study Bardoloi in such depth as the present author.” (p. ix) Indeed, this is not a tall or boastful claim by the author. The claim is convincingly vindicated by his extraordinary grip and mastery over the minutest of details having a close bearing on the crucial and critical period in the politics of Assam immediately after India’s independence. Barooah’s research has clearly shown that it was due to Bardoloi’s “eternal vigilance’ and ceaseless efforts that he saved ‘Assam’s inclusion in Pakistan as envisaged by the Cabinet Mission in 1946’.

The author also believes that Bardoloi’s immense contributions in shaping the politics and economy of Assam in the early post-independence era have been generally and woefully neglected. Through his credible material Barooah has eminently succeeded in rectifying the injustice done to Bardoloi, the first post-independence Chief Minister of Assam.

Bardoloi was a passionate Gandhian both in terms of Gandhian theory and praxis. But at the same time he was acutely aware of the complex socio-cultural politico-economic situation of Assam. Bardoloi’s attempts to harmonise the national interest with those of Assam—characterised by a complex social reality—is the subject matter of Barooah’s painstaking pioneer research. Barooah has emphasised three inter-related issues which constitute the core of the “Assam Problem” engaging the total attention of Bardoloi

Barooah underscores the first element of the problem of Assam immediately after indepen-dence. He approvingly quotes the British census officer, C.S. Mullan, who declared in 1931 that “the indigenous people of Assam were in danger of losing their majority status and cultural identity in their own province very soon if the uncontrolled flow of Muslim Bengali immigrants remains unchecked”.

The second component of the “Assam Problem”, Barooah writes, comprised the ‘difficulties presented by Assam’s older Bengali Hindu settlers. Bardoloi, in the considered opinion of Barooah, “was the first and only Assamese politician of his day to be conscious of the danger which threatened the indigenous people of Assam if the combination—demands for the preservation of linguistic and cultural unity between middle class Hindu Bengalis who were the older Hindu Bengali settlers and the immigrant Muslim Bengalis of peasant background—became a permanent feature before the emergence of a composite Assamese nationality through the union of the tribal and non-tribal indigenous people of Assam”.

Continuing, Barooah describes the third element of the “Assam Problem” faced by Bardoloi was the “suicidal neglect of the well-being of the indigenous tribal and the so-called Scheduled Caste population of the Brahmaputra Valley by the caste-Hindu Assamese. Bardoloi was convinced that without building a composite Assamese nationality backed both by indigenous tribals and non-tribals…. He was conscious that great efforts would be needed, particularly from the comparatively more advanced non-tribal Assamese, to bring this about with a whole-hearted caring and sharing principle.”

Barooah also explains why he has used the phrase, ‘Nehru Centre’, in the title of his book. “It signifies the centre vis-a-vis the Indian provinces dominated by Nehru’s views either in his capacity as Congress President or as head of the Central Interim Government immediately before the partition of India or as head of the Union Cabinet after independence.” Barooah is of the opinion that as the “Congress President during 1936-38, Nehru’s policy influenced the Assamese Congressmen to put Assam’s vital problems on hold until the attainment of Swaraj.” It was Bardoloi and Nehru’s successor in the Congress presidential office, Subash Chandra Bose, who, according to Barooah, saved the Assamese cause. Perhaps this is the reason why Barooah has dedicated his book to Subhash Chandra Bose.

Persisting in his criticism of Nehru, Barooah writes that in “the period after independence (1947-1950), Nehru, as head of the Union Government neglected Assam’s problems”. He hastens to add that this neglect was “due to his (Nehru’s) preoccupation with other urgent issues at the centre”. But Barooah’s subsequent references to Nehru surely cannot be considered as democratic criticism. He writes: “However, there seemed to be a streak of vindictiveness in Nehru’s attitude perhaps because Bardoloi had refused to toe the line suggested by Nehru and had succeeded in winning over Gandhi to his (Bardoloi) argument against the grouping resolution in defiance of the Congress Working Committee which he then presided.” Barooah’s accusation of ‘vindictiveness’ is not in the realm of sound and healthy criticism. To link the two, Bardoloi’s defiance in 1946 and Nehru’s alleged neglect of Assam’s problems subsequently is too far-fetched and utterly unwarranted. Barooah may be right in his criticism of Nehru for neglecting Assam’s problems or being dismissive of the pleas and viewpoint of the Chief Minister. He has adduced enough material to substantiate his criticism of Nehru on this score. But the charge of vindictiveness in the absence of any conclusive or credible evidence is untenable. Barooah goes on to write: “It would seem that whenever Nehru was the head either of the Congress party or the Central Cabinet, Assam did not fare well.” Again even this criticism or accusation does not establish the charge of ‘vindictiveness’ against Nehru made by the author.

Barooah, however, has given a detailed and documented account of the role of the Central Government in tackling Refugee-Rehabilitation problems during the period between 1948 and 1950 in chapter X1 of his book. He has produced the letters exchanged between Nehru and Bardoloi. Nehru, sometimes, undoubtedly, is harsh and angry. On the other hand, Bardoloi is calm and composed, but determined to passionately plead for Assam’s case and cause. Nehru, one can reasonably surmise, emerges as strong ‘centraliser’, if not a feeble federalist. Bardoloi, on the other hand, emerges as a stout federalist with a strong tendency towards Assamese nationalism and commitment to Gandhian decentralisatrion. But these should be taken as honest differences between the two stalwarts. Barooah’s diligent work does not suggest more than this.

Similarly, Bardoloi also joined issue with Patel about the latter’s dissatis-faction on handling of Refugee-Rehabilitation problem by the Assam Government. Bardoloi calls Patel’s interventions as ‘highhandedness’. (p. 416) Nehru and Patel, on one side, and Bardoloi as the Chief Minister, on the other side, perceived the Refugee-Rehabilitation problem in Assam differently. The former two defined the problem from a ‘national’ perspective, whereas Bardoloi saw the problem from the State’s perspective. He was both an Assamese and an Indian nationalist and did not see, and rightly so, any contradiction between the two. These letters clearly show that Nehru, Patel and Bardoloi expressed their views candidly and that makes Barooah’s book all the more interesting. They discussed and debated their differences democratically and without mincing words, despite producing tension and stress in the Assam-Centre relationship. Bardoloi, in spite of his genuine respect for both the Prime Minister and Home Minister, did not hesitate to express his views and defend his government to the hilt.

Chapter X11 of Barooah’s book is also interesting and instructive in understanding the relationship between the Centre and Assam soon after independence. He discusses how and why the Governor of Assam, Sri Prakasha, with whom Bardoloi had developed an intellectual rapport, was removed against the wishes of the Chief Minister and was appointed as the Commerce Minister at the Centre. The author attributes Nehru’s move to outwit Patel and strengthen his own position in the Union Cabinet ‘vis-avis Sardar Patel’s’. But the elaborate citations and quotations from Nehru’s letters to Bardoloi do not really substantiate Barooah’s charge. Barooah has also discussed the case of removal of Assam’s Chief Secretary, S.P. Desai, and blamed both Patel and Nehru for this. But Barooah somehow makes a distinction between Nehru and Patel not only on this matter but also their attitude to Assam. “Although both Nehru and Patel were high-minded and headstrong and hectoring in their dealings with Assam, the main difference between the two was that Patel did not allow the personal likes and dislikes to stand in the way of the well-being and develop-ment of its people”. Barooah, like Bardoloi, had a clear preference for Patel than Nehru.

Barooah’s work, based on intense and assiduous research, brings out his ardent admiration for Bardoloi as a liberal democrat, a dedicated champion of Assam’s interests and its composite cultural personality, acutely aware of in-built contradictions and clash of interests in the multi-ethnic society of Assam and possessing a culture of accommodation. Yet his estimation of Bardoloi borders on adulation and hero-worship which, perhaps, a historian in the mould of a liberal and progressive democrat should have shunned. Nonetheless, Barooah’s work is rewardingly rich in source material, primary documents and secondary sources and an excellent commentary on the Assam-Centre relationship in a focused period.

His book is also a reminder about the unresolved intra-Assam problems represented by continuous ULFA militancy, and the Bodos’ demand for a separate State. His book has assumed a new intellectual and political relevance for the students and scholars of federal and Assamese studies. Barooah’s study is a must read for them.

The reviewer is a retired teacher of Political Science, Kirorimal College, University of Delhi.

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