First Peasant Movement of Assam

(Police firing this October in Mangaldoi, Assam, on jute farmers demonstrating for remunerative prices, claimed four lives – of farmers Moinul Haque, Syed Ali, Billal Hussain and Akbar Ali. Earlier this year, in June, police firing on a rally protesting eviction in the state capital Guwahati, claimed four lives. In the backdrop of these instances of repression on peasants’ movements, Bidyum Medhi recalls the legacy of Assam’s first peasant movement on its 150th anniversary.)

18th October 1961 is a day of inspiration for the peasant class of Assam, marking the beginning of the first organised peasants’ movement in Assam. This movement seems all the more relevant even 150 years later, in the present scenario of deprivation and repression of the peasantry by ruling sections.

With the imperialist intention to grab as much profit as possible, the British administration introduced a rigorous taxation policy from the beginning of their rule in Assam. Along with the land revenue under Ryotwari System, the British also introduced many oppressive taxation measures like grazing tax, tax on cutting grass and trees in jungles. From opium, bamboo, woods to jungle and water, there was no item of regular use that was spared from taxation. The amount and forms of revenue collection was so high as well as diverse that soon the people became restless.

As news of betel nut taxation reached the people of Nowgaon district, the situation became tense. In Phulaguri village, on 17th September 1861, around thousand ryots took their grievance to the District Commissioner, who instead of listening, fined and detained them for a day. After this incident, the peasants decided not to pay the tax and from 15th October onwards a five days Raaiz-Mel (Mass Meetings) was called for greater mobilisation. The participation was so large that on 18th October, the British administration had to send a senior officer J.B. Singer to control the situation. However the tactic of lathi charge and firing to disperse the crowd made the situation volatile and the peasants attacked and killed Lieutenant Singer.

The Phulaguri uprising – the Phulaguri Dhawa - shook the British administration in Assam for the first time. To control it they killed 39 peasants and hanged many of the leaders. This first peasant movement of Assam inspired many more movements by the peasants against British administration.

For the past few decades the people, mostly the peasantry of Assam as well as of all other states of North East India, like their counterparts in the rest of the country, are voicing protests against the displacement due to construction of big dams, Special Economic Zones, real estate business etc. Many incidents of low payments to the peasants have also come into light; the recent incident of police firing and killing of farmers of Darrang district when they protested against the low payment by the middlemen shows the nexus of the State administration and the business mafia to suppress the farmers’ legitimate demands.

The peasants movement continues its resistance in Assam – and hence the glory of Phulaguri Dhawa shall not fade. It will remain a source of inspiration for the struggling peasants throughout the country.