Lifelong revolutionary, peoples' historian, life-affirming poet

(Excerpts from the tribute by Bonojit Hussain and Mayur Chetia in, May 20, 2015)

I have no desire for heaven,

Instead I go to the brewhouse,

Gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes – bringing them together

Sprinkling ashes from my soul’s pyre, I sing of hope:

In flocks the phoenix flies to the sky.

– “Mur Kabita/My Poetry”, Amalendu Guha 1960

Dr Amalendu Guha, eminent Marxist historian, poet and a littérateur from Assam, passed away at the age of 91 in the wee hours of May 7 at his humble residence in Guwahati. Remaining true to his rationalist outlook, he had willed in 2005 that his bodily remains should be handed over to Gauhati Medical College for scientific research. An unwavering pillar of left democratic movements, Guha was mostly known as a historian in mainland India, but his contributions and presence in the field of poetry and literature are also immense. Among his many other writings in Assamese and Bengali, his incisive travelogue on Afghanistan Afghantistanot Ebhumuki (A Glance into Afghanistan, 1961) is considered to be one of the classics in Assamese travel writing, which has also been translated into and published in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada.  Despite publishing only two anthologies of poetry, Luit Parer Gatha (in Bengali), 1955 and Tomaloi (in Assamese) 1960, Guha is counted among the most prominent modern poets of Assam. Guha has earned his place in the annals of Assamese literature as the poet of social consciousness, human suffering and aspirations.

Guha’s old friend Gautam Chattopadhyay recalls that sometimes in 1945 or 1946, when Guha was a BA student in Presidency College, Calcutta, they were travelling in a train to Guntur along with over a hundred fellow activists of Communist Party affiliated All India  Students’ Federation. Amidst discussions on politics and revolution, someone blurted out that Amalendu wrote wonderful poems. Tall, dark and lanky with a shock of bushy hair, Guha, on being requested, came forward and recited “Tram”, his poem about an imagined journey from a Tram station to Dalhousie Square. The poem ends with this riveting line:

Conductor! Can you tell us, how far is your and my world of equality and abundance?

Active Left Politics

Guha got involved in active left politics at the age of 14 as a high school student when he joined the All India Students’ Federation (Assam unit) in 1938/39. His engagement with Marxist study club “Progressive Union” also started around the same time. By 1942, during his Intermediate College days, Guha had already started to see himself as a communist. He remained an active member of Student Federation until 1947. He became a member of the Communist Party of India in 1943 and remained active as a party cadre until 1965. But he continued his participation in politics and movements till his last years. During the 1962 Indo-China war, Assam government arrested Guha along with 52 other eminent left activists like Bishnu Rabha Prasad and Gauri Shankar Bhattachrya, under the Preventive Detention Act and he was imprisoned in the special cells of Behrampur Jail in Orissa for six months.

Academic Career

Despite being one of the best candidates, he was denied a job at the newly established Gauhati University in 1948, and Guha strongly felt that this was because of his leftist ideology. That very year he joined Darang College, Tezpur, Assam as a lecturer of Economics and taught in the college till 1965.

As a historian, Guha was primarily known for his work Planters Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam: 1826-1947, published in 1977. It was supposed to be a boring, factual and sarkari history of Assam legislative assembly, as part of a plan to write official histories of different provincial and central legislatures of India. It was commissioned by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), on the request of the education ministry of the government of India, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of India’s independence.

But with Guha’s enthusiasm and ICHR director RS Sharma’s full support,  the book turned into a comprehensive history of Assam, touching as diverse topics as the national movement, labour struggles, peasant rebellions, politics of migration, effects of colonial economy  and so on. People have long forgotten the other books published in the series but Guha’s book has since become a classic, with thousands of students, researchers and activists still devouring its pages for rare insights and excellent handling of primary sources.

Guha also brought a qualitative change in writing the pre-colonial history of Assam. For different reasons, not all of them related to the academic field, the late 19th and early 20th century nationalist/sub-nationalist historical writings were still dominant in the region before Guha’s arrival. It was Guha who taught us to look for deeper material reasons for processes of historical change – beyond the glory of this or that king, beyond this or that victorious battle of the Ahom commander against the Mughal emperor.

Guha presented a hypothesis that in the transition from what he called “tribalism to feudalism” in Assam, the introduction of wet rice cultivation by the migrant Ahom communities played a very important role. He further noted the similarity between the Ahom state and the pre-colonial states in different East Asian countries – such as Burma, Vietnam and Thailand, in terms of their control over the labour, rather than land. In that sense, he said, the Assamese history should be seen in terms of its relationships with these formations, rather than the Mughals or those in Bengal.

Guha was also the first historian who tried to make a socio-economic analysis of the ‘Moamaria rebellion’ in the late Ahom period, in terms of a peasant uprising, rather than just an instance of religious clashes between different Vaishnava lineages.

Beyond Assam

He touched upon numerous historical fields – often making pioneering or important contributions.  He wrote on historical roles of Parsi Seths, India’s nationality question, economic history of Afghanistan, Mughal economy, imperialism of opium, colonial economy of India and so on. Through another set of important articles on Raw Cotton production in Western/India from 1750 to 1901, published in the journals Indian Economic and Social History Review and Artha Vijnana in 1972 and 1973, Guha made important contributions to the ‘de-industrialisation’ debate in India. On the basis of the working estimates of cotton acreage arrived at through this set of papers, Guha proposed further research “to be extended to several new directions for a proper understanding of the nineteenth-century Indian economy.”

In 1985, in a critical review of the ‘Cambridge Economic History of India Vol-II’, Prof. Irfan Habib writes:

“… A more definitive result comes from Amalendu Guha’s calculations. He made an attempt to estimate handloom production by estimating raw-cotton production, reduced by the volume of exports and consumption in weaving factories...”

It’s not as if he has done primary work on all these fields. Rather, in between a review of an article or a book, he would drop some extremely valuable insights about the theme and young scholars would devour and established scholars would take notice of these brief and yet extremely erudite comments.

One such book review by Guha, published in the journal Indian Economic and Social History Review in 1970, was of Peter Mathias’ book The First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of Britain, published in 1969. Mathias suggested that while foreign and colonial trade provided a strong boost to Britain’s industrial expansion for quite some time till 1750 and also after 1783, it “does not appear to have been as important a trigger-mechanism relative at least to the internal market”. Guha in his review opined that it is difficult to accept this conclusion by Mathias despite the fact that the internal market was several times bigger than the external market. Guha argued that to understand better British capital formation, rather than compare volumes of internal and external markets, it would be more fruitful to compare surpluses derived from the colonies with surplus generated within Britain.

Taking note of Guha’s argument in the review, foremost historian of the Annales School Fernand Braudel, in his book, The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism, Vol-3 (page 581), wrote:

… Indeed I recognize the force of the argument advanced by the Indian historian Amalendu Guha, who suggests that rather than compare totals, we compare surpluses – that is the surpluses England derived from India and the surplus savings in England which went into investment…”

Lively Debates

During the heyday of the Assam Movement (1979-85), the publication of an article titled “Cudgel of Chauvinism” (February 23, 1980) by Dr Hiren Gohain initiated a lively debate in the pages of the journal Economic and Political Weekly on the nature, content and rationale of the Assam Movement – a debate that came to be known as the “Nationality Question in Assam: The EPW Debate”. Although the debate started with Dr Gohain’s article, it was Guha’s prominent article “Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist: Assam’s Anti-Foreigner Upsurge, 1979-80” (Special Number, October, 1980) that became the central foci of the debate on the whole issue. Guha further contributed to the debate with a substantial reply and a summing up.

Apart from focusing specifically on Assam, Guha also wrote several articles on the Nationality Question in India in general; most notably “Indian National Question: A Conceptual Frame” and “Nationalism: Pan Indian and Regional in a Historical Perspective”.

We offer our last tribute to this lifelong revolutionary, peoples’ historian and life-affirming poet.

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