It is heartening that after a gap of a decade and a half, Amalendu Guha’s Medieval and Early Colonial Assam: Society, Polity, Economy is once again available in bookshops. The twelve chapters originally published as articles between the 1960s and 1980s, were compiled and published as a book in 1991.
The first two chapters identify and study the region in Indian history. The following four chapters broadly deal with the period from the thirteenth to early eighteenth century, the medieval period of Assam. The last six chapters deal with the colonial period, especially the nineteenth century, and the making of colonial Assam.
Unlike Guha’s widely discussed Planter Raj to Swaraj, Medieval and Early Colonial Assam has received relatively less attention. The book, nevertheless, is important for several reasons, of which three are underlined here.
First, one line of investigation that runs throughout the book is that of productive relations and formation of socio-economic classes in Assam. To investigate the issue for both the precolonial and the early colonial period, Guha makes use of concepts such as tribe, peasant and caste. These concepts are used to understand whether the organization of society can be framed in terms of formation or historical development of socio-economic classes. Guha’s argument is that social differentiation remained rudimentary. In other words, if on the one hand, distinction between tribe, peasant or caste remained blurred, especially for the precolonial period, the production process too (i.e., technologies of production, monetization of economy, etc.) has remained rudimentary.
The question Guha poses is, what explains such a nature of society and production process? He provides two sets of answers, for the precolonial and the colonial periods. The general rationale for ‘backwardness’ in the precolonial period is shown as due to a combination of three factors: the peculiarity of geographical location of the Brahmaputra Valley (resulting in the tribe-peasant continuum throughout), slow Sanskritization (i.e., coming of technologies of production) and relative isolation of the area from larger state making processes. As a result, land relations remained entangled between control of forms of the state apparatus, ‘feudal’ lords and community. Though the individual was entitled to use productive land, the entanglement inhibited the development of true forms of peasant, feudal lord or monarch. In the process, what it also prevented was the growth of a system of surplus appropriation which was revenue centric. At the same time and resulting from it too, there remained the absence of development of any mercantile economy.
Two chapters outline the above contradiction clearly. Despite the Tai Ahoms introducing advanced technologies and practices of wet rice cultivation in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, why did the entire socio-political process eventually collapse in the series of peasant uprisings between the middle of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century? The reason Guha provides is that while the development of state apparatus necessitated surplus, due to the above entanglement, its appropriation (or even generation) was a contradiction. This contradiction, which was already visible by the seventeenth century, burst into devastating uprisings in the next century.
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it was into such a context that colonialism entered with its economic policies. Guha shows how colonialism recognized the above entanglement on the ground. However, they refused to take it into account at the level of policy. The reasons were twofold. Given the historical lack of revenue centric infrastructure, land was the most important revenue source for the colonial state. However, because capital investments in colonial expansion were primarily generated in India and not in England, land revenue became the key mode of resource mobilization towards these expansions (tea and railways) in colonial Assam. The second reason is that colonialism carefully worked against the development of a local peasant class and agrarian expansion, as it would inhibit the development of the colonial tea industry and its land and labour policy. Therefore, the ryotwari settlement became an oppressive mechanism, but one which did not transform land relation towards development of defined agrarian classes or capitalist agrarian restructuring.
Besides production relations, there is another concern which makes the book important. It is regarding the relation between history and sources in order to understand the region historically. An important point Guha makes is the importance of archaeology in historical studies on North East India. Since archaeology, ranging from settlement sites to tools and commodities of material life, allows comparison of oral accounts, one of the main sources for the region, with the material realities, and given the possibilities of their dating, such comparative studies become crucial in locating oral accounts in a historical timeframe. In critique of colonial characterization of societies as unchanging, Guha makes an interesting point from an archaeological point of view. When changing technology of production (from shifting dry rice to settled wet rice) is compared with changing forms of polity, one can notice the gradual emergence of forms of state societies not only in the plains but also in the hills. Though he does not dwell at length on it in the book, given his focus on the Brahmaputra Valley, the significance of the point cannot be lost sight of. In fact, it may allow revisiting colonialism and its role itself, especially on whether the modernizing theory of colonialism diverts attention from colonialism’s disorienting role vis-à-vis processes of social change already in operation in these societies.
The two broad lines of enquiry (production relations and social classes in history, and history and sources) are related to the third point which can be seen as critical to understanding the book and the historian Amalendu Guha himself. It is the place of context and ideology in the making of historiography, and the location of the historian in the process. Amalendu Guha belonged to a particular moment of Indian history writing after Independence which emphasized the role of production process in the making of history. At the centre of their studies were people, their material existence, and its expressions in their ideational productions. The method of doing such studies was in identifying processes of class formations. It is amply reflected in Guha’s writings too.
Guha’s historiography was a departure from the earlier history writings in Assam. He was critical of identity (nationalist, ethnic, etc) centric/premised analysis and preferred general principles which were objective in their nature. Thus, experiences or consciousness were seen in the context of these principles which structured society. Given his close involvement in Left movements, class analysis remained one of the key principles that he extensively worked with. For example, through class analysis and the study of production processes, he tried to highlight how identity based studies do not explain the problem of poor material conditions of life, whether of the past or the present.
This concern with the poor finds ample reflection in almost all the chapters of the book. For the basic concern that clearly manifests in it is why in the precolonial or early colonial period, there was no improvement in the material life of the masses of people of the region, irrespective of their geographical location. It is in this sense that he uses the term backward. And it is from this concern that the overall framework of class analysis spreads itself into a study of societal contradictions. It is true that his framework of societal contradiction does not allow one to define what the society actually was. But it is also true that it still remains the relevant framework that takes one beyond the colonialist (in different guises) explanation of backwardness.
History writing today has moved away from such approaches. Yet the questions that those like Guha struggled with still remain valid. Because the engagement that motivated his works was: can knowledge be transformative if concern for the under-priviledged is not tied to theories which are oriented towards equality and social change.
Manjeet Baruah teaches in the North East India Studies Programme, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.