History, they say, is often written by the victors. But history is not only the language of the victors alone; sometimes it is the narrative of the dominant. The Indian freedom struggle is one such dominant narrative. Scholars have opined that the history of the freedom struggle often ignored the struggles, the sacrifices and the contributions of the fringes. This is because often, these local struggles did not adhere to the grander narrative framework. Lately however there is an increased recognition of the voice of the fringes. One such valiant story is the story of Patharughat, in present Dhemaji district of Assam.
The story of Patharughat goes back to the Yandabo Treaty signed at the end of the first Anglo Burmese War. According to the terms of the treaty, the Burmese ceded the control of Assam, Manipur and adjoining areas formally to the British. This treaty also brought curtains to the 600 year old Ahom rule in Assam and formally integrated Assam into British India. And it is in this background, the Patharughat story has to be seen.
The citizens of Dhemaji in Assam had, for a long time, lived under the Koch and the Ahom kingdom. Mainly farmers in nature, they paid service to the king in form of taxes as well as labour. The Paik, Khel systems instituted by the Ahom administration ensured that tax rates on the farmers remained liberal. The advent of the British, however, changed the balance - land tax rates were increased, often unreasonably, and the people protested. The Phulguri uprising in 1861, in Nagaon was the first agrarian revolt in Assam. Some historians also call it one of the first farmer uprisings against the British in India. The British administration retaliated with all its might and the uprising was crushed. The brutal repression brought peace to countryside, however it proved to be shortlived.
During the next two decades, Assam hardly witnessed any agricultural development. Yet taxes were being raised by the administration on a regular basis. By 1883 the tax rate on an average was 53%, while in some areas it was effectively between 80% and 100%. In 1893, the Commissioner of Assam, Wilkinson Ward, proposed to raise taxes once more. The peasant discontent however began to spread across the length and breadth of Assma. “Raij mels” or public meetings were held in protest in a large number of places in Kamrup and Darrang districts. Middle class organisations like the “Jorhat Sarvajanik Sabha” offered their support to the peasants while vehemently criticising the British administration for their land revenue policies.
On 24th January, 1894, the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang district, JD Anderson heard about a “Raij mel” to be organised in different areas of his district. Around the same time, on 26th January 1894, a “raij mel” was held in Patharughat and it was decided that no taxes would be paid until an acceptable solution was found to the problem. The Tehsildar, Bhabani Charan Bhattacharya, informed the protestors to wait till the Deputy Commissioner was available for a proper hearing. The protesting peasants decided to wait. Meanwhile word was sent to the Deputy Commissioner apprising him of the situation in Patharughat.
The DC started for Patharughat on 28th January, 1894, alongwith Barrington, officiating commandant of Military Police. On the way they noticed a large number of notices pasted on behalf the “raiz” (people) informing the farmers of the “raiz mel” (meeting) in Patharughat to be held that very day. The peasants had reiterated their stand of not paying the taxes at revised rate and also expressed their hope to apprise the DC of their unhappiness in the hope that he would reduce the burden of taxes by his own discretion (“kijani khajana bridhi nokore”)
However on arrival, the district administration was in no mood to compromise. The DC, instead of a discussion, called the cops to drive away the peasants who had gathered. In the ensuing melee, a Thoga Baidya of Biahpara or Fukolu Sheikh of Athiabari managed to hit the head of the Police Superintendent and wounded him. This enraged the DC who ordered the police to open fire. The policeman began firing while the farmers fought with fish spears, bamboo sticks and clods of earth. Officially the numbers of death that day stood at fifteen killed and less than thirty seven injured. In reality however, 140 peasants, both Hindus and Muslims, had lost their lives on that fateful day in Patharughat.
On 29th March, 1894, Rash Behari Bose caused a massive furore in the Imperial Legislative Council, when he questioned the government’s land revenue policy and asked for its justification. The brave stand of the farmers of Patharughat was vindicated when the Imperial government, bowing to public pressure, finally reduced the land revenue to 32.7% and also limiting the maximum amount to be paid by each peasant.