Sunday, July 23, 2017

The tragedy of Patharughat

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.

The story of the Patharughat struggle is a glorious one. On February 14, 1894, the editorial in Amrit Bazar Patrika made a poignant observation “In the Deccan the fury of riots was directed against money- lenders, in Bengal against indigo- planters, in Pabna against zamindars, but in Assam, at this moment, it is open rebellion against the government”.  In essence, in the history of the Indian freedom movement, it was the peasants of Assam who stood up valiantly against the British for the first time. The brave farmers of Patharughat were an embodiment of that spirit.  Yet those 140 peasants were never given their due. It is time they are included in the pantheon of heroes of the Indian freedom struggle. They are the “others” who fought with their hearts and their bamboo sticks and struck at the heart of the mighty British Empire.

India’s New Health Challenges

The day after Diwali, Delhi woke up to a rude shock. Smog had enveloped the whole city making it difficult to breathe. The PM 2.5 particles were almost three to four times more than the accepted level. Experts envisage that if Delhi does not get its act together soon it could see a situation akin to the Great London Smog that took the lives of thousands.  The presence of the PM 2.5 particles is particularly harmful for children and the old. These particles enter the lungs and can result in a number of respiratory problems which increases the mortality factor quite considerably. While the environmental concerns are being discussed in a broad manner, an issue that remains out of the limelight is India’s new emerging health challenges.

A globalised world has also become a more connected world where events affect a large number of human beings. While boundaries are being transcended there is also cross border exchange of diseases and emergence of new forms of disease. And it is this threat that India is facing that challenges the traditional paradigm of health and disease. While Indian health infrastructure grapples with the basic issue of access and facilities, new challenges are being thrown that policymakers have to face.

Today the Indian health profile is changing rapidly. As a large part of India moves to the urban areas, new challenges have emerged. Slowly, two different paradigms of health concerns are manifesting itself. The rural populace of the country still grapples with the issue of malnutrition, arsenic mixed in water, anaemia among others. Nutritional issues concerning health are a major problem in the rural areas. In the urban areas the profile is slightly different. Urban India is beginning to see rise in cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, respiratory problems among others. A large part of health problems in urban India can be attributed to the `lifestyle choices’ that are made and hence are non communicable in nature. Thus the health sector in India has to effectively combat this rising “Health Divide”.

Today the global boundaries have disappeared and so have boundaries that contained disease. Bird Flu, for example, was a disease that was hitherto unknown to India but has become a much focussed area in the past few years. During the past three decades more than 30 new organisms have been identified worldwide including HIV, Vibrio cholera O139, SARS, corona virus, highly pathogenic avian influenza virus A, and novel H1N1 influenza virus. Many of these organisms emerged in the developing countries of Asia. Every global outbreak of Bird Flu or Bovine Flu poses new challenges for the Indian health sector. While they have been effective in this fight till the recent times, there is no guarantee that this resilience might sustain in the nature. Hence there is an urgent need to  keep an eye on each emerging global health concern and prepare a roadmap to combat each disease effectively. India, which boasts of a phenomenal pharmaceutical industry, must also offer its expertise to global drug makers in times of need, even before a particular disease hits the Indian shores. This would ensure that should a disease or a health concern hit the boundary our drug makers are prepared to the extent possible to handle any eventuality.

While India has been able to effectively curb malaria, new forms of vector borne diseases have emerged that have posed new challenges to the health sector. Dengue and Chikungunya which were previously unknown in the Indian medical history have become major headache in the past few years. Dengue, for example, is witnessing a rapid increase in its profile. While a decade back dengue was restricted only to parts of Northern India, in recent times it has spread to the Eastern part of the country as well. In 2015, according to the WHO website, India reported close to 15,000 cases of dengue, the highest in a decade. On September 6, 2016 this figure stood at 19,704. This undoubtedly proves that newer diseases are posing newer challenges to the policymakers that they must address effectively.

As argued above, non communicable diseases pose a special challenge to the health of urban India. Today obesity and diabetes has become a regular occurrence in almost every major urban Indian household. If a person steps outside in order to break the monotony of a sedentary lifestyle, the polluted air increases the chance of respiratory diseases. Lifestyle habits have also increased the chances of cardiovascular diseases. Non communicable diseases account for 56% of deaths in urban areas. If we were to factor in other factors like road accidents, for example, this number would climb still higher. To counter threat of non communicable diseases however, infrastructure and doctors wouldn’t be able to provide the solution again. Awareness is one of the most vital weapons in the fight against urban non communicable diseases. Mental health for example is still an unexplored area. The people have to be made aware that mental health is of equal importance as physical health in the life of an individual. Sanitisation campaigns should be unveiled about food habits and the need for physical activities in a person’s life while setting up measures that would dissuade people especially children from certain kind of food should be encouraged. These steps would go a long way in improving the results of the fight against non communicable diseases.

Antimicrobial resistance demands a special mention in the fight to better India’s health profile. India’s global reputation took a major beating when in 2008 India’s name was attached to a super bug, the NDM-1.  The New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase-1 was an enzyme that rendered bacteria resistant to a broad spectrum of antibiotics. A strain of the NDM-1 had crossed the shores and spread resistance to other countries as well. And slowly India woke up to this new challenge. In 2010 India was the largest consumer of antibiotics in the world. Years of over the counter prescription and medication without proper consultation had resulted in disastrous consequences rendering many drugs useless. Attempts are however being made to control this aspect, new bills have been introduced which have made procurements of certain kinds of drugs harder. New regulations have come in place which make the availability of Schedule –H drugs over the counter almost impossible. Further steps have to be taken in this regard while consistently evolving newer strategies to counter over the counter sell of antibiotics.


Despite the obvious challenges there is however no doubt that India has performed remarkably in the health sector. Diseases like polio have been wiped clean from the country through sustained efforts and people’s participation. Diseases like Smallpox and guinea worm have been eradicated; their last cases occurred in the country in May 1975 and July 1996 respectively. Yaws, which mainly occurs in remote tribal areas, has been eliminated. The average life expectancy in India has risen from 36.5 years in 1951 to 63.5 in 2011. Maternal Mortality Rates and Infant mortality rates have improved considerably as well. Today India boasts or world class medical education. Indian doctors and India’s medical facilities are recognised amongst the best in the world in affordable prices on a global level. In the past sixty years, India has demonstrated remarkable will in responding to the challenges of the health sector. In a similar spirit, it must focus itself towards combating the new forms of health concerns grappling its people.