Assam, which shares borders with Bhutan, Bangladesh and used to border Myanmar and China, is the largest state in India’s volatile Northeast region. Many of the Indian states that now border Assam; Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, were all carved out of Assam’s territory post-Independence following fierce political battles for representation and autonomy. Therefore a study of Assam is vital not just for understanding events in one of India’s most geopolitical important regions, but for understanding wider South Asia politics.
The Quest for Modern Assam is Arupjyoti Saikia’s attempt to provide a definitive one-volume political history of post-war Assam. In doing so, he has produced an exhaustive and expansive book of 545 pages, plus extensive footnotes and citations. This is an important and pertinent book, as the ongoing conflict in Manipur demonstrates, necessary to understand contemporary discontent, we must learn how these issues arose to be able to understand them. Saikia weaves together six decades of major political events, as well as detailing the politicians, political movements and the myriad of ethnic minorities that shaped Assam, to create a compelling portrayal of a dynamic and diverse region.
The book starts in mid-WW2 and details the huge role Assam played in the British withdrawal from Burma, following Japanese occupation in 1942. The state saw scores of refugees arrive in Assam, followed by bloody warfare with pivotal battles in Kohima and Imphal.Saikia portrays the disarray after the War that embodied the last few years of Imperial British India, the debates that took place regarding what the new independent India would look like and the reluctance many minorities such as the Nagas or Mizos felt about being incorporated into the new Indian state.
Assam changed significantly after Partition, losing territory in Sylhet to East Pakistan. This territorial reimaging not only shrank Assam but had huge impacts on Assam’s links with the rest of India, leaving it isolated, connected only by a thin strip of territory to the rest of India, commonly known as the Chicken Neck. This meant a far longer journey around East Pakistan to Calcutta and its ports, which had dramatic impacts on Assam’s economy. Partition also brought new migratory and refugee flows to Assam, many of whom spoke Bengali instead of Assamese. Such demographic shifts continue to have huge political impacts to this date, as Saikia argues needs to be acknowledged to understand contemporary politics, as during this period “a major language-based fault line developed, which did not bode well for the future.”
After the dust from Partition ettled, Assam faced significant challenges. Saikia writes
Assam as a state in 1947 was not marked by coherence or unity, either culturally, ecologically, politically or administratively. The challenges of governing such a complex geographical mosaic became apparent soon enough.
Indeed, this was immediately clear, for when many Assamese speakers from the urban areas sought control over the rest of the state, they found their legitimacy contested in some places and rejected altogether in others. This rejection of Assamese control was concentrated in the Naga hills, Garo, Khasi and Jainata ranges and other frontier areas of the state, all places which had different linguistic and ethnic identities to urban Assam.
These battles for political identity swept the state and many years of heated debate and violent protests left dozens dead and many more injured. Given this backdrop, it is no surprise therefore that the government would struggle over the next few decades to manage
the contentious question of land redistribution, low agrarian productivity and incomes, poor infrastructure and the struggles for control over the state’s resources, such as oil.
Nor is it a surprise that Assam saw several new states breakaway from Assam in the decades after independence. Saikia details the unique history of the North-East Frontier Agency, the ccreation of Nagaland in 1963 and Meghalaya and Mizoram in 1972. He explains what lay behind the growth of armed political movements, from communism to separatist movements fighting for freedom from Assamese rule to the 1979 creation of the United Liberation Front of Asom, which called for Assamese secession from the rest of India.
The Quest for Modern Assam also details how major geopolitical events had a profound impact on the region. Following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Assam underwent a major reimagining of its security apparatus. Then just 12 years later, Assam was the epicentre of the humiliating 1962 military loss to China. International politics aside, there was a myriad of other issues that the government had to face, which Saika weaves into the story, such as the nationalization of British-run tea plantations, the impact of Indira Ghandi’s Emergency on the state and the major challenges and debates around citizenship and the establishment of National Register of Citizenship, which continues to draw protests out on the streets to this day.
Assam emerged into the 21st century far smaller than it started the 20th. Today, just like over the last six decades, political battles continue to rage in contemporary Assam over demographic shifts, linguistic policy and minority representation. As Saikia writes, delving into Assam’s history is vital to understanding the state’s “complicated history with all its surprises, twists and turns”. This is an excellent primer to do just that, yet will also provide new insight to those familiar with the region. Combining a staggering amount of information, with an engaging and well-written style, Saikia is able to make a fascinating complex area easy to understand.