1857 – War of Independence – The Assam connection !

 

The story of why letters were sent by Nanasahib to Assam and how the proclaimation of independence , made in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s name – was heard in far away Dibrugarh and Guwahati !

Mention 1857 , and immediately images of Jhansi ki Rani , Tatya Tope , Nanasahib and other revolutionaries spring to mind. It was after all an event mainly limited to today’s Bihar and UP one would say , some will be bit more positive and say that the event affected the northern parts of India.

Nothing can be further from the truth . For the echoes of the great uprising of ordinary soldiers and princes were heard even in far away Assam ! The proclaimation made in 1857 in name of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar had reached first Calcutta , and from there further east to Guwahati and Dibrugarh. And the architect of all this was one patriot now forgotten from India’s history books – Maniram Dutta Barua , popularly known as Maniram Dewan.

The British Entry in Assam and the end of the Tai Ahom dynasty :

 

The Tai Ahom dynasty had ruled Assam for upwards of six hundred years by the late eighteenth century and during that time had successfully thwarted upwards of twenty invasions by various powers. But in the later part of the nineteenth century , the Mormaria rebellion, caused by activities of the Mormaria sect , discontinuation of the paik system and a weak ruler severely weakened the kingdom. This was followed by a devastating Burmese invasion, which inflicted wounds so deep on the Assamese psyche , it has still not forgotten them. The monarchy more or less sank with the Burmese invasion and the Assamese king became their puppet. (1820) . After this , the British , who had by then become lord and master of everything else in India save the Punjab , Sindh and Balochistan attacked Burma. This was a pre emptive strike,  according to the British , to prevent a Burmese invasion of Bengal. The Burmese , just out of a long war with the Assamese , fell to the British onslaught. The Treaty of Yandabo was signed at Yandabo in Burma (Myanmar) in February 1826 , wherein control of Assam , Manipur , Jantia hills , Arakkan etc passed to the British .
The last Assamese monarch , Jogeshwar Singha had served as a puppet under the Burmese till 1826. He was deposed by the British. But the Brits, finding the going difficult in an unfamiliar and mountainous region like Assam , granted the northern bank of Brahmaputra to Purandar Singha as a tributary ruler. Maniram Dewan was one of his most senior officers (1833) . He was to pay the British an annual tribute of Rs 50,000 . By 1838 he had defaulted on this , and the British thought it was a good enough excuse to get rid of him altogether. Purandar Singha was deposed in 1838 , bringing to an end the Tai Ahom dynasty…. Like so many others in India permanently finished by the British.

Discontent rises against the British :

Places in Assam affected by events of 1857.
Maniram Dewan , who had been an officer under Purandar Singha, now took up service with the British. He also introduced the British to the famous Assamese tea, which had till then been cultivated only by the Singhpo tribe. Maniram had been granted few mouzas (land) by the deposed Purandar Singha. He continued to be in possession of these lands till 1851 , when Charles Holroyd took away these lands from him. Although he had been appointed Dewan of the tea estates in Assam , and he had helped the British grow tea and in turn bring better economically better life for the Assamese, he could now see the British openly discriminating against him and the Assamese. Furthermore, the privileges extended to European cultivators were not given to the Assamese. This was the final reason in a series of unpopular acts which made Maniram Dewan rise in revolt. Moreover, in the interim, Purandar Singha had died as had his son Kameshwar and now only his grandson was alive – the eleven year old Kandarpeshwar Singha.
Thus, over the years 1826 to 1853 , the following reasons had caused considerable discontent to build against the British :
1. Discontinuation of puja at Kamakhya mandir.
2. Discouraging saatras
3. Appointment of Bengalis and Marwaris to various administrative posts in lieu of Assamese.
4. Preferential treatment to Europeans in tea plantations
5. Desecration of the Ahom tombs

Maniram Dewan rises in revolt :

Maniram Dewan
In June 1853 , a delegation under A.J Mofat Mills , a British officer sent by then Lt Gov of Bengal Sir John Campbell , visited Sadiya district. Maniram Dewan sent a petition to him, explaining the hardships of the Assamese and requesting the restoration of the erstwhile dynasty in Upper Assam to tide over the problems. His petition was dismissed , with Mofat Mills using the words “ an untrustworthy and intriguing person who exaggerated the facts” with reference to Maniram Dewan.
Maniram Dewan’s resentment against the British was now complete. Still he tried one last recourse – that of petitioning Sir John Campbell himself. In April 1856 , Maniram arrived at Calcutta (now Kolkata) . He stayed at the house of Ashutosh Dev and Pramoth Nath Dev.
Around this time, the fires of 1857 had begun burning at Meerut and Kanpur and Lucknow and other places. The bazaars and chai addas of Kolkata were not free from these developments. The British Indian Association in Kolkata which Maniram frequented, also became a hotbed for such discussions. Before long , whispers about a proclaimation in the name of Bahadur Shah Zafar were making the rounds of Kolkata . The Nawab of Bareilly would later send a copy of the proclaimation to Maniram Dewan of this proclaimation. As Hindustan became engulfed with the fire for freedom, Maniram decided to extend the struggle to Assam.

Organising the uprising :
 

Maniram Dewan knew that there were two regiments of sepoys in Assam . The First Assam Light Infantry, stationed at Dibrugarh under the command of Major Hannay and the Second Assam Light Infantry , stationed at Guwahati under the command of Major Richardson. Apart from this there were smaller detachments at various places such as Sadiya , Golaghat, Jorhat etc. The regiments in fact consisted of a large number of sepoys from Bihar, who were already restless following the events of Buxar , Barrackpore , Jagdishpur etc. Maniram Dewan could count on them to quickly train their guns on the British. There were also around five hundred soldiers of the deposed king who would easily join the sepoys. Apart from this , there were the hill tribes which had time and again risen against the British in the recent past . A few examples being – the Singphos in 1830 , the Khamtis in 1839 , the Kapahchor Akas in 1839 and the Naga tribes in 1849. Maniram Dewan counted on them to join the fray when fighting began .

1857 in India. pic courtesy ias . org .in
The modus operandi was to be similar , if not identical to sepoy uprisings elsewhere – that of regiments turning against their white masters. To this end , Maniram Dewan began communicating with other leaders elsewhere – Nanasaheb Peshwa * , Kunwar Singh , Khan Bahadur Khan the Nawab of Bareilly etc. He was also in touch with the king of Nepal. Like in other parts of the country, Maniram Dewan enlisted the help of fakirs , sanyasis , minstrels and muktirs to get his message across to the sepoys in Assam. Notice the similarity to activities by Baija Bai Shinde . Like elsewhere , Maniram wanted to overthrow British rule and proclaim Kandarpeshwar Singha as the rightful ruler of Assam.
Maniram Dewan got help from various quarters, such as Madhu Mallick , a Bengali muktir , Urbhidhar Barua , Chitrasen Barbera , Lukai Senchowa and Bahadur Goanbora , an expert in repairing and using weapons.
Maniram Dewan began sending cryptic messages to the various regiments and detachments via sanyasis , fakirs , muktirs etc from Calcutta. All of this while staying at the Dev household. A revolution was afoot under the British nose !
While Maniram controlled events from Calcutta, the sepoys at Jorhat , Sibsagar , Guwahati etc were getting restless to put the plans into action. A number of leaders met Kandarpeshwar Singha at Jorhat , and re affirmed their support. By the August of 1857 , with the war of independence having engulfed Delhi , Bundelkhand and Awadh, there was high excitement among the troops in Assam. Kandarpeshwar Singha also sent gold to the head priest of the temple at Dergaon to perform the pujas relevant to waging war. There was an air of apprehension all around, with European plantation owners and missionaries returning to Guwahati by the August of 1857.
There were only 2,400 European soldiers in the Brahmaputra valley, and the Indian soldiers were far more numerous. But Maniram Dewan had asked for much needed arms from other leaders of the uprising, which were to arrive in October of that year. Hence, Maniram Dewan fixed October 1857 as the month in which the Indian sepoys would attack the British.

A blunder – a misplaced message :
Sensing that something was afoot, the British proceeded to reinforce the Assamese regiments by mixing Gurkhas with them. The Gurkhas regiments had remained pro British in 1857. Smaller detachments near the Naga hills and places like Nowgong were recalled. Roads and bridges got extra guards. But Major Jenkins and Holroyd still could not find out the mastermind behind the planned uprising and morale of the Indian troops remained high as before.

A Gupti enclosing a sword
Then , late in August 1857 , a sanyasi gave a gupti stick to Haranath Barua , the Daroga of Sibsagar ; believing him to be the king ! The stick , when opened , revealed a letter – written in cryptic prose and signed by Maniram Dewan.
The letter went thus –
“ At this present moment, the growl of the tiger is everywhere heard. As many as thirteen to fifteen thousand firangis have been destroyed. In the west, all gardens have been destroyed alongwith their owners. Few that escape, mad dogs devour by the way. Old hunters are extinct. News has been sent for new hunters, still the tigers are numerous, how many can the hunters kill ? The place you reside, owners are in great fear. When they might decamp, we do not know. At the moment this occurs, keep your ears open and bring the forces there over to your side”
(from pg 495 of Comprehensive history of Assam by S.L Baruah)
It was clinching evidence, and the British swung into action .
Arrests , sentencing and hanging :
On 7th September 1857 , Holroyd and Capt. Lowther arrested Kandarpeshwar Singha and put him in jail at Alipur. Maniram Dewan was arrested at Calcutta and also put in Alipur Jail. A battalion of sepoys which began moving from Chittagong to Tripura was also discovered early and defeated at Sylhet. The Hindustani sepoys of the First and Second Assam were tried and sentenced.
Captain Holroyd himself sat on a commission to try the main freedom fighters.

Bahadur Goanburha and Formud Ali were sent to the Andamans. Madhu Mallick , Dutiram Barua , Marangikhowa Gohain and others received transportion for life. Madhuram Koch and others were sentenced to various prison terms lasting upto seven years. Two ladies – Rupahi Aideo and Lumboi Aideo had their entire property confiscated, including land.

Two freedom fighters – Peali Barua and Maniram Dewan – were publicly hanged at Jorhat on February 26 , 1858.


An inspirational and forgotten event
! – a summary
Thus , although the uprising failed , like it did all across India, we cannot deny Maniram’s patriotism. He bravely opposed the British who had Assam firmly in their grasp and moreover timed it with the general uprising of 1857. The very fact that Nanasahib Peshwa and others communicated with him shows the pan India nature of the war of Independence. The Assam connection also shows that the events of 1857 were due to a host of reasons and anger slowly building up against the British on a nation wide scale – especially over decrees interfering with matters of religion. It was much more than a question of a few greased cartridges !
A movie on Maniram Dewan was produced in 1963 in Assam.
© Aneesh Gokhale. Author of
Brahmaputra – The Story of Lachit Barphukan , Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji  
Sahyadris to Hindukush – The Maratha conquest of Lahore and Attock.He has also written various newspaper and magazine articles pertaining to history and regularly gives public talks.

References : 1. A comprehensive history of Assam – S.L Baruah
2. Assam in Indian Independence – Bhattacharya.
3. Among the Luminaries in Assam – Anjali Sharma
Would like to extend my gratitude to Rupam Shyam Khenlung for providing reference material and to Madhurajya Buragohain
Thank you .