- Manash K. Das
The following account is about unsung Assamese heroes and martyrs of the Indian freedom movement.
It was during a drive in the beautiful Darrang district countryside with the Superintendent of Police, Darrang, Mr. Amrit Bhuyan, who reverently pointed to a monument and said that it was in memory of the slain brave hearts of Pothorughat (also known as “Patharighat”). The name stirred a long dormant memory in my mind.Thereafter, Mr. Bhargab Kr. Das, a senior journalist and a native of Darrang, took me to Pothorughat to interact with the locals, so that they could narrate their version of what transpired on that fateful day of 28th of January 1894 and the events that led upto it.
This is the story of Pothorughat, a name that would echo little with very few Assamese, let alone the rest of India, for very little has been written about or taught about it.
After the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 the British Government took over the reins of control of India from The East India Company. However, the regressive high taxation that had brought many a peasant to penury, continued unabated. The deficit in the post Sepoy Mutiny budget of 1859-59 was phenomenal and so was the public debt of the Raj.
Therefore, the already high land revenue was further enhanced, much to the distress of the farmers who were already battling penury and starvation. Furthermore, other coercive levies such as Stamp Duties, License Tax, etc. were also implemented by the colonialists. This was in stark contrast to the nearly six hundred years of benevolent Ahom rule, during which the subjects didn’t have to pay taxes. Besides this, the Ahoms also granted “Lakhiraj” (rent free land for the maintenance of temples and for the setting up of “Satras” to promote Vaishnavism). It was but natural for the people to compare these atrocious days with those while under the Ahom rulers.
It was left to the peasants/farmers to fight against these atrocious levies that were gradually pushing them toward starvation. They would discuss their grievances in “Raiz-mels” (public assemblies). These assemblies were severely frowned upon by the colonialists, who perceived them as a threat to their imperialism.
From 1890 onwards the collective mood of the farmers of Assam turned sour, thanks to rampant exploitation. This was again further compounded by another round of indiscriminate increase in taxes in 1892. The seething resentment of the people had reached boiling point. It was a powder keg that just needed a spark to explode. The powers that be just did not bother to fathom the anger. No lesson from the Phulaguri incident of 18th October,1861 which was the result of similar policies of the British Raj. On that day Lieutenant Singer, Junior Assistant Commissioner and a few policemen were beaten to death by an irate crowd. In retaliation General Henry Hopkinson arrived in Phulaguri with a detail of 100 sepoys and shot 39 people to death, besides injuring scores. It seemed tyrants refused to learn from history.
“Raiz-mels” (public assemblies) had since been banned but the people of Pothorughat defied the same and in one such gathering on January 26th 1894, resolved not to pay the enhanced taxes. The “tahsildar” of the area Bhabani Bhattacharya, a British crony, assured the naïve farmers that the administration would do its best to assuage their problems. The following day, i.e. on the 27th of January, 1898 a large contingent of armed police personnel were surreptitiously deployed to Pothorughat. Reassured by the words of the “tahsildar” a large number of farmers gathered in front of the “dak-bungalow” on 28th January 1894, hoping that the order of tax enhancement would be revoked. What the farmers received instead was aggression, humiliation, betrayal and blatant provocation in the form of armed policemen. And then the dam of patience finally broke! The people rushed at their tormentors, armed with sticks and clods of earth. Yes, clods of earth! And the policemen were ordered to open fire. What followed was a brutal carnage that left 140 people dead and countless maimed and injured.
J.D. Anderson, The Deputy Commissioner of Darrang, in his report to The Commissioner of Assam Valley Districts dated 30th January, 1894 wrote “…The lesson inflicted was a very severe one and I can only hope and believe that it has been effectual.”
The farmer gathering Pothorughat was not a rebellion; it was a protest against gross injustice. What happened in Pothorughat was not a “battle”; it was mass murder, fuelled by power and arrogance, almost identical to that of Jalianwala Bagh. It is time the whole of India learned of their Assamese brethren who sacrificed themselves for the motherland. It is also time that the great Assamese warriors, such as the mighty Lachit Borphukan, found their true and rightful place in our history books.
The Krishak Swahids (Farmer Martyrs) of Pothorughat were honoured in 2000 by the Indian Army by erecting a martyrs column at the very spot where they were martyred, at the Krishak Swahid Memorial Park at Patharighat, 20 km from Mangaldai. Furthermore, the Red Horns Division of the Indian Army headed by the GOC pay homage to the Krishak Swahids on the 29th of January every year, reportedly the only such honour accorded by the gallant Indian Army to civilian martyrs.