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North-eastern India as a Frontier

The Colonisation of Assam

Sanghamitra Misra ( teaches at the Department of History, University of Delhi.

Becoming Assamese: Colonialism and New Subjectivities in Northeast India by Madhumita Sengupta, Routledge India, 2016; pp 290, 1,095.


The book under review begins with the cursory invocation of some of the reigning deities of South Asian history (Benedict Anderson and Partha Chatterjee on nationalism, Sudipto Kaviraj’s “fuzzy” identities, Homi Bhaba’s “hybridity,” Jürgen Habermas on the public sphere and Fredrik Barth on ethnicity). However, invocations remain mere invocations and are never worked through in any detail in the book’s arguments. The author, Madhumita Sengupta’s stated aim is to recover aspects of 19th century Assam and its colonisation under the British that have remained unaddressed in extant historiography.

The book begins with a discussion of changes in the political economy—sedenterisation, colonisation of “wastelands,” the introduction of land settlements and their impact on the ryot—of the province of Assam and its surrounding areas during the 19th century. The second chapter titled “Languages of Identity” looks at the debates between officials of the colonial state, Baptist missionaries, and sections of the Assamese intelligentsia over the Assamese language and its subsequent standardisation. The educational policies of the colonial state and its accompanying rhetoric of progress is the subject of study of the third chapter titled the “Burden of Progress.”

The fourth chapter returns to the subject of print culture that had been introduced in the second chapter, and examines it in the context of the emergence of an Assamese middle class and its political and intellectual predilections. The imbrications of nationalism with the project of history writing and the creation of the many pasts of modern Assam are the preoccupations of the fifth chapter, “Intimate Histories of Assamese.” Some of these ideas are then extended into the last chapter of the book, “Recasting Tradition, Recasting History,” which locates shifts in religious practices, from Vaishnavism to Brahminical Hinduism, within a new empathy of the middle class for the latter.

The central themes that this book addresses—of colonial modernity and the Assamese language, the making of the Assamese middle class, claims of 19th-century Assamese (and Bengali) linguistic nationalists, and the role of the Baptist missionaries and the colonial state—are possibly among the most treaded on terrains of the region’s history. Sengupta is aware of this and concedes that her “conclusions might be similar but need not always be a matter of course” (p 8). She, then, sets up a “challenge” between her work and “conventional methods of reading the colonial history of Assam through generalized tropes of interpretation that subsume Assam to [sic] the meta-history of colonialism” (p 8). What are these conventional methods that this book claims to challenge?

The ‘Frontier Approach’

The first chapter sets the tone as it begins with what Sengupta says is her key methodological departure from extant scholarship and the book’s original contribution to history writing on north-eastern India: British policies in Assam were framed by the idea of a “frontier,” economic and cultural. Deploying what she terms as the “frontier approach” to the study of the history of this region, Sengupta elaborates: “The book argues that ‘frontier’ was something more than a mere label. It translated into a specific approach towards the entire region to the north east of Bengal—be it the hills or the plains—an approach that was constituted by and large through an unique framework of governance informed by highly biased assumptions and prejudices” (p 16).

According to Sengupta, this concept of the frontier, which inaugurates British rule in Assam and the rest of north-eastern India, is subsequently entrenched and extended beyond the valley through administrative manoeuvres. It was an idea that ensured that Assam was “written off at the very moment when it was imagined,” “dismissed from history.” It remains unclear, however, what these phrases are really supposed to mean or how they serve as heuristic tools, since the author makes no attempt in the rest of the book to throw any light on these claims made in the Introduction. In fact, the actual historical material that surfaces in the book refutes the “frontier” and “exceptional” status that Sengupta finds in the north-eastern region.

Mid-18th century and early 19th century writings (Jean Baptiste Chevalier, John Eliot, Buchanan Hamilton and Captain Welsh) documenting the early “encounters” of north-eastern India with the East India Company state would question the validity of the frontier approach in very tangible ways. Despite Sengupta’s claims that these colonial officials/ethnographers/traders offer “answers to the riddle of a ‘frontier,’” there is little archival evidence that she provides in their writings of this idea of the frontier as a marginal space. The book does not recognise that north-eastern India as a frontier in the sense of a margin is the product of a late 19th century discourse, articulated repeatedly in the writings of officials, such as Alexander Mackenzie (who Sengupta quotes as the authority on the subject of the frontier) and his contemporaries, suggesting vast stretches of defiant and untamed spaces enclosed within a moving line, emptied of people and their histories, and awaiting immanent conquest. Sengupta’s argument about the dominance and pervasiveness of the idea of the frontier in colonial ideology stems from a lazy anachronism that accepts this late 19th century colonial narrative of the seamless advance of British imperial sovereignty into the frontiers of north-eastern Bengal and its surrounds.

The first chapter of the book, titled the “Political Economy of a Frontier,” sifts through some well-known primary documents (Report on the Province of Assam by A J M Mills, Assam Land Revenue Manual of 1886, Tour Diary of Captain Jenkins and Mackenzie’s Northeast Frontier of Bengal) to argue that the entire scheme of British revenue policies in north-eastern India during the 19th century had at its kernel the idea of a frontier. However, neither the primary nor the secondary material that the author draws upon supports this argument. It is not clear to the reader, for example, how David Scott’s revenue policies and administration, including his “principle objective … to devise a Ryotwari Settlement in the Assam valley to maximize the revenues of the state” (p 31), were in any way an exposition of the colonial state’s frontier policy for Assam. Similarly anxiety of Jenkins and Mills over the stretches of uncultivated land in the Assam valley during the 19th century and their push for the introduction of agriculture cannot surely be interpreted as illustrative of the North East as a marginal space. Sengupta also carefully excludes, or is unaware of, the descriptions of a vibrant interregional trade in regional products, the prosperity of agriculture, and the presence of powerful indigenous polities in these very same colonial sources across the 19th century.

Reproducing Stereotypes and Biases

Sengupta’s use of evidence from the late 19th century colonial archive to conceptualise the early decades of colonialism leads to anachronistic interpretations at various points in the book. As an illustration, the inability to recognise the administrative imperatives underlying the late 19th century colonial archive in the representation of communities and spaces leads Sengupta to reproduce colonial ethnic and racial stereotypes. Thus, in a section titled “Taming the Wild,” the author mourns the prevalence of a condition in the mid-19th century, when “it was the tag of violence and savagery that invariably endured instead of the many endearing aspects of their [the Nagas’] behavior and living duly recorded in many of the early colonial reports” (p 19). Since the discourse of “tame” and “wild” is produced in the course of the conquest and administration of the region, it would have been more fruitful to explore why such “positive” representations were produced in the first place and the rationale behind oppositional images that make their appearance in later colonial writings. This would have been possible through a more critical reading of sources and their contextualisation, as well as an affirmation of the changes in the character of colonialism as it increased its spread throughout the region.

In the absence of this analysis, the reader is left with casual and vacuous inferences that allude to the “biases” of colonial observers “who had eyes only for exotic rituals and gory details such as the ones about headhunting.” Among many other things, Sengupta has also clearly missed the vast and rich secondary anthropological and historical literature that puts practices such as headhunting and cannibalism in a historical perspective, demonstrating their presence as a moving force in the improvisation of the social life of communities and in the shaping of local memory and historical thought.

The theme of the frontier resonates through the rest of the book and is used as a trope to revisit already familiar and much worked on areas of research in Assam’s history: the debate over the introduction of Bengali as the official language in the province of Assam by the British, the proliferation of a print culture under the Baptist missionaries, and the articulation of a politics of Assamese linguistic nationalism in this context (Chapters 2 and 4). Staying with her frontier approach, Sengupta sees colonial policies regarding print and standardisation of language as being determined by strategic calculations and “sheer ideology,” that is, administrative concerns. It is difficult to see how a policy to promote languages, which had a commercial viability and a functional role in the administration, was a manifestation of the colonial state’s frontier approach, as Sengupta insists it indeed was. It is possible that a more careful reading of the journals, texts, missionary writings and colonial correspondence that constitute the archive for writing a history of the politics of print and language in Assam—however overworked these might be1—might still have thrown up some interesting analyses.

However, the author does not examine her archive closely, resorting instead to unoriginal conclusions about the missionary discourse (“ultimately imbricated in larger ideological concerns other than the purely linguistic” [p 81]), the marginalisation of speech practices of Lower Assam in the new vernacular, Bengali as the necessary “other” of Assamese, and the bestowing of a genealogy for the new language of print. The fourth chapter has as its fulcrum in the argument that “the issue of the origins of Assamese was more than a purely linguistic engagement for the nineteenth century intellectuals” (p 159). Any scholar having a degree of familiarity with the histories of the region would know that all this is but mere repetition of arguments already made persuasively in the extant secondary work.

Lacking Originality

The absence of sufficient original historical research as well as the elision of earlier scholarship in the book is striking. The sections on changes in land settlement laws, revenue assessments, and their impact on peasants in the first chapter consist primarily of summations from the available scholarly work on the structure of the political economy of Assam during the precolonial and colonial period (Amalendu Guha, Arupjyoti Saikia, H K Barpujari, and others). Similarly, for the history of the Assamese language, its standardisation, the politics of Assamese linguistic nationalism, and the character of the Assamese middle class, both the second and the fourth chapters draw on a rich corpus of secondary work (Maheshwar Neog, Tilottoma Misra, Yasmin Saikia, and Bodhisattva Kar), but are unable to come up with an interpretation of any originality. It was disappointing to find that often the only points of interest in these chapters—the relationship between vernacularisation and the structure and grammar of the Assamese language, for instance—could be traced to Bodhisattava Kar’s (2008) fine exploratory essay on the subject.

A short chapter, “The Intimate Histories of the Assamese,” returns to some key 19th century writers and their role in the framing of the emergent collective of an Assamese people. To state that language displaces all other senses of collectivity to emerge as the “only legitimate markers of group identity for the so- called Assamese people” is neither new nor original. As with earlier chapters, here too the author gives little sense of the substantial work already done in this field. Nor is there any evidence of an unearthing of “discarded and alternative” narratives that the introduction had claimed for the book. The sections on individual “pioneers” of Assamese nationalisms (Haliram Dhekiyal Phukan, Gunabhiram Barooah) are replete with all too familiar details and analyses.

In its last chapter, the book somewhat compensates for its otherwise platitudinous and derivative tenor. Centring its discussion around the ascendance of the cult and shrine of Kamakhya during the course of the 19th century, the chapter convincingly shows how the rise of Brahminical Hindu practices was enabled by colonial rent-free land grants to temples. In turn, the author argues, these conditions were further strengthened by a prevalent discourse—ethnographic, literary and historical—that obfuscated the practices of the dominant religious order of Vaishnava sattras, encouraging instead a form of Sakta–Tantrik Hinduism that had strong moorings in the Orientalist scholarship of the time. The chapter bases itself on an original reading of primary material and offers an engaging analysis of shifting religious practices and their relationship with caste in 19th century Assam. However, it too has its share of the problems of method such as sweeping, unqualified statements on the practice and spread of Vaishnavism in Assam that border on the causal. The author does not cite historical evidence of any sort and one might see the conclusions on page 221 as an illustration.


1 Scholars who have engaged with this archive include Bani Kanta Kakati, Benudhar Sharma, Maheshwar Neog, S K Bhuyan, H K Barpujari, Amalendu Guha, Tilottoma Misra, Sanjib Baruah, Bodhisattva Kar, Arupjyoti Saikia and Jayeeta Sharma.


Kar, Bodhisattva (2008): “‘Tongue Has No Bone’: Fixing the Assamese Language, c 1800–c 1930,” Studies in History, Vol 24, No 1, pp 27–76.

Updated On : 8th Nov, 2017


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