Politics around Inclusion – Exclusion of Sylhet and its Economic Impact on Assam

 Politics around Inclusion – Exclusion of Sylhet and its Economic Impact on Assam

East India Company took over the Diwani of Bengal Suba and Sylhet (in which Karimganj was included) in 1765. Cachar was incorporated in the year 1832. Sylhet or Srihatta was a broad level valley bounded on either sides by hills. In the north lies Khasi and Jaintia Hills, in the east is Cachar. Hill Tippera lies in the south and in the west lies districts of Tippera and Mymensingh.

Assam was sliced from Bengal to form Assam Chief Commissionership, also known as North East Frontier Province, with Shillong as its capital on 6th February 1874. Though Sylhet was not included in the newer province initially, it was made a part of the province after a period of six months on 12th September 1874.

The intention of this study is to lay emphasis on the politics of Sylhet’s inclusion with Assam, and thereafter its dramatic exclusion (terming it as a deficit district). Was Sylhet really an economically deficit district (as claimed by Gopinath Bordoloi)? Was the land not partitioned thrice whose aftermath made the lives of the Bengalis horrible and miserable? 

The emergence of ‘tea leaves’ on the hills of Sylhet became the ‘great hope’ of progress. Tea mania engulfed the peoples mind and they started dreaming of becoming richer overnight. British administrator T.R.Larkins considers the discovery of ‘tea plants’ in the hills of Sylhet as the ‘most adventurous for an adventurer.’ 

Before the discovery of tea, the policy of the British authority was to exclude  the hills in their colonies. But tea brought a change in their policy. London based Times observed in 1858, “Now our policy is altered….there is a day dream of colonization and tea planting in the minds of some of our people and we wish to define our frontier.” (Source: The Times, London, 9th November 1858). 

Initially the planters differed in their opinions about the type of soil suited for the growth of tea. Through scientific soil tests they became confirmed that the virgin soil of the dense forest at the foot of the hills where the climate is moist and hot and where tea is found indigenous is the best. (Source: Government of Assam, Report on Tea Operations in the Province of Assam, 1873-74, Shillong, P 10). It is to be noted that the climate and soil of Sylhet region makes it an ideal place for tea cultivation. Naturally the demand for inclusion of Sylhet within the boundary of Assam started gaining momentum. Now if we go through the official secret letter of Mr.Botham, it will be crystal clear that Assam’s boundary was reconstructed with the inclusion of Sylhet within it, due to various factors out of which, the consideration of administrative convenience and to serve the interest of the planters were vital at the initial stage. The secret letter of the Assam Government representative, Mr.Botham, on 30th October 1924 to the higher authority reveals the fact. Mr.Botham mentions, “Even a partial dismemberment of Assam as at present constituted would give rise to many serious problems and difficulties, both administrative and political, and if its area and population was materially curtailed, it is doubtful whether it could retain the status of a Governor’s Province.” (Source: IOR/V/11/1976, Letter from the Government of Assam, No.Pol-1917-5585, dtd.30th October 1824).

The new province was accordingly formed on 6th February 1874 with Assam proper, Cachar, Goalpara, Garo Hills, and other districts of Bengal. The new province had ‘ inadequate revenue potentials’, and Sylhet was not a part of it in the initial days. The colonial authorities realised the  necessity of reorganising the boundaries of Assam for its existence. To make Assam ‘financially viable’ the British rulers incorporated the populous Bengali speaking district of Sylhet to Assam on 12th September 1874, within a span of six months. The inclusion of Sylhet into Assam brought a new twist in shaping its boundary. As Sylhet acted as an administrative buffer zone between Bengal and Assam, it remained the most important district of Assam for the entire period of 1874 to 1947 for the survival, growth and development of Assam. Sylhet was connected to Calcutta and the rest of Bengal through waterways even after the introduction of railways. A shortcut waterway route from Assam to Bengal via Sylhet was maintained, which made Sylhet geographically and commercially so important and one of the vital reasons behind its annexation to Assam.

Inference may be drawn from the above observations that the Assam Chief Commissioner’s Province was created in 1874 with the following objectives : Firstly, to satisfy the demand of the tea planters for the creation of an exclusive province to ensure their interests. Secondly, to save Assam from financial instability. Thirdly, to relieve the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal from the burden of governance of a large jurisdiction. Fourthly, to deal with the tribal problems of the North Eastern Regions in a systematic and efficient way. 

It may be mentioned here that on 1st April 1946, the Cabinet Mission, took the interview of Gopinath Bordoloi, the Premier of Assam. ‘Bordoloi stressed on provincial autonomy and viewed that every province ought to be constituted on linguistic and cultural basis. He stated that Assam had always a separate and distinctive identity and this must be allowed to continue in the future constitution of India in the form of full provincial status. To be consistent with this view, he pleaded the separation of Sylhet district from Assam.’ (Source: Political History of Assam, Bhuyan and De Edition, Vol III, P 338). ‘Bordoloi told before the Cabinet Mission that Sylhet was a deficit district and pleaded for its transfer to Eastern Bengal.’ (For further details the readers can consult Mansergh, Ed no.36, Vol 7, London 1978, P 38-44)

Thereafter, with the acceptance of the Mountbatten plan, the anti-grouping movement came to an end in Assam. Focus on political activity was then shifted to the Sylhet referendum. The people of Assam welcomed the decision as it anticipated the termination of the ‘artificial union’ between the two sections of people and the riddance of a deficit district. (Source: Political History of Assam, Bhuyan & De Edition, Vol III, P 389). 

The amalgamation of Sylhet to Assam can be considered as the first partition in the history of British India, because it directly affected the Bengali speaking people of Bengal and separated them from their kith and kin. The matter will be easily understood if we examine the volume of affected people. The newly created Province of Assam was having a total population of 41,32,019 souls with an area of 41,798 sq.miles. (Source: W.W.Hunter, Statistical Account of Assam, Vol I, P 1).

The Census Report of 1872 gives us the figure of people in the three districts of Bengal ( which were attached to Assam in 1874) – Sylhet, Cachar and Goalpara. According to the report : Sylhet was having  an area of 5,440 sq.miles with a population of 1,719,539 souls. Cachar was having 3,750 sq.miles area and a population of 2,05,027. Goalpara was having 4,433 sq.miles of area with a population of 7,77,761 souls. So, the total persons of the three districts stands as 27,02,027 with a corresponding total area of 13,623 sq.miles. (Source: W.W.Hunter, Statistical Account of Assam, Vol II, P 17,259,361). Naturally, the exclusion of a huge territory and its people, uprooting them from their roots, is nothing less than partition. Hence, this move can be coined as the first partition of undivided India.

In 1905, Lord Curzon intentionally divided Bengal with the motive of curbing the power of hindu elites, thereby encouraging muslim communalism in opposition to congress politics and the national freedom struggle. The Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam was created on 16th October 1905 with an area of 1,06,540 sq.miles and a population of 31 million. The partition was a short lived one and finally annulled in 1912 due to intense protest and agitations from various quarters. Assam was again reverted back to its former status of Commissionership. So, it will not be unjust to remark that the creation of the Province of Eastern Bengal and Assam in 1905, for a period of seven years can be historically referred as the second partition of British India.

Lastly, Sylhet became a victim of partition through referendum on the eve of independence. Though the transfer of Sylhet to Pakistan was an outcome of referendum (which was arranged to serve the cause of vested interested groups) yet the decision was taken by the congress high command to reduce the Bengali population, their presence and importance in every field of Assam; and this slicing can be termed as the third partition.

 The succeeding part of this study illustrates the economic status of Sylhet for the period 1874 to 1947 so that the readers can make their own understandings on the politics of ‘inclusion and exclusion’ of Sylhet from Assam.

The records of the River Traffic in Sylhet gives us some trade figures during the 1870s. According to that report, the major exported items from Sylhet were : tea, limestone, rice, mustard seeds, jute, hides, dry fish, shital pati, mustard oil, fish oil,  lime seed, potato, cotton, clarified butter (ghee), mats, bamboo, rubber, orange, wax, ivory and honey. Exports worth between 2,909,303 to 5,975,5000 pounds were carried out by steamers, country boats and roads respectively. Tea valued at 285,678 pounds and limestones valued at 79,032 pounds. (Source: A.Hunter, Statistical Account of Assam (Sylhet), P 306 – 308).
Goods imported were mainly cloth, spices, salt, tobacco, sugar, gold, silver, molasses, liquors. An amount between 9,87,935 pounds to 4,407,557 pounds was spent on imports in the 1870s. (Source: A.Hunter, Statistical Account of Assam (Sylhet), P 307). 

The above statistics show that the net surplus of Sylhet district in the 1870s was 49,714 pounds and it exported more than it imported. It became a surplus district in terms of revenue collection as per the official records of the colonial rulers. H.Cottam notes in ‘Tea Cultivation in Sylhet and Assam’ that in the year 1873 the dividend was 4.951%, which stands to 6.550% in 1874 and increased to 7.303% in 1875. So, it can be remarked that Sylhet was a flourishing district with abundant resources and economic solvency when it was attached to Assam in 1874.

Now let us observe proceeding further beyond 1874 to find the status of Sylhet. The first Joint Stock Company was formed by the Bengalis of Surma Valley in 1876, under the name of Cachar Native Joint Stock Company. It was the first native concern in tea plantation not only in Assam but also in Bengal. According to Lipton Tea Co., uptil 1903, the total amount of capital in tea industry in India and Ceylon was nearly 35,000,000 pounds. (Source: Lipton Ltd., All About Tea, London 1903, P 7).

By 1893, the production of tea in Sylhet amounted to 20,627,000 pounds, which nearly equalled to that of Sibsagar district. In 1900, the yield of production of Sylhet amounted to 35,042,000 pounds, which was  4,000,000 pounds  more than any other districts of Assam Province. (Source : B.C.Allen, Sylhet, P 135-136).

In the year 1876-77, William Hunter estimated the profit incurred from exports of rice and jute by Sylhet district which was 9,43,631 pounds. (Source: W.W.Hunter, Statistical Account of Assam, Vol II, London 1879, Sylhet, P 306). 

Bharat Samity, the first native venture of Sylhet was formed in 1880 and registered on 20th August 1895 had an authorised capital of 500,000 rupees, subscribed capital of 177,500 rupees and paid up capital of 100,475 rupees.  In 1896, 10th April another company of Sylhet was registered in the name and style  of Indeswar Tea & Trading Co.Ltd., had an authorised capital of 1,00,000 rupees, subscribed capital of 100,000 rupees and paid up capital of 88,785 rupees. (Source: Achyut Chowdhury, Sreehatter Itibritta, P 24).

Local entrepreneurs of Sylhet formed a registered company in the name of All India Tea Co.Ltd., on 2nd February 1911. The company’s authorised capital was 100,000, rupees subscribed capital was 847,500 rupees and paid up capital was 710,985 rupees. (Source: Chowdhury, Smriti & Pratiti, P 122). Was this possible for a financially lacking district to go for new business ventures ?

In 1897-98, Sibsagar district of Assam had the largest occupancy of tea cultivation land – 75,945 acres and Sylhet stood second with 71,660 acres. Production of tea was highest in Sibsagar, closely followed by Sylhet. (Source: Report on Tea Culture in Assam, 1898, P 1). In 1921-22, there were 29 native stock companies in Assam, out of which 23 were registered in Sylhet, 3 in Cachar and the remaining 3 in other districts of Assam. This trend of company registration of individual districts speaks for itself about its financial affluence.

On 24th July 1917,  J.Mac Swiney, Director of Agriculture, Assam noted that the general prospects of the industry are believed to be good as shown by the continued opening of tea gardens. The investment of Indian capital in tea is reported to be increasing in Sylhet. (Source: Report on Tea Culture in Assam, 1916, P 2).

Apart from the tea industry, the joint stock companies diversified their business in other sectors, such as Banking, Transport, Insurance, Electricity, Communication, Printing & Publishing, Cotton Mills, Saw Mills, Sugar Mills, Oil Mills, Dairy & Poultry, Construction & Real Estate. So it can be said that Sylhet was developing in every sphere and not only tea.

Mr.Thackeray in an interview with the New York Times expressed that Sylhet was famous for its elephants. He used to supply elephants to the British forces. The trade of elephants and limestone brought him good fortune, made him rich and wealthy. (Source: Thackeray, The New York Times, 6th February 1897).

Mr.William Makepeace Thackeray, the first Resident of East India Co. in Sylhet in the year 1972, contemplated with delight the possibility of ‘commercial speculation.’ He noted that ‘lime or chunam’ was a commodity of great demand and in no other part of Indian subcontinent this rock was found in its pure form as in Sylhet. Sylhet was the principal source of lime supplier. As lime was used for building forts and other prominent structures of Calcutta city, it was a profit making commodity. (Source: Thackeray, The New York Times, 6th February 1897).

Major improvement in the transportation system took place in Sylhet in 1882 with the introduction of Cachar-Sundarban steamer service by the Indian General Steam Navigation Co. and River Steam Navigation Co. (Source: Chowdhury, Smriti & Pratiti, P 122). The statistics of the Chief Auditor of Assam Bengal Railways showed that in 1905-06, there was 244,639 mounds/9,149,498.6 kg of tea was exported from Sylhet while 204,548 mounds/7,650,095.2kg was exported from Upper Assam. (Source: Government of Assam Report on the Rail & River borne trade of the Province of Assam for the year ending 31st March 1906, Shillong, P 4). So, we find Sylhet exported more tea than any other districts of Assam. Therefore, the revenue generation of Sylhet was high compared to others.

On 13th September 1910, the Director of Agriculture, Eastern Bengal & Assam, F.W.Strong reported, ‘The Surma Valley block as usual was the largest exporter of paddy and Dacca block was the largest importer of this crop.’ (Source: Government of Eastern Bengal & Assam, Report on the trade carried by Rail & River, 1909-10, P 5).

The Census Report of 1951 observed that Assam lost a negligible area (one-eighteenth of its existing area) and lost one-third of its population due to partition, but it had lost a vast area of paddy fields, tea, lime, cement industries of Sylhet. The far reaching effects of these losses will continue to be felt by Assam as well as India for many years to come. (Source: Census Report of India, 1951, P 2-15).

Similar apprehension was noted by the Sukla Commission Report. The report of 1997states that, ‘The North East was uniquely disadvantaged by the partition which left its external parameter with no more than 2% contiguity with the rest of India…. No other part of the country barring Jammu & Kashmir has had to bear a comparable burden with severe market disruption, total isolation and loss of traditional communication infrastructure, all of which has pushed regional cost and prices well above national norms, transport subsidies notwithstanding.’ 

David Ludden, noted historian, expressed, ‘Partition cut old routes of communication and mobility across new international borders more dramatically than almost anywhere in the world. The Bengal-Assam Railway track from Gauhati to Dhaka was torn off at Cachar-Sylhet border in 1965 which made communication between Dhaka and London easier than that between Dhaka and Gauhati.’ (Ludden 2003 : 21). Assam’s topographical distinctiveness was badly affected by the amalgamation of Sylhet with Pakistan. 

The above observations based on facts and figures will make us realize the grim-irreparable loss meted out to the general masses of this land by the rulers both foreigners and Indians in the name of partition. Though the phasewise partitions came to an end with independence in 1947, it is an unfinished agenda with a wider range of consequences. The repercussions are not over even today, only change of slogans, brand of politics, mode and method of humiliation, torture takes place every now and then. To get rid of Sylhet and Sylhetis from Assam, they (regional-linguistic and political elites of Brahmaputra Valley) sacrificed their own land which was a progressive, prosperous and flourishing one. The land which was considered as the ‘golden duck’ was gifted to Pakistan. The tragedy is that even today Assam failed to overcome the economic disruptions that took place due to the partition of Sylhet. Had it been kept a part of Assam then its economy would be an enhancing one.

(Feature Image Source: Sylheti Project)

Bidhayak Das Purkayastha

The writer is a Self-employed Engineer, Social Activist and Columnist. Can be reached at 9101201317, Email : biddapur@gmail.com

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