Turmoil in the floodplains

Down To Earth|May 01, 2020

Turmoil in the floodplains
IN THIS EXCERPT FROM THE UNQUIET RIVER, ARUPJYOTI SAIKIA NARRATES THE TENSIONS THAT ERUPTED BETWEEN ASSAM’S PEASANTS AND MIGRANTS FROM EAST BENGAL IN THE BEGINNING OF THE CENTURY

ASSAM’S RATE of population growth was strikingly high compared to the all-India average between 1901 and 1931. The impact of the migration from East Bengal on the demographic composition of Assam was significant. Tensions erupted between the multi-ethnic Assamese peasant society and those who were now reclaiming the floodplains. Some Assamese intelligentsia such as Manik Chandra Baruah considered the new settlers as belonging to a ‘notoriously turbulent class’ while others welcomed them. This took the form of a relentless political crisis in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Jute production meant reclamation of lands near water bodies, which were quintessentially not under the permanent plow. Migrant peasants retrieved large stretches of floodplains—from an estimated 38,000 acres [1 acre equals 0.4 hectares] in 1902 to 300,000 acres in 1932—along the Brahmaputra. The migrant settlers made the floodplains a lived space. In 1931, an official observed that in Kamrup ‘the chars and riverain tracts have nearly been filled and all available wastelands are gradually being occupied’. Massive land reclamation temporarily resolved the British imperial concern of lands lying idle in Assam due to the Assamese peasants’ supposed apathy and dislike of hard work. The migrant Bengali Muslim peasants were imagined as ‘hard-working’ compared to the ‘simple and lazy’ and ‘non-productive’ Hindu Assamese peasants.

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May 01, 2020