Dialogue  January - March, 2009 , Volume 10  No. 3


Socio-Cultural Ethos in Economic Development of Assam


H.N. Das*



Development enthusiasts often wonder why Assam’s economic growth has been slow, and some times stunted, inspite of possessing vast natural resources including oil, natural gas, forest products, coal and other minerals as well as fertile land and plenty of water for agricultural production. Many causes have been identified and diverse remedies are suggested. However, nothing seems to work. Factors such as investment, infrastructure, markets and quality and skill improvement can be attended to if there is a political will. But it is not generally recognized that unless the socio-cultural ethos is tackled properly it is rather difficult to carry all the people together along the chosen path of economic development. Sustained and united effort is necessary for long term development and permanent asset creation without which growth is not possible. Again, growth has to be inclusive in the true sense of the term for every one living in the state irrespective of language, religion, caste, creed or ethnic origin.                                                  The most important fact to remember is that the geographical entity of Assam never had a homogenous population or society. From time immemorial different tribes and ethnic groups have lived in the Brahmaputra Valley and the hills surrounding it. Immigrants have come from outside the area throughout the past two millenniums. They brought their own culture and languages. Some retained these, albeit in modified forms, but others got merged into an already existing nebulous  ethnic main-stream.                                                                                                 In my view three major events, which took place in the past thousand years or so, are noteworthy in this connection. The first major event was the Hindu Aryan migration from North India. This brought a highly cultured, educationally advanced and socially active group which, in course of time, came to dominate the Brahmaputra Valley. It is they who developed the Assamese language, which is derived from Sanskrit and  belong to the Aprabhangsha sub-group along with Bengali, Oriya, Maitheli, Bhojpuri and the other Aryan languages of eastern India. In the next few centuries the Assamese tried to get most of the other tribes and ethnic groups absorbed into their fold. They succeeded only partially in this effort.                                                                                               The second major event was the conquest of Assam by the Tai-Ahoms who  came from the China – Myanmar border in the  thirteenth century. They got merged into the  Assamese main-stream abandoning their own culture and language. They adopted the Hindu religion. Sukapha, the Ahom conqueror and their first King, is reputed to have adopted this policy of merger and thus helped the formation of the Assamese race as it exists to-day. Then in the  fifteenth – sixteenth centuries the greatest Assamese of all times Sri Sankardeva who started as a Sanskrit scholar and writer composed his Kirtanghosha in Assamese and introduced far reaching reforms in the Hindu religion. He and his principal disciple, Sri Madhabdeva, who wrote the  Namghosha, developed Assamese literature, music, drama, dance, and society into very high standards. Their Bargeets are some of the finest nuggets of Indian classical music. The Sattriya dance form they developed is recognized as one of the six national classical dances of India by the Sangeet Natak Academy. They taught the Assamese how to live hyegenically and neatly in cottages built around a courtyard for each family. The Assamese lived a far better, more meaningful and spiritually richer life than most other communities in India till about the fiftees of the last century. The per capita income also was higher than the national average. The Assamese Naamghars are the centres of social life in the villages even to-day. The eight hundred Satras (large monasteries) and the thousands of Naamghars are the institutional and structural frameworks of the Assamese society. The liberal reforms of Sankardeva and Madhabdova attracted many more ethnic groups to adopt the Assamese language, the Hindu religion and the socio-cultural millieu which Sankardeva had initiated. In fact, an innovative Saraniya system was introduced in order to  make gradual absorption of tribals into the Assamese mainstream possible.                                                          The third major event was the continuous and unrelenting migration of Bengali Muslims from east Bengal (present Bangladesh) since the beginning of the twentieth century in the wake of the British Indian Governments “grow more more food campajgn.” Later, the speed of immigration was stepped up by the Bangledesh intellectuals in search of a Labensraum. Muslims now form more than  one third of Assam’s population. The vast majority of them are immigrants from east Bengal. The indigenous Assamese Muslims, who call themselves “Hindu Mia” or “Assamese Mia,” are a minority among the Muslims. The Bengali Muslims have nominally adopted the Assamese language in schools probably for political expediency. However, they never got absorbed into the Assamese main-stream. Unlike them the Muslims who came earlier with the Mughal invading armies during the long 600 years of Ahom rule from 1228 to 1826 and remained behind in the Brahmaputra Valley, fully adopted the Assamese language and culture, although retaining the Muslim religion. Some of them took Ahom titles which they use in place of surnames even to-day. They got some indigenous people also converted into Islam. Their religious leader, Azan Phakir, taught them tolerance towards other religions. Their martial hero, Bagh Hazarika, faught side by side with the Ahom worriors. Similarly a small number of Sikhs came with the invading army of Ram Singh in the seventeenth century. They also remained behind. These Sikhs fully adopted the Assamese language and culture while retaining their religion. They forgot the Punjabi language.                                                               During the British occupation of Assam in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries the British brought some highly educated urban Bengali Hindus to work in their offices and in the educational institutions. These Bengalis remained aloof, retained their own identity and looked down upon the natives. However, their attempt at socio-cultural domination of Assam was thwarted after long struggle from 1937 to 1873 by the Assamese Hindus. At the instigation of the Bengali Hindus the British had removed the Assamese language from courts and schools in 1837. It was ultimately restored in 1873. When the tea industry was started in the 1930s thousands of indentured labourers were brought from Bengal, Bihar, U.P., Madhya Pradesh and Orissa by the British tea planters to work in the plantations. They now form a very sizeable proportion of the state’s population. Small numbers of Rajasthani traders, Nepali milkmen and Bihari labourers also came in the past two centuries.                                                                                               The demographic pattern in Assam today presents a mosaic which is rich in cultural diversity and in the profusion of languages, music, dance, drama and fine arts. This amalgam is difficult to comprehend unless the three major historical events I have identified above are properly stated and appreciated. In fact, the process of demographic fusion and cohesion which was brought about by Sukapha and Sankardeva continued unabated till the British occupation of Assam in 1826. The process became slow after that. But the process has been reversed since about 1960s in the wake of Assamese being declared as the state language which was opposed by the Bengali Hindus. The riots that took place in the 1960s claimed many lives. The peculiarity of these riots was the fact that the Muslim migrants from Bengal took up the cause of Assamese language and faught against the Beglali Hindus. Another event took place in the 1960s. That was the political reorganisation of Assam by separation of Nagaland and Mizoram. In the next decade Meghalaya was curved out of Assam. Arunachal, which already had a separate administrative arrangement, was also formally taken out of Assam. Beside political reorganization, far reaching changes were enacted in the social sphere. For example, the Assamese language, which had served as the link language for the entire region for centuries, is now being edged out of this position. Even Nagamese and Arunachalis, which are actually broken Assamese, are being neglected except probably by the  All India Radio.                                                          Central assistance to Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram were stepped up substantially after their separation from Assam. The tribal leaders assumed importance and started enjoying all the constitutional powers. This was perhaps a historical necessity. But this aroused aspirations in the minds of the other tribal and ethnic groups. The  Bodos, for example, started a movement for a separate state. Some of the Bodo factions became insurgents and started fighting for independence The Bodos now harbour ill feelings against the Assamese and do not learn the Assamese language any more. The tea labourers have started abandoning the Assamese language and reviving the Sadri language aided mainly by the Christian missionaries and the NE TV Channel. They are now fighting for tribal status. The other tribes and ethnic groups demand separate state or area and have started agitations and even insurgencies. Dima Halongs and Karbis demand upgradation of their autonomous districts into states. Some even demand independence. Smaller tribes and ethnic groups make similar demands.    

       The tribal and ethnic groups of Assam have achieved various levels of progress in different spheres. The ethnic Assamese, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, have fair to high levels of education and general prosperity. Similar is the case with the Bodos, who look healthier probably because of their genes and their protein rich food intake. The wealthiest, however, are the Marwaries or the Rajasthanis who control the wholesale trade, the tea industry and a sizeable number of private industrial units. The urban Bengali Hindus are as literate and prosperons as the Assamese. But their rural counterparts are not at all well off. Similar is the case with the large communities of immigrant Muslims and tea garden  labourers. Both these communities have low rates of literacy, low land holding and generally low prosperity. Literacy and prosperity rates vary among the other tribal and ethnic groups. At the lowest rung perhaps are  the tribes of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hill districts.                                                                                           Special efforts have been made by the central and the state Governments for the upliftment of the down trodden communities. Assam’s Five Year and Annual Plans, for example, have Hills, Tribal and Schedule Caste components with separate pre fixed ratios for weightage to different sections of people. Large sums are allocated to the Autonomous District Councils and the tribal and ethnic councils (described later in this essay) both under Plan and under Non-Plan heads. Development Corporations have been established for the Minorities, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. However, the results have not been commensurate nor have the targets been achieved. There are clamours for more funds while allocated funds are not properly utilized . Corruption is rampant. Minor apparatchiks of political parties and community leaders have become rich. They have a vested interest in keeping the tribal and ethnic groups isolated mainly for their own political ambitions and monetary gains.                         As a consequence of this spurt of tribal and ethnic aspirations a series of agitations, disturbances and destructions have rend asunder whatever cohesion or unity existed among different sections of society. With the object of quelling such disturbances a mind boggling political and administrative arrangement has been arrived at in the  past two decades. This has resulted in a decentralization of power in a rather peculiar and haphazard manner. These arrangements came in several doses of ad hoc political decisions without any general debate or examination of the pros and cons. These decisions were dictated by political expediency. Their implications were not properly studied or discussed before implementation. As a result units have come up with overlapping jurisdictions and varied configurations of financial, legislative and administrative endowments. This has been done through constitutional amendments in some cases and statutory enactments in others. Even executive orders have brought up such units.                                 The pattern that has emerged consist of  the following : (1) The two autonomous districts of Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills, which were formed in stages since 1950, under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. They have wide administrative and some legislative powers. (2) The Bodoland Territorial Autonomous Districts (BTAD) formed in stages during  the past few years with similar powers exercised under the Sixth Schedule by the Bodoland Territotial Council (BTC). BTAD has jurisdiction over the four administrative districts of Kokrajhar, Chirang, Baksa and Udalguri. BTC has legislative powers also. But law and order is outside BTC’s jurisdiction. (3) The six tribal councils for the Mishings, Rabha Hasongs, Tiwas, Deoris, Sonowal Kacharis and Thengal Kacharies, and the non-statutory council for the Barak valley tribes. Recently an eighth tribal council for the Amri Karbis, who live in the periphery of the city of Guwahati, has also been announced. (4) Seven ethnic development councils are presently in the process of formation. These will be for the Morans, Motoks, Ahoms, Chutias, Koch-Rajbongshis, Tea Tribes and Gorkhas. These ethnic groups of Morans etc have been demanding tribal status for a long time. Their demand has not been agreed to by the Government of India as yet. Only Sarania Kacharis have been newly included in the list of tribes. The state Government has promised a new council for the Saranias. Agitations by ethnic groups, which turn violent sometimes, are continuing. On February 19, 2009 a significant event took place when a number of organizations, and tribal and ethnic students unions congregated in Guwahati’s ITA Auditorium and passed a resolution demanding a tribal state by curving out certain Assam territories to be named as Kachariland. They claimed to represent 18 tribes. This is a momentous resolution.                                                                   The persistence of tribal, ethnic and linguistic differences and the existence of so many tiers of governmental organizations have really complicated the political scene in Assam. In most other states of India at least the overwhelming majority of population belong to one group. This facilitates political cohesion and economic development. The absence of such integration in Assam leads to political unrest and even insurgency. The grant of autonomy at sub state level has not fully satisfied the tribal and ethnic leaders. They demand more power and more money. Already media reports suggest rampant misuse of grants, non-maintenance of accounts and siphoning off of funds by politicians, beaurocrats and contractors. Besides, the administrative control and decision making processes have been complicated by the existence of so many units of different types with varying powers and overlapping jurisdictions. This has adversely affected the delivery system for economic development. In fact, the system itself has become fragmented. The same set of officers work for the state government and the tribal and ethnic councils. They have different loyalties and are sometimes compelled to take different identities.                                                               The existence of a maze of agencies and their inscrutable relationships have affected the delivery system for rural development very adversely by distorting the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). Similar effects on the delivery system for the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) of Town Committees, Municipalities and the City Corporation of Guwahati can be expected in the future. If PRIs are to play  the role assigned to them under article 243 of the Constitution, read with the list of subjects enshrined in the Tenth Schedule, PRIs should be  the sole and only agencies for implementing rural development projects, schemes and programmes. Similar should be the arrangement through ULBs which fall under article 243 read with the Eleventh Schedule. This is not the case in Assam, where in contravention of the spirit of the Constitution, more powers and funds have been given to the para-statal bodies like District Rural Development Agencies (DRDAs), Block Development Officers (BDOs), Town and City Development Authorities, Marketing Boards and others. PRIs and ULBs play only a minor role in the delivery system for economic development.                                                                                    Again, PRIs never existed in the hill districts of Assam. In BTAD areas PRIs have been recently abolished. In the tribal and the ethnic council areas also there is a demand for abolition of PRIs. In the areas covered by the Rava-Hasong Council, for example, tribals who are a minority prevented election to PRIs. The majority non-tribals objected to it. Consequently there were violent riots in which several people were killed. Riots and violence are apprehended in other areas also because the tribal and the ethnic councils demand abolition of PRIs and transfer of all powers to themselves which the other communities, who form the majority in most cases and particularly the Muslims, oppose. The objection of the other communities is based on the fact that unlike PRIs these councils are not universally democratic institutions. The majority of people do not have proper representation and say in these councils. Under such circumstances some academics suggest that the traditional councils of elders should be revived both in the tribal and in the general areas. These traditional councils existed long before PRIs were established. But the academics do not realize that the traditional institutions are hereditary and feudal in nature, not democratically elected, and they exclude women from their membership. These cannot substitute democratically elected PRIs and ULBs. It may be relevant to mention here that the Indian Parliament had appointed a committee to make recommendations on the law concerning extension of the provisions of the 73rd amendement to the Schedule areas. On the basis of this Bhuria Committee’s recommendation the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) was passed. But it was made applicable to only the Fifth Schedule areas and not to the Sixth Schedule areas. In the present circumstances all the four types of political and administrative arrangements in Assam, as described ealier, will probably be bereft of PRIs. The moot question is how to provide the delivery system for rural development programmes in these areas in the absence of PRIs.                                                                             Meanwhile, the continuous and unrelenting immigration from Bangladesh has not only distorted the demographic pattern in Assam but it has also led to tension, agitation and insurgency. It has adversely affected economic development because the density of population has gone up tremendously and fragmentation has reduced the average size of land holding considerably. There have been no commensurate increase in agricultural production and productivity compared to the other states.                                                                                                    The short point is that lack of homogeneity and consequent proliferation of the tiers of Government have affected the process and speed of economic development. This has adversely affected the will and the drive for self improvement. This unfortunate situation has been further accentuated by the absence of an entrepreneurial culture. More people seek salaried jobs, specially in government and public sector, rather than take up industry or commerce. Moreover, due to historical reasons a feeling of resentment against private enterprise is still deep rooted in the ethnic Assamese psyche. While even grossly inefficient public sector undertakings are welcomed private enterprise is always looked upon with suspicion.                                                                               That this feeling is also endemic in the neighbouring state of West Bengal has been confirmed by Abhijit Sen, Chairman of the Alliance Group. Speaking in a seminar  some time ago on the ‘‘Plight of Industry in West Bengal” he averred that “the reason for the industrial decline of West Bengal since the fiftees lie in socio-cultural ethos of the inhabitants of  the state instead of the oft repeated factors like freight equalization and labour militancy.” He made a pointed reference to the fact that after the departure of the British local Bengali entrepreneurs failed to replace them unlike in other parts of the country. According to him “the socio-economic culture of the state does not place any premium on entrepreneurship. Business is looked down upon and no bright young person is ever encouraged to go into business”. Drawing attention to the famous Bengali films “Seemabaddha” and “Jalsaghar” Sen remarked that “while decadent feudalism gets a sympathetic view business is made out to be a sinister activity”. (Financial Express dated 19.07.98)                                                                                                                           The more recent incident of the Tatas having to transfer their Nano car project from West Bengal to Gujarat is probably the most glaring case in point. When this happened the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi wrote to his West Bengal counterpart Buddhadev Bhattacharyya and clarificed that he (Modi) did not snatch away the project to Gujarat but offered the land to Tatas only after Tatas had withdrawn the project from West Bengal. Modi emphasized that the present work culture of West Bengal was not congenial for production of Nano cars in that state. In a separate letter to Mamata Banarjee, who  stalled the Nano Project in West Bengal only for her own political gains and her personal opposition to the Communists, Modi candidly told Mamata that in  matters of economic development Gujaratis were all united. They never indulged in politics over industrialization of Gujarat. (Ananda Bazar Patrika, October 12, 2008). In an open letter to the people of West Bengal Ratan Tata explained that the Tata’s dream of “contributing to the industrial revival of West Bengal has been shattered by an environment of  politically-motivated agitation and hostility that finally left us with no option but to withdraw the Nano project from West Bengal”. Ratan Tata concluded the open letter by stating that “the future destiny of West Bengal lies with its citizens” and that the people “will need to decide whether they wish to stand still and let growth take place elsewhere or move forward” to enable West Bengal to take its rightful place with other states, sharing in the future prosperity of India.” (The Telegraph, October 17, 2008).                                                       In Assam the situation is even worse than in West Bengal. After the long rule of the Ahoms the Burmese had occupied  parts of the Brahmaputra Valley for a brief period. The British invaded Assam to quell the Bumese misrule. They defeated the Burmese and signed the Yandaboo treaty with the Burmese in 1826 by which the province was ceded to the British. Soon thereafter Assamese was banished from schools and courts. As I have already stated the local people had to fight from 1837 to 1873  for restoration of the Assamese language. This planted the seeds of resentment which germinated into a series of full scale popular movements (and later insurgency by the United Liberation Front of Assam or ULFA) against outside domination for the best part of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Beside the resentment the Assamese felt discrimination and deprivation also. They had to fight for a University, for a refinery and for every other institution and industry. The long Assam Movement for expulsion of foreigners from Bangladesh during 1979-86 was perhaps the high water mark of Assamese anguish. The Assamese became agitationists and insurgents and not industrialists and entrepreneur.                                                                                  When the British left in 1947 the only major industry in Assam was tea. Other than tea there was a small oil refinery at Digboi, the coal fields in the Ledo-Margherita belt and a few plywood mills on the periphery of the forests. The English planters and entrepreneurs remained in Upper Assam and the Barrak Valley till the 1960s. I met the last English General Manager of the Assam Oil Company at Digboi in 1969 when I joined as Deputy Commissioner of the earstwhile Lakhimpur district with HQ at Dibrugarh. Rajasthani traders bought the tea companies when the English planters left India in the 1960s. During this period, as Assistant Commissioner at Silchar, Sub-Divisional Officer at Mangaldoi and Deputy Commissioner at Dibrugarh I had witnessed this process of withdrawal by the English planters who were replaced by up-country sahibs. These later planters did not have the same zeal, culture and temperament of their English predecessors. The new owners, and particularly the arrogant managers, appeared to be interested only in a fast buck. They looked down upon the local people which the latter naturally resented. Again, while during the British times at least the subordinate posts were given to the local Assamese people the new owners started importing their own kith and kin. This caused considerable heart burning. However, after a lot of  indirect pressure, mainly in the wake of ULFA  insurgency, things seem to be changing in recent times. There is now a tendency to recruit local people to junior posts of the management cadres. However, salaries and perks have been reduced in the past few years. This will mean that the quality of managerial personnel will go down and the work culture will deteriorate.

   In states like Gujarat and Maharasthra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, industrial development has been spurred on by infusion of private capital and technical knowhow from other states and countries. They have been welcoming outside entrepreneurs with red carpets for a long time. Similar attempts in the past miserably failed in Assam. For example, the then Industries Minister of Assam, Kamakhya Prasad Tripathy, helped a number of such entrepreneurs to set up units in the state, particularly in the Tinsukia-Makum and the Tinsukia-Bardubi belts, with the stipulation that local people would be recruited at least in the lower posts. They were given substantial assistance from the Assam Financial Corporation and the Assam Industrial Development Corporation. These units have earned enormous profits and many of them are still doing well. But the initial local recruits got edged out within a short time by supposedly more efficient people from outside. A few such  entrepreneurs, setting up units elsewhere in the state, not only transferred their profits but also their capital outside; and, left their sick  units and idle employees as a liability for the state Government. One even attempted to sell off the valuable land in the outskirts of Guwahati city. It was fortunately prevented from doing so at the last moment by the timely intervention of a couple of bureaucrats. Many more similar instances can be cited including the recent one of inordinate delay of more than fifteen years in setting up of the Gas Cracker Project in the Dibrugarh district. This project was given to Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) at the behest of the Government of India which also made provisions for substantial subsidies in cash and in reduced gas price. Even then RIL did not come. The project is now being set up in Lepetkata instead of Tengakhat, in the same Dibrugarh district, in collaboration with the Gas Authority of India.                                                                                 In this short background paper an attempt has been made to briefly describe the situation in its historical setting and to identify the factors which generated the mood of frustration and suspicion in the minds of the Assamese people. The major factors are the following : lack of homogeinity and cohesion, aversion to manual work, fear of outsiders, liking for public against private enterprise, preference to salaried jobs versus self employment and absence of an entrepreneurial culture. These factors are not mutually exclusive but overlapping. This is so because the situation is complex. It is not amenable to fully objective analysis. There is a lot of subjectivity in interpretation. The inconvenient factors cannot just be wished away. Change will take time. The feelings of neglect and frustration can be overcome only by examples of successful private enterprise providing investment and employment. The State Government seems to be trying hard to do that. The new industrial policy with substancial concessions, subsidies and tax exemptions have induced a few companies to set up units in Assam. Unfortunately, however, these units have not brought in much capital nor have they created many jobs for the local unemployed. They have set up only processing units which are foot-loose. This means that the units can be transferred elsewhere without notice. These industries have come to Assam only to reap the advantage of the concessions and specially the subsidies. Therefore, their contribution to real and sustainable industrialization is minimal.                                                                            A slight change in the entrepreneurial culture among the Assamese has become discernible in recent times. This is reflected in the setting up of small shops and other businesses, particularly in the urban areas, by some educated unemployed youths and even by a few housewives with time to spare. The initiation of Self Help Groups in the state has encouraged many more women to take up tiny and cottage industries. The numbers are small as yet compared to the huge population explosion in the state due mainly to immigration from Bangladesh. But the trend for self employment is encourageing. The media can help in furthering this trend by publishing success stories prominently. The banking system can help by making credit available easily and at reasonable rates of interest. The Government departments can help by relaxing the rules and easing the license raj.                                                                                               It is not suggested that the socio cultural ethos of the state is the only factor hampering economic development of Assam. There are many other factors some of which have been mentioned in this essay. It must be admitted in this context that no proper studies nor relevant surveys have been conducted to find out the importance of each of these factors. However, an analysis of social behaviour and the perception of their effects on the state’s political and administrative structures along with the economic consequences of agitations, unrest and insurgencies would suggest that these factors are really potent forces and proper studies must be made to unravel their importance.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati