Where is Assam?
By David Ludden
15 January 2013
Instead of accepting the nationalisation of everything through political cartographic boundaries, we can use geographical history to locate current social realities
Assam is today a state of India and, as such, an official region of a world entirely covered by nations and encompassed by national maps. We have no choice but to locate any region like Assam inside of national geography, for this both controls our spatial imagination and conveys a specific location, identity and meaning.
But other perspectives do exist. Despite the seemingly universal authority of national geography, the location of social reality is flexible. That Assam is part of India is indisputable; but it is important to note that this fact coexists with others that find different ‘locations’ for Assam. Indeed, looking at any area’s geography in slightly less conventional ways allows for the appearance of a kaleidoscope of social realities. Such an understanding allows for important new frames of reference for scholarship, activism and policy-making.
The first step is to appreciate the political nature of all modern maps. Territorial boundaries – as well as social efforts to define, enforce and reshape them – represent political projects rather than simple facts. The makers and enforcers of boundaries use maps today to define human reality inside of national territory. As a result, everything in the world has acquired a national identity. We see the boundaries of national states so often that they almost appear to be natural features of the globe.
This virtual reality came into being only in the 19th century, as various technologies for surveying the earth, mass-printing, mass-education and other innovations began to make viewing standardised maps a common experience. Making maps, reading maps, talking about maps, and thinking with mental maps became increasingly common with each passing decade. By the 1950s, people around the world had substantial map-knowledge in common. Today, we can reasonably imagine that most people in the world share common map-knowledge because they routinely experience various versions of exactly the same maps. During the global expansion of modern mapping, national territory suddenly incorporated all of the earth’s geography. Though national boundaries only covered the entire globe after 1950, within a decade or two all histories of all peoples in the world came to appear inside national maps, in a cookie-cutter world of national geography. This has been the most comprehensive organisation of spatial experience in human history. Spaces that elude national maps have now mostly disappeared from intellectual life.
Maps attain their form and authoritative interpretation from both the political economy and the cultural politics of mapping; the most influential people in these processes work in national institutions, including universities. State-authorised mapping is now so common that most governments do not regulate map-making, but almost everyone draws official lines on maps by habit anyway. Indeed, this dynamic is so pervasive that few people ever even think about it, yet it has covered the planet with the nation state’s territorial authority. As a result, we are now accustomed to seeing maps that nationalise topography by erasing spaces on the edge of a nation’s identity. In India, this includes several major spaces near Assam – areas in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh – which have become mostly blank spaces in the country’s national view of Southasia. Every day, TV and newspaper weather maps nationalise rainfall, wind and the seasons, by enclosing them inside national boundaries. This seemingly innocent nationalisation of nature
makes it increasingly difficult to visualise any world not defined by national boundaries.
We see the boundaries of national states so often that they almost appear to be natural features of the globe
After understanding the political nature of maps, our second step is to appreciate the extent to which modernity depends on the idea of national territories. The whole notion of modern statistics, for instance, could only come into being inside ‘frozen’, unchanging geographical spaces. This freezing of blocks of space inside nations had already begun by 1776 (when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations), with the assumption that every nation’s wealth belonged inside its national boundaries and under the control of its national government. Fixing regions in place inside national maps brought to modern social life a newly rigorous, comprehensive order. Today, national maps describe the location of every single thing, person and place on the planet. National territory also heavily affects cultural politics, both inside and across national boundaries. Human identity everywhere is attached to national sites; some people are always native, while others are always foreign.
In the Indian context, Assam is a part of a region officially called ‘Northeast India’. It has much more geographical contact with other nations than with the Indian mainland, however, from which it is most often described as ‘remote’. Assam is also grouped with state territories in northeastern Southasia – described by the South Asia Foundation as “…the eastern states of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal” – which has a definable population, GNP, land area and trade history. This relationship alone allows us to move our perspective around and to reconfigure Assam’s geographical location. Following this strategy into the past, step three in this process looks at geographical perspectives that move along routes of movement, blending them together over history.
This method is actually quite realistic. After all, however natural, necessary and comforting it may seem to assign everything in the world a fixed location, doing so inside of firm boundaries can never succeed in creating a stationary social order. Most of the time, everything in social life is on the move, in a way that national geography cannot accommodate. By considering how trends of mobility have changed throughout history, we can locate Assam in a more flexible geography.
Nature is a good place to begin. An especially good place to begin is a river, as defined by the naturally downhill movements of flowing water. In such a water-view of the world, Assam lies in Asian spaces defined by mountains, slopes and plains. These monumental features channel the rains that arrive with Asia’s longest, wettest monsoons and feed the extensive valleys where rice became the dominant crop by around 1500 AD. In this wet, river- and rice-fed Asia, human populations have historically moved into and concentrated in river valleys and their adjacent areas. Assam has long been a region of in-migration, hosting new generations of settlers from prehistoric times to the present day. With low-density mountains on three sides, Assam is the eastern edge of the exceptionally high-density Gangetic population zone that runs from the hills of Punjab to the Bay of Bengal.
The impact of this water-view of Assam-in-Asia becomes immediately clear on the geography of river development projects today. All Indian rivers running through Assam also flow into Bangladesh; throughout these watersheds, people depend on the same water. Major dam projects disrupt that geographical reality. The proposed Tipaimukh dam in Assam and, more dramatically, India’s plan to divert Assamese waters to parched Indian regions, would reduce the flow of water into the delta. It is little wonder that such plans arouse concern (and outrage) in Bangladesh, which gets 80 percent of its fresh water through 54 rivers flowing from India.
Assam also occupies a borderland of Asian drainage systems, sitting astride a watershed that, at the Patkai Range, divides the western trajectory of the Brahmaputra from the major drainages of Southeast Asia and southern China. Five huge rivers define the major corridors of settlement and mobility that run from the Ganga basin across into China, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. The Brahmaputra (or Jamuna in Bangladesh) is the easternmost river of Southasia, but it is also the westernmost in East Asia. In this context, India’s Northeast is commonly found on maps of East Asia. Assam and the rest of the Northeast, as well as the adjacent Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh, can subsequently be seen as a western region of East Asia, an eastern region of Southasia, and a region where Southasia and East Asia overlap. It is this overlapping that is impossible to accommodate on national maps; it thus effectively disappears from the public consciousness.
From ancient times, the NE-SE course of the river valleys east of Assam has channelled human movement inland through Southeast Asia and China. In Assam, such important historical channels have included: the routes of the ancient Khasi and Tai-Ahom migrations, which moved westward from the Red River basin in Vietnam; the routes of the opium trade, with unknown origins but which extended from Bihar to China; the imperial expansion of Burma; and the military travels of the Chinese, Japanese, British and Americans along roads from Assam to Yunnan during the 1940s.
River routes have long connected Assam in each direction. The major movements that decisively shaped the region in early modern times (1660-1830) included: the Mughals and British moving northeast from Bengal; the Ahoms moving down the Brahmaputra basin; Burmese armies moving around the Patkai and across the Nagaland ranges; and trans-Himalayan forces coming south from Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and China.
Before 1800, Indian Ocean routes seem to have had less direct impact on the Brahmaputra valley than on other Southasian regions comparably close to the coast. Most importantly for its geographical history, however, by 1800 Assam lay at the intersection of Indian Ocean routes with inland routes into interior East Asia. Thus, early British imperial geographers believed with some justification that Assam was India’s inland gateway to China. Opium and tea, among other commodities, already travelled Indo-Chinese roads through Assam. When Europeans ‘discovered’ India and China, however, they did so at seaports, where they imagined all societies as being attached to separate inland civilisations. From this seacoast view of northeastern India, ethnic groups in the mountains looked more like East and Southeast Asian peoples than like those that dominated the Indian lowlands. Thus, Europeans viewed East Asian-looking peoples in Northeast India as marginal or even alien to the surrounding ‘Indic’ civilisation. These mountain ethnic groups, however, actually represent the historical overlapping of social spaces, defining Asia from the west and east at the same time.
Our national traditions of geographical knowledge do not pay equal attention to all of the routes of human mobility that shaped Assam. Indian historical geography focuses exclusively on routes that run east-west along the Gangetic basin, where dominant social groups have always identified Assam with eastern frontiers. In the Indian national view, Assam has always been an Indian frontier, always in the process of being incorporated into Indo-Gangetic history. Even when the British Empire began its northeast expansion from Sylhet and Cooch Bihar, Assam still lay on the cultural and political frontiers of Southasia and Southeast Asia.
Guwahati’s relations with New Delhi, even today, represent a dynamic that began under the Gupta Empire in the early centuries of the first millennium. Like the Mauryas before them, the ancient Guptas carried their imperial ambitions far from their homeland in Bihar, but also much farther west than east – lands to the east of the Ganga basin being considered undesirable. Gupta culture later influenced the Assamese Kamrupa kings in large part through trade. Indeed, the Buddhists who dispersed across eastern frontiers flourished there for centuries, in part because trade, rather than imperial power, extended across the water routes of Bengal.
A thousand years after the last of the Guptas, the strength of Ahom warriors in the Brahmaputra basin, combined with the difficulty of forests and raging river waters, largely kept Mughal imperialism at bay. During the age of Ahom rulers in Assam, the Mughal Empire was rooted in the far west. The renowned Mughal gardens derived from desert ideals in Central Asia and Iran; Mughal homesteads blended the cultures of Persia and Rajasthan. Lands of dense forests, deep annual floods, rivers, tigers, elephants and fearsome mountain warriors proved too difficult for the dry-land plains warriors to conquer. These lands paid very little imperial taxation anyway. As such, the Mughal padshah and his nobles mostly conquered and sported on the fringes of forest tracts that they left to local rulers, from whom they extracted as much obedience and tribute as possible.
Assam became part of imperial India only after the Mughals lost their grip in Bengal, as British imperialists expanded inland from the sea with a combined force of merchants, armies and Brahmans. Northeast of Calcutta, Mughal highways pointed to Assam; but because Assam lay outside of Mughal control, it remained so for early British India as well. Only once the British conquered Assam in 1826 did the area obtain – for the first time in its history – a firm regional identity as a part of Indian imperial geography. Until 1874, British Assam was part of a novel imperial territory called ‘Bengal’, which included West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, Northeast India and present-day Bangladesh. British Assam always included the Brahmaputra and Barak river valleys, as well as the Surma-Kushiara river basin of Sylhet. After 1860, the tea industry spread across hills around these rivers and enhanced control of the administrative unity of Sylhet and Assam.
Until 1947, British Assam was an eastern borderland of British imperialism, which tried to incorporate Burma and never quite established full control over the mountains between India and China. In the context of British India, Assam’s Brahmaputra valley had special strategic significance as a borderland between British India and imperial China (until 1911) and Japan (1939-1945). In 1947, Assam became India’s nearest borderland with revolutionary China. In this strategic location, the US Army built the so-called Stilwell Road in 1943 – running from Ledo in Assam to the China-Burma road as a supply link with the Bengal-Assam Railway for the US and British wars against Japan and, later, the Chinese. War along this road was intense. Recently, Indian investigators found as many as 1500 graves from the World War II era on the India-Burma border along the Stilwell Road.
Partition and after
The year 1947 dramatically changed the forces shaping Assam. Partition and its fallout resulted in the cutting and restriction of traditional routes around Assam, and introduced major demographic changes. Together, these two forces give Assam the shape and location we see today. Most importantly, the formation of East Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) created new national borders with a presumed hostile state to Assam’s west and south. In Assam’s southeast, Sylhet was the only region of British India where a referendum was held specifically on the question of accession to India or Pakistan; in 1947, the vote in favour of Pakistan separated Sylhet from Assam for the first time since 1826.
Partition also exaggerated a process of change in the cultural composition of the Sylhet population, which had proceeded slowly for at least 50 years after the first Indian census in 1871, when the Muslim and Hindu populations had been roughly equal in number. After 1871, migration into Sylhet farming regions increased the Muslim population with every census. Between 1891 and 1931, people reportedly born in the Bengal District of Mymensingh but living in Assam increased from one-third to two-thirds of the population of southern Assamese valleys, including Sylhet. Noting this upward trend in migrant settlement, in 1931 the Assam Census Report called Muslim Bengalis in Assam “invaders”. To defend their territory against this ‘invasion’, the Assam Congress resolved to move Sylhet out of Assam. The question of how to regulate migration into Assam from Bengal dominated the state political agenda in the 1930s and 1940s. After 1947, this topic became a new type of national issue, with reference to alleged threats to national security.
The conflict between these two pressing modern needs – territorial openness and closure – seems increasingly difficult to reconcile
Migration continued to increase after Partition, however, and remained high for three decades, spurred in part by wars in 1965 and 1971. In the 1960s, the total Sylhet population rose 60 percent as one lakh Muslim Bengalis moved out of Assam into Sylhet’s Haor basin, where open land was available. Sylhet’s population growth was most dramatic in areas nearest Meghalaya and Tripura, where migration produced completely new localities filled with immigrants. In much of Sylhet, a new social formation emerged, which ranked the cultural status of old and new residents – a dynamic that continues today.
Although the ethnic composition of the population had been a political issue in Assam since the 1920s, it raised its head again after 1950. Assam then shrunk in size for two reasons: first, Partition cut out the mostly-Muslim Sylhet; second, nationalist territorial claims by ethnic groups produced the mountain states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The boundaries of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland are still contested today, representing a tug-of-war over ethnic claims to natural resources marked by state territory.
Trends in population change, the creation of territorial borders and the mobilisation of ethnic politics have indeed occurred throughout the Northeast’s much longer history. This has historically moved people into more densely populated areas that then expanded physically upwards, moving from the lowland plains and valleys into the surrounding hills and mountains; during that advance, large populations have absorbed various ethnic and tribal groups. In the century after 1880 (when statistics appeared for the first time), the expansion of permanent cultivation proceeded at extremely high rates in Tripura, Nagaland, Sikkim and Assam – faster than almost anywhere else in Southasia, in fact. Most of this expansion appears to be the result of lowland farmers investing in land at higher altitudes. During this process, Tripuris became a minority in Tripura, where mostly Hindu Bengalis became dominant. A similar change occurred more recently in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where Muslim Bengalis became numerically dominant, triggering resentment and revolt among the region’s ethnic groups.
Such transformations of social space moved investors and residents in 1947 into open areas still available for agricultural colonisation. Huge tracts of land remained free in forested regions of eastern and, especially, Northeast India. Indeed, this became one of the last agricultural frontiers in Southasia, where new farming communities were able both to improve their living conditions and to enhance national wealth. The physical expansion of cultivated farmland remained the major source of increases in Southasian agricultural production until 1960. Population densities increased very rapidly in these frontier areas, where, until 1880, people settled at an even greater pace than into urban areas – although most upland agrarian frontiers maintained very low population densities, which continues today.
The stubbornness of territorial anxiety
Against this backdrop, however, even in regions typified over many centuries by extensive mobility, national governments and popular movements worked harder after 1947 than ever before to close off and regulate traffic across national borders. Their goals were twofold: to defend national territory against foreign threats; and to suppress internal disruption that might be fed by crossborder forces. India’s Northeast became an ‘exposed’ territory, facing alien states around most of its perimeter. Defending India’s borders meant closing off the Northeast against crossborder threats. In Assam, a regional political movement also tried to close borders to alien immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh. Today, the Bharatiya Janata Party again reiterates this rhetoric.
New political efforts are now working against the trend of national enclosure, however. Today, civil society in Bangladesh is pressing its government and India to keep in mind the real-life implications of rivers that run through Assam and on into Bangladesh. State governments in the Indian Northeast are also calling for a reopening of trade routes along the old Burma-China Road, which would benefit landlocked state economies that currently face international barriers on three sides. At the moment, New Delhi is expressing considerable interest in such plans.
Still, Assam’s continued official isolation from non-Indian territories is a serious security concern for the Indian government, now mostly due to the insurgent problems within the country’s borders. In this respect, India’s internal order problems are intimately linked with the virtual impossibility of closing off Assam to the traditional channels of human movement – routes that are much older than any state in the region. This problem, of course, seems commonplace in today’s age of globalisation. While world regions could benefit economically from simpler crossborder connections, communities on opposite sides of international borders would clearly benefit from common attempts to solve trans-border problems. Nonetheless, national political and cultural systems remain committed to strong border defences in the fear of disturbing the coherence of their national traditions. Indeed, the conflict between these two pressing modern needs – territorial openness and closure – seems increasingly difficult to reconcile.
So, where is Assam?
From the above perspectives, a useful answer to the question of ‘Where is Assam?’ would be that Assam consists of all that has left traces in the valleys and mountains around the Brahmaputra and Barak rivers. In this view, locating Assam requires that we trace the mobility of all of those elements over the span of human history; after so doing, we can discover the geography where those elements most meaningfully overlap. While this would provide us with a good picture of Assam’s location, it would not be one picture, but many – leaving the problem of actual location open for debate and endless research. Clearly there are numerous obstacles to thinking about geography in this way. At the moment, national borders simply don’t function like this (although people may indeed be better off in regimes that would permit them freer mobility)
Plans for a new Asian Highway would put Assam at the centre of a new Asian transport system and would take the state from the periphery to the centre of a new territorial formation in Asia. But progress on the highway is now stalled, due mostly to Indo-Bangladeshi disputes over border issues, illegal immigrants, and terrorism allegations. Against this backdrop of hopes for expanding mobility and integration, however, it is worth remembering that new national borders are, in the long span of history, typically imperialist dreams. So it was in the days of the Guptas, Mughals and British, and so too when the US Army built the Stilwell Road to counter imperial Japan.
It is not surprising, then, that since 1945, independent nations have generally increased the regulation of traffic across their borders. Hostilities between India and Pakistan have cut old routes of communication and mobility more dramatically than almost anywhere in the world – this in a region that had maintained highways from the Mediterranean for a millennium. Elsewhere in Southasia, the Bengal-Assam railway tracks from Guwahati to Dhaka were torn up at the Cachar-Sylhet border in 1965. Nowadays, it is easier to communicate by phone or mail between Dhaka and London than between Dhaka and Guwahati.
In a world of national states it is thus worth pondering: who is it that sponsors and argues for the opening of geography and the crossing of national borders? Today, increasingly diverse interests are engaged in this project – including business groups, who are taking a lead in the border-crossing movement and promoting the expansion of Asian highways. Once upon a time, British imperial tea interests financed the railway from Dhaka to Guwahati and fostered Bengal’s integration with Assam to link tea estates to ports and overseas markets. There is currently no major legitimate economic interest in place to effectively instigate or finance a major improvement in the Assam-Burma-China road and other routes of transit across the mountains. Indeed, the largest financial interests may be black- and grey-market trades, most notably in the weaponry that is used in the region’s various struggles. The impetus to open borders across mountains spanning Nepal, China, Northeast India, Bangladesh and Burma still seems weak when compared to the pressures of enclosure, which remain significant. Still, this current dominance only obscures the compelling ongoing mobility that continues to locate Assam in the social reality of its Asian surroundings.
~David Ludden is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.
~ First published in our November-December 2005 issue.