|The Tai-Ahom connection|
Andrew and John Carnegie, two brothers from Liverpool, England, unable to find employment in the metropolitan city of London, decided to set sail for India in May 1865. A month later they arrived in the colonial capital city of Calcutta and immediately found employment in an English tea garden in Assam. On 18 July 1865, Andrew wrote a letter to his mother in England in which he described the people and place in these words: ‘There is nothing visible but mud and jungle here in Assam. I am alone in the jungle, a sort of a small king among the 400 niggers, counting women and children.’ Andrew’s representation of a dark, impenetrable land and people echoed the sentiments of colonial administrators of the 19th century. Almost all of them agreed that ‘Assam [is] more a land of demons, hobgoblins, and various terrors.’1 ‘The denseness of its jungles, the steep precipices, the torrential streams,’ in British colonial eyes, ‘created a sharp geographical line separating the known from the unknown, civilization from savagery.’2
Colonial representation of the place matched their attitudes concerning the people. ‘The Assamese,’ Colonel Butler writes, ‘have ferocious manners, and brutal tempers. They are fond of war, vindictive, treacherous and deceitful… the seeds of humanity and tenderness have not been sowed in their frames.’3 Further, they were declared as unlike any other group and not part of the Aryan race, within which the British codified the high caste Hindus who were deemed the majority community in India. Placed outside the lineage of Aryan history and Indic culture, Assam and her people were reduced in the colonial official lexicon into a wild frontier society without history. The unthinkability of a history of Assam survived and has been reinforced in postcolonial India. Even today, scholars of Indian history by and large view the region as a ‘militant’ frontier peopled by insurgent groups who disrespect the sacred national history. These perceptions, we should note, are the views of outsiders who back their assumptions with official power to transform myths into believable facts.
If, on the other hand, one investigates the memories and local narratives of the people of Assam a very different picture emerges. Local history that is recorded in the premodern chronicles called buranjis provides a picture of a place in motion. Ruled by a god-like king referred to as swargadeo, the area of the swargadeo’s domain was a blended space settled by a hybrid community referred to as kun-how in the Tai language and Ami in the Assamese language buranjis. This group did not have a fixed label but was referred to as a conglomerate of ‘we’ people.
What is the memory of the historical ‘we’ community in Assam today? In this paper I investigate the process and consequences of the making of a new Tai-Ahom memory to rethink a history of the ‘we’ community at the crossroads of Assam linking South Asia with Southeast Asia.4 Although a very small number, no more than six hundred thousand people in Assam, are involved in the Tai-Ahom identity struggle, they have raised a salient question about the epistemological and geographical limits of Indian history and are challenging the inherited colonial historiography to open the space for a dialogue between Delhi, Rangoon and Bangkok in order to benefit marginal groups and extend the horizons of history and memories to include the past in the present, South with Southeast Asia.
In the following sections I first provide three short disjointed narratives of the moments when Ahom and later Tai-Ahom were conceived, constructed, and used for different purposes. Next, I examine the performance and production of Ahom memory in different public sites to show that it is both a political and economic process attracting diverse audiences. In the final section I investigate the Indian national and the Thai transnational interests in this movement to suggest possible outcomes of the invocation of memory linking Assam with Southeast Asia.
Until 1826, the kingdom of Assam was independent. On colonial occupation the region was transformed into a frontier and a policy for taming the hostile tribes was immediately generated.5 In 1873, the northeast was demarcated into two zones by the Bengal East Frontier Regulation I: the inner line area of hills with their local administration, and the plains area of the Assam Valley under colonial administration. Ironically, while the topographical and administrative division between hills and plains was established within colonial discourse the negative stereotypical perception toward the people remained unchanged.
Initial reports on the people were not positive.6 The Assamese were deemed by Moffat Mills an ‘unattractive’, ‘degenerated’ and ‘stupid people’ (1854, 5).7 The colonial representation was neither strange nor surprising. However, what is deeply problematic is that colonial intervention led to an abrupt end of histories that preceded that encounter and closed the channels of communications with groups that were mapped outside British India. Hence when we view the changes during colonialism we have to interrogate the policies and labels of representations both for what they convey as well as hide.
The negative recognition of Assamese by the colonials, in turn generated internal formulations of labels by pioneers like Moniram Dewan and Ananda Ram Dhekial Phukan, to name a few. While the local leaders readily accepted the colonial name, Assamese, to refer to themselves, they focused on constructing positive markers of community identification and suggested Assamese was a ‘blended’ community constituted by Hindus and non-Hindus who were bound together by shared social interactions facilitated by the Assamese language.8 The emphasis on language as an identity marker was very effective in the face of Bengali penetration and degradation of the local community.9
Alongside the construction of a linguistic identity for the Assamese, political rhetoric also emerged. The high-tide of Gandhian nationalism drew many in Assam to join the Indian National Congress (INC) in the shared hope of freedom and economic development to follow. Immediately, the Assamese started seeing themselves through caste Hindu eyes as a low-caste, polluted people, not unlike what the British had told them.
To rethink an image for overcoming the stigma, the Assamese created several new organizations, such as the ‘Assamese Language Improvement Society’, ‘Assam History Society’, and ‘Assam Literary Society’ that laboured to produce a ‘civilized’ history for making the Assamese a cultured Hindu group. This met with opposition from groups in Upper or eastern Assam. In 1893, ‘Ahom Sabha’ and, again, in 1915, an ‘Ahom Association’ were created to bring the Mongoloid people together and resist the intrusion of the Congress party. In reaction, the Hindu community published a book called Ripunjay Smriti in which they defamed the Ahom as a polluted group and suggested that the Assamese should perform rituals to cleanse themselves for seeking reentry into the Hindu caste fold. The harsh language of the Hindu Assamese motivated the Ahoms leaders to ask their supporters to relinquish Hinduism, give up learning Assamese language and return to local dialects and archaic rituals of ancestor worship.
In turn, to create pride in their past, new narratives of Ahom were written by trained and amateur historians to enable children to remember ‘Assam in the context of heroes.’10 The assumption that history should be the saga of heroes was not an unusual expectation. Almost all history is the record of the winners and a tool for creating a continuous genealogy of power. What is surprising in the narrative of Ahom history is the disruption of the formula in very interesting ways. Instead of borrowing heroes of the ‘high’ Aryan civilization and culture, danabs and akhurs (demons and monsters) were invoked as the founder of Assam’s history. Padmanath Borooah wrote a narrative that soon found wide circulation and was repeated in many new versions by historians of Assam.11
Borooah writes, ‘In ancient times this land was ruled by danabs and akhurs. Mahiranga Danab was probably the original king here. Among his successors Narak Akhur became a very powerful king. During his rule, this land became Pragjyotispur [land of the eastern light].’ The story continues to relate that the Hindu god Krishna attacked the kingdom of Pragjyotispur but could not defeat the local king. Krishna ingratiated himself by marrying a local princess and his grandson, Anirudha, too, married a princess from Assam. Many more dynasties of akhurs and danabs followed who thwarted invasion and made Hindu gods compromise to their superior power.
In the 13th century ‘the Tai people came from Burma… They were Buddhist people… But to conquer land they moved southwest, intermixed with the hill tribes, and adopted their religion… Sukapha, a prince of Mungrimungram, the original homeland of the Tai people, came to Saumar in 1229 A.D… The Ahom kings ruled for six hundred years.’12 In narrative a chronology of the swargadeos was suggested and they were valorized for mitigating differences and generating a combined polity in an ever expanding domain.
What was the purpose of this kind of history telling and memory building and wherefrom did the historians of Assam derive a story of the historical Ahom and swargadeos? To examine these issues we have to return to the category called Ahom and Assamese and the politics of identity generated by the colonial administrators. It appears that the first myths about Ahom were created by the British agents. Borrowing from the myths of Ahom origin compiled by J.P. Wade, the first British resident in Assam, Walter Hamilton-Buchannan introduced the term Ahom in the East India Gazetteer in 1828. He claimed that originally a group of Shan warriors led by a mythical godlike figure called Sukapha came to Assam in 1228 and established an Ahom kingdom. Buchannan’s story of the Ahom which was neatly packaged within a western linear chronology became a colonial discourse in the early 19th century.
By telling a story of migration, conquest, and settlement of a warrior group from upper Burma, over and over again, a particular memory of the past was created in colonial documents. Most importantly, by creating a group of rulers and identifying the swargadeo as the fountainhead to inherit power from, the colonials predicted their own future in Assam. No sooner they achieved this purpose the colonials became active in debunking the Ahom rulers. In 1891, the colonial ethnographers, E.T. Dalton and H.H. Risely concluded that the Ahoms, the descendents of the proud race of Shans, had degenerated into superstitious, backward, apathetic Assamese.
Consequently, new problems emerged as the economy of Assam was radically altered with the imposition of tax on all products and importation of labour to slave in the colonial capitalist economy. In the shifting economic and social conditions new enclave societies emerged and the historical ‘we’ community became a phantom. Its only visible remnant was in the new shared condition of poverty of the local people. By the beginning of the 20th century, Assam, which was once a thriving crossroads kingdom in the east, became one of the poorest regions in British India.
The distinctions between Assamese and those claiming to be Ahoms were blurred, so much so that when Ahom was declared dead and folded into the Assamese no one questioned the colonial power of myth making; rather the local intellectuals accepted the colonial version of their history. The elimination of Ahom as a dead community by the colonials is bothersome, but it was preceded by yet another blatant lie – that of the ‘discovery’ of an Ahom community in the buranjis. Did the colonials find a distinct Ahom community in the chronicles? To answer this question we have to return to the buranjis and investigate the descriptions of Ahom within them and the distortions that followed in the colonial reading of these texts.
It is assumed with some reservation, following G.E. Grierson’s suggestion in The Linguistic Survey of India that buranji means ‘a storehouse to teach the ignorant’ (1904). By and large, almost all buranjis being narratives of swargadeos tell the readers of the deeds of the godlike figures. The effort is to create a cult of god-kings. In this ontological scheme demarcated identities of the subject communities was counter-politic; they appear to us a generic ‘we’ community that is continuously in process. For creating identifiable units within the ‘we’ polity, service caucuses under the command of six nobles were created. The name of the place they were associated with became their identity.
Although Ahom is not a defined ethnic community in the buranjis, it is not an unknown term either. It is used to refer to a class of officers constituted from within the preponderate ‘we’ community. The Ahom men, in other words, were the swargadeo’s or king’s men. They were the civil and military officers controlling and administering his domain. Ahom was not an inherited status, but an appointment that could be gained and lost in one’s lifetime. Ethnicity was not the factor that made Ahom, but the favour of the reigning swargadeo and an individual’s ability determined his status as Ahom. Hence, in the reign of different swargadeos, the composition of the Ahom officers differed greatly. In the buranjis we find that Naga, Kachari, Nora, Garo, Mikir, Miri, and even Goriya (Muslim) formed this blended community of trusted servants. Like the space of the polity, the class called Ahom expressed the reality of the crossroads. This history of the hybrid Ahom was overlooked by the British when they came to Assam.
Unable to read the original chronicles, they concluded that the large number of king’s men belonged to one community. The discovery of Tai language buranjis led the colonial administrators to conclude that a ‘foreign’ group had migrated from the hills of Burma into Assam, established an Ahom kingdom, and used the buranji literature to record their history and culture. Immediately after declaring them an ethnic group, the colonials made the Ahoms ‘unthinkable’ by proclaiming them ‘dead’.
Ahom as a memory and a politics resurfaced in Assam in the 1940s and, again, in the 1960s. In 1967 when Assam was reorganized into hill and plains states, the Ahom group petitioned the Indian government to recognize them as a separate community. In October 1967 the ‘Ahom Tai Mongolia Parishad’ demanded a separate Mongolian state to be formed in Upper Assam ‘in which Ahom-Tais and the various other tribes would enjoy social recognition and all political rights.’13 Their demand was not accepted and Ahom continued to be part of the Hindu Assamese but within it became a ‘backward community’.
In 1968, an attempt to create the boundaries of Ahomness led to a renewed invocation of Southeast Asia. This was actualized in the term Tai-Ahom that was coined by Padmeshwar Gogoi, a professor at the Guwahati University, in his book, Tai and the Tai Kingdoms with a Fuller Treatment of the Tai-Ahom Kingdom in the Brahmaputra Valley (1968). To complete the breakaway from the Assamese Hindus, the new Tai-Ahoms revived a religion calling it Phra Lung, which emphasized the worship of ancestors, mainly swargadeos. In the next section of the paper, I will focus on the contemporary dialogues and politics of identity in various sites, in Upper Assam, Thailand, and Delhi, which point to one thing – Tai-Ahom is now a label of identity that is exchangeable for a variety of aspirations and demands for the future. The question is whether these aspirations will be fulfilled?
On 17 October 1981, during the International Tai Studies Conference in New Delhi, a group of Ahom men and Thai scholars met to discuss strategies about how to make the Ahoms of Assam Thai-like. Tai-Ahom they hoped would overcome the restrictive labels of Indian, Hindu and Assamese. The foundational moment was also part of a long series of ‘articulations’ of marginalization and disempowerment that had produced anxieties and hopes, which now travelled easily to new distances to find ‘belonging’ among Thai people in Thailand.
But first the base in Assam had to be constructed and strengthened. Toward this end, the Tai-Ahom activists created an organization called the Ban Ok Publik Muang Tai (Eastern Tai Literary Society) and revived the moribund Phra Lung religion. New prayers were written by the late Domboru Deodhai Phukan, who was earlier identified by the Thai anthropologist B.J. Terwiel as ‘the last of the Tai-Ahom ritual experts.’14 Domboru Deodhai explained to me the Phra Lung religion in these words. ‘Phra is a Buddha like figure. Lung means the Sangha. Phra Lung means the community of the worshippers of Phra.’15 Dietary habits were also changed to mark the departure from Hinduism. Beef, taboo among caste Hindus, was introduced in the Tai-Ahom diet, as did partaking of alcohol called haj or lau pani.
Along with the identification of a community based on old and new customary practices, revival of Tai language was taken up in the newly established Tai Language Academy at Patsako. New festivals and commemorative events such as Sukapha dibah, Jaymoti dibah, Me-dem-me-phi, etc, were created and publicly celebrated. Additionally, an active academic conversation about Tai-Ahom history and culture was generated and several conferences were organized in Assam and outside to facilitate the entrenchment of a Tai-Ahom memory among believers and scholars. The academic and cultural impetus for this movement was facilitated by the then chief minister, Hiteshwar Saikia, a self-proclaimed ‘Ahom-Assamese’. Saikia donated vast sums of money to make the Ahom a community. This gave boost to the publication industry, which created a new knowledge base about Ahom.
Under the leadership of the Ban Ok and many more new organizations that emerged in the 1990s facilitated with financial help by local politicians, Tai-Ahom turned the gaze of Assam from the west, that is Delhi, to the east, to Southeast Asia. In this enterprise, besides Thai academic interest in and support for the Tai-Ahom movement, networks of complex transnational relationships developed with Buddhist missionaries, the Thai monarchy, and rebels groups of Upper Burma who were drawn into the politics of identity in Assam.
However, after Saikia passed away in April 1996 the Ban Ok lost its local financial support. In the mean time, in 1997 the stock market collapsed in Thailand and this affected the funding of academic projects and slowed the pace of trade and tourism that were part of the Thai search for Tai groups outside of Thailand. Alongside, in India, under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a new wave of Hindu religious nationalism took hold. The lack of financial support coupled with the rising tide of fundamentalist Hindu identity slowed down the exchanges between the Ban Ok and their Thai supporters. Nonetheless, throughout the early 1990s, the leaders and supporters of Tai-Ahom performed the critical task of revealing the restrictive limits of national identity and created new patchworks of contingent labels and a local narrative linking Ahom with Thailand to make a pan-Thai identity.
A question that arises is why do some people in Assam want to be recognized as Tai-Ahom? The reasons, like the various groups who profess this identity, are neither orderly nor homogenous. There are clear divides between the classes and their respective expectations. The urban class views it as a political and professional tool for empowerment, and they focus on the issue of job allocations and economic improvement. On the other hand, for the depressed groups of deodhais, the subalterns in the movement so to speak, the movement is an arena of resistance against the exploitative institutions of the caste Hindus. The Tai-Ahom connection with a variety of Buddhist groups in Southeast Asia, the deodhais hope, will deliver them from their ignominious and powerless condition and place them, once again, in positions of social and religious leadership.
Because the spaces that the urban youths occupy are different than their counterparts living in the villages, consequently their aspirations also differ. Urban youths want adventure and experiences in the form of travel, education and employment in Thailand. These young men consider a new level of consumerism as a mark of their difference from the Assamese. This is not an option available to the rural youth who are engaged in a life and death struggle for survival. Irrespective of the gaps between the different groups, it is clear that varieties of people are engaged in the movement and are facilitating and sustaining change. This is not to suggest that they are autonomous architects of their world; I believe these agents are also subjects of history and the society that they inhabit. They are made by circumstances of history both within and outside Assam
One of the visible groups influencing and making Tai-Ahom is a group of Thai academics. Why are the Thais interested? To answer this question, a brief note on the 20th century Thai academic and intellectual politics is important.
In 1939, by royal mandate Siam was renamed Thailand and a composite Thai society was created by including the diverse communities. Resistance to the contained Thai national community emerged almost immediately. Phibun Songgram and Luang Wichit Wathakan launched an ambitious movement called Choncat Thai to claim a common Tai race constituted by people living within and outside Thailand. This discourse was reinforced by invoking the 19th century story of Tai migration from Nanchao in Southern China, which western missionary historians had identified as the original homeland wherefrom the Tais had supposedly migrated in the remote past.16
Several groups in Laos, Vietnam and Southern China were claimed as sharing a common Tai ancestry. The search for kin groups was intensified in the 1970s as Thailand was drawn into the western capitalist commercial orbit. A new school of thought called ‘Community Culture’ emerged in Bangkok. The group aimed to help the Thai villages withstand the intrusion of the state and western norms of economic development and empower them to generate a ‘native’ economy. For this they needed an archaic Tai village system to serve as a model. Chatthip Nartsupha, the leader of the Community Culture School in Bangkok, saw in the buranjis of Assam the possibility of an imaginative space for return to a pastoral village life. Ahom, the unspoken subject of Assam and Indian history, was adopted to fulfil the aim of the Thais.
Thai history and pan-Thaiism transcended the boundaries of Southeast Asia and moved beyond to include areas and people mapped within South Asia. For a decade and a half (1981-1997) exchanges between Ahom and Thai activists generated a transnational discourse and created a real expectation to make Assam a meeting place for historical, cultural and commercial exchanges between South and Southeast Asia.
The activities in the east also drew attention of the (previous) BJP government. A two pronged plan toward Assam was developed in consequence. One, Delhi tried to bridge the differences between Assam and the rest of India by bringing the Assamese closer to the Hindutva fold, strengthening their power in multiple ways in order to distance them from their northeastern neighbours and crush the people’s movements through armed violence. Second, the government tried to capitalize the new found connections with Southeast Asia. A direct flight between Guwahati and Bangkok was started in 2002 to launch a new relationship with Thailand and a transnational roadway system connecting India with markets in Southern China and Southeast Asia passing through the Northeast was seriously considered.
The government went so far as to acknowledge the historic connections of the Ahom people with Thailand in the hope that a new level of commerce and trade between the two countries would be engendered in this admission. As is evident, the goal of the new friendship was driven by economic exigencies and financial forecasts. This sets a dangerous precedent to transact and barter memories, pillage history and hopes of everyday people for temporary monetary gains, and fictitiously manufacture a friendship without the desire to uphold it in good and bad times.
The people claiming to be Tai-Ahom, however, are not admitted into the new arithmetic of history and commerce. They continue to struggle for recognition and economic and political voice in Assam. Their murmurs are rarely heard. By and large, those claiming to be Ahom continue to be among the poorest in Assam, which is one of the poorest states in India. Nevertheless, the web of interpretations concerning Tai-Ahom has generated a creative tension for departure from the tyranny of a modern singular national history.
I read this effort of remembering a different past and attempt at writing a new history as an assertion to claim a possible place for speaking outside the limits of the authoritative state records and engage national history to move beyond the limits of a bounded geography and sites determined by power. If these efforts can be translated into action, it may help to mitigate the continuing mistrust and grievances of neglected and marginalized groups and create new possibilities for them as well as herald a friendship between India and Southeast Asia.
1. The Curzon Collection, MSS Eur F 111/247a, Oriental and India Office, British Library, London.
2. Col. S.G. Burrard, Records of the Survey of India: Exploration on the North-East Frontier, vol. IV (1911-1913), Superintendent Government Printing, Calcutta, 1914, p. 3.
3. J. Butler, Travels and Adventures in the Province of Assam during the Residence of Fourteen Years, Smith, Elder and Co., London, 1855, pp. 223, 228.
4. Although terms such as South Asia, Southeast Asia, etc, are hollow and undefinable, within the world of these terms, however, are cultures and communities with deep histories and enduring memories. When I refer to Southeast Asia here, I invoke the neighbours in the east with whom Assam and her people share many centuries of common memories. The forgotten memory of connections with these communities is somewhat revived by the Tai-Ahom identity struggle.
5. Many more descriptive terms are available for the different groups in Assam. Some terms that recur are ‘freebooters and plunderers’, ‘treacherous tribe’, and ‘warlike frontier tribe’. See Albums and Scrapbooks of Oscar Mallite, Bailey and Carter, British Library, Oriental and India Office Collection, London.
6. See J. Butler, A Sketch of Assam with Some Account of the Hill Tribes, Smith, Elder and Co., London, 1847, p. 127; W.W. Hunter, Statistical Account of Assam, 2 vols, Trubner and Co., London, 1879, pp. 235-239.
7. M. Mills, Report on the Province of Assam, Calcutta Gazette Office, Calcutta, 1854.
8. See Mills, Report, Appendix ‘Translation of a Petition in Person by Moniram Dutta Borwah Dewan, on account of Ghunnokanth Singh Joobaraj and Others’, pp. Lxv-ixxxvi.
9. In 1836, influenced by the Bengali agents, the colonial administration in Assam dropped Assamese language from public documents, school education, administrative and judicial use. It was not until 1873 that Assamese language was reinstated and put into use, once again. The historical-political process by which Assamese language was superseded and degraded into a secondary position in its home ground created a peculiar anxiety among the people and this led over time to a struggle to self-define the Assamese community.
10. Padmanath Borooah, Assam Buranji or The History of Assam, Lila Agency, Tezpur, 2nd ed., 1906, p. 47.
11. See Hemchandra Goswami, Purani Assam Buranji, Kamrup Ansandhan Samiti, Guwahati, 1922; Keshav Kanta Borroah, Ahamar Athutajati Jatir Utppatir Bibaran, D.R. Gogoi Nakhrai Bagicha, Tinsukia, 1923; R.K. Sandikai, Mula-Gabharu, S.C. Goswami, Jorhat, 1924. Many more followed and reiterated the same plot of Assam history.
12. Padmanath Borooah, Buranji-Bodh, Lila Agency, Tezpur, 1900, p. 46.
13. Ahom-Tai Rajya Parishad, Assam Tribune, 3 June 1967.
14. B.J. Terwiel, The Tai and Ancient Tai Ritual, 2 vols, Review Office of South East Asian Studies, Gaya, 1983.
15. Sometimes, it appeared from his explanation that Phra also took on the representation of Shiva. The new religion combined Buddhism with Hinduism to accommodate some old beliefs and practices of Ahom Hindus, while slowly enabling their transition to a Buddhist way of life and worship to mirror Southeast Asian cultures and customs. (Personal Conversation, 26 December 1992, Patsako, Sibsagar.)
16. A few examples are Ney Elias, Introductory Sketch of the History of Shans in Upper Burma and Western Yunan, Foreign Department Press, Calcutta, 1876; L. Milne, Shans at Home, John Murray, London, 1910; William Dodd, The Tai, Race, Elder Br ther of the Chinese, Torch, Iowa City, 1923; W.A.R. Wood, History of Siam, n.k. London, 1926; D.G.E. Hall, Burma, Hutchinson University Library, London, 1950.