By Avinibesh Sharma
In recent times, especially in Assam, there has been a sharp decline in the number of students taking up history for their graduation and post graduation. It may be partially attributed to the fact that being Doctors and Engineers has become the ‘de rigeur’ in the present day Assamese society.What is of more concern, however, is that the students who does take up history lack any passion to pursue any research and merely use it as an instrument for qualifying in the competitive examinations.The historians of the state are surely to be blamed as there is lack of any effort on their part to attract the attention of the students of the state,the mainstream historians as well as the people of mainland India towards the history of Assam which has in many ways shaped the history of mainland itself. As a consequence, there is little or no mention of any significant events of Assam history in the syllabuses of central universities like the Delhi University,leading people from ‘mainland’ India to make barbs such as- “Chai ke patte aur junglee logon ke alawa waha hain kya?”(What else do you have apart from tea leaves and barbaric people?).There has also never been a serious discussion about the methods employed by their predecessors in the field of research and rarely has anyone come forward to take the initiative in translating their works (which are primarily in Assamese) into English or any other Indian languages.
The 1950’s and 60’s saw the emergence of the Marxist school of historiography in the national scene with path-breaking contributions made by D.D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma. Moreover, important developments in regional studies had taken place. Kanaklal Baruah, Benudhar Sharma and Dr. Surya Kumar Bhuyan were pioneers in this regard, making noteworthy contributions, particularly, in the study of the North East. Benudhar Sharma gained popularity in the world of Assamese literature through his masterful prose style and has been extolled as one of the most versatile writers emerging from the region. However, this talk of versatility has actually diminished the role he played in the growth of historical studies in Assam and as a historian he has never got the due recognition.
Sharma started his literary career as a poet but one particular incident changed the entire trend of his mind.From a man of poetic tendency,he became a lover of history.Sharma describes it in his own words-“ I was a student of Bangabandhu college in Calcutta. Initially, I could not speak Bengali. Hailing from Sivasagar,where the majority speak Assamese and unaccoustomed to speaking Bengali, I had to usually converse in English. One day,while the roll call was going on, I was sketching a map sitting on the last bench. As,I heard my roll number being called out,I pricked up my ears and then went straight to the Professor’s table.With a loud voice I said ,”Yes Sir”. The Professor got enraged at my conduct and perhaps in a fit of anger remarked-“Get out .No wonder ,the Assamese people called are called a wild bunch!” It offended me to such an extent that without waiting for a second thought I rushed out from the class and immediately went to the Imperial Library.On the third day, I entered the classroom with a volume of Dr. Grierson’s report on the Linguistic Survey of India and shouted to the Professor what Dr. Grierson had very highly spoken of the Assamese language.”Although the Professor having realized his mistake later apologised , this particular incident had a profound impact upon Sharma and he began a vigorous search for journals and books containing information about Assam.
During his quest for sources, he met a Russian gentleman in the Imperial library (Presently, National Library) who informed him about a handwritten book tiltled , ’An Account of Assam’ kept in India Office Library,London . He told him that he could procure it whenever he desired to. It was written by John Peter Wade, a doctor who had accompanied Captain Wells in his expedition to Assam during the reign of Gaurinath Singha. Wade took the help of two historical accounts,one in Assamese and the other written in Tai language to write his book. He died in 1802 at erstwhile Calcutta and his book remained handwritten and unpublished. Sharma was thrilled on being told about it and sought the help of Mr. Chapman, the librarian, to procure a copy from London. He had to furnish a sum of three hundred rupees which he took as a loan from the head clerk of Naginijan Tea estate, Mukhyeshwar Handique. But the problem was how to get it published. It was in this critical juncture that he got the help of his brother-in-law and the owner of the Madhupur Tea Estate, Rameshwar Sharma who agreed to finance the publication. The book was eventually published titled, ’An Account of Assam’ in 1927.Suprisingly,this bold initiative of his was initially panned by the critics. However, it remains one of the most valuable accounts of Assam throwing a great deal of light on the society, economy and culture of the region during the 18th century and before.
After returning from Calcutta without completing his graduation, Sharma joined the freedom struggle. He travelled from one village to another carrying the message of Gandhi and was particularly active in the anti-opium campaign. It was also in this period that he became involved in a number of professions due to financial constraints, selling motor tablets,khadi cloth,working as an agent of National Indian Life Insurance, as a sub-editor of the first Assamese daily,‘Doinik Batori’, the editor of ‘Tarun Assam’ e.t.c. Involvement in such varied professions took him to different places and gave him an opportunity to explore. By that time his interest in history had become ingrained.The traits of a peripatetic historian became visible in him as he travelled from one place to another enquiring about different literary and archeological sources.
Unlike his contemporary historians who remained secluded from the masses,Sharma shared a close rapport with the common people, residing in their houses and enlightening them about the origins of the names of places and rivers, the historical importance of nearby towns and villages and telling them inspiring stories about great personalities in his deep baritone voice.On the other hand,in absence of literary and archeological sources, their words proved to be of great significance to him in his writings as evident in his masterpiece,’Maniram Dewan’(1950) which contains several folk songs sung in the memory of the martyr,transmitted orally from one generation to another which he acquired from the villagers. However, he generally corroborated their words with literary evidences when authoring a book.
A patriot to the core, Sharma believed that to instill patriotism among the masses, it’s important to make them aware of the glorious aspects of the history of the nation. He strived to re-introduce some forgotten heroes who played an important role in cementing the place of Assamese culture and giving it a separate identity. He popularized figures like Lachit Barphukan, Tikendrajit and Maniram Dewan and gave them their rightful place in history.At times, however,due to patriotic fervour he remained averse to their weaknesses and as a result, some of their portrayals seems to be that of demi gods than that of historical figures. His famous article,’Dexdruhi Kun? Badan Barphukan ne Purnananda Buragohain?’(Who’s the traitor?Badan Barphukan or Purnananda Buragohain)is however an exception to this.Although,it has dismissed by critic Lakshminath Tamuli as having no historical value, it is a remarkable piece, a reflection of his critical mind and his prowess in handling of sensitive historical issues. It questions the long held perception that Badan Chandra Barphukan was solely responsible for the invasion of Assam by the Burmese who inflicted untold miseries on the local population, infamous as ‘Manor Din’ or the ‘Days under the Burmese’ and compels the reader to rethink. As renowned German historian Herman Kulke says-“ Questioning and not the repeat of reconfirmation of established interpretation will always have to remain the essence of historical research.” This article of Sharma is a testimony to it.
Maniram Dewan (1950) is his magnum opus. A biography written with such finesse is rare in Indian literature. The book also throws a great deal of light on the socio-economic conditions of that period. Although,he had heard about the martyr since his childhood days, belonging to Charing which is the birthplace of Maniram Barbhandar Barua or Maniram Dewan (as the martyr was popularly known as),it was in Calcutta(now Kolkata) that his fascination towards him grew after he gained access to his letters and other governmental reports of that period and began evaluating his role in the context of the 1857 Uprising. It was due to the dedicated effort of Sharma (of more than two decades) that Maniram Dewan gained popularity as a great patriot after having slipped back into the abyss of darkness due to years of neglect and ignorance .With impeccable use of proverbs and idioms,he successfully brought out the different qualities of this muti-faceted genius, hitherto unknown. Maniram Dewan was an efficient administrator ,an extremely knowledgeable politician and a historian of repute.Sharma’s critics attack him on the ground that while Maniram Dewan was extolled as the man behind the organization of the rebellion to overthrow the British, little importance was given to the role of other figures like Piyali Barua and Bahadur Gaon Bura. However,a careful reader may observe that he has given adequate emphasis on their role in a chapter titled,’Dewanor Xotirthoxokol’. Besides,contrary to what some of his critics accuse him of ,he dispelled some misconstrued notions about Haranath Parvatia Barua, the Daroga who was responsible for the arrest of Dewan and his hanging thereafter.Another notable historical work of Sharma is the ‘Dokhinpat Xotror Buronji’(The History of the Dakhinpat Satra).It is the first and one of the two most valuable works(The other being Tirthanath Sarma’s ‘Auniati Xotror Buronji’ or the ‘History of the Auniati Satra’) on the history of a Satra or the Vaishnavite Monastery which have for centuries nurtured the culture and religion propagated by the Renaissance figure, Shrimanta Shankardeva.
Even in the midst of nationalistic fervour and hatred towards the Westerners, he wrote several articles highlighting the contribution of the American Baptist Missionaries in the revival of the Assamese language. Besides, Sharma also wrote about several British officials stationed in Assam including David Scott, Sir James Buckingham (pioneer of the Tea Industry of Assam) and C.S. Gunning without any prejudices, a trait rare in his contemporaries. Sharma touched upon various issues often ignored by his contemporary historians. He wrote extensively on ancient crafts and the history of the tribes, a field still neglected by the historians of the state.
He had his limitations and drawbacks as a historian but if one is permitted to borrow what R.C. Robertson said about Don Bradman then these occasional drawbacks and failures of Sharma were, ‘less of a shortcoming and more of a reassurance to mere mortality’. It his dedication and perseverance in unearthing historical facts despite facing severe economic hardships(which again a critic debates upon!), that is truly inspiring. Like a weaver bird he collected twigs of historical material strewn all over Assam and built a formidable nest.
Benudhar Sharma died on 26th February 1981,the same day as his idol Maniram Dewan (who was hanged till death 123 years back),leaving behind a body of works, many of which are yet to receive due attention. He was awarded the ‘Padmabhushan’ posthumously in 1983 but it did not serve to ensure a lasting legacy. There is an urgent need to translate his works into English and publish the writings which have remained unpublished so far. It would be of great help to aspiring research scholars and a great tribute to the grand vizier of Assamese historiography. The contribution of Sharma to Assamese historiography is immense and as a tribute to him one cannot help but echo what renowned English critic William Rosetti said about poet and painter William Blake-“He is not to be forestalled by predecessors,not to be classed with contemporaries nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors.”