Patharughat Revisited

February 1, 2011 Off By Joydeep Hazarika

The date was January 28, 1894. On this day, one of the dark chapters of the Assamese history occurred when the Patharughat massacre took place. History is replete with many accounts of unsung heroes and here Patharughat is just another example. The incident where about 140 farmers were massacred by the bullets of the British government is a burning example of the sacrifices that the peasants of the state have made for the love of justice and equality.

Patharughat, which is in Darrang district, has become a symbol of tyranny and oppression where the oppressed and exploited had to go down to the might of imperialist bullets. The British, who came to Assam with the treaty of Yandaboo, set about changing the socio-economic patterns of the state which caused remarkable upheavals in the lives of the common people. The people of Darrang had used to enjoy various rebates and exemptions under the Koch and Ahom rulers. This was discontinued by the British regime which went about setting up a new administrative system. Land taxes were revised and the rates were increased to the utter displeasure of the farmers. Land surveys were periodically conducted by the British regime and each time the land tax was arbitrarily increased. This literally broke the back of the farmers. A sense of anger and suspicion rose among the general people against the British. A final expression of the discontent was put forward by the people when they unanimously decided to resist these tax increases at the office of the Tehsildar of Patharughat.
In 1868, seven years after the Phulguri Uprising of Nogaon, a huge public of thousands gathered at the Tehsildar’s office in Patharughat to express their grievances. Fearing violence, a huge force under A.C. Comber, the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang was dispatched from Tezpur to control the crowd. When the authorities refused to pay any heed to the grievances of the people, the huge crowd got infuriated and proceeded to set fire to the Dak Bungalow which was housing the Britishers. Scuffle with the police forces followed which further infuriated the crowd. But the situation was controlled by the leaders as they did not want any sort of violence to happen. This was followed by twenty five incident free years, and the Britishers thought that the tides of discontent had settled down. They were wrong.

When in 1893, the Chief Commissioner of Assam, Wilkinson Ward, tried to raise the taxes, the flares of revolt sprang up again. A huge Raijmel (public meeting) was organized at Patharughat on January 26, 1894, where it was decided that taxes would not be paid till an acceptable solution was reached for the tax problem. The Tehsildar Bhabani Charan Bhattacharya requested the crowd to wait till January 28, when the Deputy Commissioner of Darrang, Anderson, would be available for proper hearings. Meanwhile the news of the Patharughat Raijmel reached the ears of the high authorities who decided that Anderson would be accompanied by Darrang’s SP, Barrington, and the SDO of Mangaldoi, Ramson, and a huge armed force.
January 28 was a normal weekly market day. People had began to throng to the open field in front of the Dak Bungalow and by noon a crowd of about a thousand had gathered there. At noon, the trio of White Sahibs entered the field along with their armed guards and was greeted by slogans. The Tehsildar and his staff waited outside being reduced to silent onlookers of the incident. When Anderson blatantly refused to lower the taxes saying that they did not have the authority to change the taxes raised by the Queen of England, the crowd got infuriated. As the White Sahibs made way to the Dak Bungalow, the crowd lost patience and proceeded towards them in total anger. Angry shouts and protests were raised in the air but to no avail. Arguments and counter arguments were made but the situation got hotter by every passing minute. Finally as the crowd proceeded, they were blocked by the security personals from doing so which resulted in a skirmish. As the scuffle began to get out of hand, Barrington ordered his forces to lathi charge. This made the crowd go wild with anger and they started to hit back at the forces with whatever tools, clods or sticks they had. A Thoga Baidya of Biahpara or Fukolu Sheikh of Athiabari managed to hit the head of the Police Superintendent and wounded him. This enraged the DC and he ordered for firing. Triggers were pressed and the people who were in the front of the crowd fell down in minutes. But this did not deter the people in the behind and they continued marching forward. The people fearlessly took the bullets into their chests and fell down to their martyrdom.
As the rounds of bullets continued to come, the peasants fell down. While some died on the spot, others were seriously injured with their heads cracked, bellies burst, hands and limbs torn apart and blood stained bodies lying everywhere. The dead bodies were not even aloud to be attended to leaving them to be devoured by dogs and vultures. Nobody then knew how many had died and the number of bodies that were rotting away. Finally the bullets did manage to disperse a greater portion of the crowd away but a huge damage had been done. Later it came out in the limelight that about 140 people had been killed and more than 150 had been injured.

This incident is a watermark in the history of peasant uprisings in India. Patharughat’s significance after all these years lies in the fact that though the oppressors have gone away, the conditions of our peasants still remain deplorable. It is still noteworthy that in a country where farmers have made considerable contributions to the freedom struggle, they are still subjected to injustice and hardships of all kinds. If their lands are taken away for some constructive purpose by the government then the required compensation is not paid. Or even today many of them commit suicide due to the burdens of debt and penury. And all this constantly reminds as to whether the blood of the peasant martyrs of many Patharughats have gone wasted in the hope of a better future. More than 100 years have passed since the Patharughat massacre. But the farmers of this nation still continue to lead a dissatisfied life.
Sadly, today Patharughat has remained as one of the many incidents that have got lost in oblivion among the pages of history. This glorious incident of martyrdom is hardly remembered by many people or even finds proper mention in any history textbook. Patharughat’s tragedy lies in the fact that the people of Assam do not remember them properly leave alone the Indian nation. And this is in stark contrast to the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre of 1919 in Punjab which received huge publicity. The memory of these martyrs must remain forever in the hearts of the people and just erecting a martyrs’ monument is just not enough for the proper honour for these heroes.

Let us all remember the martyrs of Patharughat and strive to make sure that no farmer ever faces any injustice in our free democracy.

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