ASSAM The state of Assam in northeast India had a population of nearly 27 million in 2001. An overwhelmingly agricultural state, producing over 50 percent of India's tea, Assam has one of India's lowest literacy rates and highest poverty rates. The capital is Dispur, and the state is divided into twenty-three districts.
Assam was known in ancient times as Pragjyotisha or Pragjyotishpura ("the City of Eastern Lights"), and as Kamarupa. Asom (Axom), or its Anglicized version, Assam, is a modern name. It derives from the Bodo word Ha-Cham (low or level country) or Asama ("unequalled" or "peerless") and was used to describe the Ahoms, a Shan tribe of Mongoloid abstraction, who ruled the state from 1228 for six centuries, recording their activities in the Buranjis (the "store-house of unknown things"). Perhaps the first people to populate the state were Austroloids, none of whom remain, followed by Mongoloids and Caucasoids. The people of the state are broadly classified as nontribals, or plains people, and the tribals, who mostly live in the hills. A variety of ethnic groups make up the "Assamese" because the British brought in people from Orissa, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala to work on the tea plantations in the nineteenth century, as indigenous labor was scarce. About 70 percent of the nontribal population, concentrated in the Brahmaputra and the Barak Valleys, are Hindus who are divided into castes and subcastes (though caste barriers are not as pronounced as elsewhere in India), and they speak Assamese. Renowned Hindu temples are the Kamakhya at Guwahati and the Kechaikhati at Sadiya. They are both shakti temples in the tantric tradition. Muslims are the second-largest group (about 29%), followed by Christians (about 3%), Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains.
There are twenty-three different tribes, most of whom practice animism with elements of Hinduism, although a number are Christian and a few Muslim. The Bodo Kacharis, Karbis, and Lalungs are patriarchal; the Khasis, Jaintias, and Garos are matriarchal, while the Dimasas have a patriarchal family structure but also have male and female clans who accord exclusive rights to women. Like other tribes in northeastern India, the Hmars, Rengma Nagas, and Garos have youth dormitories where young males are educated in tribal customs. The Zeme Nagas have dormitories for both males and females. In the Official Language Act of 1960, English and Assamese became official languages in the Brahmaputra Valley, while Bengali and English, along with Assamese, were official languages in the Barak Valley and the hill districts. The tribal people speak Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic, and Tibeto-Chinese languages, while the immigrant tea garden laborers speak Oriya, Mundari, Santhal, Tamil, and Telegu.
Some 800,000 looms are at work in Assam, and hand-loom weaving is a way of life. Assamese weavers produce such textiles as clothing, shawls, and quilts. Over 30,000 looms produce silk, and they are concentrated in the township of Sualkuchi, the "Manchester of Assam." Each ethnic group has its own distinctive design, depicting everything from animals and human figures to the galaxy. Jewelry, especially of gold, has also been a tradition in Assam. One tribe, the Sonowal Kacharis, specialize in panning for gold in the rivers that flow down from the Himalayas. The abundant cane of Assam is made into the renowned furniture of the state, and bamboo is used for a variety of products, including the japi, the colorfully decorated hat worn by Assamese peasants as they toil in the fields. Hajo, in Kamrup district, is the center of the important cottage brass industry, and nearby Sarhebari produces distinctive bell-metal objects. The Hira and the Kumar are two communities of pottery artisans, and the Khanikar are practitioners of the ancient art of woodcarving; the painted woodwork of Golaghat is prized by tourists. Fiber weaving, kuhila koth, is a renowned handicraft in Nagaon and Dhubri districts, and cork toys of gods, animals, and birds have been made for centuries in Goalpara.
The Varman dynasty ruled Assam from a.d. 400 to 1228; the Chinese pilgrim Hsieun Tsang visited around a.d. 630. The Ahoms ruled after 1228, repelling seventeen military expeditions by the Mughals until, in a weakened state at the end of the eighteenth century, the Burmese invaded. They were in turn beaten back by the British in 1824 who, with the Treaty of Yandibo of 1826, absorbed Assam into the Raj. The British passed the Assam Clearance Act in 1854, which allowed any European planter up to 3,000 acres of prime land to create tea plantations. Within twenty years, there were nearly three hundred plantations in India, many of them in Assam. After Indian independence, a number of states were carved out of Assam. They included Nagaland in 1963, Meghalaya and Mizoram in 1971, and Arunachal Pradesh in 1972.
In 1979 and 1980 separatism raised its head in Assam and the six other neighboring tribal states (Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura). In Assam the movement began with sporadic nonviolent protests against the influx of some 5 million Bengali immigrants, who had been migrating into the state in increasing numbers since 1947, especially after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The Assamese Liberation Army increased the insurgency, and violence intensified, adversely affecting the tea and jute industry and bringing the Assam oil industry practically to a halt. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent troops to the area and flew there to try, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a settlement. Unrest increased, and the Seven United Liberation Army, led by Naga, Mizo, and Assamese tribals, called for independence from India. Ethnic resentment of the Bengalis continued as the Assam Movement (1979–1985), led by the All-Assam Student Union and the All-Assam Gana Sangram Parishad, a coordinating committee representing several political parties and associations, attempted to preserve the cultural identity of Assam and of the Assamese, represented by the term Asamiya. This led to the Assam Accord of 1985 with the government and the cessation of violence, though resentment of Bengalis and fear of Bengali domination continues.
Roger D. Long
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