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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 22, May 23, 2015

A People’s Historian Passes Away

Friday 22 May 2015, by Barun Das Gupta

TRIBUTE

Death snatched away Dr Amalendu Guha, a historian, an economist, a prolific writer and a Marxist whose ideological conviction remained unshaken till the last day of his life. He breathed his last at Guwahati on May 7 at the ripe old age of 91. Though he was known for his profound erudition and vast knowledge of the historical, social and cultural evolution of Assam and the North-East, he also kept himself up to date with people’s movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Born at Imphal in Manipur where his father came in the first decade of the twentieth century as a school teacher, Guha came in touch with the communist movement early in his life and soon became a member of the All India Students’ Federation. After finishing school he went to Kolkata and got admitted to the Presidency College where he got his Master’s degree after completing a composite course in Economics and Politics. He was an active member of the Communist Party of India from 1943 to 1965. He joined the Darrang College at Tezpur (Assam) in 1948..

But soon he got an offer from the School of International Studies of New Delhi, for a research work on the economic transition of Afghanistan in the 20th century. He took up the work in right earnest and the thesis he produced got him his doctorate. He then went back to the Darrang College from which he had taken a study leave. This was in 1962. Soon thereafter, the Chinese aggression took place and Guha, along with other prominent communist leaders, was arrested and sent to Behrampur jail in Odisha. On release, he went back to teaching again.

Guha’s magnum opus, however, is Planter Raj to Swaraj, Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam: 1826-1947. The period he chose is historically significant. The British conquered Assam in 1826 after signing the Treaty of Yandabo with the King of Ava (Burma) and India gained Independence in 1947. This book is a must for anyone interested in the contem-porary history of Assam and in understanding the course of political developments in Assam after Independence. The reader will find in this book the genesis of the ‘Bangladeshi’ problem which has been bedevelling Assam politics for the past half-a-century as well as what led to the emergence of the ULFA in the late 1970s with the aim of secession from India inscribed in its banner. Here is a telltale passage from Planter Raj: 

“Segregationists tried to thrash out the issue with Nehru when he came to Assam in November, 1937. Nilmoni Phukan and Ambika-giri Raychaudhuri represented to him, on behalf of Asamiya Samrakshini Sabha, that a ‘purely local and racial question’ had recently been given a communal colour by the Muslim League. According to them, Bengali Muslim immigrants were willing to identify themselves with the Assamese people in matters of language and culture, but were now being persuaded and ‘forced’ to read Bengali. The effect of each national movement and the constitutional advance that followed in the province had been, according to them, disastrous to Assamese interests. They pointed out

...as a matter of saving the Assamese race from extinction, a considerable section of the Assamese intelligentsia has even expressed their minds in favour of the secession of Assam from India. This is how the present situation appears to the average Assamese, and they look to you, the National Congress, to help the Assamese to get out of these dangers.” (p. 257. Italics in the original—B.D.G.)

Guha was a strong critic of the anti-foreigner agitation that convulsed Assam from 1979 to 1985. In an interview he said: “The six-year Assam movement has done much more harm than good to the people. It is because of its emotional outburst and bloodletting that we are behind in the race for development.”

A multi-coloured and multi-faced personality, Guha’s interests had a wide range as his works show. He wrote books like Central Asia: Movement of Peoples and Ideas from Times Prehistoric to Modern and articles like “Karl Marx and the Drain Theory”. He also wrote exquisite poetry in Assamese and Bengali.

I came to know him at Guwahati in the nineteen seventies and was struck by the depth of his scholasticism and the disarming humility and amiability of his nature. In the twilight years of his life he was stricken with spondylosis which forced him to quit writing. He needed someone who could take dictations.

The best tribute to Guha would be to bring out a collection of all his articles on varied subjects in English, Assamese and Bengali in one volume.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.