Social Scientist Volume 2 Issue 6-7 1974 [Doi 10.2307%2F3516480] Hiren Gohain -- Origins of the Assamese Middle Class- Reply to Comment

December 19, 2017 | Author: Ronnie Chatterjee | Category: Bourgeoisie, Middle Class, Feudalism, Fascism, Political Theories
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Origins of the Assamese Middle Class: Reply to Comment Author(s): Hiren Gohain Source: Social Scientist, Vol. 2, No. 6/7 (Jan. - Feb., 1974), pp. 67-71 Published by: Social Scientist Stable URL: . Accessed: 25/06/2014 01:20 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

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Origins of the Assamese Middle Class: Reply to Comment

I am grateful to Amalendu Guha and Arvind N Das for the scrupulous attention they have given to my article. I am aware that it betrays a number of lacunae, and I am prepared to admit that it may contain very serious mistakes. But I should like to dispute Guha and Das's contentions and criticisms in the spirit of that 'collective effort' which they uphold. After all, to think dialectically is not only to think in the collective spirit, but also to think correctly. Guha and Das agree with me in seeking to discover the historic links of the Assamese bourgeoisie with the past. They deny in this connection that the bureaucratic element in the composition of the modern Assamese bourgeoisie has any antecedents in the past structure of Assamese society. (Incidentally, in that form I have asserted it nowhere). They argue that the pre-British society of Assam was tribal-feudal rather than feudalbureaucratic. I think their categorization is confused. It is permissible to talk about a bureaucratic-feudal system, underlining in this way a peculiarity of the superstructure. But to talk about a tribal-feudal system is as bewildering as to talk about a feudal-capitalist system, thus mixing up two different stages and orders of social development. Guha and Das remark that "the administration did not involve elaborate office work as in the case of the Mughal system." One agrees that Assam under Ahom rule had not evolved commodity production and division of labour to the extent that Mughal India had. Hence keeping of accounts had not acquired in Assam the same degree of importance and finesse. But the attempts at periodic surveys of land and census of population recorded in Ahom chronicles mark a significant advance towards the system in operation in the rest of India. The army of officers supervising production and administration in all spheres is a conspicuous feature of the type of bureaucratic feudalism common in Asia. Indeed the hierarchy of officialdom had become so imposing that even the religious monasteries (the satras which dominated Assamese social life even after the passing away of Ahom rule) copied the pattern with their own ranks of officers. Of course the tribal heritage was still strong, but it was undermined first by the forcible breaking up of ancient kinship bonds and clannish ties by the state, and secondly by the acid of other-worldly bhaktimovement. Even the rotating people's

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militia betrayed a larger element of feudal coercion and enforcement of tribute or labour-rent than tribal freedom and spontaneity. The productive forces in Assam were not developed much, and this allowed tribal features to linger. But the overall impression made by the Ahom state was that of bureaucratic feudalism. As for the great Moamaria Peasant War (which appeared in the mythology of the new middle class as the disaster fatally injuring Assam prior to Burmese invasion) our scholars are yet to study the matter in depth. Guha and Das's ideas on this matter appear to be, like mine, second-hand. But there are certain kinds of evidence that challenge the prevailing view. When the British annexed Assam, large tracts of the newly-annexed province were still under thc occupation and control of the Muttocks, the leading Moamaria community. British officers reported that the subjects in that land suffered from far fewer constraints (including irksome corvees) and paid a much smaller tribute to the ruler, known as the Barsenaputty,whose position was scarcely better than that of a tribal chieftain. The 'restoration of pre-feudal relations' that I had referred to in my article was less a matter of conscious political aim than of actual practice. II

Guha and Das correctly link my analysis to the recent experience of an outbreak of linguistic chauvinism, but disagree radically with my reading of that movement. They see in such middle-class movements positive forces, revolutionary potentialities, if only the link with big bourgeosie is severed. At the risk of seeming pig-headed I must affirm that all such recent middle-class movements ended in tame betrayal of the hopes of the masses and sell-out to the big bourgeoisie. The so-called 'Refinery Movement' had pinpointed the urgent need for economic development of the region but petered out in the end with a toy refinery and a few dozen jobs for the sons of the fortunate few. The several language movements had made an issue of the integrity and separate identity of Assam, but their only tangible achievement had been violence against the minorities. I thus remain firmly sceptical of the prospects of such middle-class movements, as long as they remain divorced from the working-class movement of India as a whole. On the other hand most of their goals have a better prospect of fulfilment under a workers' and peasants' state than under the rule of big capital. Guha and Das wrongly attribute to me the view that big capital alone will bring about the needed socio-economic changes in Assam. I had stated plainly enough that the contribution of big capital to the recent history of this region was that of retardation and impoverishment. Only a strong working-class movement reaching it from outside and releasing it from its narrow grooves, seems capable of giving a transforming, revolutionary power to the Assamese middle class. It is not enough to argue from established premises that the pettybourgeois is double-faced, vacillating, and hence revolutionary in a

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favourable context. His socio-economic circumstances must be thoroughly analysed so that the general law reveals itself through the particular. My analysis shows how for the Assamese bourgeoisie the revolutionary potentiality is continually blocked and braked, and how it gets characteristically diverted to fascist blind alleys. The price of stagnation under imperialism and under big capital is not only poverty and squalor, but ideological reaction. The fascist tendency will always be there, will in fact be strengthened under the patronage of big capital, until swept away by the rising tide of the working-class


It will be naive to

expect that a local working-class movement in Assam will win over the middle class on its own. My article was primarily concerned with middle-class bankruptcy and its consequences. The Assamese middle class has now ceased to be a progressive force because of its alliance with big capital. This is not to deny that it may once again become progressive, provided it chooses to follow the lead given by the working masses of India. But that implies a substantial reorientation of ideas and goals. Guha and Das themselves note that large sections of the working class in Assam are actually from outside the state, and are politically weak and unorganized. The working class is far from the position of leadership that Guha and Das postulate as the ideal condition for evoking the revolutionary potentiality of the middle class. Under these circumstances their optimism regarding the middle class must be considered somewhat utopian. But I had better underline that in my article I had not put the middle class in the enemy camp. In fact the reactionary forces have grasped the situation much better and made ample use of their knowledge. In this connection I should like to draw the attention of Guha and Das to the remarkable tradition of student and youth activity in Assam. The standard work on the freedom movement in Assam, K N Dutta's Landmarks of the FreedomStrugglein Assam' observes that the Assam Students' Conference was formed in 1916 beforestudent movements developed on an all-India scale. The Students' Conference was instrumental in creating a cadre of dedicated student leaders who played an important part in the freedom movement. Gandhi in 1922 commented admiringly on the youthful patriotism of the students of Assam.2 Some of the outstanding leaders of the present-day left parties also had their initial training in student movements. The same potentiality is there among Assamese students today. But the weakness of the working-class struggle in the rest of India has so far insulated them from the kind of activity that matters. III Guha and Das have rejected, wrongly I think, the category of 'regional bourgeoisie' as unhelpful in inquiry. They would like to substitute the familiar term 'petty-bourgeoisie'. Mao Tse-tung's views, however, are of not much use here simply because the Indian situation is different from that of China. China has not seen the rise of distinct and numerous

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nationalities with their own languages and literatures in recent times, nationalities acquiring a significant grip over the apparatus of provincial administration. Guha and Das are reluctant to concede that these features have any importance. In my article I have regarded them as the typical features of a nationalism stunted and deformed first by imperialism and then by big capital stepping into its shoes. I have deliberately refrained from calling this bourgeoisie a 'national bourgeoisie' for reasons Guha and Das mention, but I should like to draw their attention to the specific characteristics of this class that would make an identification with general petty-bourgeois masses naive. Guha and Das concede that the state might be used by the Assamese middle class for 'primitive accumulation' of capital but in the next breath deride the idea of "engineers, managers and . . . clerks" forming a bourgeois class by themselves. Well, technicians and clerks rarely go in for 'primitive accumulation of capital'. In my article I had dealt with the Assamese bourgeoisie in the early stage of its development. At the present moment it has in its ranks millionaire businessmen, millowners and rich peasants aspiring to turn into capitalist farmers. They may be few, and their relation to the big bourgeoisie may be one of subservience, but the fact should not be ignored. The point of my argument is the manifest weakness of a class that aspires for the position of a national bourgeoisie but is prevented by its economic and political subservience from reaching it. Guha and Das should, I think, pay some close attention to this strange phenomenon instead of using old labels brusquely. The subtle interplay of interests between a central government dominated by big capital and fearful of the masses and a state government very closely linked to contractors, big farmers and millowners cannot be understood by referring to Mao Tse-tung. The inadequacy of data mentioned by Guha and Das is also an exaggeration. I was wrong in asserting that prior to the First World War, the Indian National Congress had no influence on the Assamese middle class. Here I accept the correction offered by Guha and Das. But it should be pondered that the dominant political body of the Assamese middle class up to the First World War called itself the Assam Association, thus underlining a sense of separate identity as a national group. In November 1918 the Assam Association elected Nabin Bordoloi as the sole representative from Assam for giving evidence before the Parlimentary Committee set up for finalizing the details of the Reforms scheme.3 The Assam Association was dissolved only in June 1921, and the Provincial Congress set up in its place. The change was not confined to the label alone. From 1916 onwards 'younger men of advanced political views' dominated its platform, and they had doubtless acquired those views directly or indirectly from Calcutta. Even so the all-India perspective never quite suppressed, except during the hectic forties, the exclusive concern for Assam. The nationalist outlook developed steadily in Assam only after Gandhi took the Congress to the masses. The Non-co-operation

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phase of the freedom movement had a significance in the political history of Assam that should not be overlooked. To recapitulate, Assam lagged behind the more advanced parts of India during medieval times due to the inadequate development of commodity production and division of labour. The feudal system in Assam contained large tribal survivals, though it is obfuscating to call it tribalfeudal. The feudual order needed a huge and intricately stratified bureaucracy (with special characteristics of its own) to compel the continuity of servile labour and feudal exploitation. The downfall of the feudal order did not at once bring the pace of development in line with that of the rest of British India. On the whole, imperialism acted as a further brake on development of the forces of production. Communications, education and political consciousness suffered from a corresponding stagnation. The economic weakness and political immaturity of the middle class continue to prevent it from having a decisive confrontation with big capital which succeeded imperialism as the main exploiter, The though the middle class has made some gains since independence. middle class in Assam (or in Nagaland, for that matter) cannot have much to show in terms of capitalist property. But it will be wrong to conclude therefore that it is just a variant of the countrywide petty-bourgeoisie. The point of my article was to reveal the bankruptcy of the middle class and its characteristic nationalist illusions and to establish that it no longer qualified as the leader of the masses of this region in the fight against big capital. In fact in the absence of a militant proletarian movement, which after all cannot be promoted by pious hopes, it is more likely to turn to fascism in the critical moments of its existence. Sections of this class may join the struggles of the working class sometimes, but it will never lead the fight for socialism. I am sorry Guha and Das unwittingly become apologists for the worst type of opportunism and treason to the masses by whitewashing its basic weakness. At the same time I do not think I have committed the mistake of theoretically dooming this class to a position of eternal reaction! It is surely not a mark of dialectical thinking to play with 'on the one hand' and 'on the other hand'. Analysis and investigation must be I welcome Guha and Das's remarks thorough and comprehensive. because they are likely to compel one to accept rigorous standards of scholarship, but I am unable to accept them. HIREN GOHAIN 1 K N Dutta, Landmarks of theFreedom Strugglein Assam,Gauhati 1958. a Ibid., p 7, pp 49-50.


Ibid., p 46.

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