The lost homeland

Nearly 31 years ago, a medical student from the State’s Brahmaputra Valley met a police officer at Silchar,  the administrative headquarters of undivided Cachar District. The police officer,  also hailing from the Brahmaputra Valley and a former student leader, ignited the zeal  in  the medical student  to search out  the descendants of those people who had either fled their homes in Brahmaputra Valley  to Barak Valley  in  the  face of  the Burmese  invasion about two centuries back, or, landed in Barak Valley much earlier as the soldiers of the Koch Army, led by the  renowned military general Chilarai,  also known as Sangram Singha.

The police officer told the medical student that he knew a historian who would be of immense help in finding out these dispersed Assamese people.

What moved the medical student and galvanized him to engage in this mission was a December 26, 1944,  letter from Bishwa Singha Rajbongshi  (a descendant of one of Chilarai’s soldiers, who had settled in the Udarband area of Barak Valley) to Kashikanta Devasarma,  the then Sylhet-Cahar District Member of Asam Sahitya Sabha. The police officer published this historical letter in the Assamese literary quarterly Bokar Padum that he was single-handedly publishing from Silchar.

On his return to Guwahati,  this student of the Gauhati Medical College (now a surgeon of repute) Satyakam Phukan, met historian late Dr. Bijoy Bhusan Hazarika, following the advice of Purna Baruah, the police officer (since retired). Late Bijoy Bhusan Hazarika was officiating as the editor of The District Gazetteer  then. And an amazing chapter of Assam history  started unfolding.

Hazarika, also a former Director of the State’s Directorate of Historical and Antiquarian Studies, had thorough knowledge on the subject. He was, in fact, a member of the Maan-Bhaganiya (people dispersed by Burmese invasions) segment of the Assamese-speaking people of Barak Valley and Sylhet. He hailed from Tarapur village near the then Silchar town.

Hazarika narrated to Dr. Phukan – with historical evidence, how the Assamese people had to flee their native places in the early 19th century, in the face of the barbarism perpetrated by the marauding Singpho (Kachin) troops of the invading Burmese Army. Some of the Assamese people were taken captive by the raiding Singpho troops in a savage, barbaric manner. Holes were punched in their palms so that each of them could be tied together with cane and led to Burma in hordes like captured animals. This tie later earned notoriety as the Maan Bandha (Burmese Tie). Some such captives died miserably while being herded out to the land of their captors. Hazarika had long completed his research on the political condition of medieval Assam for his Ph.D.  ThesisPolitical life in Assam during the 19th century. He was  the  lone historian  from Assam  to  research on  the Burmese  invasions and their  socio-political  and  economic impact on Assam.

In the meantime, Dr. Phukan came to know that during the British rule, an Assamese adventurer-cum-businessman Purna Kanta Burhagohain had stayed for nine years in Burma and interacted with a number of people of Assam origin there. He has even left a vivid account of those he met there. His account was published in 1993 as a book Paatkaair Sipaare Na Basar (Nine years on the other side of the Patkai).

Dr. Hazarika also apprised Dr. Phukan about the information available in the writings of Assamese scholars like late Ananda Chandra Agarwala. Agarwala’s work was published during the British rule. The rest of the information on this subject is mostly derived from the British records and writings.  Information on one group of these people is also found in the writings of a Kachin historian, Kawlu Ma Nawng, belonging to the Gauri tribe of the Kachins.

Since the mid-1980s, Dr. Phukan started working on the subject with the support and encouragement from Dr. Hazarika. And  in  the course of his venture to find out the descendants of  those  estranged  compatriots, he  frequently visited  the Khasi-Jayantia Hills  in Meghalaya, the Lanka and Kaki areas of the State’s Nagaon District and also  the Barak Valley.

This writer accompanied him to Lanka once in such an expedition in 1997. The same year, this writer also went to Barak Valley in search of the descendants of such uprooted people.

In the meantime, Dr. Phukan undertook serious research on  the origin of Assamese  language,  the evolution of  the Assamese  script, archaeological heritage of Assam and through his contacts among the Chakmas – S.P. Talukdar, Pradhir Talukdar, Abhay Chakma – and an Assamese gentleman Dipak Chakraborty, Dr. Phukan came to know about  the existence of  the  settlements of  the estranged Assamese people  in  the Chittagong Hill Tract  (CHT) of Bangladesh. These people are the progenies of the Assam Rifles jawans who went to suppress the Kuki Raids in the CHT in 1860 AD.

These inspired Dr. Phukan to start working on a documentary on the historically dispersed Assamese people and for that purpose, he visited Meghalaya, Barak Valley and Lanka several times in 2010 and started filming with the help of Raphael Warjri, Nilotpal Dutta Baruah and a Tibetan lady, Yangchen Dolkar in 2010. In 2011, city-based businessman Binoy Sarma joined the team.

In 2013, North Guwahati College teacher Tapan Kumar Sarma joined Dr. Phukan when the trips to Bangladesh and Myanmar were planned by the surgeon.

The trio visited Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2013 and both Binoy Sarma and Tapan Sarma came up with interesting tales on their trips to Bangladesh and Myanmar. Binoy Sarma wrote a book – Herowa Asamiyaar Aat Bisaari, while Tapan Sarma penned two books – Manar Deshat and Karnaphulir Paarat – based on these trips.

And thus, the link was re-established. After centuries, the descendants of the uprooted Assamese people are now able to visit Assam in search of their roots.

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