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Unpredictable Northeasterners

Colonial Interests and north-eastern Insurrectionism

Karunamay Sinha

The leading hotbed of insurrectionism in the region is the Naga-Kuki-Manipuri triangle of Manipur and Nagaland. The Manipuri diasporas (on more than one occasion Manipuris left Manipur during periods of socio-political turmoil) who settled in different parts of Asom’s Barak Valley region, Shylhet Division (of the then Asom), Tripura and some parts of undivided Bengal, triggered several flare-ups of insurrectionary activity. This they did mostly to do without paying the zamindars taxes. Unused to paying taxes to intermediaries, they considered it a form of spinelessness to yield to the browbeating of a mortal who was not their King. And it is well-known to all that most political turmoils during the British period had their origin in the colonial craving for more tax revenue. Taxes in the British Raj had two sharks to feed: the colonial coffers and the native zaminders reserves. Both were known to have insatiable lust for filthy lucre.

Zaminders lived lives in feudal luxury with palaces and holiday homes in cities like Calcutta and Benaras, maintained mistresses and danseuses to entertain themselves. There were feudal competitions in vulgar and obnoxious display of luxury, opulence, and extravagance in eastern Bengal and some parts of Asom were trying to catch up with their counterparts in the rest of the country. But the problem here was that the proximity of ethnic north-easterners or their settlements inside their estates often threatened to create law and order problems for them. Northeasterners weren’t as good-mannered and submissive as the plainsmen of mainland India. Slightest displeasure could provoke them to be on the warpath. Besides, they weren’t good farmers; they had no urge for producing more than the bare necessities. Above all, they were mortally unwilling to part with a fairly big share of their produce for the comfort of one whose role in their lives was beyond their comprehension. Asom, Tripura and Manipur had Kings. Tax wasn’t an unknown thing to the peoples in these States. But the kind of tax to be paid to fatten colonial coffers after ensuring the zaminders luxury was something they never imagined one had to pay.

In most cases, the Kings of these States had to make compromises with their subjects unwilling to accept increased rates of taxes designed for revenue-raising. Even the mildest increase in the rates of taxes had precipitated many a peasant unrest in these States. The Kings of Tripura had, in fact, depended little on the tax paid by the hill tribes. They had devised ways to increase tax revenue by encouraging Bengali peasants to settle down in the State. Bengali peasants fleeing the repressive tax systems of British-backed zamindars of East Bengal found safe haven in Tripura. The Tripuri kings allotted them land for which they had to pay tax at reasonable rates. This practice of the Kings resulted in a kind of demographic change in Tripura which took the form of an explosion after independence. But that is a different story.

The hilly parts of Nagaland, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh had either small Kings or tribal chieftains whose hunger for tax revenue never worried their people too much. No wonder, such a pampered lot is sure to rise in revolt when they are faced with a repressive, exploitative tax system designed by colonial rulers and put into effect by callous, native zaminders. The region has seen insurrectionary uprisings that resulted from the north-easterners exposure to the economy-driven modern world.

Courtesy: The Sentinel (Melange) September 6, 2009

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