This interview was conducted on behalf of The 1947 Partition Archive.
“Some people in other parts of the country think Assamese people are foreigners. There is not enough awareness about the people and problems of Assam in mainland India,” says an 80-year-old Iswar Prasanna Hazarika in his characteristically placid tone.
A young boy of 10 in August 1947, Iswar Hazarika had already devoted five years of his life to the fervent freedom struggle in Assam – which unfortunately languishes in historical obscurity.
Iswar Prasanna Hazarika was born in North Lakhimpur of Lakhimpur District – a small town cocooned by tropical rainforests, paddy fields and tea plantations. It used to be cut off from the rest of the world for half the year, and still is to some extent. His father, Tirtheswar Hazarika, was the President of the District Congress Committee and his mother, Mokshata Devi was a leader of the Mahila Samiti.
In the 1930s, his father had become the leader of the freedom struggle in the district. He forsook his law practice, while his wife too participated in the revolution. In the absence of a district office, his home became the hub for all meetings and protests. Unsurprisingly, Iswar Hazarika found himself at the epicentre of the freedom movement from the day he was born.
I virtually became a ‘freedom’s child’, imbued by the tales of indomitable courage and sacrifice of the freedom fighters and taking care of them, day after day, at home.
The Quit India Movement in Lakhimpur Kicks Off
In 1921, Mahatma Gandhi visited Assam for the first time and heralded the spirit of Non-Cooperation. He was worshipped in the villages of Assam and his message spread like wildfire. Hindus and Muslims, Assamese and Bengalis – everyone had come together in protest. The momentum of the Swadeshi movement carried on into Civil Disobedience and it was at this time, that Iswar Hazarika’s father came to the fore as a leader in Lakhimpur.
Mahatma Gandhi had touched an intimate chord with weaving and spinning in Assam.
Assam has always been known to be a land of weaving and rare fabrics. Mahatma Gandhi used to say, ‘Assamese women can weave dreams into fabric’.
Hazarika goes on to describe how even remote villages had responded to the call to boycott foreign goods. Khadi was ubiquitous and spinning the charkha had become a daily ritual by the time the Quit India Movement began in 1942. His father would wake up early and spin for at least an hour.
On the 9 August 1942, Mahatma Gandhi’s clarion call of ‘Do or Die’ resounded in Assam. At the time, North Lakhimpur fell in the South East Asian Theatre of World War 2. In the midst of an air-bombing scare, North Lakhimpur mobilised in protest and went out in mass rallies.
Iswar Prasanna Hazarika was only five years old at the time, but he joined the struggle as a junior volunteer.
Thousands of people from different locations, far and near – marching in processions, singing songs of freedom and shouting slogans – converged in my hometown day after day from 9 August 1942.
A few days after the processions began, the ‘Ronga Police’ (red-capped police) began using lathis to suppress them. Both his father and mother were leading their respective groups.
The junior volunteers had trained in hoisting the tiranga, chanting slogans and even aiding senior protesters. They witnessed several violent suppressions and even at that tender age, nursed those who had been injured or maimed.
Most protesters remained steadfast to their vows of nonviolence and did not retaliate. Some had picked up weapons and remained out of the sight of police. The junior volunteers displayed maturity far beyond their age.
At the age of five, I was witness to volunteers silently enduring beatings and other police brutalities in their bid to disperse the rallies.
Independence… and Partition?
Only a few days after the movement gained nationwide momentum, the British government launched a campaign to arrest as many leaders as they could. Iswar Hazarika’s father too was arrested and jailed for three years.
He was offered parole after one year on the condition that he would desist from any revolutionary activities. He refused.
The Hazarika home was raided multiple times and the family was on the brink of dire poverty. To add to their troubles, everyone distanced themselves from the rebellious family. Seven years old by this time and the eldest sibling, Iswar Hazarika had already outgrown childhood.
....I suffered immense hardship. When my father was arrested as a political prisoner, we had to survive on the A-class political prisoner’s allowance of Rs 90 per month granted by the British Government. It was a memorable experience at the time to run around the treasury for days to collect the allowance!
His father returned in 1945, around the same time that the Second World War ended – and resumed his leadership at the District Congress Committee.
The same year, Pandit Nehru visited Assam and secured a majority for the Congress in the upcoming elections. Gopinath Bordoloi became the first Prime Minister (as the Chief Minister was called in those days) of soon-to-be Independent Assam in 1946.
While independence was on the horizon, the fate of Assam was still to be decided and rumours of partition came as a shock to most. The British Cabinet Mission of 1946 was introduced under Clement Attlee, which would decide it once and for all.
To the surprise of Iswar Hazarika’s father, it had assigned Assam to group C, along with Bengal, to be partitioned.
Gopinath Bordoloi and Bhim Bar Devri visited Mahatma Gandhi and protested, but they left only with encouragement to start their own movement. The matter was resolved after it was decided in a referendum that only one district – Sylhet – would go to Pakistan. Despite these concerns, there was almost no communal unrest in Lakhimpur.
On 15 August 1947, there was a grand celebration in Lakhimpur as the Independence of India was announced. 10 years old at this time, Iswar Hazarika went with his father to a hall with the only good radio in town to listen to the news. Late Tirtheswar Hazarika got the honour of unfurling the tricolour for the first time in Lakhimpur.
I noticed that the flag had been hoisted upside-down, so I fought with the Sub-Division Officer to redo it the correct way. At that moment, the flag had become more than cloth. It represented all that we had fought for all these years and the selfless service of my parents.
70 Years Later...
There is a common belief that ‘Lakhimpur’ means the land of prosperity. However, one wouldn’t guess it.
It would be a travesty of truth to say that we endured all suffering with a smile, just to flaunt our patriotism. In all the years of penury and suffering all we could do was to take solace in the hope that, freedom would return prosperity to our land. At any rate, if not heaven on earth, at least life would be less unbearable, a dream yet to come true even 70 years after independence.
Titheswar Hazarika got disillusioned with the greed for power and money that was rampant in post-independence leadership. As a result, he retired from politics – and still a passionate Gandhian, devoted himself to the causes of weavers and opium de-addiction in Assam. He remained virtually unknown till 1972, when he was awarded the prestigious Tamra Patra for his selfless service to the nation.
Iswar Hazarika went on to become a civil servant and later worked with prominent PSUs. The bug to join politics still lingered, and he contested elections to become a Member of Parliament from Lakhimpur in 1996.
However, the disenchantment with the ignorance and inefficacy of politics persisted.
Today, he runs NGOs devoted to healthcare and elderly care in the remotest parts of Assam. Even after 70 years, Assam still remains in obscurity – both culturally and economically. “What have we got for our contribution?,” asks Iswar Hazarika with a tinge of fatalism.
The most obvious problem is the continuing influx of migrants into a land of vast open fields and low-population density. This has caused a lot of socio-economic problems.
The birth of Bangladesh also made it more isolated. After the partition, the only link with the rest of the country was the Chicken’s Neck – a thin corridor above Bengal, which has now become the site of geo-political dispute between India and China.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, according to Hazarika, is the cultural insensitivity about Assamese people in the rest of the country.
Assam has become so isolated that there are multiple floods every year, but no one cares. Massive development projects are sanctioned without concern for the Assamese people – which only makes us more vulnerable to ecological disasters.
It is no secret that most of us in the rest of India are illiterate about Assam and its people. As an Indian whose childhood was lost to the freedom struggle, this deeply saddens Iswar Hazarika.
Even after 70 years, we have failed to embody the contribution and identity of Assam in the Indian Nation.
(Siddhant Kalra is a researcher with The 1947 Partition Archive and an independent journalist with Land Conflict Watch. You can tweet to him @siddhantkalra)