Arnab Dasgupta – Conflicting ‘selves’ and the project of Empire: The case of Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan

Writing the Empire: Scribblings from Below

An international & interdisciplinary conference

Phillipe de Vigors, ‘Convicts letter writing at Cockatoo Island, New South Wales, 1849’
Reproduced by kind permission of the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

 

Event Dates: 26 June 2010
Bristol, UK

Arnab Dasgupta (University of Delhi)
Conflicting ‘selves’ and the project of Empire: The case of Anandaram Dhekiyal Phukan

Narratives about the lives of natives in the service of the Empire, especially at times when his loyalty puts him at odds with the general public sentiment, tend to throw up a precarious equation. The individual’s life becomes a complex negotiation between an apparent public loyalty to the colonial state and at times a subdued, rather private, sense of angst at the subjugated state of his motherland. This specific negotiation can be detected in the writings of Anandoram Dhekiyal Phukan, one of the foremost political thinkers of early – colonial Assam. Born in 1829 to a liberal, western educated family with a strong alliance with the colonial state (father Haliram Phukan employed with the Collectorate at Gauhati, Assam), Anandaram received education at Hindu College, Calcutta in 1841-44 and joined Government service at Gauhati in 1845. Around the same time, scattered voices of resistance to various policies of the government, primarily the decision to impose an alien language (Bengali) in the Courts and schools of Assam, started taking shape. With the inception of the first Assamese periodical named Orunodoi in 1846, this polyphony of voices found an organizational platform for ventilating disparate opinions about the state of the country. Organised resistance to the colonial language policy acquired steam in the early 1850s. When a Judge of the Sadar Dewani Adalat named A. J. Moffat Mills visited Assam in June 1853, a number of petitions and letters were dispatched for his consideration by various functionaries of the colonial machinery.

This paper seeks to analyse one such treatise submitted to Moffat Mills titled ‘Observations on the administration of the Province of Assam’ by Anandoram Dhekiyal Phukan in 1853. Read in conjunction with an 1855 tract ‘A Few Remarks on the Assamese Language and on Vernacular Education in Assam’ written by Phukan but under the pseudonym ‘A Native’, this paper hopes to explore the extent of negotiation between the private and the public in the life of a native official of the Empire. Does this attempted negotiation shed more light on the nature of Empire as it unraveled in early-colonial Assam? Are these proto-nationalist tracts critical milestones in the history of micro-nationalism in Assam? This paper seeks to locate these tracts and their author Anandaram Phukan within the volatile matrix of mid-nineteenth century Assam and examine their long shadow in the consolidation of a predominantly middle class nationalism in Assam.

Arnab Dasgupta, University of Delhiemail
Arnab Dasgupta teaches English at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. His areas of interest include colonial historiography in India and popular print cultures in early-colonial Assam. He is currently working on representations of Assam in prominent nineteenth century periodicals appearing in Assam and Bengal.

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