CLOSE READING - Authoritative, with a fresh perspective : Subir Bhaumik

Sharma’s interest and deep insights makes this book a fascinating read and a volume worth collecting for anybody interested in Assam, Northeast and India

Empire’s Garden is the most authoritative and well-documented historical analysis of the transformation of medieval Assam into a colonial province. But it is also a study of how Assam – and its adjoining regions – came to be part of India.  So the book is not only about Assam but also about the evolution of modern India, specially the transformation of its far eastern frontier into a constituent part of the nation-state. David Ludden is justified in describing Empire’s Garden as a “new departure for the historical study of Assam” and in expressing his hope that it will “anchor histories of Assam for years to come.”

Jayeeta Sharma
Permanent black, 2012
`750, 324 pages
Hardcover/ Non-fiction
Though focused on a province, Sharma’s scholarly range is extraordinary because she has so much to offer on South Asia’s post-medieval history, on colonialism, nationalism and regionalism to ethnicity, elite formation, migration, capitalism and economic progress. That is perhaps because when someone studies Assam closely, and as thoroughly as Sharma has done, one would surely come out intellectually richer about so much else that affects the whole of the subcontinent. Assam is the microcosm of India and also encapsulates its many problems, developments and social processes but in its own distinctive way. Because Assam (and the rest of what is today India’s Northeast) is a link region between the civilisations of the Indo-Gangetic plains and the Southeast Asian highlands, it is the flower-garden that replicates India on a smaller scale but it is also the fluid corridor through which population movements have shaped the future of South Asia.

But despite so much relevance to India, Assam is that part of the subcontinent that has received much less attention from serious historians of the subcontinent, except those working on the tea industry. Jayeeta Sharma’s fascinating details of Assam’s history become more relevant because they relate local themes to larger issues of South Asian history: colonial ideologies of race and the importance of these ideologies to the political economy, the structure of colonial rule, the development of these public spheres and the reformulation of identities under colonial circumstances.

As Douglas Haynes aptly sums up, Empire’s Garden “helps us to understand the historical dimensions of contemporary conflicts in the region, without making the conflicts seem predetermined by what happened in the colonial period.” Sharma takes us back to the colonial processes by which the tea industry came into existence through the planned growth of a cultivated system of plantations in what was just a jungle-laden frontier. But she details and analyses the orchestrated migration of “tea labour” from the Chotanagpur region and later the large-scale migration, again encouraged by colonial rulers, of a huge underclass of land-hungry peasants from East Bengal.

She argues that the racialised construction of the tea labourer catalysed a process in which Assam's gentry sought to insert their homeland into an imagined Indo-Aryan community and a modern Indian political space. Various linguistic and racial claims allowed these elites to defend their own modernity while pushing the burden of primitiveness onto "non-Aryan" indigenous tribals or migrant labourers. As vernacular print arenas emerged in Assam, so did competing claims to history, nationalism and progress that continue to reverberate in the present. Sharma’s interest and deep insights into labour and culture, migration and social change makes this book a fascinating read and a volume worth collecting for anybody interested in Assam, Northeast and India.

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