PASSING OF A HISTORIAN

Amalendu Guha dies at 91

By Pranab Bora
  • Published 8.05.15
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Members of Amalendu Guha's family at his Ulubari residence in Guwahati on Thursday. Picture by UB Photos

Amalendu Guha, social, cultural and economic historian, had kept it simple - a dim three-room tenement shadowed by a noisy flyover at Guwahati's Ulubari crossroads, an old set of sofas adorning a living room otherwise stacked with books and files, to be complemented by only a small shrubby garden; no mobile phone, no laptop computer, no car.

He passed away before first light this morning, aged 91, leaving behind his wife litterateur Anima Guha, and son Supratik, a scientist in the US.

On his wall hangs a photograph of his grandson Anubhav, who is at MIT, shaking hands with President Barack Obama, a privilege given to the best science students of that country.

Guha passed away on a day the AGP decided to call a general strike in protest against a deal that will see some Assam land passed to Bangladesh (albeit also, and more, from Bangladesh to Assam).

The All Assam Students' Union (AASU) hadn't called for a strike yet; if it does, it will be on another day, perhaps, else one doesn't get the same amount of attention as one used to on Assam's now crowded political table.

Once the exchange happens as hoped (Bengal and Tripura are on board as is a disquiet Assam, and a grumbling Meghalaya), the 4,096-km border could be fenced and sealed, sweeping off the table in Assam the infamous "illegal Bangladeshis" issue that once led to the six-year long AASU-led Assam Agitation in the 70s and 80s. Aces may then have less meaning.

Guha's opposition to the Agitation had quite often overshadowed his path-breaking work as a cultural and economic historian.

"The Assam Agitation was anti-Bengali," he would say.

"That was his response to the Agitation as a Leftist, as the Agitation primarily was a regional response aimed at stemming the tide of Leftism in Assam," Pradip Acharya, former head of the department of English at Cotton College in Guwahati, said this afternoon.

"And many had somehow equated Bengalis with Leftists and hence they were attacked. But there were more Assamese Leftists who were attacked at the time and this should tell you what the primary purpose of the Agitation was."

Acharya recalls Guha vividly: "He had a marvellous analysis of the Agitation: that it was 'economically upward towards class, and culturally backward towards the tribes'."

Counted to the day Guha had passed, the number of autonomous and development councils for indigenous and minority groups had increased to 27 - a tell-tale increase from the two the state had during the days of the Agitation.

Of the current lot, the general cry of several indigenous tribal groups has been that of separate statehood, away from Assam.But the anti-Agitation bit is not what historians such as Manorama Sharma would like to remember him by.

"Well, he subscribed to a political party that was vehemently opposed to the Agitation," said the former head of the department of history, North Eastern Hill University (Nehu). Their "academic differences apart", "Guha had introduced a new trend in the existing historiographical traditions of the region," she said.

His standing as a historian was to be unquestioned.

"Guha will always be the authority in this region on economic history," said Shiela Bora, former head of the department of history, Dibrugarh University and a former teacher at Harvard University.

"Till he came along, no historian here had, for example, analysed how tea garden workers had influenced the Independence movement in Assam, on how tea gardens had transformed Assam into an agricultural state of the British. Historians elsewhere had worked on how peasants and the labour class had changed the course of the fight for freedom but no one had done so here before Guha. Historians before him had kept it to politics and the Congress.

Guha was also the first to talk about how Assam had become a dumping ground for the British's state-manufactured opium economy. The Northeast has found only one chapter in the Cambridge Economic History of India and that is written by Guha."

His legacy, in one line, said Bora, would be that before him "no one had written about our early and medieval colonial history the way Guha did".

These are different times we live in, though.

Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who led the Assam Agitation as president of AASU, and then as the state's chief minister and as president of the AGP, only to lose power and then be sidelined within the party itself, sent in his condolences today.

"He was a leading Assamese intellectual who made significant contributions to the state's socio-economic-cultural landscape," he said of Guha, who had also written prose and verse in Assamese.

"Intellectuals have their own perspectives on issues. He had his own (about the Agitation) but that had mainly to do with his concern for people who had to flee East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) because of the persecution there. His book, Planter Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam 1826-1947, was a kind of inspiration for us. His demise is a great loss. We have lost an eminent Assamese thinker," Mahanta told The Telegraph.

Three-time chief minister Tarun Gogoi of the Congress, who was in New Delhi, paid his tributes: "Guha was a man who dedicated his life to spreading education and reforming society. His passing is an irreparable loss for the state," Gogoi said. Dhruba Jyoti Borah, president of the Asom Sahitya Sabha, the state's biggest literary body, said Guha's demise was an irreparable loss to society in Assam.

Amalendu Guha, though, had kept it simple, as has his wife, choosing how they want to leave. Shareholders at the city's Arya Hospital, their wills explicitly say that they should not be kept on ventilator support.

"Both he and I have wished that we are simply allowed to go when the time comes," wife Anima Guha said. "Right through yesterday he kept saying that his time had come."

And Guha had the state government adapt to his wishes: having donated his body to the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, the cortege led to the premises of the institute this afternoon, state honours presented just before he was handed over to the college, a nameless cadaver for students of medical science. Assam cabinet minister Rakibul Hussain was in attendance.

Guha's corneas had been removed earlier in the day, donated to Sri Sankardev Nethralaya.

His will, that was read out as his body was handed over, said there were to be no rituals after his death. And so had passed a historian.

Additional reporting by our bureau