Assam’s colonization was facilitated by the Brahmaputra, the same river that had provided leverage to Assam’s military in earlier centuries. The river became an ally for the EIC’s military expeditions from the early nineteenth century and stayed more or less true to this role until the middle of the next century. But it was mostly through human labour, imagination, and courage that the British colonialists managed to harness the river and the difficult terrain.
David Scott moved into Assam through the river and his weaponized boats heavily patrolled the river to its upper possible limit. Expeditions through the Brahmaputra became commonplace. The EIC’s first military campaign to Assam was exclusively on the Brahmaputra. Cornwallis dispatched Captain Welsh to intervene in the internal politics of Assam on boats to Goalpara; he arrived in December 1792. Gaurinath Singha, the fugitive Ahom king, met him days later on the Brahmaputra. For the next two years, Welsh defeated, pursued, and had conciliatory meetings with the rebels on the Brahmaputra before finally restoring Gaurinath to his throne in 1794.
After this, there was a lull in military activity on the Brahmaputra but it did not last long. During the initial stages of the Anglo-Burmese conflict, it was the Burmese army’s occupation of the Brahmaputra’s ‘upper part’ that gave them complete access and control over Assam, as the Governor General-in-Council admitted.
After the Anglo-Burmese War, the EIC army patrolled the Brahmaputra for several years in the 1820s. The next few decades would see regular intensification of military traffic on the Brahmaputra along with surveyors, botanists, geologists, missionaries, and traders. Late nineteenth-century military campaigns had both road and river segments.
During the Abor expedition of 1881, the military used both roads and the Brahmaputra to march ahead towards Assam’s eastern frontier. Roads were difficult, the Pioneer reported, but ‘the worst part of the whole journey, and the most formidable obstacle encountered, was the River Brahmaputra, 61½ miles from Dibrugarh, 3½ from Sadiya;’ the newspaper obviously did not see the river as an ally for the imperialists.
The height of militarization of the Brahmaputra began early in the twentieth century. In 1910, China began to lay its claim on Tibet. This worried the Indian government. ‘The actions of the Chinese in Tibet since 1910; their intrigues among the states and tribes bordering that country; their adoption of an aggressive policy throughout the extent of the debatable border land’ necessitated knowledge of ‘a practically terra incognita’ on a priority basis. One outcome of this was the geographical missions in 1911–12 along the river’s upper basin, which we have discussed above. But beyond those geographical explorations, the Brahmaputra’s military and strategic importance suddenly gained new significance.
This was evident during the Abor expedition of 1911–12. Considered the final assault by the British Indian government on the unruly frontier tribes, this expedition saw the Brahmaputra emerge as the main supply line. ‘This river affords the most direct and most economical line of supply from the large centers of India and the stations whence the majority of troops had to be despatched.’ An expedition to the foothills meant procurement of boats from local fishermen. Boatmen frequently refused to part with their boats. The Abor expedition initially was highly disorganized ‘as the boatmen … had been badly frightened. In the interval, the Hindustani boatmen had decamped to their dais (docks), while the Assamese and Miris had concealed their boats up the creeks of the stream and buried themselves in the depths of jungle.’
The river was not favourable all the time. A military flat carrying two months of supply collapsed while travelling up. The early years of the twentieth century were marked by investigation and cataloguing of the river which could facilitate further penetration of the British Indian army. The aim was to enhance the river’s potential to protect British India’s eastern frontier. The Military Report on the Brahmaputra (1914) was the culmination of this endeavour. The report summarized the depth of the river, details of the steamers and flats, distances between ports, and time taken by steamers to travel specific distances. Another report published in 1931 brought several tributaries (Dihang, Dibang, Lohit, Subansiri, Bharali, and Tawang Rivers) under the military lens. The rivers and the inhabitants in their vicinity were surveyed in detail in one-fourth inch to a mile maps.
Military investigation that had begun earlier paid off considerably during the Second World War. Assam’s eastern frontier became a hotbed of war preparations for the Allied army, and the Brahmaputra’s strategic importance rose. After the fall of Rangoon, the Allied force’s supply line was through the Brahmaputra and existing railway lines alongside the river. In 1942, the construction of the Ledo road to Yunnan through Burma from the easternmost point of the Brahmaputra began. This metaphorically brought to reality Cotton’s dream of connecting the Brahmaputra and Yangtse. But during the war, it was the railways which performed better compared to river transport; there were fears that a full-fledged attack on the Japanese army in Burma was not possible unless communication through the Brahmaputra improved. ‘[M]ost of the war supplies out of India and from abroad get to Burma through [Assam’s] jungle railway. Some go up the winding Brahmaputra and others via the bomb-scarred little port of Chittagong.’
Military movement suddenly increased pressure on products and resources; peasant produce got a market, timber was extracted as fuel. Richard Tucker has recently estimated the total pressure created by the military during the Second World War in Assam and its neighbourhood. In the upper basin of the Brahmaputra, 40,000 labourers were conscripted from the tea estates to build roads and airfields. The forest was cleared. On its own, the river became a bystander for the moment to witness the war. Steamers and barges that plied on the Brahmaputra were taken away to Iran and Iraq by 1942. A pipeline was quickly assembled on the river’s bed from Calcutta and Dibrugarh to pump oil for war needs. For the first time, the river’s importance did not increase tremendously during the war.
Geography, science, and imperialism in the eastern Himalayas interplayed with the Brahmaputra over the period of a hundred years. While the British EIC firmly established its control over the Indian plains and then gradually made inroads into the eastern frontier of Bengal, the subsequent advancement of the EIC’s foray into these lands was relatively difficult. Nature and climate stood as the biggest stumbling blocks in the forward march of the Empire.
By keeping the Brahmaputra at its centre of activity, the Empire slowly but constantly tried to bring these wild and untamed geographies under its control since the early nineteenth century. Till the early twentieth century, these geographies remained mysterious and the Empire could do little to lay down its legal–bureaucratic foundations there. As the geography of the eastern Himalayas began to open up, there were newer possibilities of commerce. This also meant there was a compulsion to think and locate boundaries for the Empire. Geographical exploration unpacked the complexities of the eastern Himalayas, laid the foundation for the militarization of the river, and finally established political control of the British Empire in the eastern Himalayas.
This excerpt from The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra has been published with permission from Oxford University Press.
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