Bonojit Hussain and Mayur Chetia


I have no desire for heaven,

Instead I go to the brewhouse,

Gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes – bringing them together

I sing of hope, sprinkling ashes from my soul’s pyre:

In flocks the phoenix flies to the sky.


— My Poetry” Amalendu Guha 1960




Prominent Marxist historian, revolutionary, poet and a litterateur from Assam — Dr. Amalendu Guha — passed away at the age of 91 in the wee hours of 7th May at his humble residence in Guwahati. Remaining true to his rationalist outlook, he had willed in 2005 that his bodily remains should be handed over to Gauhati Medical College for scientific research. Before and during Dr. Guha’s final ride to the Medical College, large numbers of people had gathered to pay their tributes at his residence, Assam Sahitya Sabha office in Cotton College State University premise and Ellora Vigyan Mancha office in Guwahati.


An unwavering pillar of left democratic movements in his home state, although Guha was mostly known as a historian in mainland India, his contributions and presence in the field of poetry and literature are also immense.


He presided over the History conclave and Poetry convention of Axom Sahitya Sabha in 1978 and 1994 respectively. Among his many other writings in Assamese and Bengali, his incisive travelogue on Afghanistan ‘Afghantistanot Ebhumuki’ (A Glance into Afghanistan) published in 1961 is considered to be one of the classics in Assamese travel writing. Apart from a revised edition published in 2002, the book has also been translated into and published in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada.


Despite publishing only two anthologies of poetry, Guha is counted among the most prominent modern poets of Assam. Guha has earned his place in the annals of Assamese literature as the poet of social consciousness, human sufferings and aspirations. His first anthology, called Luit Parer Gatha (in Bengali) was published in 1955 followed by his second anthology Tomaloi (in Assamese) published in 1960. Both these anthologies are resplendent tribute to Assam and the struggles and aspirations of its people.


In the lines of Neruda, Guha’s poetry resonate the universal themes of dreams, historical consciousness, poverty, political values, love, city life and nature; wherein aesthetics and politics mutually define each other. Markedly an optimist, for him poetry was one form of public salutation. A lover and balladeer of his land, Guha’s Assam is its splendid natural beauty, jhum farming, spring, rose chestnut, rivers, valleys, Oraons, Santhals, Mundas, laboring masses, Naga, Mizo, peaceful Manipur, mridang, cuckoo and weaving girls.


Talking of inspiration, writing in November 2000, Guha reminiscences that “around 1948 Hemanga Biswas gave me to read Pablo Neruda’s famous poem ‘Let the Rail splitters Awake’; inspired by it I wrote and published a long poem in Bengali corresponding to the situation prevailing in Assam as well as the world.” This poem composed and published in 1950 was a 136 lines poem called Luit Parer Gatha which was later used as the title of his first anthology with the same name.


Guha’s old friend Gautam Chattopadhyay recalls that sometimes in 1945 or 1946, when Guha was a BA student in Presidency College, they were travelling in a train to Guntur along with over a hundred fellow activists of Communist Party affiliated All India Students’ Federation. Amidst discussions on politics and revolution, someone blurted out that “Amalendu writes wonderful poems!” Upon request to recite, tall, dark and lanky with a shock of bushy hair, Guha came forward and recited “Tram” his poem about a imagined journey from a Tram station to Dalhousie Square. The poem ends with this riveting line:


Conductor! Can you tell us, how far is the world of equality and abundance?


Guha got involved in active left politics at the age of 14 as a high school student when he joined the All India Students’ Federation (Assam unit) in 1938/39, also around that time he started his engagement with Marxist study club “Progressive Union”.


1938 to 1940 was the time when leftist politics started making inroads into Assam. Many students around that time got attracted to Marxist ideas under the influence of Bengali leftists like Soumendranath Tagore, Kamal Ghosh, Biswanath Mukherjee and Amiya Dasgupta who had shifted to Assam for political work. As a result two different Marxist study groups took shape; those under the influence of Soumendranath Tagore gravitated towards “Radical Institute” which was associated with RCPI. Amiya Dasgupta and Kamal Ghosh took the initiative in the formation of “Progressive Union” which was associated with Student Federation. By 1942, during his Intermediate College days, Guha had already started to see himself as a communist. He remained an active member of Student Federation until 1947. He became a member of the Communist Party of India in 1943 and remained active as a party cadre until 1965. But he continued his participation in politics and movements till his last years.


During the 1962 Indo-China war, within 15 days of his return to Darang College after finishing his PhD at Indian School of International Studies in Delhi, Assam Government arrested Guha under the Preventive Detention Act. From Tezpur, first he was brought to Nagaon jail and then to Guwahati jail. Within days around 52 inmates were flown in a special plane and shifted to special cells of Behrampur Jail in Orissa and were imprisoned there for six months. Among those 52 were prominent leftist intellectuals and activists of Assam like Bishnu Rabha, Baneswar Saikia, Achintya Bhattacharya, Biresh Misra, Gauri Shankar Bhattacharya, Jiban Kalita and Mohanlal Mukherjee.


In a 2004 interview on his 80th birth anniversary, Guha said that academically he always wanted to be based in Assam but the right prospect never came his way. Despite being one of the best candidates, he was denied a job at the newly established Gauhati University in 1948, and Guha strongly felt that he was denied the job because of his leftist ideology. That very year he joined Darang College, Tezpur, Assam as a lecturer of Economics and taught in the college till 1965. In between, from 1959 to 1962, he did his Phd from Indian School of International Studies, New Delhi and wrote his thesis on ‘Economic Transition in Afghanistan, 1929-1961’. From 1965 to 1973 he worked, first as a Research Fellow and later as a Reader, at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Econmics in Pune. In 1973 he moved to Centre for Studies in social Science, Calcutta to teach Economic History and retired as a Professor in 1990. In between he also taught at the Delhi School of Economics in the years 1969-1970.




As a historian, Guha was primarily known for his work ‘Planters Raj to Swaraj: Freedom Struggle and Electoral Politics in Assam: 1826-1947’ published in 1977. Till recently, it was the only academically informed work that was available on the region that professional historians could refer to, without hesitation. It was supposed to be a boring, factual and sarkari history of Assam legislative assembly, as part of a plan to write official histories of different provincial and central legislatures of India. It was commissioned by the Indian Council of Historical Research, as per the request of the Education Ministry of the Government of India, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of India’s independence. But with Guha’s enthusiasm and ICHR director R S Sharma’s full support, the book turned into a comprehensive history of Assam, touching as diverse topics as the national movement, labour struggles, peasant rebellions, politics of migration, effects of colonial economy and so on. People have long forgotten the other books published in the series and yet Guha’s book has since become a classic, with thousands of students, researchers and activists still devouring its pages for rare insights and excellent handling of primary sources.


It was Guha’s utter bad luck that his rivals in the vernacular public sphere could neither develop his acute historical sense, nor could understand the significant of developing a philosophy of history writing, let alone his expertise in handling archival materials. So, to counter his substantial critiques of the local middle class elites, crudest forms of allegations were leveled against him. It was said — Guha is critical of ‘our Assamese national icons’, because he is of Bengali origin and worse still — a communist! However they could never dare ask Guha — what are his ideas about the Bengali elites around Calcutta itself! Because this way, they would have lost the argument in the hands of the die-hard commie historian, who never minced his words about the bourgeoisie, no matter what is its nationality.


Guha also brought a qualitative change in writing the pre-colonial history of Assam. For different reasons, not all of them related to the academic field, the late 19th and early 20th century nationalist/sub-nationalist historical writings were still dominant in the region before Guha’s arrival. It was Guha who taught us to look for deeper material reasons for processes of historical change; beyond the glory of this or that king, beyond this or that victorious battle of the Ahom commander against the Mughal emperor. Guha presented a hypothesis that in the transition from what he called “tribalism to feudalism” in Assam, the introduction of wet rice cultivation by the migrant Ahom communities played a very important role. He further noted the similarity between the Ahom state and the pre-colonial states in different East Asian countries — such as Burma, Vietnam and Thailand, in terms of their control over the labour, rather than land. In that sense, he said, the Assamese history should be seen in terms of its relationships with these formations, rather than the Mughals or those in Bengal. As recent historians have become more aware of the similarity and links between the North East and the East Asian formations, the original contributions of Guha have become only too palpable. Guha was also the first historian who tried to make a socio-economic analysis of the ‘Moamaria rebellion’ in the late Ahom period, in terms of a peasant uprising, rather than just an instance of religious clashes between different Vaishnava lineages.


However, it would be totally wrong to say that he was a historian of Assam alone. He touched upon numerous historical fields — often making pioneering or important contributions. He wrote on Parsi Seths’ historical roles, India’s nationality question, economic history of Afghanistan, Mughal economy, colonial economy of India and so on.


In a pioneering series of three articles published during 1970 and 1984 in the journal Economic and Political Weekly, Guha elucidated about the roots, entrepreneurship and the comprador role of the Parsi Seths during the period 1750 to 1918. The Parsis were a late entrant into the world of trade and finance compared to other communities like the Chettiars, Bohras and Gujarati — Marwari Banias, but the Parsis were the earliest to make foray into modern industries and were able to maintain that lead until the end of the First World War. Various social scientists from diverse disciples and schools had explained the ‘successes’ of the Parsis by pointing out their acceptability to British patrons as stable collaborators, their lack of caste prejudices, their production-oriented peasant-artisanal background, and some tried to explain it through the Weberian framework of religious work ethics. Guha was perhaps the first to try and explain the Parsi success story ‘in terms of the productive forces and relations inherent in the situation, both intra-societal and extra-societal, rather than of ethnic qualities, value systems or other factors that were purely external.’


Through another set of important articles on Raw Cotton production in Western/India from 1750 to 1901, published in the journals Indian Economic and Social History Review and Artha Vijnana in 1972 and 1973, Guha made important contributions to the ‘de-industrialisation’ debate in India. On the basis of the working estimates of cotton acreage arrived at through this set of papers, Guha proposed further research “to be extended to several new directions for a proper understanding of the nineteenth-century Indian economy.”


Years later, in 1985, in a critical review of the ‘Cambridge Economic History of India Vol-II’, Prof. Irfan Habib writes:


“… For Western India, Divekar’s finding is the same as that of Dharma Kumar: the weavers’ real earnings fell ‘considerably’ between 1820s and 1840s. He also finds a decline in the number of looms though he gives numbers for only one place in the Bijapur district.


A more definitive result comes from Amalendu Guha’s calculations. He made an attempt to estimate handloom production by estimating raw-cotton production, reduced by the volume of exports and consumption in weaving factories. He found that the net availability of cotton yarn (including imported and machine-spun yarn) for handloom industry declined from 419 million Ibs in 1850 to 240 Ibs in 1870 and 184 or 221 million Ibs in 1900.”


It’s not as if he has done primary work on all these fields. Rather, in between a review of an article or a book, he would drop some extremely valuable insights about the theme and young scholars would devour and established scholars would take notice of these brief and yet extremely erudite comments.


One such book review by Guha, published in the journal Indian Economic and Social History Review in 1970, was of Peter Mathias’ book published in 1969 ‘The First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of Britain’. Mathias suggested that while foreign and colonial trade provided a strong boost to Britian’s industrial expansion for quite some time till 1750 and also after 1783, it “does not appear to have been as important a trigger — mechanism relative at least to the internal market”. Guha in his review opined that it is difficult to accept this conclusion by Mathias despite the fact that the internal market was several times bigger than the external market. Guha argued that to understand better British capital formation, rather than compare volumes of internal and external markets, it would be more fruitful to compare surpluses derived from the colonies with surplus generated within Britain.


Taking note of Guha’s argument in the review, foremost historian of the Annales School Fernand Braudel wrote in his book The Perspective of the World: Civilization and Capitalism, Vol-3 (page 581) wrote:


… Indeed I recognize the force of the argument advanced by the Indian historian Amalendu Guha, who suggests that rather than compare totals, we compare surpluses — that is the surpluses England derived from India and the surplus savings in England which went into investment. According to various calculations, English investments amounted to about £6 million in 1750 (5% of GNP) and to £19 million in 1810 (7%). Set alongside these figures, are the £2 million every year from India between 1750 and 1800 so very insignificant? We do not know in details how this money, the profits from India (in particular the wealth of the nabobs), was distributed throughout the British economy. But it was certainly neither wasted nor inactive. It went to raise the level of wealth of the island ingeneral; and it was upon such levels of wealth that England’s triumphs rested.




During the heyday of the Assam Movement (1979-85), the publication of an article titled ‘Cudgel of Chauvinism’ (February 23, 1980) by Dr. Hiren Gohain initiated a lively debate in the pages of the journal Economic and Political Weekly on the nature, content and rationale of the Assam Movement; a debate that came to be known as the “Nationality Question in Assam: The EPW Debate” and was later edited into a book by Prof. Abu Nasar Saied Ahmed (Omeo Kumar Das Institute, Guwahati).


Although the debate started with Dr. Gohain’s article, it was Guha’s prominent article ‘Little Nationalism Turned Chauvinist: Assam’s Anti-Foreigner Upsurge, 1979-80’ (Special Number, October, 1980) that became the central foci of the debate on the whole issue. Apart from Gohain and Guha, the debate drew rigorous input from Gail Omvedt, Lila Bara, Sanjib Baruah, Tilottama Misra and Udayon Misra. Guha further contributed to the debate with a substantial reply and a summing up.


Apart from focusing specifically on Assam, Guha also wrote several articles on the Nationality Question in India in general; most notably ‘Indian National Question: A Conceptual Frame’ and ‘Nationalism: Pan Indian and Regional in a Historical Perspective’.


According to Prabhat Patnaik, Guha’s essay ‘The Indian national question: A conceptual frame’ should be regarded as one of the best works of ‘Indian Marxism’. Such over-enthusiasm, it seems, is not necessary. The kind of dual consciousness that Guha talks about — one national and one regional — that all Indians supposedly have — cannot be guaranteed all the time. Rather, the essay seems like a poor attempt to adapt or imitate Stalin’s dictums on the nationality question. But even in such failures, one can see a very humane side of the old commie historian. A man who came to communism in 1940’s and 50’s — India meant something completely different from what it means today. India at that time was seen as a legitimate entity — forged in the struggle against colonialism. That one day India might become synonymous with a brutal repressive machine, hell bent on repressing any kind of nationality aspirations, was not imaginable in the hearts and minds of that generation. Breaking up of India — would be a terrible dream for this generation. The only alternative could be — an alternative to bourgeois India —a socialist one. Thus wrote Guha, when he was still a young man in late 1940’s, in a jubilant poem:


The peasants would lay down their live but will not part with their paddy.

Half-naked workers’ flag of occupation

shall flutter with certainty in thousand plantations.

The deep Nambar forest shall reverberate with life from the song of guerillas.

The Nagas have not yet forgotten how to raid and behead the enemy.

The poisoned arrows of the Dafla are still not purposeless.

Shaheed Bina’s blood is still alive on the grass of Naliapool,

Our oath still cries out for revenge.


— Verse from the Bank of Luit” Amalendu Guha 1949/50


We offer our last tribute to this lifelong communist, peoples’ historian and life-affirming poet.


15 May 2015

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