“Buku hom hom kore mur aai..
(My Mother’s heart trembles with worry)
Kune nidra hore mur aai..
(Who has stolen my mother’s sleep)
Putra hoi moi ki mote toru..
(As your son what do I do to free you from this misery)
Aai ture hoi moi moru!”
(To relieve your worry, I am ready to die)
-Lines from Buku Hum Hum Kore by Dr. Bhupen Hazarika
An evergreen song, sung all over Assam, translated to Hindi to go on to become another hit, only a few know the true meaning behind this golden masterpiece.
Akin to the art of sculpting, writing history has a certain tendency to chip away facts and events that historians at the time do not believe contribute to the mainstream narrative. More often than not people end up lost in history and history gets trapped in people and soon history becomes synonymous with half-truths and hidden stories. One of the lost stories buried under a layer of the whitewashed narrative is the discovery of tea in the valleys of Assam and the story of a legendary tea plantar- Maniram Dewan.
A prominent figure in the freedom movement and one of the foremost Indians to establish tea gardens in Assam. Hailing from a notable family, Maniram Dutta Baruah had close ties to the British East India Company. His invitation to Major Robert Bruce and Charles Alexander Bruce to meet the Singpho tribe and their drinking traditions would alter popular narratives. The world of tea would go on to credit Robert Bruce with the ‘discovery’ of tea in India, despite the Singpho tribe drinking tea since antiquity.
Opening the door to Assam’s great tea industry translated to great rewards from the British. Coveted administrative posts were showered on a young Maniram and by 1839 he was appointed Dewan of the first tea company in the world- Assam Tea Company; However, with the British deposing the Ahom king Purandar Singha, and his many differences with the company officers, the disillusionment of the intention of the British would soon sink in and by mid-40s he would quit his job and carve his own way.
His brilliant mind aided with acquired tea cultivation experience, he would go on to establish his own tea garden at Chenimore in Jorhat, becoming the first Indian to grow tea commercially in Assam. Maniram Dewan recognized the true potential of tea plantations and what it meant to the Britishers. Establishing tea plantations was his way to establish a semblance of power balance and returning the value back to his homeland. He went on to set other plantations in Sibsagar, slowly diversifying his trades to gold procurement, salt production, handlooms, boat, and brick making, ensuring maximum local employment to bolster the fast depleting economy of Assam.
Setting up private tea plantations in British India was no easy feat with numerous administrative obstacles and opposition from European tea planters. His steadfast resolve to retain the autonomy of Assam, fair treatment of various Northeastern tribes, and relentless pursuit of the British administration to relieve people of Assam from the abject and hopeless state of misery were not viewed with favor. Soon he was deemed as a hostile entity by the British. His patriotic stance would ensue a tea garden dispute and by 1851 all provided facilities to Maniram would be withdrawn.
It is to be noted that despite suffering huge personal and economic losses, his righteous sense of honor bolstered his desire to bring a semblance of respect and honor back to his homeland. During the Sepoy Mutiny, Maniram viewed it as an excellent opportunity to restore Ahom rule in Assam. Along with other freedom fighters and activists, he planned an anti-British uprising. But luck would not favor Assam’s proud son this last time and after the discovery of the anti-British plot and following arrest, he along with Piyoli Baruah would be found guilty and publicly hanged at Jorhat jail on 26th February 1858.
Immortalized for his freedom struggle, his brave sacrifice led to tremendous public resentment and open rebellion which exhausted the British government. His legacy lives on in folk songs known as “Maniram Dewan Geet” with a movie made on his life in 1964. Dr. Bhupen Hazarika penned and famously sang “Buku Hum Hum Kare” to portray the anxiety and struggle for freedom. Maniram Dewan’s tea garden in Jorhat would later become a tea research laboratory- Tocklai Experimental Station.
The story of Maniram Dewan is steeped in layers of- friendship, betrayal, remorse, loyalty, triumph, and above all, eternal glory. To this date, history records him simply as a ‘local nobleman’ who showed the British ‘wild herbs’ in the valleys of Assam. A whitewashed history eliminates a rich legacy and narrative of the ‘local nobleman’ who went on to be known as the “Father of Assam Tea”, attempting at every turn to defy and fight the British, all with the help of the humble beverage- tea.
Feature image by Nilotpal Kalita