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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 101

Why Assam to be Asom?

M. Burhanuddin Qasmi

In the early nineties BJP politically aired a new slogan—‘Indianization of big cities’ since old names, to them were, symbolic to either Mughals or British slavery. The idea later became cheaper for all political parties with much vote bank credits.

And in the process Indian politicians spread a new virus in the world—every one has to redo or delete old data. The commercial capital of India Bombay became Mumbai, Madras changed into Chennai, the first British capital of India’s Calcutta became Kolkata and the hi-tech capital of India Bangalore followed to be Bengaluru.

What’s to be Delhi’s new name?

In December 2005 the Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dixit announced that the capital of the country would change its name back to what it was in the pre-colonial, pre-mughals, pre-sultanat, pre-everything-else except Mahabharata days. However there is no consensus on the exact name that should be chosen for Delhi till today.

After the renaming of all major Indian cities in the last decade, Delhi is feeling left out, Dixit said. She then added while quoting the renamed cities that the process of renaming made everyone focus their sights on Delhi, since it was the oldest city in India. The Congress proposed that Delhi be renamed Hastinapur, since it was the capital of the dynasty of the Kurus from Mahabharata.

"Delhi is a name that indicates our mental slavery at the hands of our former colonialists and conquerers. The oldest name of the city is Hastinapur and we shall initiate the legislative procedure to effect the name change immediately", Dixit, the Congress led CM of Delhi, said.

However controversy erupted after the BJP strongly opposed the choice of the name. Senior BJP leader from Delhi, Madanlala Khurana said, "We support the idea of a name change. In fact the idea for a name change was originally BJP's. However we think that the city should be renamed Indraprastha, since there is historical, archeological and mythological evidence to prove that Delhi was actually the site of the Pandavas' new capital."

The Left in the meantime opposed both the names.

"The BJP's communal intentions are clear from their support for the name Indraprastha, which refers to a Hindu god. To preserve the secular nature of this country, we will never allow it to be named Indraprastha", thundered Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (M). He was not very enthusiastic about the name Hastinapur either.

Mr. Yechury, on the other hand, added a third and to him a ‘secular’ name. "If anything, we propose the name be changed to Leningrad. The great Vladimir Ilyich is now no longer respected in his own country Russia. At the same time his idelogical contributions to the cause of the Indian people is immense."

It will be interesting to see which name is finally chosen for Delhi. But the run of renaming for the capital of India Delhi seems not as easy as was for other cities. Earning cheap credits out of non-issue is a hallmark of Indian political parties and no party will allow go bonus credit out of hand without tough fights.

Assam becoming Asom

The northeastern state of Assam is becoming the second state, after Karnataka (Mysore) to change its name following a state cabinet decision on 27 February 2006, one month before the general election in the state on April. It was resolved by the Congress led Assam cabinet to in cash votes through tribalized emotions. Chief Minister Trun Gogoi ultimately earned some cheap benefit in the general election and came in to power for a consecutive second term.

The Times of India quotes the then cabinet spokesman Mr. Himanta Biswa Sharma and minister of state for finance who triumphantly said, "It is now Asom”.

President of Assam Sahitya Sabha, Kanaksen Deka said, "Madras has changed to Chennai, Bombay has become Mumbai, Calcutta became Kolkata and Gauhati has already changed to Guwahati. This is a good move by the state government to change Assam to Asom."

The newspaper also quotes Mr. Priyam Goswami, head of Guwahati University's History department who argued, "The word Assam was coined during the colonial period. Historically, it was Asom, but during British rule Assam Tea became so famous as a brand that colonial rulers did not attempt to correct the state's name."

Who knows which history Mr. Goswami and Mr. Deka were speaking about?

However, the state cabinet could not implement a change of name after the cabinet decision in February 2006 because the move had to be approved at various levels at the Centre as well as in the legislative assembly. The state government was supposed to first pass a name change bill in the Legislature, issue a gazette notification and then approach the Centre for a name change.

Following the cabinet decision on 15 December 2006 the state assembly has passed a name change bill—Asom from Assam without allowing a debate by the apposition parties—AGP and AUDF in the assembly. AGP leader Brindaban Goswami said it was, “an undemocratic and unconstitutional exercise by the government”.

AUDF MLA and a scholar of Bangla literature Maulana Ataur Rahman Majarbhuiya expressed his disagreement on the process and said that the honourable Speaker of the house cried out “No debate at all” in response to Mr. Brindaban Goswami’s demand.

“I myself requested the Speaker to follow a scholarly approach and at least facilitate fair discussions amongst academicians out of assembly, since the important bill must pass on scholarly argument based on available literatures but in vain” said AUDF General Secretary Maulana Atur Rahman.

Origin of Assam

Simply go through the pages of history and various encyclopedias and you will find that the fact about origin of Assam is other than what Mr. Priyam Goswami and Mr. Kanaksen Deka were trying to teach to the people of Assam. One may ignore politicians and of course, it is not their burden to study thick history books before legislating any new bill but one should not ignore statements given by a head of a history department of the stat’s biggest university, a president of the most prestigious Assam Sahitya Sabha and scholar of Assamese literature and culture.

According to online encyclopedia ‘wikipedia’ “the land of Assam was known by various names in the past—Pragjyotishpura, in ancient Hindu scriptures such as the Mahabharata; and Kamarupa in the early Middle Ages. After the decline of the Kamarupa kingdom in the 12th century, the land that included a part of the old Kamarupa kingdom and regions to the east of it was ruled by the Shan people, who called themselves Tai, but who were called Ahoms by the others”. This kingdom lasted for nearly 600 years.

Satyendra Nath Sarma the famous scholar of history and Assamese literature writes in ‘Banikanta Kakati: Assamese: Its Formation and Development’:

“While the Shan invaders called themselves Tai, they came to be referred to as Āsām, Āsam and sometimes as Acam by the indigenous people of the country. The modern Assamese word Āhom by which the Tai people are known is derived from Āsām or Āsam. The epithet applied to the Shan conquerors was subsequently transferred to the country over which they ruled and thus the name Kāmarūpa was replaced by Āsām, which ultimately took the Sanskritized form Asama, meaning "unequalled, peerless or uneven"

Historical evidence shows that the Britishers did not introduce the word ‘Assam’ nor they changed it from ‘Asom’ and even the word ‘Assam’ is older than word ‘Ahom’. ‘Assam’ was in use long before the British signed the Treaty of Yandaboo on February 24, 1826. The Britishers also used the word ‘Assam’ in that treaty.

Early documented mentions of Assam

An encyclopedia reference book shows that one of the first unambiguous references come from Thomas Bowrey in 1663 about Mir Jumla's death: "They lost the best of Nabobs, the Kingdome of ‘Acham’”—used for Assam.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605 – 1689), a French traveller and pioneer of trade with India, in his "Travels in India", published in 1676, nearly two century before arrival of British in Assam, uses the spelling "Assen" for Assam in the French original. Moreover, the official chronicler of Mir Jumla too calls the place "Asam" in the early 16th century.

Most of the scholars of history and literature accept that the first known mention of the word Assam today is in a stanza from the Bhagavat of Sankardeva composed and translated in this region about the middle of the 16th century which described the ethnic groups of the region transcribed in iTrans

kiraTa kachhaari khaachi gaaro miri
yavana ka~Nka govaala |
asama maluka dhobaa ye turuka
kubaacha mlechchha chaNDaala

Even from the Ahom Buranjis (histories), it is found that the Mughals also used the name ‘Ashyam’ or ‘Asham’ for the State. The same is also evident from various historical documents of the Mughal period and the Dutch chronicles of the pre-British era.

In the Persian publications of the Mughal period, like the Akbarnama (1542-1605), Pashah-Namah (1627-1647), Alamgir-Namah (1657-1667) and Tarikh –I Mulk-I Asham, the name Asham is mentioned. On the other hand, the name Asom is not found anywhere in the pre-British period

In the map of the Kingdom Bengale (Kingdom of Bengal), drawn by a Dutch man named John van Leenen, who was in Bengale in 1661, also recorded the name ‘Assam.’ The map was published around 1662 and currently preserved in the Maritime Museum, Rotterdam.

There is also a diary of a Dutchman published in 1675, which mentions the name of Assam and described its people as ‘Assamer’. The Dutchman fought alongside the army of Mirjumala in 1662. These are some of the written historical records of the existence of the spelling ‘Assam’ for the name of the State long before the advent of the British to it in 1826.

Later adoption

It has been found that the phonetic name ‘Assam’ has been in record with little changes for the past 700 years and has a strong connection with the coming of the Tai-Ahoms to the State.

After the fall of the Tai Ahoms and the conquest by the British in 1826, "Assam" was used to denote first the principality of the erstwhile Ahoms, and later the British province. Soon, the province was expanded to include regions that were not part of historical Tai Ahom kingdom. The boundaries of Assam have been redrawn many times after that, but the name Assam remained. Today, the boundary of Assam contains roughly the historical Ahom, Koch Hajo, Kachari kingdoms and part of old Sylhet kingdom (now a district of Bangladesh).


According to a report published recently in Assam Tribunes, the largest English daily from the state, 150 professionals living in different parts of the state, country and abroad have made an appeal to the Chief Minister of the state to rescind the state Assembly resolution on the change of the name of the state to Asom. The professionals have shown their disagreement to the process of name changing and advised the Chief Minister to set up an advisory commission with eminent citizens, academicians, historians, linguists, literary figures and the like and the members of the Assamese Diaspora, to have a transparent debate on the issue with public participation.

They have also written a petition to the Chief Minister, who identified themselves as ‘friends and well wishers of Assam living in and outside the State’ and forwarded the copies of the petition to the President and Prime Minister of the country.

Assam Tribune reports that the group of ‘friends of Assam’ expressed their shock at the decision of the Assembly on 15 December 2006 and registered their strong opposition to ‘this entirely unwarranted and undemocratic move on the part of the State Legislature’.

On behalf of the professionals Rajen Barua of Texas, USA signed the petition. The list of the professionals has also been enclosed with the petition, mentions the newspaper.

When Mr. Adit Phokan editor in chief of a prominent Assamese daily—‘Adin’ was contacted by this author to comment on the bill passed by Assam Legislature for a name change, he observed ‘it was unnecessary and a decision based on unauthentic evidences’.

“For, the State’s name is not something for changing in as casual a fashion as it has been done, without a thorough and informed public discussion and debate. It has never a mandate of the people,” argue most experts. “Why should we change the name of our state when it is famed globally as ‘Assam’ without any legitimate reason, what benefit the commoner or our state will have by this name change??” are some of the audible questions during gossips in tea-stalls, in front of Pan shops and in the streets of major cities of Assam.

A Darul Uloom Deoband graduate and Editor ‘Eastern Crescent’, English monthly, M. Burhanuddin Qasmi is also a poet and Director of Mumbai based institute ‘Markazul Ma’arif Education and Research Centre’.

- Asian Tribune -

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