‘Colonial Road Construction in Northeast India c.1824-1891’
Mr. Santosh Rex Hasnu,
University of Delhi,
In the context of colonial Northeast India, road construction began as a part of war preparation for the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). Every treaty signed between the British East India Company and the local Rajas after the Burmese War typically implied the need for road constructions – treaties with Cachar and Jaintia Hills (1824), Khasi Hills (1826) and Manipur (1833). The Military Department built the roads; maintenance was transferred to civil functionaries, who, in turn, depended on local Rajas to get the job done. This paper enquires into the nature of ‘public works’ which made use of local coolie labour and non-local labour for construction of military roads from Sylhet that connected Burma via Cachar and Manipur, and between Sylhet and Assam via the Khasi Hills. Rajas and local chiefs were pressed into service to act as colonial labour agents. Local sources of labour were organized along tribal lines such as the Nagas, the Khasis and the Kukis (Khongjais). In monsoon Asia (especially in rainy Northeast India), road construction could take place only during the dry seasons. This work-cycle coincided with peak demand of labour for jhum (shifting) cultivation. This resulted in acute shortage of local labour supply. The seasonal shortage was supplemented by non-local sources of labour. This included convict labour and non-tribal migrant Bengalis and later Nepalis. Most of these migrant labours were sourced through labour contractors since the mid-nineteenth century. In Northeast India, the pre-capitalist concept of labour had been known by different names such as khel system in Ahom kingdom and lalup in Manipur kingdom. In the khel and lalup system, there is no dichotomy between productive and unproductive economic activities. The tributary system intertwined ties of semi-feudal obligation and allegiances between the Raja and his subjects. Tributes were sometimes collected in kind or in the form of labour. So when colonial road construction work begins, the state needed to redefine ‘work’ in non-tributary forms of socio-economic exchange. When the colonial state insisted that house tax should be paid in cash, it introduced a form of cash economy in the hill areas of the Northeast. This state initiative made the hill people more responsive to wage-labour demanded by the ‘public works’. The paper further looks at the shift of colonial interest from Cachar-Manipur road to Dimapur-Manipur road around the 1880s. A number of factors contributed to this move. These factors include the relative difficulty of the topography of the old road, the vulnerability of roadside settlements from attacks by Kukis, Lushais and Angamis. Moreover, the strategic importance of Cachar Road diminished as the threat of Burmese invasion no longer existed in the late nineteenth century. The Dimapur road transformed the road-map of the region by connecting Imphal, Kohima, Dimapur, Golaghat and Guwahati through a shorter route. The strategic importance of the new road was demonstrated immediately during the Palace Rebellion (1891) in Manipur.
Mr. Santosh Rex Hasnu is currently a doctoral candidate at Department of History, University of Delhi working on the social history of different transport systems – waterways, roadways, railways and airways – as a part of wider ‘circulatory regimes’ in colonial Northeast India, 1824-1945.