A magnanimous historical personality and the first Prime Minister of undivided Assam, Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi (06.06.1890-05.08.1950) belongs to that galaxy of stalwarts who played a momentous role in shaping the destiny of the North-eastern state of Assam at the time of India’s Independence. August 5, 2020 marks the 70th death anniversary of this forgotten hero in the corridors of Leftist history-writing which has almost erased him from our collective memory.
A visionary leader with unwavering dedication and resolve to fight injustice in all its forms, Gopinath Bordoloi was popularly known as Lokapriya (meaning, loved by all) among his admirers. It was only because of his firm commitment to the cause of protecting the primarily Hindu identity of the state of Assam and its culture that chiefly accounted for Assam’s eventual integration as a full-fledged state with the Union of India. Indeed, it is a less popular yet a very interesting story of a pragmatic politician who almost single-handedly ensured the failure of the ill-conceived Cabinet Mission Plan.
A Brief Life-Sketch
Gopinath Bordoloi was born on June 6, 1890 at Raha in Nagaon district of central Assam to Praneswari Devi and Budheswar Bordoloi. After completing his matriculation and intermediate examinations from Guwahati, he joined the Scottish Church College in Calcutta in the year 1911 for pursuing his B.A. (Honours) degree in History. After having completed his post-graduation in History and also a three-year course in law, Bordoloi returned to his native place where he took up the job of the headmaster of a local high school before joining the Guwahati Bar Association in 1917. In the same year, he married Surbala whom he imparted skills in cooking, sewing, etc. and also helped her learn Hindi. He was also a sports and music enthusiast who himself sang many Borgeets (Assamese Vaishnavite hymns), Rabindra-Sangeet, Bihu songs, etc.
A Leader is Born
It was Gopinath Bordoloi’s expertise in law that had set the stage for him to later take an active part in the public affairs of the state. He was a member of the Assam Association which, besides the Jorhat Sarvajanik Sabha, was one of the mirror organisations of the nascent Assamese middle class that represented writers, lawyers, social workers, educationists, and politicians. It was when Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement started in the year 1921 in Assam that Gopinath Bordoloi suspended his legal practice and took to active organisational work at the grassroots. He soon became the Joint Secretary of the Guwahati Congress Committee, actively promoting the ideas of Khadi and Swadeshi for reviving Assam’s rural economy.
Another leader of eminence in the freedom struggle of Assam, Tarun Ram Phookan, is known as the mentor of Gopinath Bordoloi. Bordoloi had later acknowledged that it was Phookan who, for the first time, had helped him gain a fresh perspective on mass civil disobedience. Both Tarun Ram Phookan and Gopinath Bordoloi had offered their full support to the newly formed Swaraj Party within the Indian National Congress after its Gaya Session in 1922. They soon formed a State Unit in Assam, which recorded significant success in the ensuing elections. At this time, Gopinath Bordoloi, who was the President of the Guwahati District Congress Committee, actively campaigned and addressed several meetings in support of its members.
However, differences emerged after the passage of the Lahore Resolution by the INC in 1929, voicing its support for Non-Cooperation. Both Bordoloi and Phookan did not agree with this approach of the Congress and issued a joint statement expressing their reservations about the Assembly boycott programme and also questioned its relevance and utility with respect to Assam specifically. Bordoloi had strongly felt that the presence of the Congress representatives was necessary in the Assembly in order to oppose the repressive, anti-people policies of the colonial state. So firm and determined he was in his decision that he ultimately resigned from the Presidentship of the Guwahati District Congress Committee on February 27, 1930.
Immediately after Bordoloi’s resignation, Tarun Ram Phookan revived the Swaraj Party and was soon re-elected to the Central Legislature. In retaliation, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) asked him to resign from not only the AICC but also the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee (APCC). Men of principle as they both were, they not only complied with this directive but also went a step further by tendering their resignation from the primary membership of the Congress too.
However, Bordoloi never dissociated himself from the various pro-people activities that were going on at both the national and state levels as a part of the freedom struggle. Nevertheless, he started to keep himself aloof from the Congress mainstream, since he was a staunch supporter of parliamentary politics and thus believed that unless some members were there in the Assembly, the special problems of Assam could not be addressed.
Later, as the Chairman of the Guwahati Municipality, Gopinath Bordoloi took several commendable measures for improving the living conditions of the poor and socio-economically backward castes and communities. He was also instrumental in promoting the Rashtra Bhasha Prachar Samiti in Assam. As the Chairman of the Samiti, Bordoloi, along with a few of his other colleagues, laid the foundation of popular Hindi education in the province. Gopinath Bordoloi was of the opinion that the propagation of Hindi in Assam would allow the Assamese people to integrate themselves at more ease with the national mainstream.
East Pakistan in the Making & Bordoloi’s Differences with the Muslim League
Gopinath Bordoloi returned to the Assam Legislative Assembly in 1937 and was elected as the leader of the INC in the Assembly. However, it needs to be mentioned here that the Legislature Party did not make any attempts to form the government since the party at the national level was in favour of non-acceptance of any office. But, the Congress soon changed its decision and favoured the formation of its Ministries at the provincial level, in provinces where the party was in a majority. In the Assam Assembly, Sir Saiyyid Muhammad Sadullah became the Prime Minister of Assam (before the promulgation of the Constitution of India, the chief minister of a province was called the ‘prime minister’) and Bordoloi the Leader of the Opposition. The Governor of Assam preferred Sadullah over Bordoloi mainly because of his close rapport with Nehru and also the English-speaking Europeans in the Assembly.
Sadullah was an ethnic Assamese Muslim leader representing the Muslim League in the Assam Assembly. However, in view of a large number of defeats on the floor of the House and the extremely anti-people policies of his government, protests against the Sadullah Ministry grew with each passing day, until it resigned on September 13, 1938. It was after a few days on September 20, 1938 that the Bordoloi Ministry was eventually sworn in. During his 14-month long tenure as the Prime Minister of Assam, Bordoloi proved himself to be an able administrator and a popular politician deeply committed to the welfare of his people at all costs. One of the most significant steps that Bordoloi undertook during his tenure was protection of the grazing reserves and reserved forests of Assam in order to preserve the valuable forests and natural resources of the province. His cabinet also instituted a Tea Labour Conditions Enquiry Committee so as to investigate into the working conditions of the labourers working in the tea gardens of Assam.
However, despite all such progressive policy measures, the Bordoloi cabinet had to resign following the directive of the Congress Working Committee in 1939 as a protest against the arbitrary action of the British government which declared India as one of the belligerent countries in the war without her consent. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the Government again quickly re-instated Sadullah at the helm of affairs although he did not have the requisite majority. It was primarily considered as a ‘return gift’ for Sadullah’s whole-hearted support to the British. Sadullah went out of his way to contribute Rs. 1 crore from the state revenue towards the war fund. Gopinath Bordoloi, in the meantime, had formed santi senas along with a few other leaders of the Congress for helping the war evacuees from Burma and Malaya who had poured into Assam in the most wretched of conditions.
In 1940, several prominent APCC leaders including Gopinath Bordoloi, Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, Gauri Kant Talukdar, Bishnu Ram Medhi, Lakheshwar Barooah and Debeshwar Sarma were jailed for their opposition to the British imposition of the World War II on India. In the Jorhat jail, they conducted what was called ‘Bordoloi’s Nation-Building Meetings’. These meetings were designed to discuss and deliberate upon Assam’s nationalism, the future territorial boundaries of Assam, its relationship with the frontier areas and Manipur, and finding a solution to Assam’s own internal problems.
Sadullah, on the contrary, had harboured a parallel vision of a possible third nationality in the region while striving for a Greater East Pakistan, including Assam in its fold. In due course of time, he became the principal political and ideological rival of Gopinath Bordoloi. In the ideological tussle that ensued between the Congress and the Muslim League, a small Muslim-majority town called Sylhet situated in the Barak Valley in southern Assam, became the pivot of identity politics that emerged in the entire region. This gradually led to a broad perception of Assam as a Muslim-majority state in the rest of the country.
Bordoloi lamented, “There is no one [in Assam] to explain to the general mass of Indians that Assam is not a state to b incorporated into the League’s concept of Pakistan.” In Bordoloi’s private diary (dated March 17, 1941), as quoted by Mahadev Sarma, it has been written: “I am astonished to know that even C. Reddy, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Andhra Pradesh, thinks that Assam is a Muslim-majority state.” Sadullah, however, exploited this confusion very well in the minds of the national leaders regarding Assam and strategically used it to craft a new demand for a separate Muslim nationality. In fact, Jinnah and the provincial Muslim League leaders had aspired for the whole of Assam to be included into East Bengal while making Shillong their summer resort capital.
Sadullah has been accused of facilitating the first wave of mass Muslim migration into Assam from East Bengal. The massive famine that struck Bengal in 1943 had resulted in a mass exodus of people into the neighbouring province of Assam. In order to provide settlement to these fresh immigrants, the Assam Government led by Sadullah adopted a resolution called “Grow More Food” in 1943. This resolution provided for the opening up of the grazing reserves in Kamrup, Darrang and Nagaon districts (in Central Assam) to land-hungry immigrant cultivators from Bengal. It was this resolution which the then Viceroy of India Lord Wavell had famously interpreted as “Grow More Muslims”.
Hence, it can be seen that during Sadullah’s Muslim League Ministry in Assam (1937-46), a concerted effort was being made to encourage the migration of Bangladeshi Muslims into Assam en-masse, chiefly for nourishing a political vote-bank. It was earlier planned by Moinul Haque Choudhury, the private Secretary of Jinnah, who after Independence, became a minister in the Assam cabinet and promised Jinnah that he would “present Assam to him on a silver platter”. It was during the time of the Sylhet referendum that the East Pakistanis had declared, “We have taken Sylhet via referendum, we will take Assam via the power of the stick.” By the time Gopinath Bordoloi was released from jail, Sadullah had already bolstered the status of Assam’s migrant population via various government policies.
Opposition to the ‘Grouping Scheme’ of the Cabinet Mission Plan
On March 28, 2016, at the very beginning of the election campaign trail in Assam, then-BJP President Amit Shah at a rally in Lakhimpur district, began his scathing attack on the legacy of the previous policies of the Congress governments in the state. While blaming Nehru for pushing Assam into the ‘C’ category states of the Cabinet Mission Plan, he elaborated on the role of Gopinath Bordoloi who had saved Assam from a brutal idea called Pakistan. Amidst thunderous roars of Bharat Mata ki Jai from the BJP’s Assamese supporters, Amit Shah referred to the grave historic blunder committed by the Congress under Nehru’s leadership that had almost led to Assam becoming a part of Pakistan.
During the Indian provincial elections in 1946, the Congress won a whopping majority in Assam and Gopinath Bordoloi returned again as the Chief Minister. The British Government had announced the Cabinet Mission Plan on May 16, 1946 which envisaged a ‘Union of India’ consisting of various provinces/units having full autonomy with all residuary powers being vested upon them, except in the areas of external affairs, defence and communications. However, the principal deal-breaker in the Plan was the ‘Grouping’ provision which arbitrarily divided the British Indian provinces into three different groups or sections – A, B and C. The six Muslim-dominated provinces were constituted under the Sections B and C, and Section C included Bengal and Assam.
It was by virtue of this classification that Assam, a Hindu-majority province was deemed to be a state in the Muslim-dominated region of the country. In reality, the Cabinet Mission Plan provided a fine blueprint of the future East Pakistan, leaving the citizens of Assam in a state of lurch. They continued to wonder whether they too would become a part of East Pakistan in the making!
Unfortunately, in its attempt to appease the Muslim League and find a hurried solution to India’s independence, the Congress agreed to the Cabinet Mission Plan, thereby betraying the interests of Assam. The All-India Muslim League also accepted the Plan, declaring that the ‘germ and essence of Pakistan was there’. In the words of Nirode K. Barooah, “The problem with Assam was that since this Hindu-majority province would be together with the Muslim-predominated Bengal in one Section, the acceptance to the Section would automatically mean opting for the Group and getting thereby submerged in Bengal. In fact, there can be no doubt that the Grouping Provision was especially made to satisfy the Muslim League.” Barooah further stated that instead of conceding to the demand of ‘Pakistan’ as such, the Grouping Plan was conceived as a ‘halfway house’ such that two Muslim-dominated areas would emerge to represent the notion of a ‘Muslim nation’. Hence, trying to save itself from this Plan became yet another struggle for Assam within its demand for Independence.
On April 1, 1946, as the head of the provincial government, Gopinath Bordoloi met the Cabinet Mission and strongly advocated for retaining Assam as a province within the Indian Union and not to include it in Group C. It became clear to Bordoloi that the merger of Assam with Bengal would seal the future of the Assamese people forever and Assam would eventually lose its distinct identity and individuality in the political whirlpool. He rejected the entire idea of Pakistan as absolutely preposterous and opined that Assam as a Hindu-majority province on the basis of language and culture already enjoyed provincial autonomy.
Senior journalist Daya Nath Singh in his article titled ‘Gopinath Bordoloi – The Man who Saved Assam from Becoming an Islamic State’ has written that on July 16, 1946, the Assam Assembly adopted a resolution moved by Bordoloi, which expressed strong words of disapproval against the ‘Grouping Plan’. It also directed the ten representatives from Assam in the Constituent Assembly to not sit with any other province for devising the Constitution of Assam or any group Constitution with such other province for the settlement of any question relating to Assam.
However, despite Bordoloi’s repeated requests, no one higher up in the ranks of the Congress leadership showed any interest in the immediate problem of Assam. Sensing complete indifference from the Congress leadership, Bordoloi had sent out two of his emissaries, Bijoy Chandra Bhagwati and Mahendra Mohan Chowdhury, to enlist M.K. Gandhi’s support in preventing Assam from becoming a part of Pakistan. Nevertheless, both Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad had thought that Assam’s case was acting as an obstruction to India’s freedom.
While speaking to a Bengali delegation, Nehru stated – “Assam cannot hold up the progress of the rest of India and support to Assam would mean refusal to accept the British Prime Minister’s statement of 6 December and letting loose the forces of chaos and civil war.” On hearing of Nehru’s great betrayal and acceptance of the 6 December Statement which declared the Cabinet Mission Plan as an indivisible whole that had to be accepted by all parties in-toto, the people of Assam felt a sense of disillusionment with the central Congress leadership. But, that had not deterred Bordoloi’s steely resolve to maintain the integrity of Assam intact as a part and parcel of the Indian Union.
It was at this time that the Provincial Muslim League began asserting itself when it saw a glimmer of a chance of the possible inclusion of Assam in its Pakistan project. When the Assam government, led by Bordoloi, planned to evict illegal land encroachers from the state, the League saw it as a measure to evict Muslims from the region. Jinnah himself visited Guwahati in 1946 to protest against the land eviction policy of Bordoloi’s government and threatened him by saying – “If the government does not immediately revise its policy and abandon this persecution of Muslims, a situation will be created which will not be conducive for the people of Assam.” As written by Journalist Sanjoy Hazarika in his book, ‘Strangers of the Mist’, “Uppermost in his (Bordoloi’s) mind was the unspoken fear that these migrations were laying the foundation for a demand by Jinnah for Assam’s inclusion in a future Pakistan, by emphasising the size of the Muslim population and its close links with East Bengal.”
However, the leader and visionary in Gopinath Bordoloi finally succeeded in convincing other national leaders including Gandhi and Sardar Patel about the genuine concerns of Assam regarding the Cabinet Mission Plan. Finally, the controversial parts of the Plan had to be scrapped by the British government. In this unique battle for survival, Gopinath Bordoloi emerged as a towering personality in the entire country. Had he not opposed the Grouping Scheme and instead chose to side with Nehru, there would have been no Assam left today in the map of India.
An Outstanding Leader, Patriot and Visionary
Bordoloi did not just fight to make sure that Assam stayed with India, but he continued to work as an activist thereafter too, raising his voice for the common people of Assam long after he had won the political battle. After Independence, as the first Chief Minister of Assam, Bordoloi used to work closely with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for the protection of Assam’s sovereignty, including its continued separation from the borders with China and Bangladesh. He also helped organise the rehabilitation of millions of Hindu refugees who had fled East Pakistan due to widespread violence and intimidation on the ground of their religion in the immediate aftermath of the Partition.
Bordoloi faced the twin problems of a massive influx of immigrants into Assam and a severe paucity of funds and land to settle them. But, instead of genuinely looking into and resolving the issue, Nehru retorted by linking state grants to the vexed issue of refugee settlement. He said, “Assam could expect central financial help only if it liberally accepted refugees from East Bengal and granted them lands.” Even on the issue of paucity of land with respect to Assam, Nehru doubted its seriousness when Gopinath Bordoloi had brought it to his notice.
Despite his national stature, Gopinath Bordoloi was unable to instil confidence in Nehru who had deep-rooted misconceptions about Assam and was therefore less sympathetic towards the chronic problems of this state. The porosity of the Assam-Bangladesh land border allowed unabated migration for the next several decades after Independence. In fact, the degree of porosity can be gauged by the fact that the then chief secretary of East Pakistan and his family would often come to the resort city of Shillong without any documentation or permission. Whether it was merely for leisure or espionage activities, the purpose of their visit is still debatable. When Bordoloi raised the issue with Nehru, his response was, “We do not object normally to a particular person visiting India from Pakistan.”!
Gopinath Bordoloi died of a heart attack on August 5, 1950 while in office at the age of 60 years. Appreciating his God-gifted qualities and immense contribution to the nation, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had said,
“It is difficult to think of the state of Assam without Gopinath Bordoloi. He had identified himself so completely with the interests of his state, and for years the political life had so much intermingled with this great personality that we had come to think of the two entities as always being synonymous.”
Unfortunately, the Congress Party in collusion with a morally corrupt academia failed to give due credit to this epochal leader and its own politician who had once famously said, “He [Jinnah] might as well expect the moon come down to him but could never have Assam in his Pakistan.” It was only after the coming to power of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998 that its very first Bharat Ratna – the country’s highest civilian honour – was conferred posthumously upon Gopinath Bordoloi, the first person from the North-East to have been bestowed with this coveted honour. A life-size statue of him was also unveiled in the Parliament House building on October 1, 2002 by the then President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. All objective readers of Indian history must ponder over the fact as to why this realisation never dawned upon the Congress Party despite being in power for 50 long years!
- Nirode K. Barooah. (1989). Gopinath Bordoloi: Indian Constitution and Centre-Assam Relations, 1940-1945. Assam: Publication Board of Assam, pp. 25-52.
- Nirode K. Barooh. (2010). Gopinath Bordoloi, ‘The Assam Problem’ and Nehru’s Centre. Guwahati: Bhabani Books.
- Nirode K. Barooah. (2010). Ejon Satyagrahir Rajniti: Gopinath Bordoloi aru Axom – Tetia aru Etia. Guwahati: Assam Publication Board.
- Rajat Sethi & Shubhrastha. (2017). The Last Battle of Saraighat: The Story of the BJP’s Rise in the North-East. India: Penguin Random House.
- Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi. Lok Sabha Secretariat. New Delhi. October 2002.
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