A review of the Assam State Archives, Guwahati (Assam), India.
Northeast India long stood at the edge of the study of South Asia, its academic marginality mirroring its post-colonial geographic isolation and apparent otherness—cultural, linguistic, or otherwise. This state of affairs is rapidly changing. Young and established scholars, in the Northeast and elsewhere, are increasingly taking it up as an object of study, both in its own right and for the insights it can shed on various processes at play in South Asia, from state formation to identity politics, migration, or environmental change. Moreover, in a context where borderlands perspectives are increasingly valued, the region’s location at the crossroads of South Asia, Tibet, and South-East Asia makes it a fruitful terrain to reach beyond region- or state-centric narratives.
The archives, past and present
The Assam State Archives are a major resource to fuel this momentum further. Officially founded in 1980, when the provincial government created a State Archives Organization under the responsibility of the General Administration Department, these archives are the heir to an older tradition of colonial record-keeping in north-eastern India. A Records Branch was created the very year Assam became a Chief Commissioner’s Province in 1874, before being reorganized at the turn of the twentieth century. But it was only after India’s independence that a trained, full-time “Keeper of Records-cum-Librarian” was appointed, and it would take another thirty years or so for the archives to be born. Since 2006, they have become a fully-fledged directorate of the Assam Secretariat.
My first experience of the Assam State Archives was rather disheartening. I had gone there in 2010 and 2011 to research the history of the eastern Himalayas in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, it seemed impossible to find an index of the post-1947 collections, and such documents as I could find were in decidedly bad shape. Scholars working on the colonial era seemed to have better luck, but also struggled with the poor conservation state of many documents.
The picture could not be more different during my most recent visit, in early 2014. In the last year or so, major transformations have been taking place to preserve and enhance the collections and improve users and staff experience. The first sign of change is the extensive renovation of the buildings. The Library and Research Room now have air-conditioning, rescuing scholars and documents alike. (Previously, turning the fan on to get some respite from the Assamese monsoon sent already brittle documents flying all over the room.)
This renovation participates in more extensive changes. The preservation of documents is now prioritized: reprographic, microfilm and digitization rooms have been installed, and a team has been hired to carry out these tasks. Meanwhile, both the Archives and the Library are being reorganized and their collections catalogued. Books are now bar-coded, enabling searches in a computerized catalogue, and archives have been indexed up to 1957. Given the long-term nature of these projects, much more remains to be done; eventually, all government archives are meant to be indexed and put on a computerized catalogue, and indeed accessible in digital form. But the renaissance of the Assam Archives is already well underway.
The results of these improvements are impressive. Scholars now have increased and easier access to 266,000 government files reaching back all the way to the earliest phase of colonial rule in north-eastern India, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Files transferred from the Bengal Government distillate information on the colonization of the Surma Valley and Goalpara—although Sylhet-related series are incomplete due to the transfer of some documents to East Pakistan after Partition—as well as on early contacts and tensions between the British and the Ahom kingdom or the Khasi principalities, colonial struggles to establish fixed boundaries between their Cachar or Sylhet domains and neighbouring Manipur, and the birth of the tea industry. Correspondence between the Government of India and the Agent to the Governor-General on the North-East Frontier, letters to/from the Bengal Government, Board of Revenue files, and district officers correspondence provide information on the annexation of the Ahom kingdom in the wake of the First Anglo-Burmese War, Assam’s administrative reorganization, and the economic and strategic significance of the region for the Raj.
The Archives also host the proceedings of the various governments of colonial Assam—constituted as a Chief-Commissioner Province in 1874, Assam was merged with East Bengal from 1905 to 1911, and was erected into a Governor’s Province in 1921—as well as files from the successive Chief Commissioners and Governor’s Secretariat. Beyond the Brahmaputra and Surma Valleys, these files provide a wealth of information on the surrounding highlands, once part of Assam, and on the princely states of Manipur and Tripura, over which the Assam Governor had oversight. Scholars interested in the history of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh prior to their creation will be particularly interested in the Excluded Areas and the Tribal Areas Department Files, which shed light on issues as different as the impact of the Second World War on the hills or the functioning of the Autonomous District Councils after 1947.
On the other hand, the Assam State Archives do not—as a government repository rooted in colonial practice—hold many vernacular documents. Researchers will, however, find a few manuscripts from the satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) of Majuli Island, in Upper Assam.
Finally, visitors can consult the 29,000 volumes held at the Archives’ library, ranging from government publications and reports to maps, gazetteers (1879-1942), and rare books. Apart from legislative assembly debates (1921-66) or tea reports, the library also holds some of the most instructive sources to understand the history of the north-east frontier: the extensive diaries written by colonial officers during their tours in the highlands.
The archives’ address (State Archives, Assam, Dispur, Guwahati-781006) says little of their precise location. In Guwahati as in much of the northeast, one relies on landmarks rather than on street names or house numbers. Luckily, the Archive is located right across one such landmark: the temple of Goneshmondir. The easiest way to reach it is to take any bus going in the direction of Goneshguri, and to hop off at this busy crossroads. The temple and the archives are a five minute walk away along a busy commercial road.
Registration & Requisition
The procedure is quick and straightforward. Upon arrival, scholars need to present a letter of introduction from their academic institution to the director of the archives (Dr Dharmeswar Sonowal), on the first floor of the building; foreign citizens also require a letter from their embassy. Access to the archives and library is granted for a fixed period, which entails submitting a new application on subsequent visits, but is almost immediate once the application form has been completed.
Scholars can then go straight to the research room, leaving their belongings in the lockers just outside, and the archival staff will supply them with catalogues and indexes upon request. At this stage, these are still in manuscript form; the best method is to consult the amalgamated index for colonial documents, and to request indexes for one or two years at a time for post-1947 records.
A separate requisition form is required for each record. There is no limitation on the number of forms that can be submitted, but how many records will be delivered depends on the availability of staff. Since the archives are still undergoing reorganization, some records might take longer to find. Rare books, gazetteers, or government publications are to be requested from the adjacent library, where staff will assist scholars in searching the computerized catalogue and deliver the books to them. Both records and library books are to be consulted in the Research Room, however.
Official working hours are 10:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. in winter (5:00 p.m. in summer), Monday to Saturday, with the exception of the second and fourth Saturdays of the month. Actual staff attendance varies, particularly during the monsoon or during festivals, such as Bihu.
Photocopies and photography are permitted, subject to the director’s written and conditional permission. As of 2014, the cost stands at Rs1/page for Indian citizens and Rs2/page for foreigners. Pages to be photocopied have to be carefully identified, and a precise list handed over to the staff. The speed of the process depends both on the staff’s availability and the urgency of the demand, making negotiation essential. Photographs may be permitted, but this needs to be personally negotiated with the director.
Much effort has been made over the last few years to offer training opportunities for staff. Archivists, librarians and their assistants are friendly and approachable, and may bring you documents of potential interest once they have a better understanding of your research. The key challenge is that of language. Staff are as a rule far more comfortable in Hindi than in English, but some only speak Assamese.
Unlike the National Archives in Delhi, the Assam State Archives are located in a lively corner of Guwahati. Chaiwallahs, dhabas, and small restaurants abound in their vicinity; no scholar ever goes hungry or thirsty. Non-locals should not miss out on Assamese cuisine, with its incredible variety of ingredients—north-eastern India’s status as one of the world’s bio-diversity hotspots is on display at the nearby market—and rich array of tastes. Delicacy, a ten-minute walk away on the Goneshguri crossroad, is a good option. Scholars will also find most of their daily needs fulfilled thanks to the many shops that line the road between Goneshmondir and Goneshguri. Commuting from the archives to other parts of the city is very easy thanks to Guwahati’s efficient, if ramshackle, public transport system. Buses ply the main routes, and shared jeeps (‘trekkers’) secondary ones.
For more information see the Assam State Archives Facebook Page. A website should also be launched soon.
Ed. note, September 2014: The Assam State Archives website is now live — click here.
Dr Bérénice Guyot-Réchard
Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge
Image printed courtesy of the Assam State Archives.
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