ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Elusive Frontier

The Failure of a Rubber Plantation in Colonial Assam

The forest management and state-building efforts in the late 19th century are analysed by examining the failure of a state-run rubber plantation in Charduar, Assam. This plantation needs to be understood as a means of establishing state control along an ecologically, topographically and politically volatile frontier. It emphasises the importance of analysing colonialism as a complex and spatially diverse phenomenon rather than a monolithic juggernaut. The failure of the rubber experiment symbolised the failure of colonial authority in the tribal hills.

The colonial state established its first and only rubber plantation in the hills of Assam, in Charduar, in 1873. Unlike the success of the Assam tea plantations or the rubber plantations of British Malaya, the Charduar rubber plantation had to be closed down due to its inability to generate profits. The state-run plantation illustrates how the articulations of colonial “order” differed vastly, and the need to understand the plantation regimes and indeed imperialism itself as complex and spatially differentiated. The colonial government anchored itself in the fertile plains, nourished by the Brahmaputra and nurtured by its settled agriculturalists. The rugged hills surrounding the Brahmaputra Valley, meanwhile, were left to their own devices as “profitless jungles” within which roam­ed the “marauding hordes” or the hill tribes of Assam (M’Cosh 1837: 4). This was no place for “civilised” governance and these were no subjects, it was thought.

The discovery of rubber changed this understanding. By freak of nature, Assam rubber, the ficus elastica species, happened to be found along the hills of the North East Frontier in regions that were “more inaccessible than the rest of the forest” (Public Works Department 1869), predominantly in the tribal regions. In this sense, the quest to control rubber was also a quest to politically define the autonomous tribal hills and bring them within the orbit of the colonial state.

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Updated On : 22nd Sep, 2023
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