SPEAKING UP EARLY
The sixteen-year old candidate sitting for the selection test for admission into Normal School observed a headmaster enter the hall several times and quietly whisper into the ears of four of his students taking the examination. While he did not hear what was being said, he assumed that it was about the answers. Without caring about the consequences of his action, the young boy loudly asked the Inspector for the answer to a question. The surprised education official reminded him that it was illegal to do so in an examination. The teenager revealed about what had been going on in the hall and said that for justice’s sake, the answer of at least one question must be told. The stunned official left to return sometime later to announce that the concerned teacher would not come to the hall again.
The outspoken young student went on to make a name as an educationist and politician. He established numerous schools in Digboi and its surrounding areas, besides being elected from the constituency twice. He was none other than Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah. He narrates the above incident in his book, Horu Horu Manuhor Horu Horu Kotha. There is another book, Xetu, to his credit.
BORN INTO A LIFE OF STRUGGLE
Sarmah’s life was one of struggle. Born to Hareswar Dev Sarma and Chandra Kanti Devi at Bojali Muguria Gaon in Kamrup on January 20 in 1914, he was the eldest amongst his two brothers and two sisters. The rice grown on the family’s plot of land was just enough to feed the family three to four months. Hareswar Dev Sarma served as a priest in an interior village of Goalpara district and came home every two to three months. In his absence, his wife looked after the needs of the family. Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah did his minor from Choukhuti Minor School. He took admission in Bojali High School in the seventh standard after passing minor with a second division. However, the teenager had to discontinue his studies as the failure to pay school fees resulted in the removal of his name from the roll. Determined to get a respectable job, the teenager decided to study Normal. There were just two Normal schools in Assam then, one at Silchar, the other at Jorhat. Seats were limited and admission into the institution was possible only after qualifying in the selection test. Sarmah not only managed to get through the selection test, he also passed the student scholarship exam with a first division.
In the meantime, as was the tradition then, Hareswar Dev Sarma arranged his eldest son’s marriage with ten-year old Jogmaya, the daughter of Keshabananda Goswami. The student had just passed his minor and was barely fifteen-years-old. But, it was only after his paas biya in 1935 that his wife came home.
As a student of Jorhat Normal School, the Brahmin boy once faced the ire of other students of his caste for performing the last rites of a teacher, who belonged to scheduled caste. The division among the different castes was very distinct during those days. When the residents of the Brahmin mess, of which Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah was a member refused to have food along with him and set the condition of undergoing penitence (praichitta) to become a part of their circle, he refused as he did not consider his action as a sin. While his fellow students ostracized him, his teachers heaped praises on him. This scout was given the guard of honour at the scout rally of Sivasagar district held at the playground of Jorhat Government High School. Almost six months later when the summer holidays commenced, floods in Nagaon district disrupted rail communication and traveling by ship from Kokilamukh to Pandu was the only option left to reach home for the students hailing from Lower Assam. Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah approached the Superintendent of the institution for fare to travel by ship to Pandu, not only for himself but also for others, inviting rebuke from the official for showing compassion for those who had cut him off. But, the student managed to get the fare for all. When the Brahmin students heard about the exchange, they retracted their earlier decision and welcomed back the outcaste into their fold, apologizing for the treatment they meted out to him.
WORKING TO SPREAD THE LIGHT OF EDUCATION
Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah secured the first position in the final exam of Normal school. His first job was as the Assamese teacher of Horupeta Minor School. Impressed by the activities of Ambikagiri Rai Choudhury’s Asom Sonrokhyini Sabha, he and two others established a branch of the organization at Horupeta. They held a public meeting, which was graced by Choudhury and Bagmibor Nilamoni Phukan. But, nine months later, Sarmah resigned as a member of the Sabha. In 1936, he joined as the assistant teacher of a primary school run by Assam Oil Corporation at Digboi, where he found his mission. He was transferred to Muliabari Primary School and then Refinery Primary School in later years.
The teacher started visiting the villages in and around the oil town, starting with 1 No Borbeel, after school hours. Education had not yet spread in these areas. The parents were unwilling to send their wards to schools. But, the persistence of the assistant teacher paid off and 1 No Borbeel Primary School was established in January, 1939. He envisioned a healthy society in Digboi and formed Siksha Prachar Samity after World War II. In subsequent years, as part of the Samity’s plan of spreading education in rural areas, Sarmah went on to set up almost twenty such educational institutions in nearby areas. He went to different villages to meet people and spread awareness. Recalling an instance, his son, Hirendra Nath Sarma, remembers his father returning home with another person late one night from Pengeri, with blood all over. He found out that leeches had stuck to their bodies while making way through the thick forest that surrounded Digboi. There were other incidents like coming face to face with wild elephants and losing way in the jungle.
In the years that followed, Sarmah was instrumental in the establishment of Digboi College and Digboi Mahila Mahavidyalaya, besides being associated with Soumar Vidyapith. Through the Siksha Prachar Samity, which he formed with the vision of spreading education in and around Digboi and bringing economic empowerment among the women especially, he undertook mulberry plantation and established a weaving training center in 1951, in which girls were taught to work on looms. The educationist was also part of various social, cultural and religious organizations like Ramakrisha Seva Ashram in Digboi. The first Joymoti Utsav in the oil town was held in 1946 at his initiative. Along with the Labour Superintendent, WW Brooks, the AOC employee also staged plays during Saraswati Puja, thus encouraging the theatre movement in the area. The social activist took up cudgels against gambling and managed to put a ban on betting, which peaked during Diwali.
MAKING A MARK AS POLITICIAN
Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah became a general member of the Congress while on his visit home during the summer holiday of 1937. Thereafter, he went on to wear khadi and became one of the very few on the Company’s roll to do so; others preferred not to attract the attention of the authorities and earn their ire. When the workers’ union of Assam Oil Company went on strike in 1939, the young teacher lent support to their cause. In 1944, he established the Digboi branch of Congress and chosen as its President to the full-fledged committee next year. In 1957, he contested the election and was elected to the State Legislative Assembly from Digboi LAC. He was re-elected for another term five years later.
The Digboi MLA took upon himself to learn of the problems of the constituency’s people first hand and visited interior places like Ketetong, Bor Phakial, Pungna, Long Gaon, and Ulup etc during the monsoon to experience the hardships faced by the residents of these areas. He won the trust and love of the tribal people, who resided here. Hirendra Nath Sarmah narrates how the headman of Ketetong village, Kumgitung Duwania, would turn up at their home if the interval between his father’s visits was long, saying that he had not seen the MLA for a long time. Sarmah, became a member of the State Advisory Board for Basic Education. In his term, he worked to give Digboi its first Civil Hospital and a veterinary dispensary. The Kothalguri and Ketetong PHCs were built when he was in power. He also launched his movement against opium in his constituency and established a temporary de-addiction center at the Tirap dispensary. The Congressman managed to improve communication in the area, building motorable roads to the once-cut-off villages like Lakhipathar, Pengeri and Philobari.
When the language movement broke out in 1960, the politician did his best to ensure normalcy and prevent any untoward incidents. His eldest son still remembers him moving on a bicycle late into the night, holding meetings and reassuring people. The family received threats from various quarters but its head worked on undaunted.
INTEGRITY AT ALL COST
In Horu Horu Manuhor Horu Horu Kotha, Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah recounts calling a public meeting in 1966 after there were rumours of corruption against him. The gathering unanimously attested to his integrity. In this period, the State faced a crisis in food supply and rationing became the norm. In a souvenir, the MLA’s second son, Bipul Dev Sarma, writes about queuing up before a shop and how heart broken he was as a child after his father returned a cake brought by a baker. He also recounts how a bicycle shop owner always asked his father to sell off his old ramshackle cycle as it was certain to cause an accident and ultimately selling him one, receiving the payment in installments. Years later, when the son wanted to sell off a small plot of agricultural land being cultivated by one Shanker, the elder Sarmah refused, saying that the cultivator had right over it and had it duly transferred to the latter’s name.
The two-time MLA found himself facing hard times when he went out of power. He faced the prospect of being evicted from the AOC quarter, where he had resided till then. An official in the oil company literally forced him to accept a plot of land on lease. A few well-wishers spontaneously came forward to help out in cash and kind with which a house came up on the land. Meanwhile, the lack of income source only made Sarmah work harder. Bipul Dev Sarma recalls how hard his father worked, getting up early in the morning to engage in agricultural work.
DISILLUSIONMENT AND FAREWELL TO POLITICS
Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah resigned as a member of Congress in 1977 after becoming disillusioned with the developments in Congress party and the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi. He joined the Janata Party and was chosen as the President of its Digboi committee. However, he refused the nomination as the party’s contestant from Margherita LAC in 1978 and opted to contest from Digboi as Independent candidate. He lost the election and retired from active politics. In the period thereafter, the former politician became very involved in the fight against opium addiction. He also built up the Cooperative movement in Digboi, where the first co-operative society in the State was formed way back in 1934-35, and Margherita. He became the first President of the Puberun Bhokta aru Banijyik Samabay Samity in 1977-78. The educationist was a member of the first court of Dibrugarh University. Till his last, the former MLA was associated with various associations. In all his dealings, his integrity left a deep impression on others. Nibas Chandra Sarma of Digboi, has written how as the President of the reception committee of the All India Yoga Competition held at Digboi in 1995, Dwijesh Chandra Deb Sarmah submitted a bill for reimbursement after visiting Dibrugarh on work related to the event. The amount was a ‘royal’ fifty paise.
This great personality, who is given the credit of shaping Digboi of present, died on August 18, 2005, leaving behind three sons and four daughters. Remarking about Sarmah, litterateur Punya Saikia recalls how he preferred to walk around the town irrespective of the distance. A workaholic with remarkable organizational and leadership quality, he always expressed anger over the lack of work ethics among Assamese people.
The Sentinel has been covering the lives of affluent and renowned families of Upper Assam for a number of editions. If anybody wishes to share their information about such families in other parts of the State and Northeast, kindly send your articles to email@example.com.