The persona of Maniram Dutta Barbhandar Barua, popularly known as Maniram Dewan, is best described in one word: ‘enigmatic’. One gets aw-stuck as one peeps into the diverse achievements of this stalwart within a life span of just about half a century! An administrator of high repute at a very young age in the British colonial regime, Chief officer as Dewan in the multinational East India Company, the top-most minister of the then Ahom king as Barbhandar Barua, a highly successful entrepreneur, the first organized Indian tea planter and finally a freedom fighter and a martyr of the first war of independence - all rolled into one.
After annexation of Assam by British forces in 1826 through the Treaty of Yandabo, the colonial regime was looking for a young local intelligent and wise noble as a front-man who could advise and guide them in consolidating their administration in the troubled land. Born in 1806 to a family of elites, Maniram became a Tehsildar and Sheristadar at a very young age of 22 years only. He started helping the British to restore order of his troubled motherland devastated by the atrocities of the Burmese invaders, the Maan, with the hope that the British would leave after establishing order and reinstate the Ahom Kingdom once again. But that was not to be as the colonial powers had a different agenda.
At the age of 33 years, he rose to become the Barbhandar Barua, the Principal Minister of three consecutive Ahom vassal kings and acted as the bridge between the King and the British. He then became the Chief Officer of East India Company as the Dewan with a monthly salary of Rs. 600 which was higher than the most of the British officers. Probably he was the first Indian Chief Executive Officer of a multinational company. But on realization of the ill designs of the British, the patriot that he was, quit Dewanship in 1845. He became the greatest foe of the British when he tried to organize an armed struggle to overthrow the colonial rule. But, he was hanged to death in 1858 at the age of 52 before his plans could be executed.
Leaving aside his political and administrative achievements, Maniram Dewan as an entrepreneur is equally, if not more, interesting and enlightening. His great success story as a multi-dimensional and multitasking pioneer entrepreneur within a short span of time in a hostile colonial environ is mind blowing. With a strong entrepreneurial personality trait, he picked-up the nitty-gritty of plantation, manufacturing, marketing and economy of tea business from the British. After quitting his Dewanship, he started two successful tea estates, Chinnamara near Jorhat and Singlo near Sivasagar, thereby becoming the first ever commercially organized Indian tea-grower and manufacturer. His tea ventures became highly successful, commercially, and that caused severe heart-burn and hatred among the British tea planters. They conspired against Maniram to clip his wings by taking away his hereditary grants of land and blocking his tea exports. But a lion can be caged, not cowed down. When the British created a lot of hurdles against Maniram, he deployed a unique marketing strategy to sell his manufactured tea locally. Those days, drinking tea was not in vogue in the North East. Maniram took initiatives to establish a few weekly organized rural markets, known as “Saturday Haats”, where he lectured and demonstrated tea drinking to the masses and started selling tea leaves manufactured in his estates. This was a ‘Direct Maketing’ concept of modern day management practices which Maniram mastered without an MBA degree. These haats also traded in various rural produce, black-smithy items and so on and became flourishing trading centres and also created enduring bonhomie among the masses.
He also started multifarious business enterprises like, Iron smelting, production of gold using traditional methods, Rock salt production, Hoes & Cutlery, Handloom, Boat making, Brick making, Bell metal, Dying, Ivory works, Ceramics, Elephant trade, Matchlocks, Construction works etc. It indeed is amazing that how a single man in a hostile colonial environment with all the hurdles of transportation, communication, market, capital and so on could achieve so much in so little time of hardly a decade only. Just imagine, in the mid nineteenth century when means of travelling was abysmal and was limited to bullock carts, horse, boats or palanquins only, how he moved around the entire length and breadth of the State to organize and supervise his many business enterprises. Communication was virtually non-existent.
Maniram Dewan was always much ahead of his time. He understood very well that to succeed as an entrepreneur multidimensional business model was the right approach. He lived and grew at a time of transition when Assam was slowly shifting from the traditional feudal economy to modern market based one. By didn’t of his vision and hard work he became very rich and powerful , probably the richest local during his time, and lived a life king-size. But he never lost the touch with the ground realities. Maniram’s arbitrary trial and hurriedly arranged public hanging by the threatened colonial regime was actually symbolic as he dared to challenge the power that be. The British wanted to make it exemplary to create a fear psychosis among the masses who virtually worshiped the great soul.
But Assam has failed to produce another Maniram Dewan even in the most convenient business environ today. If Assam could produce a legendary entrepreneur two centuries ago, it definitely has the potential to produce many Manirams today. May all the enterprising youths of Assam come out from their self inflicted cocoons and face the world full of avenues and opportunities and that will be our sincere-most homage to the pioneer entrepreneur par excellence on his martyrdom day on February 26.
(The author of the column is a former Vice President of Reliance Defence & Engineering Ltd., Gujarat. Presently, he is a freelance writer, management consultant and professional trainer. He can be reached at email@example.com.)