yandabo treaty
Representational image

By: Pratas Saharia

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Like the eventual decline of the great Roman Empire, the Ahom dynasty signifies its demise on the 24th of February, 1826 in a small village called Yandabo, some 50 miles away from the ancient imperial capital of Ava (Burma).

The destiny of a sovereign nation was decided upon by two powers (one imperialistic Britain and the other aggressive invaders Burmese) that didn’t even belong there. Yandabo became a treaty signed between those two powers with the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War, where British India defeated the Burmese.

The signatories of the Yandabo Treaty included General Sir Archibald Campbell, commander of the British in the War while it was Maha Min Hla Kyaw Htin, Governor of Legaing (Sagaing today) for the Burmese. Significantly, the Treaty ended the longest and most expensive war in British Indian history.

The most important part of the treaty included the renunciation of all Burmese claims in Assam and Manipur. These areas became part of the British-India.

Terms of the Treaty of Yandabo:

The Treaty of Yandabo was a momentous occasion for the British in India. In no other conflict in the subcontinent had they been subjected to such losses in their coffers. The financial strain was enormous, with some estimates amounting to almost 13 million pounds sterling and above 15,000 soldiers including Indian and European, being killed in the battle field for the Empire and scores more for the Burmese.

On the other hand, King Bagidaw of Burma presided over a period where the stakes of the Konbaung dynasty (the last dynasty that ruled Burma/Myanmar) greatly reduced, with the Treaty serving as a constant humiliation and a long lasting financial burden, which eventually led to the downfall of the dynasty.

Before 1826: The Pre Yandabo Treaty Years

Like all ruling classes of that time, the rulers of Konbaung dynasty had hopes of expansion and territorial authority. They began their ambitious colonisation of Siam (current day Thailand) in the early years of the 19th century but were thwarted by Chakri Dynasty, which is still the current ruling house of Thailand with the help of the Qing dynasty of China. Upon being repelled from the West, King Bodawpaya (6th King of Konbaung Dynasty) looked East towards Arakan, which was to the east of Bengal Presidency.

In the succeeding years, the Burmese army gained control over Manipur in 1813 and Assam in 1817-19, taking advantage of the chaos which reigned in the courts of these kingdoms. The British officially declared war on Burma on the 5th of March, 1824. Before that, they covertly provided support to rebellions by the Assam and Manipuri kingdoms against the Burmese. The imperialist designs of the Empire were to increase their sphere of influence of the Bengal Presidency, seek newer markets, and capture Burma’s vast resources and to reduce the French influence in the Burmese capital.

A great many battles were fought between the two forces that include – Battle of Ramu, Battle of Yangon, Battle of Danubyu, the latter of which proved to be decisive as the brave Burmese commander Maha Bandula was killed, greatly reducing the morale and spirit of the Burmese forces.

However, it wasn’t until the Battle of Prome on 9th of February 1826, when a numerically superior Burmese force was out-manoeuvred and out-gunned by a resilient British army, did the Kingdom of Burma accede to the demands of the British Empire. After all, British forces were just 50 miles out from the capital city of Ava.

Internal reasons leading up to Yandabo

Much has been said and written about the Ahoms, the glorious history of the time when they ruled over the land of modern day Assam and parts of Northeast; elaborate in their accounts of the day, inclusive in their administration to encompass a myriad ethnic rituals and practices and finally, indomitable enough to stand strong as time ravaged histories of kingdoms around it.

However, one of the prominent reasons that led to the annexation of Assam, parts of North East Region (NER) under the British dominion was the downfall of the Ahoms. The decline of the Ahoms had started way before the advent of the 19th century – political ambitions, unorganised military, weak rulers, evolving social class and caste structures, the falling status quo among the nobles and the elites post Maomoria rebellion were the key grounds.

This created a ruling void which was consolidated by the aggressive Burmese invaders.  Ironically, it was a noble from the Ahom court who invited the invaders in an apparent attempt to save the Ahom Kingdom. It was a nail in their coffin.

The helpless Ahom King had to approach the British, who saw it as an opportunity to intervene after initial reluctance from its officials as few considered Assam to be a part of Burma.

Yandabo in the modern times:

Although the treaty marks the end of Ahom’s absolute rule, but there were many other kingdoms (big and small) that ruled over Assam. After the mighty Ahoms, it became easier for the British to consolidate power in the NER. In the game of self-interest and power struggles, the common people who were the stakeholders of the land were helpless.

The advent of British brought in new modes of administration which was exploitative and totally alien to the Assamese culture. For example, The Dark Age of the Assamese language is a 37 year long time-frame, from 1836 to 1873, during which Bengali was imposed over the Assamese language. The clerical and technical workers that the Britishers brought were Bengali, allegedly in order to impose Bengali as the medium of instruction in schools and colleges, and for all official purposes.

An underrated criticism of the imperial rule was ignorance over local issues. This ignorance has been consistent throughout colonial history, when Assam was also clubbed with Bengal in the Cabinet Mission Plan, forwarded by the British. If the Cabinet Mission Plan had successful, Assam would have potentially been a part of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) by now.

Even after 72 years of Independence, this ignorance has continued in the name of CAA that fails to address the stakeholders of the land. The act disregards the core issues of unabated migration in the entire NER and imposes a “mainland” understanding of the dynamics in Assam, NER.  The lack of media attention and historical narrative revolving around NER has failed to bring in the concerns of the indigenous people as their agendas don’t fit the narrow binaries of mainstream narrative. Thus, in these times, it is important to revisit Yandabo and understand the context of Assam through a historical lens. It is also a time, to rethink the values of the Indian Union which places individual concerns through its various provisions in the Constitution.

-with inputs from Nibir Deka

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