In 1888, a group of Assamese students studying in Calcutta, then the capital of Colonial India founded the Asomiya Bhasa Unnati Sadhini Sabha to develop the Assamese language and literature. Since there were no colleges in Assam at that time, a few Assamese students who could financially afford went to Calcutta for higher studies. Lakhminath Bezbarua, Chandra Kumar Agarwala and Hemchandra Goswami were the leading members, also known as the Sabha’s trimurti (trinity) who worked tirelessly for the uplift of Assamese literature. The Sabha initiated the renaissance of Assamese literature along with the effort to standardize the Assamese language. The formation of the Sabha was a landmark in the history of the Assamese language and literature. The Sabha established its branches in various towns of Assam and carried out literary activities. Their efforts led to the formation of Asom Sahitya Sanmilani in 1916 in Assam.
In 1917, the Asom Sahitya Sanmilani held its meeting in the Assam conference hall in Sibsagar. Padamanath Gohain Baruah was the President and Sarat Chandra Goswami was the General Secretary of the Sanmilani . The meeting resolved to change the name of the Sanmilani to Assam Sahitya Sabha with its motto as ‘My Mother Tongue-My Eternal Love’. The Assam Sahitya Sabha was formed with the aim of all round development of the Assamese literature, culture and the Assamese Nation.The Sabha also resolved to revive Assamese history. Though the Sabha remained a non political body, its basic goal was the promotion of the Assamese cause.
Since then, the Assam Sahitya Sabha (Assam Literary Society) with its headquarters located in Jorhat worked with a missionary zeal. The office bearers were fired by Assamese nationalism and worked from a sense of national duty and pride. The Sabha had great people leading the organization. In 1940 the Assam Sahitya Sabha was rechristened into ‘Asom Sahitya Sabha’. The Sabha produced a number of literary giants who devoted their time and energy selflessly for the Sabha’s greater cause. They were great patriots who were honestly commited to their motherland. Their revolutionary writings basically created the nascent Assamese national consciousness. The Asom Sahitya Sabha played the most important role in shaping the Assamese Nation in the British colonial era.
Apart from furthering Assamese literature, the Sabha started a revival of the Assamese ancient history and historical chronicles known as the Buranjis. The Ahom rulers had a great tradition of writing down all the important events under their rule in the Buranjis. Great scholars like Krishna Kanta Handique who was the Sabha’s president in 1937, Nilomoni Phukan in 1947, Ambikagiri Raichoudhury in 1950, Dr Surya kumar Bhuyan in 1953, Gyananath Bora in 1968, Maheswar Neog in 1974, Dr Satyendra Nath Sarma in 1975, Birendra Kumar Bhattacharya in 1983, Dr Nirmalaprabha Bordoloi in 1991, to name a few, not only worked hard to lead the Sabha to prominence but were passionately involved in furthering the Assamese cause. So, whenever there was a threat to the Assamese identity, the Sabha played the role of a vigilant guardian.
From 1950, the Sabha relentlessly got involved in the campaign for adopting Assamese as the official language of Assam. The Sabha mobilized the people in creating public pressure on the Assam government in implementing the Sabha’s demand. The Assam Congress passed a resolution supporting the demand of the Sabha in 1960. The Assam Assembly passed the Official Language Bill and Assamese was adopted as the official language of Assam in the same year. Similarly, the Sabha played an important role in creating public awareness and took active participation in the Anti Foreigners Agitation which was spearheaded by AASU from 1979-85.
The Sabha had very dignified and nationalist Assamese personalities leading the organization till the late 1990s. The Sabha had serious business and the people had great faith in the Sabha’s activities. The Sabha’s pro- people stand made it popular amongst the masses. The Sabha undoubtedly became the main body in the Assamese Nation building project. Nowhere in the world does such a mass based literary organization exist encompassing over 1000 branches spread over many states in India as well as foreign countries. Initially, the Sabha used to meet annually, but later, biennial conferences were held with great preparations in various places of Assam. This became one of the biggest literary festivals in the world where half a million of people assemble, apart from the writers of the State.
The Sabha’s historic role began to decline during the last decade. The Sabha lost its original vigor and missionary zeal. The Sabha’s literally mission which had already published more than 800 books so far since its birth received several setbacks. The stature of the Sabha was diminished and the organization became more akin to a political party. For many years since its inception, the Sabha’s President was selected as a consensus candidate by the senior members possessing literary brilliance and nationalism as the main determining factors for eligibility. Now however, elections are held for the coveted posts of the President, the Vice-President and the General Secretary. Hectic lobbying is done to get elected for these posts as it happens in any political party. The candidate’s literary brilliance has been replaced by cheap politicking. Now the Sabha’s office bearers’ personal issues and interests have become more important than the Sabha’s interests.
The Asom Sahitya Sabha which was once headed by great scholars and patriots is now run by mediocre leadership. The Assamese Nation building project got its first jolt when Nagen Saikia became the President of Howraghat session in 1997. He criticized the Assamese tribals and termed their cultural heritage as poor. It was a very damaging comment which alienated the platform of the 16 ethnic Sahitya Sabhas. From 1999-2003 the Sabha somehow regained its lost prestige for a short period of time under the presidency of Chandra Prasad Saikia, Homen Borgohain and Dr. Birendra Nath Dutta. It was during the tenure of Homen Borgohain (2001-03) that the first five volumes of Assamese Encyclopedia were published and the next four volumes were published during the time of Dr. Birendra Nath Dutta (2003-05).
But serious in-house quarrel took place when Kanaksen Deka became the president in 2005. Jagadish Patgiri, the General Secretary of the Sabha was removed unceremoniously. The conflict dragged the Sabha to the Guwahati civil court which lowered the prestige and dignity of the Sabha to a greater extent. The nine decades old esteemed institution witnessed the worst period of the Sabha’s glorious past. The Sabha’s two yearly meetings which attracted half a million people in the past drew only a few thousand in the 2007 Sabha’s meeting at Chapor in Dhubri district. The damage was done to such an extent that even when Rong Bong Terang took over the President ship in 2009, the in-house conflict and self aggrandizement was continued by his subordinates. Some of the former Presidents and office bearers tendered reginisation from the Sabha. Till now, 65 great Assamese litterateurs have graced the coveted seat of the Asom Sathiya Sabha. Imran Shah will take over the President ship on 3rd February 2013 at its 72nd Barpeta Road session.
Asom Sathiya Sabha, the esteemed platform for furthering Assamese literature and culture got diminished in its historic role. With only four more years left to celebrate its centenary, the Sabha should stream line its house. Apart from it’s literally pursuits, it should engage itself in the historic role of the Assamese Nation building project. Besides Assamese literature, as the oldest and the mother of all the ethnic literary Sabha, the Asom Sathiya Sabha should take bold steps to assimilate the various ethnic and linguistic groups and pursue the development of all the ethnic languages and literature of Assam.