In 1836, a letter was written by Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer Trevelyan, a close associate of Major Francis Jenkins, Agent to the Governor General in the Northeast, to the Calcutta Baptist missionaries. The following is an excerpt from the letter. Trevelyan observed:

From this point (Sudiya) an impression may be made upon Burmah, from an exactly opposite quarter from that at which it has been heretofore entered by the missionary. The communication is open with Yunnan, the westernmost province of China, and it is the intention of the Indian government to send a mission there by this route, next cold season, for the purpose of inquiry about the culture of the tea plant. On the other side, Bhutan, and Thibet, and more countries and people than we have any accurate knowledge of at present, are open to the messengers of the Gospel; and, lastly, the Shun language, which is near akin to the Burmese and Siamese, and belongs to the Chinese family, furnishes a ready means of intercourse with perhaps a greater number of people than any other language in the world, except Chinese itself. 1

The letter was meant to convince and hold out an invitation to the Baptist missionaries to set up a base at Sadiya in the easternmost region of what was then British Assam. Trevelyan was basically conveying what was in reality a scheme conceived by Francis Jenkins. The letter offers a crucial window into the priorities that the colonial state in Assam had set out for itself, as much as it offers valuable insights into the role and place of language in the official scheme of things in the region. Language was to be invested with nothing more than a functional role in the official scheme of affairs. The letter not only outlined the languages that would henceforth be chosen for patronage but it also presaged the centrality of the communicative

aspect of language in the official framework of understanding with regard to vernaculars in Assam. This was clear enough also in Jenkins’s subsequent letter to the missionaries where he set out the advantages that the former could hope to derive from their interactions with the Shyans or the Shans of Sadiya. Jenkins pointed out that given the fact that the Shan language was commonly spoken across a wide swath of territory, and the fact that sizeable sections of the population in Assam also hailed from the Shan stock and spoke one or the other of the Shan languages, it would ultimately be advantageous to the missionaries to cultivate the Shan languages. Jenkins’s letter clearly foretold that henceforth the official policy would be to promote only those languages that held a potential for furthering commercial intercourse in the region as also those that had a wider following. His letter to the Baptist Society was carefully crafted, highlighting the special features of Sadiya – the site that he had himself proposed for the mission. Jenkins pointed out that the region was inhabited by the Singphos and the Khamtis whose dialects differed very little from those of the Siamese and the Burmese, while the characters in use were essentially the same. He added that there being constant communication between these peoples and the Burmese, the latter language was familiar in the region. 2 This meant that familiarity with the language of the Shans would enable the missionaries to expand their base towards Burma. He also added that people of the Shan stock could be found in most parts of Assam, implying that the mission’s labours invested in Sadiya would be fruitful for the future of evangelical activities in the entire region of British Assam. With his characteristic enthusiasm, Jenkins noted:

The Shans, too, with whom the Mission at Sudiya would be brought in contact, are a much finer and more intelligent people than the Burmese, and ten times as numerous. Their kindred races extend throughout the country whence arise all the mighty rivers from the Burhampooter to Kianguan (the river of Nankin); they occupy entirely the two frontier provinces of Ava-I-lookoom and Moong-.koom; they occupy all the east bank of the Irrawaddy; they stretch down the Salwen to Tenasserim. Laos, and Siam, and Cochin China are their proper countries; they compose half the population of Yunnan, a great proportion of that of Salwen, and stretch up into that district that has always baffled the Chinese, between Thibet, Tartary and Lechuen; whilst Assam is chiefly populated by the overflowings of this great people. The Cacharese are Shans; and the governing race of Upper Assam for many centuries, – the Ahoms – are a tribe from the highest eastern sources

of the Irrawaddy, and until very lately they kept up a communication with their parent stock. Here is an ample field. It is indeed boundless; for it extends over all the north and west of China, (for such is the extent of communication that we command from Sudiya,) and it embraces some of the most fertile and most temperate countries on the face of the earth. 3

What Jenkins had outlined was a comprehensive plan meant to win over the missionaries with the lure of evangelical opportunities and to secure his own pet scheme of taming and disciplining the unruly hill dwellers through proselytization and evangelical activities. By the time Jenkins came to power in 1834, the discovery of the tea plant had begun to excite hopes of a flourishing plantation economy stretching to beyond the boundaries of British Assam towards the far east. Jenkins’s invitation to the Calcutta chapter of the Baptist Missionary Society consequently was underwritten by specific strategic considerations. The Baptists were after all known for their unorthodox approach and keen interest in and successful conduct of evangelical enterprises in colonial settlements elsewhere, and were presumably therefore considered as pacific and ‘safe’ from the point of view of the ‘natives’ of the hill regions of Assam known for their unpredictable temperaments. 4 It was also no mere coincidence that Jenkins chose the people inhabiting the tracts east of Sadiya for evangelical intervention. He was keenly conscious of the fact that the region enjoyed a close proximity with Burma and western China, countries with which the East India Company was desirous of opening a commercial exchange. Jenkins was also aware that one arm of the Baptist association, the American Baptists, had already opened a chapter in Burma under the auspices of Rev. Adoniram Judson and was contemplating a further extension into China. In 1835, Mr Kincaid of the Burma Mission had made an attempt to reach Sadiya through Bhamo, Mogoung and the Hukong Valley, but he could not proceed beyond Mogoung on account of difficulties faced in procuring men and provisions. 5 The Agent to the Governor General had done his homework well and was ready to give shape to his schemes of bringing the hills under effective control. He was, therefore, more than generous in his pledges of support to the proposed mission and wrote:

No attention of mine should of course be wanting to make the place comfortable to any missionaries, and I will be willing to contribute my mite to their establishment. You may mention, that I will subscribe 1,000 rupees, if a family is settled as a Mission at

Sudiya, and whenever they have had a press at work for six months I will be happy to double that sum, if I remain in charge of the Province. 6

Jenkins’s efforts to render the mission at Sadiya attractive to the prospec tive visitors must be seen in the light of the state’s attempts to make the indomitable hill tracts more accessible to the British. In one of his journal entries, Brown observed that Captain Jenkins had written to him ‘recommending the establishment of a station at Gowahati by our board with a particular view to the Garos – a numerous people in a savage state, residing on the hills south of Gowahati, and under the English government’. 7 This is a clear indication of how missionary activities were meant to be deployed in the service of the state, especially for taming the ‘savage’. Given the key role of missionary activities in his scheme of things, Jenkins was careful to ensure the latter’s success. He donated sums of money at regular intervals for the sustenance of the mission. The former also offered to grant some amount of waste land to the missionaries free of rent for 15 or 20 years so that the latter could set up a Christian colony. Needless to say such a plan received a warm response from Brown who communicated the same to the board with the hope that it would receive the board’s approval since such a colony could ‘be a radiating point whence a religious influence might be extensively spread’. 8

Apart from the strategic and administrative implications of the letters written by Jenkins to the missionaries, the latter had immense significance for their insights into the state’s policies vis-à-vis the vernaculars. These letters foregrounded the preponderantly commercial vantage point from which henceforth the state would visualize the vernaculars spoken in the region. Perhaps this was how Jenkins arrived at the decision to declare Bengali as the official vernacular of Assam in 1836. It is not possible for us to recount the precise manner in which the decision was taken in the initial stages, and allegations that the British were persuaded by their Bengali babus have thankfully been laid to rest. We have, however, Jenkins’s statements which indicate that it was enough for him that Bengali was understood by the people of Assam. Once when confronted by mounting criticisms against the British government’s policy of declaring Bengali as the official vernacular of Assam, Jenkins retorted:

To show more forcibly the manner or degree in which the Assamese were prepared for the adoption of the Bengali language . . . I will add a few words to exhibit the former connection of Assam with Bengal and Hindoostan, to prove that the Assamese were not

so ignorant of the languages of their neighbours as the Missionaries would have Government to understand they were.