The Gaon Bura: a chapter of Assam’s history, now rewritten

Village headmen will now be known as Gaon Pradhans rather than Gaon Buras. Why has the Assam government's move run into criticism?

Earlier this month, the Assam Cabinet announced that Gaon Buras (village headman), village-level functionaries of the district administration, will henceforth be called ‘Gaon Pradhans’. While it is yet to be notified, the move has been criticised by several in Assam as an imposition on the culture and language of the state.

A colonial term

The institution of Gaon Bura in Assam dates back to the colonial era, when the British appointed the oldest person in the village as the head, who would oversee matters relating to land and revenue in a particular area. The position would usually go to the oldest, most knowledgeable man who had good personal ties with everyone in a village, or a cluster of small villages. In Arunachal Pradesh, too, the Gaon Buras (and Buris) are the most important village-level functionaries.

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Post-independence, the government continued with the institution and made the Gaon Bura a formal part of the Assam Revenue and Disaster Management department, increasing his responsibilities, and eventually introducing a small honorarium for the role.

Prasanta Kumar Bora, who is a member of the All Assam Gaon Bura Association and a Gaon Bura of Mazgaon village near Tezpur, said that the role commands respect, and the responsibilities initially included recording births, deaths, revenue collection, settling disputes, among others.

According to Dr Jahnabi Gogoi, a Dibrugarh University professor who specialises in the medieval history of Assam, while the buranjis, (Ahom-era chronicles) do not have the word Gaon Bura, the concept existed in some form even in the pre-colonial period too.

Over the years, the Gaon Bura became central to rural, village life and inevitably featured in a number of writings —including novels and plays — of the 19th century. Among them is Assamese litterateur Padmanath Gohain Baruah’s popular social play called ‘Gaon Bura’.

Current role

According to Bora, while it was earlier a hereditary position (passed on from father to son), today it is a sought-after position that undergoes a competitive recruitment interview held by the district administration.

A Gaon Bura is paid a monthly honorarium of Rs 9,000 (increased twice during the BJP government in Assam — from Rs 4000 and Rs 6000) and in 2020. One needs to be a Class X pass, and as per the new Cabinet decision, a minimum of 30 years of age (upper limit 65) to apply for the post.

There are about 6,000 Gaon Buras in Assam, which include several women too. Bora said that women who were ‘Gaon Buras’ were not very common (about 3 per cent) and they would take over, if their husbands died.

“They are the eyes, nose, ear of the district administration at the village level,” said an official from the state revenue department, adding that they served as a bridge between the district administration and the village.

A number of duties are bestowed on the Gaon Bura, beginning with maintaining a population register of the village, maintaining land records, helping mauzadar in revenue collection, notifying circle officers if there is any encroachment on land, helping police investigate crime, among others.

In recent years, their role has become more multifarious — whether it involves distribution of relief material during natural disasters like flood, maintaining a log of Covid-19 cases in the village, organising vaccination camps, functioning as booth-level officers during elections, among others.

“Another significant duty of the Gaon Bura is that he/she is the one who can issue a ‘Gaon Bura certificate’, a certificate that determines your permanent residency in a particular village,” said Bora. During the updation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Gaon Bura certificate became crucial for women (who had no other documents) to establish linkages with their husbands and parents.

Debate

The government has reasoned that a number of young men (and women) become Gaon Buras, and thus, the word ‘Bura’ (meaning old in Assamese) is no longer appropriate. According to Karabi Deka Hazarika, a retired professor of Assamese of Dibrugarh University, even if ‘Bura’ literally means old in Assamese, the word has more variations. “Even in rural life, the most senior member of the family (even if he may not be particularly old in age) is called the ‘Bura’ of the house. It may also mean wise, knowledgeable.” she said, adding that it did not make sense to change it to Pradhan because of the age factor. “It is a beautiful, historically rich word of the Assamese language,” she said.

Bora agreed that the word was historical but pointed out that over the years, it had also come to be used with ridicule. “Sometimes, people use the word sarcastically to denote someone who is slow, or foolish. In that way, Gaon Pradhan commands more respect,” he said.

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