An Incomplete Biography of a Rainforest : Dehing-Patkai Across the Centuries
“A broad belt of country along the foot of the [Patkai] hills is clothed in dense evergreen forest. Creepers spread in every direction over the larger trees, knitting them into one great mass of foliages, and drop down here and there in graceful coils and loops. The forest in dense with bamboos, plantains, palm and huge tree ferns; and the creeping cane, its sharp spikes hidden by its beautiful green leaves, acts as an effectual check on anyone who tried to penetrate these sylvan fortress.
– Assam District Gazetteers, 1905.
The first time I visited the Patkai foothills in eastern Assam, it felt like a museum. Not a collection of curiosities, but rather a space where time emanating from diverse sources accumulated. The undulating landscape criss-crossed with streams was contrasted by manicured mining towns dating back to colonial times. Cemeteries and airfields from World War II existed along with tribal villages. But the most striking aspect was the green cover. My host jokingly remarked, “It is a vast rainforest with people living in small pockets.”
He was not far from the truth. The entire region along the banks of Dehing river, in the shadows of the Patkai range, constitutes the largest lowland evergreen forest in India. Much of it is encompassed by the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve (575 sq km). It is adjoined to the Deomali Elephant Reserve in the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh. The rainforest complex includes Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary (111.19 sq km), 16 Reserved Forests (RF), and 4 Proposed Reserve Forests (PRF). The region lies at the extreme eastern end of Brahmaputra valley. The Indo-Myanmar border is not far, and the rainforest is part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot.
Until recently, this region did not figure recurrently in conversations, even within the state of Assam. However, a recent decision by National Wild LifeBoard (NWLB) recommendingopen cast coal mining in the region has led to widespread reactions across the civil society. The mining site is located within Saleki PRF. Environmental activists have argued that this will be detrimental to the flora and fauna of the rainforest.
The rainforest is home to diverse species such as Hoolock Gibbon, Slow Loris, Pig-tailed Macaque, Stump-tailed Macaque, Capped Langur, Indian Leopard, Asian Elephant, Royal Bengal Tiger, gaur, Himalayan Black Bear, Clouded Leopard, Barking Deer, Chinese Pangolin and seven species of wild cats. In addition, 293 species of birds, 30 species of butterflies, 47 species of reptiles, 24 species of amphibians, and more than 100 species of orchids are found here.
Because of the lockdown due to Covid-19, reactions regarding this move are limited to social media. As the story is developing, the nuances are yet to be unpacked.However, this has led to aplethora of obfuscating information being flouted. The competing narratives based on misinformation indicate a need for a biography of the rainforest, tracing its career across the centuries. This will be an incomplete biography. Because, an exhaustive biography of an organism of this mammoth proportion is an impossibility. I am referring to the rainforest as an organism because it encapsulatesmyriadorganisms and their relationships: flora, fauna and the humans who act andinteract with them. The biography of Dehing-Patkai is a story of its ageing along with and despite of the human interventions and cohabitation.
A Prince in his Golden Orchards
The official categories of Wildlife Sanctuary and Reserved Forest are administrative conveniences. A forest doesn’t recognise these human designations. Dehing-Patkai has grown and shrunk across the centuries, often mediated by human actions and yet circumventing human restrictions. Pollensof Areca Nuts have been found in a thousand-year old sediment core discovered in the Lekhapani RF. Areca is domesticated species and doesn’t exist inside the rainforest. The finding of the pollen might indicate past human habitation in what is currently a densely forested tract (1).
The indigenous inhabitants of the region include Borahis, Morans and Kacharis. Subsisting on shifting cultivation, these groups crafted independent polities. In 1228, a group of Tai-speakers arrived here from South-East Asia. Led by a prince named Sukapha, they entered Brahmaputra valley by crossing the Patkai range. The route downhill was covered with dense forests with a thick arboreal canopy that prevented the entry of sunlight. Sukapha took the course of the Dehing to find his way to the plains, while erecting numerous temporary settlements along the way. Due to the damp, malarial climate and frequent flooding they had to be constantly on the move. Finally, they established their capital on a higher ground in Charaideo. It became the base for the Ahom state, which ruled a large part of Brahmaputra valley for six centuries.
It is believed that when Sukapha first witnessed the plains from Patkai, he uttered ‘Mung Dun Sun Kham’. In Tai, this roughly translates to “land of golden orchards”. In this context, gold was the verdant forests and the fertile soil. In the plains of eastern Assam Sukapha’s followers perfected wet-rice cultivation, while incorporating the indigenous groups into their fold. Soon, the Ahom state expanded by expanding its agrarian frontiers to forested fringes. Peasants were incentivisedto expand cultivation by clearing jungles, wasteland and peripheral lands. Those cultivators who settled in such marginal land were called Ghar-Phala, i.e. “torn from the homestead”(2).
The expanding state led to increased human intervention in the rainforest. The pre-Ahom indigenous groups were skilled in collecting forest resources. The Ahom state put their skills into revenue generation. Morans, who were proficient in catching elephants were organised into Hatichungi guilds. Their duty was to catch and train elephants, for war and as draught animals. Timber, fuel and fodder from Dehing-Patkai became crucial components of the economy. Items such as Agarwood and ivory were subjected to taxation. Official ranks such as Habiyal Baruah and Kathkatiya Baruah were created to supervise the extraction of these resources.
Despite the agrarian expansion, Dehing-Patkai remained at the political margin of Ahom statecraft. In official parlance, the region was known as Tipam. Due to the damp, malarial climate the population of Tipam remained low. A significant section of the inhabitants consisted of fugitives, exiles, rebels and marginal groups. During revolt or civil war, members of royal family used to escape to Tipam. Commoners took refuge here during any foreign invasions. It became a shatter zone and a shadowy underbelly of the Ahom state, while simultaneously forming an effective buffer against any incursion from Burma. Later Ahom monarch Suhungmung appointed a governor called Tipam Raja in the tract. But Dehing-Patkai remained ‘wild’ and sparsely populated till the advent of the British.
From Jungles to Forests: Tea, Coal and Petroleum
In early 19th century, the Ahom state was plagued by internecine conflict, popular revolts and instability. Due to the power vacuum, Kingdom of Burma invaded and occupied Assam. The Burmese troops entered Brahmaputra Valley by crossing the Patkai. The massacre, plunder and abduction resulting from the invasion depopulated Dehing-Patkai. This attracted new groups into the region. Singphos, a tribe from the Patkai settled in the plains. Khamtis, a group of Tai-speakers also arrived from Northern Burma. In the wake of the Khamtis, more waves of Tais arrived: Phakials, Khamyangs and Aitons.
Many Khamtis and Singphos were auxiliaries with the Burmese invaders. They plundered large tracts of eastern Assam, and took away thousands of men and women as slaves. This however changed with the advent of colonialism. The British East India Company based in Bengal soon found itself at war with an expansionist Kingdom of Burma. In 1826, Assam was handed over to the Company via the Treaty of Yandaboo, after the defeat of Burma. The colonial regime envisaged Dehing-Patkai as a promising gateway for trade and expansion, and also as a buffer against Burma. To maintain stability in the frontier, a treaty was signed with 16 influential Singpho Gams (chiefs). In return for acceptance of British suzerainty and release of all Assamese slaves, the Gams were granted autonomy and tax exemptions. A few, such as Bisa Gam and Ningro Samon received salaries from the company as intermediaries/informants in the region.
In the annals of colonialism in Assam, Dehing-Patkai occupies a central position. Three of the mainstays of colonial economy can be traced to the region: tea, coal and petroleum. Indigenous varieties of tea had grown in these forests for centuries. Khamtis and Singphos used to brew this by cutting tea leaves into small pieces while removing the fibres and stalks. These leaves were boiled and crushed into ball-shapes which were than sundried for consumption (3).
In 1823, a British merchant Robert Bruce was informed about the local tea by Bisa Gam. After Robert’s death, his brother Charles visited the Gam. He witnessed hundred of tea tracts near the rainforest. Charles collected samples and seeds of the plant. The issue picked up momentum when a Tea Committee was formed by Lord William Bentinck, Viceroy of India. Francis Jenkins and Andrew Charlton, two officials in Assam argued before the committee that the indigenous tea variety of Assam could be profitably cultivated. The Committee sent two botanists, Nathaniel Walich and William Griffith to Assam for inspection. Griffith describes Dehing-Patkai as filled with “uninteresting jungle, water courses and excessively lows places” and teeming with wild elephants amidst the tall Hollong trees (4).
With approval from the botanists, experimental plantations were opened at Chabua and Jaipur under the supervision of Charles Bruce. The first batch of tea was received positively in London. In 1839, Assam Tea Company was established for further investments. Soon, the foothills of Patkai were teeming with plantations. Indentured labour was brought in from Central India to work in the plantations, often under oppressive conditions. Tea not only exposed Assam to a global network of capital and labour, but also brought changes to its landscape, society and demographics.
Numerous plantations were established on forested land customarily held by Singphos. This encroachment coupled with the grievance over the loss of their slaves brought many Gams in direct conflict with the British. Allegedly, many of them were incited by the current Tipam Raja, who was related to the Ahom monarch Jogeswar Singha. The Raja was made the governor of Hukawng Valley across the Patkai by the King of Burma. The most significant among these Singpho insurrections was that of Ningroola. Later, even friendly chiefs including Bisa Gam revolted. These were suppressed by the state with ruthless efficiency.
Increasing control over Patkai opened up new vistas of prospecting. This coincided with an emerging discourse about improvement. The ‘wild’ jungles now required to be transformed into productive, profitable forests for the Empire. John McCosh, a surgeon with the Company, lucidly articulates this philosophy “…these fertile tracts will be taken under our especial protection, when the untutored barbarian must submit to civilization and improvement, and his wilds and his wastes to the ploughshare and the hoe of British agriculture” (5).
Initially the official intervention in the forests were minimal. This changed with the arrival of railway tracks in Assam which created a demand for timber. Since 1874, some forest areas were protected as Reserved Forests. By the end of the century, 42.2% of Assam’s land area was under the Forest Department. However, the category of protected forests curtailed the rights of communities whose subsistence was intricately intertwined with the forests. The Forest Acts (1865,1878,1927) and Assam Forest Regulations (1891) subordinated customary rights to the interest of the state. Acts of trespassing or cultivating in protected forests could now invite prosecution, while duty was levied on forests produces. While the state’s revenue increased, organic linkages that many communities shared with their forests were severed (6).
Mining brought more drastic changes to the forested landscape. Coal was reported by numerous officials, including Dr. John Berry White, the founder of Assam Medical College. Assam Tea Company started mining coal from Jaipur for its factories. The introduction of steamer services in the Brahmaputra till Dibrugarh increased the demand (7). Since 1882, Assam Railways and Trading Company (ARTC) started mining coal. The initial fields were located around Dehing-Patkai: Jaipur, Namdang, Ledo, Borgolai and Tirap. During the same year, these fields were connected to Dibruagrh via a metre-gauge railway line. Railways brought in more people and investment, established a market economy and boosted the tea industry.
Simultaneously with coal, sightings of crude oil seepage was reported in the territory between Makum and Jaipur. Initial efforts of drilling by private investors failed. In 1866 a well drilled by hand was established in Digboi. The two major competitors for oil exploitation were ARTC and Assam Oil Syndicate. Both later merged to form Assam Oil Company. Initial production included kerosene for local consumption, batching oil for Calcutta jute markets, and Paraffin wax. Exponentially increasing production led to foundation of Asia’s first oil refinery in Digboi.
Traditional knowledge about the rainforest came handy while exploring oil. The ‘surface shows’ of petroleum took a distinctive shape in Assam. Within jungles, there were open spaces where animals gathered called ‘pung’. The word translates to a mine or a spring in Assamese. Furred animals licked the soil of the pung, while buffaloes and elephants frolicked in the mud. Local hunters used to frequent these places for game. British engineers, attracted by this strange phenomenon, discovered that there was always a source of surface oil near these pungs (8).
Bolstered by these fantastic occurring, there was a legend doing the rounds in the official circles about finding oil in Digboi. According to the story, once two elephants used for railway construction were separated from their group. A search party found them rolling in a pool of saline mud in the middle of the jungle. As the sun had set, the party decided to camp there. At night, they found that the ground beneath the campfire was burning. On closer inspections, oil seepages were discovered (9)!
The changing economy based on intensive resource extraction brought changes to the landscape and demographics of Dehing-Patkai. In 1894, a botanist George Alexander Gammie extensively toured the region. He found it to be a densely forested tract with myriad trees but predominated by Nahor and Hollong. There was a dense undergrowth of epiphytes and ferns, but lesser number of orchids. Gammie prophesied that “… influx of industrious immigrants from various congested districts of India will, in course of time, tend to transform this mainly forest clad division of Assam into a wealthy and well populated tract”(10).
With the improvement in communication, Dehing-Patkai witnessed new incoming waves of people. The locals were unwilling to work in underground mines. So, Nepalis, Adivasis from Central India, Telugu-speakers and Afghans predominated the ranks of miners. The majority of the labour force in the oilfields of Digboi were also from outside Assam. In 1901, around 41% of the district’s population were born outside Assam. Rajasthani traders, Punjabi artisans and Nepali graziers had settled in large numbers. As a result, only 39% of the population spoke Assamese, and 53% spoke a language not indigenous to Brahmaputra Valley. While this created a multicultural, multi-ethnic society, it also skewed the sex ration as most of the incoming migrants were male.
With this constant economic and social change transposed over the landscape, the margins of the rainforest partially fulfilled the colonial logic of improvement. Assam District Gazetteer of 1905 describes this in a vivid manner in regard to the mining town of Margherita,
“A quarter of a century ago, the hills near Margherita and a belt of country at their feet from fifteen to twenty miles inwidth, were clothed with dense tree forest, the home of nothing more interesting and useful that wild beast. Much of the forest still remains, and on either side of the railway between Makum Junction and Powai, there is hardly anything but dense tree jungle to be seen. But on the banks of Dehing an extraordinary change has taken place. The forest has been felled , the Makum garden has been put out with nearly 2000 acres of the finest tea, a flourishing bazaar has been established, and even the ubiquitous Kaiya is to be found, eager here as anywehre to buy and sell. Columns of smoke curl up into the air from the saw mills and the railway workshop, and the lower hills are dotted with fine bungalows, surrounded with trim lawn and garden. Coolies who have served in the mines, or on the tea plantation, have settled down and begun to cultivate the land, and where formerly there was a howling wilderness, there are new fields of sugarcane and rice”(11)
In a World at War
In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. With this, World War II began. Due to interlocking alliances, Britain and Japan found themselves on the opposing sides in Asia. Initially, Japan occupied much of eastern China, pushing the forces of Chiang-Kai-Shek towards the interior. Then they quickly moved towards south-east Asia. In 1942, British Burma fell to the Japanese. The war was now at Assam’s doorsteps.
The fall of Burma started a flow of European and Indian refugees towards Assam. Many trekked for more than 300 kms. 20,000 refugees crossed Hukawng Valley and then Patkai, to reach Assam. 1400 died along the way. When they reached Assam, the tree planters in the vicinity of Dehing-Patkai organised relief camps. Later, they were sent to different parts of India. The plight of the refugees have been poignantly documented in Jangam, a Sahitya Akademi Award winning Assamese novel by Debendranath Acharya.
A 53 year old tea-planter named Gyles Mackrell was particularly instrumental in assisting refugees. He owned a pack of twenty elephants, with the mahouts mostly being Khamtis. Mackrell directed the men to rescue any refugee stranded in the Patkai. In one instance, the mahouts rescued 68 soldiers stuck on an island amidst a flooding river. In total, the Khamti mahouts saved around 200 lives during the war. A 20-minute long footage capturing the rescue operations have been recovered recently.
The Japanese occupation of Burma cut down the road links between the British and the Chinese. Meanwhile USA had entered the war after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. British and American allied soldiers were soon positioned in Assam. To provide supply to their Chinese allies as well help the war effort in Burma, the British and the Americans decided to construct a road across the Patkai.
The 1044 km long road connected Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China, via Myitkyina and Bhamo in Burma. While originally called Ledo road, Chiang Kai Shek named it Stilwell Road, after the American General Joseph Stilwell. The terrain and the climate of the Patkai frontier made the road building a herculean task. Americans called it “a man a mile road”, as roadbuilders regularly died from enemy gunfire, malaria, mortar explosions and accidents (12). Once completed, it was considered the “greatest engineering feat in the annals of United States Army”. Out of 15,000 engineer troops deployed in its construction, 65% were African Americans, supplanted by Chinese engineers, and 10000 Indian, Burmese and Nepali labourers(13).
In the rainforest, these troops endured mosquitoes, jungle leeches and 300 kinds of snakes. In addition, there was widespread dysentery and a new strain of Typhus. The prevalent Army doctrine believed that Blacks possessed “special adaptability to jungle climates”. This racial discourse resulted in 1,133 American soldiers losing their lives during the construction. A soldier lamented, “The only different between hell and the jungle is that hell is supposed to be dry”. General Stilwell himself witnessed the horrors. Once, while inspecting the road he stopped at a place and lit a cigarette. A Black sergeant nearby couldn’t recognise the General as he was not wearing his insignia and decorations. The Sergeant sat down and said, “Soldier, you look too old for this sort of thing. Why don’t you ask them to send you home(14)”?
The fortunes of Dehing-Patkai took a different turn after Indian independence. On August 15, 1950 an earthquake with the magnitude of 8.6 on the Richter Scale shook Assam. This led to massive flooding of the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries, including Dehing. The river dissected the National Highway near Khowang at ten places. Suna Vihar, a century old Buddhist consecration site on its bank collapsed. Hundreds of villages, oilfields and housing were flooded. Inside Upper Dehing RF, a train was derailed, although with no casualties. Digboi Refinery also had to halt its operations. Initially, many believed that the cause of the earthquake was a a dormant volcano in the Himalayas becoming active (15).
After the earthquake, the beds of numerous rivers in Assam become shallow, and intense flooding became an annual occurrence. Forest Villages were established in Dehing-Patkai and other forest areas to rehabilitate victims of the earthquake and flood. These villages were a colonial invention inspired by the Taungya system of Burma. Forest Villages are established and administered by the Forest Department. The settlers are provided with cultivable land, homestead and garden plots, and grazing rights in the forest. In return, they had to provide manual labour to the Forest Department in clearing jungle and planting trees. Access to education, healthcare and basic amenities is often not sufficient in these villages.And they enjoy virtually no legal rights over their land (16).
In a progressive direction, post-independence governments recognised customary tribal rights over forests. However, it was still subservient to national interests and ecological concerns. Striking a balance between environmental well-being, rights of the Forest Villages, customary rights of the tribal groups, and the ongoing coal mining became a major concern for Dehing-Patkai. The situation was further complicated by the growth of separatist insurgency in Assam in the 1980s. In Saraipung inside the rainforest, a huge training camp was established by insurgents by clearing the top of a hill. In the 90s, when Indian Armed Forces launched an anti-insurgency operation, the bulk of the insurgent leadership escaped to Bangladesh. Later, mass graves were discovered inside the forest in Saraipung. The bodies recovered were believed to be of those who opposed the insurgents, and those who were suspected to be dissidents.
At the turn of the century, the discourse over forests firmly shifted from exploitation to conservation. Demands arose from environmental activists to incorporate Jeypore, Upper Dehing and Dirok Reserved Forests into a Wildlife Sanctuary. On June 13, 2004, Dehing-Patkai Widlife Sanctuary was notified. However, this sanctuary consisted of only parts (111.19 sq km) of the aforementioned RFs. With the changes in capitalist relations, new forms of resource extraction also emerged to cohabit with the conservation-centric approach. Eco-tourismemerged, sometimes with essentialised and exoticised representation of the local ethnoscape. The Dehing-Patkai Festival held in Lekhapani started from 2002. Along with Pangsau Pass Festival and Namdapha Festival in nearby Arunachal Pradesh, it ushered in a new regime of consumption centred around the rainforest.
However, earlier forms of resource extractions including coal mining have continued. The recent issue that has emerged is connected with coal mining privileges and competing visions of conceptualising the rainforest. In a Standing Committee meeting of the National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) on April 7, a proposal for a coal mining project in Saleki PRF was discussed. Saleki is a part of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve. The project is by North Eastern Coal Field (NECF), a unit of Coal Indian Limited. The user agency sought clearance for diversion of 98.59 hectare land from the PRF for Tikok open cast mining project.
In July, 2019 a committee was formed comprising NBWL member R. Sukumar, Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden, and a representative of the local wildlife division for assessment of the mining site. During the meeting on April 7, Mr. Sukumar remarked that out of the 98.59 hectare, 57.20 hectare had already been broken up by the user agency. The remaining 41.39 hectare remain unbroken. He also added that the proposed area is located on a steep slope of the Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve and suggested a ‘cautious approach’. After detailed discussion, the Standing Committee recommended for approval the proposal for mining in the broken-up area after the user agency submits a rectified site-specific mine reclamation plan in consultation with the Forest Department of Assam. For the unbroken area, the matter will be considered after the user agency submits a feasibility report for underground mining, and also submits compliance report regarding fulfilment of all other conditions.
This move led to sharp knee-jerk reactions across the civil society in Assam. Campaigns have been kick-started against the proposed mining, often inadvertently advocating a metropolitan’park-centric’ approach towards conservationthat subsumeshuman agency. Meanwhile, certain environmental activists have claimed that the mining site does not fall under the Wildlife Sanctuary, and hence any apprehension is unwarranted. Conflatingthe Wildlife Sanctuary, the Elephant Reserve and the entire rainforest ecosystem is a classic instance of ignoring the forest for trees, the pun being not intended at all. In this fixation with categories, demarcations and official parameters, middle-class environmental altruism has conveniently bypasseda more coherent and conducive ecological articulation.
Regardless of how this debate unfolds, one thing must be categorically stated here. Rainforests do not need us, we need them.They cannot be straitjacketed into the quantification, delimitation and the cartographic fictions playing havoc in our heads. And yet, the career of Dehing-Patkai in the archives that is consciously foregrounded in this essay has been shaped by the labour of human and non-human agents, not only in and around the rainforest, but also about the rainforest. Untilthis relationshipin the rainforest resource regime is not acknowledged, there are enough reasonsto be paranoid about the forthcoming developments.
[Bikram Bora is a history enthusiast. He blogs at medium.com/@bikrambora. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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