Phlang Letang, Guerilla Tactics and the story of U Kiang Nangbah

Blast from the Past

“Brothers and sisters please look carefully on my face when I die on the gallows. If my face turns towards the east, my country will be free from the foreign yoke within 100 years; if it turns towards the west, my country will remain in bondage for good.”

Saying these words, U Kiang Nangbah passed away. The British authorities stood there laughing, unaware of which way the wind would blow, 85 years later. But, before we get to our hero, it is time to rewind and travel through the time bubble.

The day is March 15, 1835. Captain Lister carries out the annexation of the plains portion of the Jaintia Kingdom. Two companies of the Sylhet Light Infantry march and take formal charge of Jaintiapur. Rajendra Sing who succeeds Raja Ram Sing gives up the hilly tracts and eventually the whole kingdom comes under the British rule.

Kiang Nangbah, then a small boy, grows up in this new world where two different cultures come into contact with each other. Born to Ka Rimai Nangbah in Jowai, he learns the traditional way of life, including warfare and administration. The British attitude towards the people does not escape his attention. He is inspired by the stories told to him about the heroism of his people, in particular, his uncle, U Ksan Sajar Nangbah, who had earlier fought against the British at Chanmyrsiang.

The British, under David Scott, is outwardly friendly to Raja Ram Sing… Privately, they discuss how this is a necessary hassle, given the Burmese threat on the Assam border at the time. Soon, that is about to change. Having conquered India slowly and steadily, the idea of an independent Jaintia kingdom is a threat to their sense of global power. As is their policy, they wait for the right time to strike.

A series of unfortunate events take place. In 1835, AJM Mills writes that some form of payment must come from their Jaintia subjects, a mark of submission to British authority. In 1849, the same sentiments are echoed by the Political Agent, Colonel Lister. He submits a proposal which is rejected. In 1855, a police station is established in Jowai.

Kiang Nangbah observes these developments. As we see the fire burning in his eyes, we hear him say that the time to rise against them will come soon.

Meanwhile,

The revolt of 1857 breaks out; the goras are careful. The ex-Raja Rajendra Sing is kept under strict supervision, lest he gets ideas about joining hands with the Sepoys. The shock of the revolt makes them aggressive in quelling any sign of rebellion. Amid this, WJ Allen submits a proposal regarding the imposition of a house tax in 1858.

Then comes the issue of tradition and culture. The gora policy is inherently dismissive of what they consider to be ‘barbaric’. With Christian missionaries by their side, social segregation sets in between the skurs (school going) and the chnongs (heathen). The situation gets worse and the Deputy Commissioner of the district, Major Rowlatt prohibits the people of the Sumer clan to burn their dead in their traditional cremation ground. Such interferences make the people determined to resist British authority.

We are now in 1860. The house tax is imposed. A poor woman by the name of Lakhi Pirdiang is forcefully evicted from her house when she refuses to pay the tax. This results in the Jaintia Resistance of 1860. The 44th Native Infantry steps in under the command of Colonel Richardson and suppresses the rebellion.

Kiang Nangbah is waiting for the right time to strike at the heart of the enemy.

Meanwhile, Solomon Dohling, a British daroga decides to go a step further – shoots a monkey in the forest of Nangjngi. The people are enraged because they hold the animal sacred and worst of all, this is a crime committed inside a sacred forest. He flees for his life.

The following year, the British introduce income tax. Kiang Nangbah decides not to pay taxes. The second wave of Jaintia resistance is set in motion when the traditional festival of Ka Chad Pastieh is about to be performed in Yalong. Traditional weapons of the Jaintia people are seized and burnt.

Something must be done

A meeting has been called and a Dorbar of the 12 Dallois is held on the bank of the Syntu Ksiar. The time has come to remind the aliens that they are outsiders. But who will be the leader this time? As we observe this, we can feel the excitement in the air.

A small competition is held. Young Jaintia warriors dive to the bottom of the river to bring out a plant, the phlang letang. Kiang Nangbah emerges successful. Impressed, the Dalloi of Nartiang garlands the young hero with his armour.

The year 1857 is still fresh in the minds of the goras. After all, it has been just five years since their invincibility was challenged. Little do they know that the Jaintia people will rise up once again. January 1862 sees U Kiang Nangbah unleash a brilliant guerrilla tactic. He is aware that the rulers have power in the form of ammunition and guns, and his men build stockades, firearms and store grains. On January 20, the police station at Jowai is destroyed. Armed with a pistol, rifle and a sword, the warriors move from one village to another, rallying the people towards their cause. Shadowy figures move quietly and we follow them.

Striking Fear in the Enemy Camp

The authorities are shocked at the audacity and vow revenge. The provisions of the Arms Act are extended to the Jaintia Hills. Anyone found carrying arms is immediately punished. Brigadier General GD Showers of the Eastern Command arrives on March 23 under exclusive civil and military charges of the Jaintia Hills. That the hero of Jaintia resistance hides from plain sight scares them. As tensions mount, his methods strike fear in the enemy camp. They inflict heavy damage to British outposts and quickly vanish to the jungles of Myngkrem, Myntdu and Myntwa. If that is not textbook superhero subversion, what is!

As the need for armed suppression mounts, the fire of what the goras call “Little War”, the spirit of rebellion spreads like a forest fire in MynsoChangpungRaliangNartiang and Borato. Finding it difficult to control the armed resistance, the British ask for more troops – 21st and 28th Punjab Infantry, the Native Infantry, the 2nd Assam Light Infantry, and Rattray’s Sikh Military Police, among others. They hope this will change the outcome, but the resistance is stiff. The time is now ripe to launch Plan B.

In the meantime, U Kiang Nangbah falls ill and retreats to Umkara.

What have you done, U Daloi Tyngkher?

The British approach U Tyngkher. Not only do they promise that he won’t be harmed, but give a reward of Rs 1,000. All he needs to do is tell them the secret hideout of the face of Jaintia resistance. On December 27, following treachery by U Mon and U Long Sutnga, U Kiang Nangbah is captured by Lt. Sadler. Brigadier Dunsford and Captain Morton give him the ultimatum to publicly announce his surrender or face the gallows. He chooses the latter. On December 30, a mock trial is held and he is executed.

Back to 2020

We say our goodbyes to the brave men who vow to renew their struggle as we hop into our time bubble just in time to celebrate the 158th death anniversary of U Kiang Nangbah. Tales of his courage echoes in the Jaintia Hills, reminding us that the spirit of sacrifice never leaves us, in the darkest of times.

(Source: The Sacrifice: a sesquicentennial tribute to Kiang Nangbah, Sein Raij Niamtre, Shillong, 2012)

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