Civilized Leadership and Peaceful Coexistence

By Fabian Lyngdoh

Everyone today is harping on the policy and vision for the political leadership in Meghalaya. This article is one aspect of that cherished vision. Development and progress of the society and State depends to a large extent on the peaceful co-existence, mutual respect and mutual support it offers to, and receives from each of its neighbours around the borders and communities far beyond its borders. Such situations can happen only when competent, farsighted, and civilized leadership is in place. History shows that in the past, the Khasis had good relations with the neighbouring tribes surrounding them. As a tribe, the Khasis had never been in any violent conflict with any other tribe or kingdom, except ordinary skirmishes of individual Himas among themselves or with their neighbouring communities. Hence, even though surrounded on all sides by various tribes of the great Tibeto-Burman race, the Khasis survived peacefully as a tribe in their beautiful and resourceful realm till the advent of the British rule. The secret of all this is competent, farsighted, wise and accommodative leadership.
Long before the British rule, the Karbis, Lalung (Tiwa), Garos, Koch, Rabha, Biates and other tribes had been living together in various parts of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The Karbis had been living in comparative peace in the territory of Hima Jaintia before they established their own kingdom in the Rongkhang plains. Some of the Karbis, Tiwas, Garos and Rabhas co-existed with the Khasis and intermarried among themselves in the northern part of the Khasi Hills, and many new Khasi clans emerged from such inter-marriages. The area they lived came to be known as Ri Bhoi (Bhoi country) today. Despite contrary narrative and denial, there is ample evidence that the Khasis in the western area of the Khasi Hills lived together in peace with the Garos and intermarried in the Lyngngam area thereby producing a unique subculture which is a blend of both Khasi and Garo cultures. There are some political communities (Raids), established by the Karbis and the Rabhas in Ri Bhoi area long before the British rule. There are also four Raids established by the Lalung (Tiwa), called ‘ki Raid Sarikrai’. Sarikrai in Khasi means “saw ksing-saw lama” in English it means ‘four drums’. All these Raids formed by the non-Khasi tribes were recognized by the erstwhile Hima Shyllong before the coming of the British. They are also recognized today by Hima Mylliem and Hima Khyrim.
We tend to speak reverentially of the British who had once ruled the modern world. But who really are they? The islands of Britain and Ireland were first inhabited by few Old Stone Age people who lived in caves, and later disappeared. In their place entered the Iberians, the old inhabitants of Spain, then known as Iberia. It was these people who built the famous Stonehenge. The Iberians were overcome by the stronger Celts who also intermarried with them. The Celts who settled in the south were called Britons, and from them came the name Britain. Then for over three hundred years the land was under the rule of the powerful Roman Empire. When the Romans withdrew in 410 AD, a fresh wave of Teutonic tribes from Northern Germany, the Angles, Jutes, and Saxons entered into the land drove the existing inhabitants westward and called them Welsh, and the land they live in, Wales. The Angles took the leadership; hence the name ‘England’, and the language, ‘English.’ Then the Danes and Norsemen known as the Vikings from Scandinavia (modern Norway, Sweden and Denmark) invaded the country, and from around 860 AD they stayed, settled and prospered in Britain, becoming part of the mix of people who today make up the British nation. So, there is no pure race or tribe, anywhere in the world.
The State of Meghalaya, and the Khasi society in particular, is in dire need of competent, farsighted, committed, and civilized leadership. A wrong and myopic narrative of security and defence which had been sowed around the idea of a pure race and fear of the outsider, had overwhelmed the whole society. Leaders of the tribe should realize that the society cannot survive in isolation without good and supportive relationships with other surrounding communities. We cannot develop and progress, especially in this modern period, without inter-relations, peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, mutual support, and mutual trust with the neighbours at the borders and beyond. We should also realize that many of our own tribes people had established settlements as Khasi communities in the territories of other communities close to the borders and beyond.
In Tamenglong District of Manipur, the Khasis had been residing since 1939-1940. Today, they live in three villages: Khedagar, Kamrangha Khasi and Abampunji Khasi. Majority of them make their living from agriculture, particularly betel leaf cultivation. Among the 19 different tribal communities recognized in Tripura, are the Khasis, known as Khashia. They migrated there since the beginning of the 18th century for economic opportunities. They have their own gardens of betel leaves which is popularly known as ‘Khasia paan.’ This writer had visited the establishment of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) in 2011 and was joyously surprised to find life-size statues of a Khasi couple displayed in the Autonomous Council’s museum at Khumulwng together with some Khasi cultural artefacts. There are also Khasi communities in some parts of Mizoram.
The Khasis are also the first to introduce the unique way of betel leaf plantation in the Barak Valley of Cachar District. In 1870, the Khasi population in Barak Valley was 1000. Therefore, the Khasis must have been living there long before 1870. According to some recent independent survey there are 285 Khasi hamlets and villages, and the current population of the Khasi-Jaiñtia community in the Barak Valley is around 1.5 lakh. There are also Khasi communities in the border regions of present-day Bangladesh. They migrated there about five hundred years ago, and Bangladesh has been their home for hundreds of years within the cultural boundaries of their villages called punjis. According to some estimates there are altogether 73 Khasi punjis with a population of about 30, 000 in Bangladesh today.
In Dima Hasao (North Cachar Hills) District of Assam, there is a large village called ‘Jatinga’ which is well recognized as a Khasi (Pnar) village. The area was first inhabited by the Zeme Nagas, and the name ‘Jatinga’ comes from the Zeme word ‘jatin’ which means ‘wind and rain’, and the word ‘ga’ which means ‘place’. So, Jatinga means the pathway of rain and wind. The place is famous worldwide for the mysterious visit and suicide of birds every year during the months of August to November. Jatinga as a permanent settlement of the Khasi-Pnars was founded by u Ma Lakhon Bang Suchiang along with his companions in 1905, primarily for betel leaf plantation and later orange plantation. Though all the inhabitants of Jatinga are Christians belonging to the Welsh Presbyterian Church, the people of Jatinga still follow the matrilineal system and all the Pnar cultural practices to this day. The Pnar dialect of Bataw is the common spoken language, and the Khasi written language (Sohra) is used in churches and schools. As of 2005 Jatinga had 350 Pnar households and few Dimasa families. The population of the Pnars alone was 2500. From a humble beginning, Jatinga became the biggest village in North Cachar Hills District, and is the seen as the Mother of all the Presbyterian Churches in the District. In 2010 this writer visited the Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council and learned that Jatinga is a second MDC constituency after Haflong, and the constituency is reserved for a representative of the Khasi-Pnar community only. There was also an MDC representing the Zeme Nagas.
The Khasis living amidst other tribal communities had been co-existing peacefully for decades and centuries. However, in recent times we have serious problems and conflicts arising in the State on account of contested borders. The life and property of our tribespeople living in Bangladesh and in the Meghalaya-Assam borders as well as in other states is fragile and insecure. The initiatives taken by the Khasi Students Union (KSU) to intervene in solving the problems of the Khasis living in Mizoram, in the Barak Valley, and in Tamenglong District of Manipur are highly commendable. There is hope that with the present leadership of this students’ body, there may be brighter future awaiting the society and the state.
No society can prosper and exist in peace if its leadership is creating enemies within it and all around it, and for people to live in a climate of suspicion, hatred and fear. Protective and defensive attitudes alone would not serve as a policy for growth, development and progress. Mutual suspicion and hatred, reciprocal harassment and violence among various communities would only create more insecurity that would hinder development and growth in various aspects of life.
Universal justice is the foundation for a lasting solution to all inter-cultural, inter-ethnic, inter-racial, and inter-state conflicts. We expect that our tribesmen living outside Meghalaya should enjoy all the rights as indigenous peoples there, with secured ancestral land ownership and land holding certificates, and be provided with constitutional protection to safeguard their cultural identity because they had been living there since the British era. But we also have a greater responsibility to do likewise to the people of other communities settled among us and who had obtained the approval of our ancestors much before the British era. It is wrong to expect people to concede to everything we want while we have no concern at all for what they want. For instance we need to show the same concern and kindness to the people of Manipur living permanently in Meghalaya just as the Chief Minister of Manipur has done to the Khasis living permanently in Manipur. That is competent, farsighted, and civilized political leadership.

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