Monday, July 15, 2024
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Solidarity among the Khasi: What explains it?

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

The often-mentioned 200 odd ethnic communities in the North East can be divided into four groups based on language, viz., Austroasiatic (Khasi); Tibeto-Burman, within which you have Kok-Borok (Garo-Bodo-Tripuri along with Konyak and Singpho), Tani Mishmi (ethnic groups of Arunachal Pradesh except for the Tibetan groups), and Kuki-Chin-Mizo (this includes the Kuki-Zomi, Naga, Meitei, and Karbi); Indo-European (associated with Assamese and Bengali); and Tai-Ahom (groups like Tai Phake, Tai Aiton, etc). This, however, does not mean that the ethnic communities within the same language group have an amicable relationship with each other.
The Kuki-Zomi, Meitei, and Naga shared a common ancestor not very long ago. In fact, Meitei may have emerged from the intermixing of the various groups that had settled in the valley. However, at the moment, the Kuki-Zomi and the Meitei are locked in an existential struggle with each other. The Naga are on the sidelines, but they are fighting for their own separate homeland, removed from both the Kuki-Zomi and the Meitei. But there are complications here as well. Some clans among the Thangkhul Naga, the major Naga group behind the NSCN-IM, claim to have a connection with the Meitei royal family. Naga groups like the Anal are more closely related to the Kuki-Zomi and were referred to as Old Kukis in the past. And the Thangkhul language is the bridge between the Kuki-Zomi and Naga languages. At the moment, though, the Thangkhul led NSCN-IM is reported to be training the Meitei militants who are attacking Kuki civilians, while Kuki militants are hitting NSCN-IM positions in Myanmar with the help of Indian armed forces. In the past, the Naga-Kuki conflict led to the killings and displacement of thousands of people. Within the Kuki-Zomi as well, internecine conflicts were fought in the past, e.g., the Kuki-Paite conflict. Thus, one can see how groups that in the past were derived from the same stock can become deadly enemies of each other, with the animosity spilling over into the present. In this context, Fabian Lyngdoh’s article ‘Solving Tribal Boundary Issues: The Ancestors’ Way’ becomes very pertinent.
In his article, Fabian Lyngdoh discusses how the Khasi, who were the first to enter the subcontinent from the east, were able to maintain their identity while being encircled by groups that came later. Despite not having formal political boundaries, he argues that the Khasi were able to maintain a relatively peaceful coexistence with the Garo, Karbi, Tiwa, Rabha, and Biate while having good trade relations with Bengal in the south. This he attributed to the adaptive character and the assimilative strength of the Khasi matrilineal system. Under it, different non-Khasi groups were assimilated within the Khasi community, increasing its numbers while at the same time avoiding inter-ethnic violence to a large extent. For example, the ‘Khar’ clans emerged when Khasi men took non-Khasi women from the plains as their wives, with their offspring converted into Khasi. On the other hand, non-Khasi men who married Khasi women had to cut off ties with their original families and assimilate into their wives’ families and cultures. He gave an example of the Lyngngam, who are a group that emerged out of the marriages that took place between Garo and Khasi, the Tiwa and Karbi giving rise to the Bhoi identity, and the possible Pnar (a Khasi sub-group) clans that must have emerged from the marriage between the Pnar and the Biate or Hadem. In short, it was this fluidity of ethnic identity that allowed the Khasi to assimilate the different non-Khasi ethnic groups and maintain a relatively peaceful coexistence. But is the claim of the non-immutability of the ethnic barrier backed by scientific evidence?
Banrida Theresa Langstieh’s PhD thesis ‘Ethnic and Population Structure of the Lyngngam of Meghalaya, India’ and her 2012 paper ‘Molecular Genetic Perspectives on the Origin of the Lyngngam Tribe of Meghalaya, India’ have proven the Khasi origin of Lyngngam from the mother’s side. The father’s side comes from the Garo. They are, in other words, a mixed Khasi-Garo group. The fluidity of ethnic identity in the Bhoi region is well documented in Philippe Ramirez’s 2017 book ‘People of the Margins’. In the Bhoi region, the relationship between the Karbi, Tiwa, and Khasi is guided by trans-ethnic exogamies and surname equivalences. This means that clans cutting across the three ethnic groups do not marry into each other since they are considered to be related by blood, or, in other words, they belong to the same ‘Kur’. This happens because many Tiwa and Karbi have converted to Khasi in the past. For example, those who were previously Puma in Tiwa became Umbah in Khasi. To ensure that they do not marry into their original clan in the future, which is taboo, Umbah and Puma, therefore, are considered to be part of the same ‘Kur’.
Now that it has been established that the Khasi are a product of the interaction with multiple non-Khasi groups, can we find out how much of the mixing has actually happened? How many of the present population carry the legacy of the original migrants who came to the sub-continent 5,000 years ago? Recent work on genetics has given a hint of a possible number.
The debate around the origin of the Austro-asiatic speakers was finally laid to rest in 2010 with the paper ‘Population Genetic Structure in Indian Austro-asiatic Speakers: The Role of Landscape Barriers and Sex-Specific Admixture’ by Gyaneshwer Chaubey and colleagues. In it, the East Asian origin of Austro-asiatic speakers was confirmed by looking at the genetic evidence. Table 2 of the paper gives a breakdown of the genetic markers carried by the different Austro-asiatic groups, including the Khasi. About 40% of the Khasi were found to carry the mtDNA (which passes from mothers to their offspring) with a SE Asian origin, while the corresponding number for the Y chromosome (which passes from father to son) was over 70%. This means that 30% to 60% of the present day-Khasi lineages do not come from mainland Southeast Asia, the original homeland of the Khasi. But having a Southeast Asian component in itself does not mean they are connected to the Khasi or Austro-asiatic-speaking populations. SE Asia has at least five different population groups, viz., the Hoabinhian hunter-gatherer who are related to the present-day Onge and Jarawa of Andaman and Nicobar Islands; the Austronesian (Malay, Indonesian, Filipino, and the aborigines of Taiwan); the Austro-asiatic speakers to which Khasi belong; Krai-Dai speaking groups; and those who speak Tibeto-Burman. This break up does not tell if the 70% Y chromosome came from the Austro-asiatic speakers. For that, one has to look at the 2015 paper ‘A late Neolithic expansion of Y chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95 from east to west’ by Ganesh Prasad Arunkumar and colleagues.
This paper identified Y-chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95 as the dominant paternal lineage of the Austro-asiatic speakers, making it the genetic marker of the group. Not surprisingly, both the Khasi and the Munda are found to carry this genetic marker, making them distinct from the non-Austro-asiatic speakers. In the present-day Khasi population, around 30% are carrying the Y-chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95. This means that out of the previous 70% SE Asian origin Y chromosome, 40% comes from non-Austro-asiatic speakers or non-Khasi groups. Along with the 40% mtDNA (the same diversity of SE Asian population groups will have to be considered), this suggests that in the present-day Khasi population, not more than 30% can trace their lineage to the original migrants who came from SE Asia. With the permutation and combination required to match those that have both Austro-asiatic mtDNA and Y chromosomes, the number could be even lower. For those who claim the existence of ‘pakka Khasi’ or ‘Khasi by blood’, that number will be very small. An overwhelming majority are actually non-Khasi who became Khasi sometime in the past. The mixing began when they were still in mainland Southeast Asia. In a situation where genes or ‘blood’ cannot help you define who a Khasi is, what should be the identifying feature of the community? How did our ancestors in the past deal with the question?
The matrilineal system, as it is today, has always been the bedrock of Khasi identity. In the past, the Khasi tried to influence or impose matrilineal culture on groups with whom they came into contact. For this reason, the majority of the Karbi left the domain of Hima Jaintiapur, fearing that they would lose their ethnic and cultural identity under the influence of the Khasi matrilineal culture. The Garo (identified as the Diko by some) appear to have adopted matrilineal customs under the influence of the Khasi.
The other important feature is the language. All those who are today identified as Khasi speak a language that belongs to the Khasian group. Finally, becoming a Khasi requires becoming part of the Khasi clan system, or the ‘Teh-Kur’. The equivalence of surnames in Bhoi is the best example of it, as are the various ‘Khar’ clans. Even the Syiem clan, if we remove the mythical parts of their origin story, can trace their beginning to the marriage of a Khasi man with a non-Khasi woman (Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s novel ‘Funeral Nights’ gives a tantalizing hint towards that).
So, matrilineal custom, acceptance within the Khasi ‘Kur’, and language are the defining features of being a Khasi. And since non-Khasi could become Khasi by adopting these three, they are ‘potential’ Khasi rather than enemies. This could explain the relatively peaceful coexistence that the Khasi had with the neighboring ethnic groups. This flexibility could also be the reason why the community has not fragmented into different smaller groups, like it has happened elsewhere in the North East, where groups that had the same origin in the past are now trying to wipe out each other.
The ability to assimilate other groups, while at the same time maintaining their distinct matrilineal identity, has enabled the Khasi to thrive as a community for the last 5000 years in the subcontinent. At the same time, it allowed them to maintain the cultural ties within their own sub-groups through the oral stories preserved of how the various ‘Kur’ are related to each other. It is also preserved in the language that, despite having undergone changes and been divided into War, Lyngngam, Pnar, and the Sohra Khasi, is still distinctly Khasi. If all three remain, it is certain the Khasi will continue to thrive for the next 5000 years while still maintaining their identity as a distinct community.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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