If the future prods us to set our goals, the past certainly tell us who we were, are. Both the future and the past therefore make our present seem so vital, isn’t it?
Connecting the present to the past — and therefore the future with a fresh perspective — is a ripple of a book launched at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi this week.
“Little Known Fighters Against the Raj: Figures from Meghalaya”, brought out by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia during its three-day conclave “The Eastern Himalaya II: Gender, Poverty and Livelihoods” ending today, is certainly a first-of-its-kind effort at highlighting — through a central university in the Capital — the contributions that people from the north-eastern State Meghalaya made to keep the British Raj at bay. That standard history books about our freedom struggle have tiptoed around these figures and their rebellions in no way make them less significant in understanding the making of an India we have today. Locally, they have been revered figures, their plots against the invaders examples of nationalist pride, subjects of songs, dances, dramas.
Take Tirot Singh, the Syiem (king) of Nongkhlaw in Khasi hills. In what is known as the Anglo-Khasi War, Tirot Singh fought the British for nearly four years before his surrender. Singh was tried and transported to Dacca by the British where he died in house arrest on July 17, 1835. His death anniversary is commemorated every year in Meghalaya on this day.
Or the Jaintia Raja, pensioned and pushed to Syllet, Bangladesh, after annexing his territory, one of the larger hill States in pre-colonial times, in 1835. The Jaintias though didn’t give up so easily. In 1860, and again in 1862, they rose in revolt under the leadership of a commoner, U Kiang Nangbah, who was later hung by the British. Similarly, so many other freedom fighters lost their lives.
Sanjoy Hazarika, the book’s editor and director of the Centre, points out in the Introduction that though interesting details of various struggles were drawn from the past and collected during the 150th commemoration of 1857, “the studies woven around it could not fully reflect the position in regions such as the North East.”
Hazarika however, doesn’t want to “sound negative”, rather focus on “making an effort towards solving the problem.” He outlines the gap that the book aims at filling. “Generally, freedom fighters from Assam are better known to have taken part in what is conventionally termed Freedom Struggle. But there were those who came from small ethnic groups of the region who resisted and struggled against British imperialism in a very different manner and whose names are not known even among scholars and students of that period.” Their lives are rarely remembered, he points out, “except by the work of a handful of academics from the region, occasional writing in the regional popular Press and commemorations by local Government and ethnic organisations.”
The book was born at a workshop on the issue in 2010 at the North East Hill University, Shillong, leading to writing research papers that were presented in 2011 at another workshop organised by the Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair and the North East Centre along with Jamia’s History Department. The papers included in the book are written by experts Imdad Husain, David R. Syiemlieh, Patricia Mukhim, S.N. Lamare and Abhijit Choudhury which draw inputs from various sources including Raj records available at libraries and the National Archives.
Husain’s paper abounds in interesting information, be it the strategic reasons behind the annexation of each territory by the British or nuggets like the formation of a regional history organisation, now a vibrant entity of nearly 2,000 members, born of a long lament at “the virtual absence of any reference to the region in the standard histories and textbooks on modern India”. Mukhim’s paper highlights the struggle in Khasi, Jaintia and Garo communities to keep the memories alive through oral traditions, and also how “these warriors have become a sort of political instrument and a cause for exclusive ethnic pride” instead of becoming national icons.
Syiemlieh points out efforts like, a Bengali theatrical group from Kolkata staging a drama on Tirot Singh in Shillong as early as the late-1940s followed by events like Jairamdas Doulatram, the former Governor of Assam, unveiling a memorial on Singh in Moirang in 1954, and on whose suggestion an account was written on the king.
Hazarika hopes the book finds its way to educational institutions. “Given the continuing lack of understanding of the region
and its people which lead to tragic incidents in process of discrimination, we hope that this book can form part of the teaching syllabus and curricula for graduate and post-graduate levels in thesocial sciences. We plan to approach the Government,” he says.
Next in line is a similar book on the history of freedom fighters from Manipur and one on those from the Muslim community in the NE.