Curse of Counterfeit Khasi Traditions

Most of the problems and social conflicts experienced by the Khasi society today are due to misinterpretation of traditions and acceptance of colonial innovations as sacred and God-given traditions that existed since time immemorial. Let us discuss on one of these colonial innovations which remain in force today through modern legal instruments, but stands in perpetual conflict with the deep-seated cultural sentiments of the people. Khasi elders of old said that the Syiem was appointed in a Raid or Hima because the Bakhraw, as leaders of the founding clans refused to take over the properties of extinct clans, to inflict punishments on criminals, thieves and murderers. The Bakhraw also thought that it was dishonourable for them to live by begging for free gifts, donations, or to fill one’s coffer by fees, fines and taxes levied on the products of others in the markets. Hence, all these reprehensible functions and unholy sources of income were handed over to the Syiem.

The Confederation of several Raids to form a Hima was only for judicial administration for inter-Raids conflicts and for defence purposes, but there was no unification of lands because the individual territories of the Raids remained intact and autonomous even after the confederation. Therefore, the Syiem and the Dorbar of the Hima had no territorial authority over the lands in the confederating Raids. Lands in the territory of the Raids were fundamentally in the nature Ri-Raid (commune land). The concept of the Ri-raid did not exist in the context of the Shnong (village) and in the context of the Hima (state), but it existed only in the context of the Raid. That is why the concept is called ‘Ri-Raid. Hence, there was no such thing as the ‘Ri-Raid Shnong’ or ‘Ri-Raid Hima’ as suggested in the Report of the Land Reforms Commission for Khasi Hills, 1974. There may be some plots of land called ‘Ri-Syiem’ which are gifted by the Bakhraw of the Raids to the Syiem family for its maintenance, as in Hima Mylliem, or lands privately purchased by the Jait Syiem as in Hima Khyrim.

The Khasi Syiems were never owners of the territory within their jurisdiction. In 1935, an agreement was signed between the Myntris and Syiem Sati Raja, the successor of Kmuin Manik, incorporating a clause wherein the Syiem confirmed that he had no right over private or commune lands in the Raids of Hima Mylliem. In a letter from the clan Dorbar of the Jait Syiem of Hima Mylliem to the Chief Executive Member, Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, Shillong dated 20th August, 1976, in paragraph 2, it was written: “The Syiem lands are as follows:-

  1. The Ri-Syiem, Syiem house ground which was gifted by the Bakhraw of Hima Mylliem, that is, by ka Mihsngi Kurkalang and ka Khyllun Nongkhlaw, and they apportioned to us the Jait Syiem with the generosity of these Bakhraw, the Kurkalang and Nongkhlaw. This plot of land called, ‘Madan Iing-syiem is their generous gift to us the Jait Syiem.
  1. The Ri-Syiem land at Ïewduh (Bara Bazar) gifted to us by the Bakhraw of Raid Mylliem to the Syiem mothers and the Syiem from the time past.
  1. There are also some Ri-bam-Syiem (lands to support the Syiem clan) handed over to us by the Bakhraws of Mylliem and the Hima which is called, ‘ka Umroi Ri-bam-Syiem.”

The establishment of the Jait Syiem of Mylliem is in Raid Mylliem which is under the control of the Bakhraw of the Raid. The lands were gifted to the Jait Syiem of Mylliem by the Bakhraw not to the Syiem in office alone, but to his clan especially the female members who hold ‘ka sad – ka sunon.’ As such, the above letter says that the lands thus received from the Bakhraw belong to the Dorbar Kur (clan council) of the Jait Syiem as a whole, and not under the individual control of the Syiem in office alone.

This letter confirms the fact that the Syiem is only a state functionary, and the Syiem clan has no Raid of origin, and therefore the Syiem has no authority at all over the lands of the Raids except those which he bought and those that were gifted to him. Therefore, when Keith Cantlie said that a Syiem has the authority to hand over mines and minerals to the British on behalf of the people as a whole, amounts to what LG Shullai says, an attempt to jeopardize and tarnish the Khasi political system with foreign ideological parasites.

It has been lamented by various scholars and public leaders that through the forward policy, the British had robed the power of the Syiem and made them mere figureheads. But the reality is that, the British had diluted the position, power and authority of ki Bakhraw and handed over all authority to the Syiem alone to rule the Hima, not behalf of the indigenous people, but on behalf of the British Crown. LG Shullai had opined that the British had purposely mobilized and motivated the conversion of the concept of ‘Bakhraw’ to that of ‘Myntri’ until officially in State transactions, as well as in the people’s minds, the Bakhraw came to be known only as Myntri whose function is only to elect and assist the Syiem. Study of the British documents reveals this gradual transformation of the Khasi political institutions away from actual traditions.

The Ri-Syiem land at Ïewduh (Bara Bazar) was gifted by the Bakhraw of Raid Mylliem to the Jait Syiem as a private economic resource to support the establishment of Syiemship in the Hima. According to tradition, the Syiem and the Syiem clan Dorbar shall appoint officers and employees to run the market, and to collect gifts, donations fees, fines and taxes on the sales and purchases of products in the market and other sources of revenue. But, having been converted into ‘Myntris’, the Bakhraw today had forgotten that it was dishonourable for them to live by begging for free gifts, donations, or to fill their coffers by fees, fines and taxes levied on the products of others in the markets. So, the Myntris today are more interested to be the tax collectors of the Syiem than to be the Bakhraw. If the Syiem of Mylliem had given away lands to the Panjabi community or to other private parties right there in the market place, he had given away the economic resource of ‘ka Sad ka Sunon’ of his own clan, and the Myntris would, according to tradition have nothing to say. But, the reality is that the Myntris were also involved in the corrupt affairs because they are no longer the Bakhraw.

According to Khasi tradition, it was the responsibility of the Bakhraw to provide economic support to the Syiem and the Jait Syiem because the Syiem was appointed only for the interests of the Bakhraw and their respective Raids. And, it was the duty of the Syiem to treat the Bakhraw honourably, and to provide for their various requirements whenever they assembled for a Dorbar. The Bakhraw were the honourable leaders of their own Raids and they had their own sources of income and finance from the resources of their own Raids. But today, on the basis of British innovations, the Bakhraw no longer have independent control on the resources in their own Raid. Indeed, the statutory existence of the Raids has totally disappeared, and what we have today is the Hima with the Syiem and Myntris. In this circumstance, to maintain such a duplicate tradition, it became the responsibility of the Syiem to pay salaries or to provide means of sustenance to the Myntris. In Hima Mylliem, where the tradition of ka Sad ka Sunon had been destroyed by the British, and election of the Syiem depends on the votes of the Mantris and politics of the District Council, the Ri-Syiem in Ïewduh becomes the gambling arena. The would be Syiem is ready to gamble away his clan land, gifted by the generosity of the Kurkalang and Nongkhlaw clans, who in good conscience of supporting ka Sad ka Sunon of the Jait Syiem parted away with their clan lands.

In Hima Khyrim where the tradition of ka Sad ka Sunon still stands, honourable relationship between the Syiem and the Bakhraw still exists. But with respect to Hima Mylliem, whether the fault lies with the Syiem or with the Myntris, or whether it lies with evolution of Shillong into a cosmopolitan centre, is something I will leave to the public to debate, but I believe that the parallel ‘tradition’ inherited from the British is certainly at fault. Is the mandate of the District Council to maintain and protect this colonial legacy as an unchangeable sacred tradition, or to assist socio-cultural change in a healthy manner?

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Dr. Fabian Lyngdoh Written by:

Dr Fabian Lyngdoh, HoD Cultural and Community Initiatives, Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong and Ex-Chairman of Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council

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