Is Indigenous the same as Minority? The curious case of the Seng Khasi/Sein Raij

The Khasis, Pnars, Achiks as well as other tribes from the region are indigenous people with a distinct culture et al. Special arrangement were made to recognize their uniqueness such as the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The ‘indigeneity’ of the Khasis for instance transcend all other distinctions such as religion. Whether one is a Khasi Christian or non-Christian he/she is expected to possess the ‘indigeneity’ that define his/her existence as part of that culture. Language is one such distinction. But Khasi as a spoken language is dying. If it vanishes then Khasi as an indigenous group dies out.

The Khasis have been living in close proximity with other communities comprising the Hindus, the Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhist etc. Before colonialism made its way to these hills, rudimentary socio -religious contacts were established in the Garo and the Jaintia hills to Islam and Hinduism the remnants of which are evident to this day. Centuries later Christianity was introduced by the British missionaries which quickly spread among the local population. Despite Christianity becoming a popular religion the British have long recognized the uniqueness and ‘indigeneity’ of these tribal communities. There were certainly no discrimination between the Khasi Christians and non-Christians in say missionary-run schools nor did the British attempt to change the Khasi culture, practices etc. The Inner Line Permit apart from serving British interests was a mechanism devised to insulate these tribes from foreign influences and maintain their uniqueness.

India has always been a pluralistic society where different religious communities, cultures, language etc tolerate and respect each other. The British created differences and introduced the concept of minority as a policy to ‘divide and rule’. Post-independence the nomenclature persisted and its legacy perpetuated with the framing of the Indian Constitution. Minorities are entitled to various benefits and exemptions provided by the Constitution. These assuaged the minorities who were skeptical about a new independent India, without the British. So all non-Hindus are considered as minorities and eligible for certain benefits. By this logic the Christians of Meghalaya and the indigenous practice (Niam Khasi/Tre) are minorities since they are not Hindus. While the Christian population would continue to remain a minority group, the niam tre/khasi must continue to maintain the status quo in order to remain a minority group. If one or the other were to assume a distinct entity it violates the definition of a minority and they stand to lose the tag.

The High Court of Meghalaya has asked the Central government to recognize Niam khasi/tre as minority groups. Until the time of the notification they will continue to remain a minority assigned to the Khasi Christians. The Meghalaya government has explained to the court that no discrimination exists in its treatment to the two groups such as scholarships allocations. Yet this is precisely the case that the Seng Khasi/Sein Raij are making in the court. Private establishments such as schools/colleges are outside the jurisdiction of the government where discrimination, even among the Christians themselves, abounds. Therefore if this is the case, the Seng Khasi/Sein Raij makes before the court, then the Presbyterians/Catholics etc stand to qualify as minorities as well based on such discrimination.

Being alienated and discriminated is the raison dtre which emboldens the Seng Khasi/Sein Raij to raise its pitch in favor of the minority tag? But is this the only reason? The answer is not hard to seek. Meghalaya is known by many unofficial names; one being that it is a ‘Christian state’. It is a label propagated by church leaders and political and social actors and it is done in the most rhetorical manner. The label is unconstitutional and its usage should be banned. However, the adherents of Christianity have justified and validated Christianity to secularism. So while professing their faith in secularism they are happy demonizing and disrespecting the indigenous faith. This has created a sense of alienation.

The other is the fact that the Seng Khasi which was founded in 1899 is recognized at least by its adherents, as the sole custodian of Khasi spiritual and cultural values/legacy. The Seng Khasi inspired the formation of like minded organizations such as the Sein Raij, Seng Khihlang and others to pursue the same for the Pnars etc. The founding members of Seng Khasi who were themselves educated in missionary or English medium schools perceived Christianity as a threat to the Khasi way of life. They did all they could to ensure that their beloved culture remained untouched and unchanged through the creation of the Seng Khasi. Still it is important for the current leaders of the Seng Khasi to specify its stand on how being ‘minority’ could save the Khasi culture and way of life because this culture includes the Khasi Christians.

For a long time, the Seng Khasi functioned independently disassociating themselves from other religious groups, either within the state or outside it. However, it appears many members of the Seng Khasi/Sein Raij have found an ally in the RSS. There were rumours that the RSS have made a dent and established support in these hills. But the “Path Sanchalan” march organized by the RSS shows a relationship closer than anyone had thought of. It was a march to show its strength under the guise of celebrating leader, Subhash Chandra Bose. What purpose Subhash Chandra Bose served the Seng Khasi remains a mystery. For the RSS, Subhash Chandra Bose is a figure who awaits ‘saffronizing’. They have already started with Sardar Patel. But one must also remember that the RSS has been making efforts to bring under its fold all forms of indigenous practices in the country. It has started various missionary works for the same.

The founding members of the Seng Khasi never pursued the minority case. Is there a need to be minority to protect one’s culture? If that was the case, the Seng Khasi could have made the demand during the Hill State Movement of the 70s. Something seems to have happened in the last few years which provoked the Seng Khasi/Sein Raij to be vocal about discrimination where none existed, at least on paper. So before anyone can give their judgment on the “minority within a minority” issue, it’s worth tracing its genesis to understand what caused the Seng Khasi to flex and play the minority card to protect and preserve tradition.

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Phrangsngi Pyrtuh Written by:

Phrangsngi Pyrtuh teaches in a college and is a fellow traveller

3 Comments

  1. BS Ranee
    February 17, 2016
    Reply

    the simmering tensions that exist between those who in varied ways follow the ‘khasi ways of old’ passed on from earlier generations and those who have adopted the christian faith is a story that has crossed a 100 years…within these 100+ years, miniscule events have occurred and have started to evolve into multiple yet minor contradictions that are becoming sharper and rigid over time. The high court decision related to a minority status to seng khasi and its directives to the govt. has for the first time in these 100+ years drawn clear fault lines within the two groups Seng Khasi and Khasi Christians and become overt thereby creating tensions that were felt but not spoken about. for very many years For the first time the Seng Khasi has spoken loudly and it is thus important to collectively reflect on the said matter.
    The Indian constitution does not clearly define what ‘minority’ is but various court judgments points to it being referred to as a ‘non-dominant’ group. It is a relative term and is referred to represent the smaller of two numbers, sections or group called ‘majority’. In this sense there may be political minority, religious minority, linguistic minority, etc; TMA Pai Foundation vs. State of Karnatake, AIR 2003 SC335: (2002) 8 SCC 481.
    In the UN Sub Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities,the term ‘minority’ is defined as to include only those non-dominant groups in a population which possess and wish to preserve stable ethnic, religious or linguistic traditions or characteristics markedly different from those of the rest of the population; such minorities should properly include a number of persons sufficient by themselves to preserve such traditions or characteristics; and such minorities should be loyal to the state of which they are nationals…
    Article 29 of the constitution protects the cultural and educational rights of minorities and …any section of citizens residing in the territory of india or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own have the right to conserve the same….
    Article 30 of the constitution gives the right of minorities to establish and administer educational institutions…
    I state the above to point facts of what minority connotes and the framework in which the Seng Khasi argument should be perceived…but before that some more facts…
    The 2001 census data of meghalaya points to 70.01 % of christians and 11.52% of those practicing other religions and persuasions…with hindus at 13.27%….
    In 2011 ….the break up when specifically referring to Khasi and Jaintia districts…the west khasi hills district accounts for 366881 christians and 5878 Seng Khasi (other religions and persuasions), in Ri Bhoi there are 218508 christians and 6308 Seng Khasi, in East Khasi Hills there are 543394 and 115597 Seng Khasi, In jaintia Hills there are 271596 Christians and 107559 Sein Raij….
    Christians in Khasi and Jaintia hills districts totalled 14,00,379 while those in
    Seng Khasi Sein Raij totals 2,35,342….this is a rough estimate made from 2011 census data….to be noted also is that there are 1,94,834 Hindus in K&J Districts.
    There are many arguments i wish to put forth but because of shortage of time am not able to formulated them well…but since this is a discussion board i thought i would throw in a few….and when i have time will pitch in with more…
    Most of us who follow the traditional Khasi faith (i will not speak for all but only a few who i interact closely) holds few practices and beliefs fundamental to our practice as khasi….(1) our origin story (2) the mother/women centered practice around passage of wealth and lineage (3) our oneness with being/blei (i will not use the word God because i personally belief this is imbued with colonial elements in conceptions that has distorted our sense of oneness with being and even force us at times to conceive of God as separate from us and directly in control of us …for some of us Blei is NOT God….Blei is being…Blei is existence (4) our clanship system (5) the structure of governance from clan to syiem (6) the scared relationship between ‘us in nature’ as opposed to ‘us and nature’… (7) our intrinsic connect to our ancestors and the lands we historically inhabit as a community and relate so much too….and many more…..
    1).It is not a grouse….i hold no grouse against clan/community christian members but much more a lived tension when it comes to many belief and practices with khasis adopting the christian faith…these relates to some of the practices i have laid above but much more with the ‘narrative’ of our origin and the conceptions of Blei. I use the word ‘narrative’ consciously knowing fully well the latest debates in science especially theoretical physics and cosmology related to the theory about the beginning… starting with the big bang and the possibility of a 13.7 billions years of the origin of the universe….and the processes thereof….for many of us, the origin stories of the Khasis stands not in contradiction to science but gives meaning to the intrinsic relationship between being, existence, word, life and community….we do not look down on origin stories of many others but we do not think ours is less real than others and we do not belief that ours is the only one. Even the origin stories of science is a narrative and a very powerful and interesting one. This world is diverse, origin stories are diverse…. and in all of this…diversity is fundamental to being and no origin stories including that of science supersedes the narrativised origin stories of communities….that includes the origin stories of the jews….
    2). please let go of the fear that some of us in Seng Khasi (and i speak of myself and few others who i know) are naive about the RSS and its politics. Yes there are some who are linked to this group but most of us do not fear because we cannot be fundamentally altered as a community as long as we hold on to our basic practices….connections and linkages and relationships are much to do with geopolitical and political economic realities. Many khasis do fall trap to colonial power and the reproduction of such colonial reality…when british held power and the community was under british india many of our khasis became christians….when now under Hindu India….a few more will be led and influenced to follow that path….but to connote that all of us in Seng Khasi are intrinsically linked to the RSS is to negate the capacity of many in Seng Khasi who have withstood waves of colonialism….Personally i think the existence of the seng khasi should be appreciated (although we have never seek appreciation from any) about the fact that the seng khasi is actually a testimony to the strength of the Khasis as a community to withstand the brutal forces of colonialism…..
    alright…i want to touch upon the minority debate but i do not have the time…will do so when am a bit free….just a final word…..i really appreciate raiot and the people behind who have initiated this platform for a more informed and less reactive forum for open debate among us in the khasi community and in relations to other realities across the world….will get back

  2. Phrangsngi Pyrtuh
    Phrangsngi Pyrtuh
    February 18, 2016
    Reply

    thanks your comments and observations are appreciated. I wrote this article not to fume paranoia or provoke but to understand why everyone is having a hard time digesting hard realities in the khasi-jaintia society. The current debates appearing in local newspapers are either in favor or against the high court ruling and the RSS march. One should not get trapped in these pendulum swings between two opposing views. There need to be more discussion on why things are unfolding the way they are. There are questions which needs answers and i think if we could address some of these questions without taking sides we may have objective reasoning not embroiled on running emotions.
    There should be more debates and discussion which centered not only on the pros and cons. This is passe and the sensitivity of the issue may linger or even widened. There is discomfiture on the minority issue and it is important to assuage these before it become a political and election issue, something which must not happen.

  3. BS Ranee
    February 19, 2016
    Reply

    khublei bah Phrangsngi…am in total agreement with you on questions you have raised….important that we keep discussions alive among us within the community whilst keeping ourselves abreast with unfolding realities in India and across the world….actually I did not have too much time to ponder on the issues you have raised…was just reflecting in the moment after reading your very interesting article…. am still short of time but thought i will bring to bear an important element that needs more reflections pertaining to the minority debate…. i might be wrong on some arguments…do correct me if any discrepancies have crept into the same…. i wish i had time to research a bit more on specific issues, it is problematic these days to argue without factual premises as there is tendency to not only sound commonsensical but even reactive at times….and that is something that thinkers in our community cannot afford to reduce discussions too……let me start from 1947 onwards located around the indian constitution…assam state….scheduled tribe status….sixth schedule…autonomous districts and the rise of the minority debate within our community…i will refer heavily to the constituent assembly debates as much as i can recollect and the reality that began unraveling post the application and operationalization of the Indian constitution…. ok…this is how i view things ….that the khasi community was identified as ‘schedule tribe’ plus positioned within the framework of the sixth schedule is a complex matter..as in…did we get 6th schedule because we were scheduled as tribes? or whether we were first scheduled as tribes and thus were given the sixth schedule?… this question is important to engage with because there were very complex realities in our community during the years 1945 to 1951…the contestation between Bah Rev. JJM Nichols Roy and the Federation of Khasi states….the struggle between residents of Khasi British areas and the residents of Khasi states…. made further complex by British occupied Jaintia Hills district and the experience of residents in the said location….and above all this… the tension between khasis who have adopted the christian faith and those who mobilised themselves under the ambit of the Seng Khasi (Mawkhar)….religion at this juncture was not so divisive as it has begun to be, but dormant elements of discomfort were starting to be experienced much more in the psycho social sphere…and this manifested in varied ways….some differentiating themselves from british christians and khasi christians…few even went to the extend of pulling threads and identifying themselves with the pan india vedic hindu reality as an act of differentiation….but this i need to point out… at no moment the basic distinct practices of what came from our khasi ancestors and held by many to that very moment was fundamentally altered and erased…etc etc….(this we can discuss more deeply some other time…controversial very controversial topic…)…. the constitution provided safeguards and developmental benefits to those the state identified as scheduled tribes across the country and further accepted the need for giving power to specific communities to safeguard customary related historical rights in the form of the 6th schedule…. till this point we are all on somewhat an equal egalitarian premise within the community…what made this premise complex and fragmented this social texture was an overarching framework around the notion ‘minority’ that entitled small religious communities across the country some degree of socio political space especially in relation to cultural and educational rights as enshrined in Article 29 and Art.30. This gave religious minorities both the right to live their cultural realities plus run their educational institutions….On this pretext, educational institutions run by religious minorities (especially christians) which were by all measure institutions of very high quality and thus the envy of many, immediately became a culturo-economic capital of the minority group….this also applied to khasi christians….the benefits that a minorty status provided to the group over and above the ST status is fundamental…meaning it was both structural/institutional plus socio political. Now…it would be unfair to argue that those who are not christians did not also reap the benefits of these institutions….there are many from seng khasi who studied and are even studying in minority run christian schools and colleges….but here is where the problem gives fillip to socio-political and economic contradictions within the community…in many christian schools and colleges it is the minority tag that works among the khasis as in.. member of a religious group Catholic Khasi or Presbyterian Khasi rather than a khasi that is given preference….it is not your ST status nor our khasi community status that matters. ….so the egalitarian reality we all experience being khasi is suddenly altered by an addition of a minority status to some and a negation of the other…now in such a situation….what would one do….and look we are only a miniscule group when compared to those who have become christian…we stand at about 2 lakhs+ while the khasi christians are 7 times more….what should we do and where should we go pertaining to something as basic and fundamental as education while wanting to hold on to our ancestral ways of living resisting any fundamental alteration to what we conceive as a naturally evolving organic khasi practice that links us to both life and worldview of our ancestors… should we not struggle to strengthen seng khasi educational institutions which at this juncture can be counted on our finger tips…..should we always remain and keep wanting for getting into ‘good’ educational institutions from school levels to colleges….am aware of the repercussion of the minority tag to the community at large and this calls for more discussion especially around the questions you have raised…..but sometimes i feel those following the khasi faith are left without a choice….. ok….let me think a bit more and will get back to you….its important to discuss….

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