I remember a time back when I was in Catholic school; I was speaking in my mother’s language, Khasi during break time. A teacher walked in and overheard, scolded me and told me to speak only in English. The school diary even had a rule enforcing a ban on speaking any language other than English. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was a victim of ethnocide or cultural genocide.
Ethnocide or Cultural Genocide is a term that was coined by Rapheal Lemkin in the 1940’s. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defined it as “Ethnocide means that an ethnic group is denied the right to enjoy, develop and transmit its own culture and its own language, whether collectively or individually. This involves an extreme form of massive violation of human rights and, in particular, the right of ethnic groups to respect their cultural identity.” The French ethnologist Robert Jaulin proposed a re-definition of the concept of ethnocide in 1970, to refer not to the means but the ends that define ethnocide. Accordingly, ethnocide would entail the systematic destruction of the thought and the way of life of people(s), different from those who carry out this enterprise of destruction.
Luckily for me the teachers in my school were lax in their enforcement of that rule and we had classes which taught us our language and culture adequately. Benefits of high-priced education, I suppose. I learnt enough of my mother’s culture and traditions to be aware and rouse interest.
Recently in college, one of the lecturers, a non-tribal Catholic priest on finding out that I was an atheist tried to get into a debate with me. He tried to use the argument that all human cultures has a sense of innate “goodness” or “Christian-ness” and that proved the existence of God. He went on to give the example of Khasi religion. He might have gotten away with this if it weren’t for the fact that he was dealing with a History student. I politely pointed out the fact that Khasis are believed to have performed Human Sacrifices; the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati is believed to have been built on the site where the Khasi tribe once performed these sacrifices, before they were driven out of the Brahmaputra Valley by other tribes. I asked him how this was similar to his Judeo-Christian beliefs.
I then mentioned the “Thlen” and “Nongshohnoh” mythology and the supposed prevalence of Human Sacrifice in some sections of Khasi culture in order to gain material wealth in older times. At first he was dazed and confused; clearly he was not knowledgeable of Khasi history but he went on to say that those were ancient times and continued to evangelize to me. Basically he was trying to lecture me on my own culture and to give me a garbled and white-washed version of it. This is a form of Cultural Genocide or ethnocide. In another instance, he was holding a lecture on dress codes for an upcoming school program and he went on to say with a certain smug satisfaction borne of ignorance, “Tribals from North East India are known for dressing modestly.” I interrupted him and told him that he was no authority to decide that and that he could not possibly know about the dresses of all the tribes and ethnic groups of North East India and duly supplied him with the example of “traditionally” scantily-dressed Naga dancers. He became defensive and went on to say that he didn’t mean anything by it.
I myself didn’t think much of these incidents until recently. But I now realize that this was an attempt at Cultural Genocide or Ethnocide by outside forces, though I doubt there was any malevolent intent to it. They simply expected our culture to match the “Noble Savage” stereotype which clashes against harsh brutal reality. But even if their intent was not malevolent they are nonetheless harmful. I saw this firsthand when on one occasion I witnessed a Christian sermon to rural folk by a South Indian priest, he went on to try to explain their own culture and religion to them with much white-washing and Christianization, but none of the rural individuals stood up to correct him. This is possibly because they have little or no knowledge of their own history. I can imagine this happens often in rural areas, especially where education is dominated by Missionaries, who teach a misrepresented and Colonial version of Khasi history, which is not only untruthful but insulting to the Khasi culture.
I don’t advocate that the Khasi people return to a past where in they went hunting and sacrificing human beings but the people should be educated and well-versed in our old beliefs and practices to present an opposing view to the Judeo-Christian narrative. Only in such an environment can critical thinking and actual pride in one’s culture happen. The Khasis of Meghalaya are lucky in some ways due to the survival of Khasi political institutions and the fact that much of Khasi culture is preserved in books and is widely taught to those who opt for it in the major educational institutions of the state. The Missionaries weren’t an entirely destructive influence either, particularly the Welsh Missionary Thomas Jones, as they provided the Khasi people with means of education and a written script to preserve their culture. The Indian Republic itself has provided means and methods for the protection and preservation of our culture. But the preservation of Khasi culture and history is a continuing battle that must be carried out for the greater good of the people.
- Noble Savage- http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Noble_savage
- Kamakhya Temple- http://www.durga-puja.org/kamakhya-temple.html
- Cultural Genocide – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_genocide
- Ethnocide- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnocide
- The Khasis by P.R.T. Gurdon