The Partition of India in 1947, a landmark event in the history of the Indian sub-continent, has been extensively documented as well as broadcast in various academic works and media. To most people reading Partition histories, modern day states of Punjab and West Bengal were the most significant regions with regards to the event, which paved the way for communal riots resulting to large scale displacements. This essay attempts to understand the discourse of the Partition in 1947 from the perspective of North East India, especially Khasi Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. The focus is on Wahlong, A village on the southern foothills of the East Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya. The creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh subsequently in 1971 also meant a disruption of the ongoing economic and socio-cultural relations among the people inhabiting this region for centuries. This can further be explored in the study of the Khasi-Jaintia people residing on the southern foothills of Meghalaya, who were cut off from their lands and their vivid associations with the people of Sylhet.
During my high school days, having a casual conversation with my Meikha (paternal grandmother) was a regular process of growing up. Most of these conversations would meander towards a discussion about the thriving Khasi-Jaintia community in Bangladesh and the bad turn of fortunes for our family, with partition.
Wahlong Rum or Lower Wahlong is the native village of my Meikha and till today, our ancestral house stands just a few kilometers from the Indo-Bangladesh border. I was overcome with curiosity when she shared her personal experiences and tales of prosperity and hardships.
Sitting on a mura and listening to the stories across evenings, I was completely awestruck as I began to realize the repercussion of partition on the Khasi-Jaintia hills as well as the fate of many who resided in the areas, which came to be demarcated as the international boundary or Radcliffe Line, drawn in 1947. These were, for me, unheard experiences as most of my school textbooks and our everyday conversations remained conspicuously silent about it.
It caught my attention when she pointed out:
It left me with questions about the relations and dependencies that our people had with Sylhet. Gradually, I began to realize the importance of evaluating the impact of partition on the devastation and changes in the social and economic landscape of the Khasi-Jaintia residing in the border areas. It is imperative therefore to revert to the pages of time to understand these communities and their dependency, interactions, and even the settlements of the Khasi-Jaintia people on the plains of Sylhet. Interesting conversations on the pre-Partition cultural life, dietary practices, and other shared cultural and shared performative traditions between the Khasis and the people inhabiting the plains of Sylhet, and of course the mouth-watering oranges from orchards would abruptly end, and like any loving grandmother would, with her insistence to continue with her stories subject to the condition that I stay back for dinner.
Sancimerly War, my Meikha or Paternal Grandmother, was born on 25 November, 1930 at Wahlong. She is now 87-years-old and cheerful and smiling as always. At the age of 11, she left home to pursue her studies at Sohra (name changed to Cherrapunji during the colonial period). She fondly remembers how fashionable gold ornaments were worn by her schoolmates as back in the day trade and commerce was a major factor in uplifting the status of the people. Being the eldest daughter in the family, she was responsible for maintaining her family’s accounts.
During her childhood, Sylhet was preferred to Shillong due to its geographical location for better transport and market facilities. She vividly recalls the prosperity of her village through trade and commerce with the people of Sylhet. She remembered how good harvests around Wahlong paved the way for laborers from around the Khasi-Jaintia hills and how non-tribal laborers from the surrounding plains had to be hired to make up the labor requirement, especially during the months of orange, areca nut, beetle leaves and pepper harvests.
Meikha cheerfully narrates that even though her village was a tiny hamlet, it was however filled with songs and dances echoing beyond the different cultures. In marking the celebrations of harvest, a big theatre event would take place yearly, where performers from Dhaka and Manipur would take part and reside in Wahlong for months on end. “You know what? …” she exclaims, as she giggles throughout in recounting the incidents where men would often insert money in the blouse of the female dancers. The whole village would come alive during such festive occasions.
As she sips her tea, she remembers her uncle, Mr. Sando, who was proprietor of one of the main haats. As a kid, Meikha would often get excited as she would visit the haats during the holidays where she would often find her uncle’s associates, offering her shira (flattened rice) and fishes on every visit.
“I remember the big haats of undivided India,” she says with a sigh, and adds, “when I was young, huge mounds of oranges were heaped and the sellers would often attract customers by shouting ‘derri derri…..’ or something like that.” The markets, especially in Mawbang, were huge as the traders both from the hills and plains catered to the requirements of Wahlong Neng (Upper Wahlong) and Wahlong Rum (Lower Wahlong). These were the scenes of community relations: despite being chaotic, it had its own charm in these areas before the demarcation. After 1947, she adds,
From an academic perspective, texts record this testimony of socio-cultural relations in the days prior to the Partition. An interesting example of this genre is J. N. Chowdhury’s Khasi Canvas, which mentions: “Dr Lamb who arrived with his wife and Mr. Tucker at Cherrapunji in 1828 remarked that the Khasis had close trade relations with the plains of Sylhet.” Another example is found in the The East Pakistan District Gazetteers, which records: “from the remote past the inhabitants of the plains of the Surma Valley had trade relations with the Hill Tribes. Tribal trade centers like Cherrapunji, Jowai, Mowphlang (Mawphlang), Dawki, Jaflong, etc. were frequently crowded by the people of Sylhet and the Khasis in turn made profitable business at Sylhet towns and Markets. Ultimately when the Khasis found their products, especially Pan, in great demand, they came down in hordes and settled in the plains where life was comparatively easier.”
To further understand the background to the narratives of displacement, both sides of the coin (i.e., implemented political measures and their consequences) must be reflected upon. In weaving a pattern placing displacement in the context of Meikha, I will try to do justice by summing up the complexity involved in drawing the Radcliffe Line (named after Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who headed the Boundary Commission) through the poem “Partition”, written by Wystan Hugh Auden in 1966.
Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.
‘Time,’ they had briefed him in London, ‘is short. It’s too late
For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:
The only solution now lies in separation.
The Viceroy thinks, as you will see from his letter,
That the less you are seen in his company the better,
So we’ve arranged to provide you with other accommodation.
We can give you four judges, two Moslem and two Hindu,
To consult with, but the final decision must rest with you.’
Shut up, in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.
The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot
the case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not,
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.
Keeping this poem in mind, one can imagine the atmosphere of confusion and hardships met by people supposedly residing on the so-called wrong side of the new border. Meikha admitted of having heard rumors about a plan to divide the land floating in the air. Nevertheless it was brushed aside by the elders in the absence of any Government Officials or land surveyors consulting her village folks about such possibilities. Gradually, the people continued their everyday life and were unaware of the unforeseen misfortune in front of them. On the fateful day, 15 August, 1947, the people of Wahlong woke up to witness the rumors come to life right before their eyes. But the worst was about to follow. The people of Wahlong depended on Sylhet plains for the supply of rice and salt. As borders rose abruptly, it had a disastrous effect on their life and everyday habits. For the next decade or so, people had to depend on locally grown potatoes and bananas to minimize the intake of rice. This reality is also expressed by Nari Rustomji, the advisor of Tribal Areas to the Governor of Assam, in his book, Enchanted Frontiers (1971). Rustomji observes,
“The Partition robbed the War regions of their riches,” Meikha says, as she fondly remembers the daily routine carried out during the orange harvest seasons. Three boats/canoes full of oranges were exported every day from her family’s orchards to the plains and this activity continued for a period of three months. Back then, she repeats, “the plains were still part of India but now it’s not and hence poverty came knocking at our doors.” Replying to my curiosity about the wealth in the region, she exclaims, “it was not only our house but a majority of the inhabitants in the village were prosperous, even the ones less fortunate met all their daily basic necessities.”
On reaching Shillong, they sought accommodation in rented houses in and around Iewduh(the main market area at the heart of town). She is however insistent that no assistance was given by the government or anyone at the time of their arrival. “We went here and there in vain. It’s not like these days; you all are smart and clever, back then we were not.” Speaking of the government turning a deaf ear to the cries of the people in the War regions, another interesting memory crosses her mind. After enduring all the chaos, the government finally intervened by airlifting the necessity goods and returned with fruits from the land through a small chartered flight from Calcutta to Shella. However, considering the rich amount of oranges produced at these foothills, the chartered flight could never do justice in recreating the earlier patterns of trade. Eventually like any man-made object, she adds, it served its purpose for some years and then crashed.
On realizing that I might have exhausted her with too many questions related to the Partition, I finally asked Meikha a question, “How do you feel about this entire experience of the Partition?” She pauses for a while and the silence in the room is tamed by these bold words, “Yes, apart from the hardships faced, I sincerely thanked God that the event brought us all to Shillong. Now I’m proud to see all my grandchildren doing well, because if not for the partition, you all might still be in the orchards harvesting and selling oranges, as we speak.” We both have a good laugh and, not to forget, a very hearty meal from grandma’s ever requisite serving.
In conclusion, history of events remains incomplete when the faces of the ordinary, which make up the everyday narratives, are found missing. My grandmother’s tale is just a drop in the ocean of displacement narratives and still I ponder at the fate of many who stayed back and persisted with life, dwelling in adjustment and sacrifice. In my conversations with the older people in these borderlands, they generally agree to a similar point that during the Partition, which gradually continued till the 1950s, the people in the border regions felt that the Government of undivided Assam neglected them as orphans. This, I presume, highlights the fact that the experiences etched in the hearts of the people during Partition sowed the seeds for the demand of a separate state. Gradually, with the inclusion of other factors like language and ethnicity issues, the state of Meghalaya was born on the 21 January, 1972
First published on Cafe Dissensus
I served in Shillong way back kin 1962-63. It was a most enjoyable posting. We were staying in Happy Valley. I miss happy faces of jovial people.