[LONGREAD] Where Lie the Borders of Khasi, Jaintia & Garo Hills?

Colonial sovereignty travelled into the frontier hills of the north east frontier through law. Frontier law or its absence and frontier space or its elusiveness tell us a different story about the history of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo hills of north east India. This story is one of unfinished borders, and malleability of landscapes. What does belonging and land based identity show us when we begin to uncover the processes through which modern boundaries were established during the colonial period? Is the history of law the history of boundary making? What lies underneath landscapes and in between divided spaces that we encounter today as normalized in law ? And very broadly what does place based identity mean in view of spatial processes of law? This historically based essay will explore these questions and invites readers to critically rethink identities and boundaries. 

 J. G. Bartholomew, Eastern Bengal and Assam with Bhutan, Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. 11, new edition, published under the authority of His Majesty’s Secretary of State for India in Council. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907–09, National Archives of India.

Colours on the Map

The map of Eastern Bengal and Assam published by the Imperial Gazetteer of India at the turn of the twentieth century shows the north-east frontier of British India. The colour yellow hinders a seamless view of colonial territory, and forces the viewer to take note of enclaves and areas that were not directly under colonial rule. The colours on the map that differentiate between territories recognised as British and those considered semi-independent or independent helps us see that imperial sovereignty was uneven. However, the map precludes an understanding of the temporally imprecise, and historically contingent nature of imperial sovereignty. This essay demonstrates the peculiarities of colonial ordering in the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo hills between late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries and thereby inquires into the nature of interrupted sovereignty. The essay asks: what were the strategies of colonial governance embedded in juridical and spatial transformations? How are spatio-temporal constructions of frontier and hill tribals employed as strategies of governance? How do they allow the non-territorial existence and functioning of imperial sovereignty?

From the mid eighteenth century onwards the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo hills in the north east of British Bengal, and part of the larger Himalayan borderland region were transformed into a frontier. Transformation of this dynamic borderland region into a colonial frontier has been the subject of much recent scholarship on the north east frontier of the British Empire in India. See Indrani ChatterjeeForgotten Friends: Monks, Marriages and Memories of Northeast India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013); Gunnel Cederlof Founding and Empire in India’s North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013); Sanghamitra Mishra, Becoming a Borderland: The Politics of Space and Identity in Colonial North East India (Routledge: India and UK, 2011); David Vumlallian Zou and M Satish Kumar, ‘Mapping a Colonial Borderland: Objectifying the Geo-Body of India’s North East,’ The Journal of Asian Studies  70, no.1  (February 2011); Jayeeta SharmaEmpire’s Garden: Assam and the Making of India(Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011); Bodhisattva Kar, “Can the Postcolonial Begin?: Deprovincializing Assam”, in Saurabh Dube (ed.), Handbook of Modernity in South Asia: Modern Makeovers (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 43-58. “When Was the Postcolonial?: A History of Policing Impossible Lines”, in Sanjib Baruah (ed.) Beyond Counterinsurgency: Breaking the Impasse in Northeast India(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 49-79.These hills merged imperceptibly into the Sylhet plains and were marked by differentiated colonial legal ordering. Decrees, regulations, treaties, and agreements produced the hills as legally differentiated spaces. Prominent among them is the Bengal Regulation XII of 1833 that legalized the existence of exceptional administrative and legal zones in which the laws or regulations of the Presidencies would not apply. Frontier hills were variously named non-regulation territories, scheduled districts, backward or really backward tracts.Multiple large and small polities integrated within a network of alliances and rivalry spread across this landscape.

Treaties ordered the relations between the East India Company’s central government in Bengal, local administrative officers in the north east frontier, and the headmen, chiefs and Rajas identified in the Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo hills as wielders of indigenous or local authority. Notions of sovereignty that travelled with colonial agents culminating in treaties, agreements, and decrees, did not possess the adequate vocabulary to translate or incorporate pre-existing authority and land relations. The Treaty of Yandabo was signed with Burma in 1826 at the conclusion of the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26). Assam was integrated into the British Empire, but the threat of Burmese interests in Assam and their alliance with the communities and rulers in the region contributed to the precarious commercial and political position of the Company. Treaties signed in the 1820s and 1830s framed the relationship between the English East India Company government and the Khasi polities by contracting away the rights of the latter. The Khasi Syiems, Jaintiah Rajah, and head men identified in the Garo hills were imbued with sovereign status through the signing of treaties, only for those rights to be overcome by imperial sovereignty. This gave the formulations of sovereignty in the frontier a plural and divisible character. 

1740 Seuttter Map of India

Where are the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills?

Frontier Hills and Hill Tribals

From mid eighteenth century onwards Khasi polities that scattered across the lowest ranges of the Himalayan mountains caught the attention of East India Company (EIC) administrators in Bengal. Sylhet became a province of Bengal in 1778 prompting efforts at marking and securing borders around revenue yielding lands acquired by the Company through its rights of Diwani. See Cederlof, Founding; David Ludden, The First Boundary of Bangladesh on Sylhet’s Northern Frontiers,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, 48, 1, (June 2003): 9 Also see David Ludden, “Investing in Nature around Sylhet : An Excursion into geographical History”, in ed. Mahesh Rangarajan and K. Sivaramakrishnan, India`s Environmental History, Vol. 2, (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2012):64-94 Confronted by political neighbours who had remained outside the Mughal revenue administrative framework and thus outside of the scope of Company control, the British counted on building a secure frontier. The processes of building political relations and realignments of commercial relations between the English East India Company and polities like the Khasi and Jaintia, demonstrate how imperial sovereignty worked as a strategy of governance. 

The Khasi polities were integrated into an imperial frontier geography through cartographic production, building communication networks, and legal processes of jurisdictional boundary making, commercial agreements, treaties and contracts. These seemed to be necessary outcomes of the expansion of a colonial revenue framework.Cederlof shows that  this included an expansion of both direct revenue collections and therefore the expansion of cultivable agricultural land, or levies or rights on natural resources including forest, mineral, and animals, as well as tribute from local authorities in lieu of protection.  The Khasi hills however, were never fully integrated into the revenue collection framework. They were affected by the expanding imperial political economy through trade, leasing of limestone and coal mines, plantations, and movements and migration of labour. 

In 1787 Robert Lindsay Collector of Sylhet district in Bengal wrote, ‘‘…the Cosseahs inhabit that tract of mountainous country, extending from Laour, the North West extremity of Sylhet, to the Eastern boundaries of Cutchar [present day Cachar]. The mountains according to Rennell’s calculations are 1200 yards high and inaccessible to a foreign enemy and every part of them are beyond the company’s provinces [emphasis added].” Board of Revenue Papers, 29th December 1787,No.10, ASRobert Lindsay was a British trader who made a fortune in private limestone trade and also held the office of Collector in the newly carved out province of Sylhet. Lindsay’s detailed report to the Government of Bengal at the end of the eighteenth century focussed on events described as raids by ‘hill tribals’ into the British territory of Sylhet. Raids were described as the movement of ‘hill tribals’ into the plains with the intention of plunder and violence, followed by retreat into the hills. In late eighteenth century when Lindsay prepared the first extensive report on the Khasi polities bordering British Sylhet, distinctions were drawn between ‘hill tribes’ and the ‘plains people’, although Khasi polities were not restricted to the hills.See David Ludden ‘Investing’; Also, see Sanghamitra Mishra, ‘The Nature of colonial Intervention in the Naga Hills 1840-1880’, Economic and Political Weekly, No.51 (Dec.19-25,1998) : 3273-3279The ‘troublesome’ groups of Khasis were divided into three categories in Lindsay’s report—the people in the mountains, the inhabitants of the low country, and a ‘mixed race between them [Bengalis] and Casseahs’, inhabiting ‘a tract of the country eight miles broad, extending from the Surma river back to the mountains…a most degenerate people with the vices of both united.’Board of Revenue Papers, 29 December 1787, No.10, ASA
Interestingly, in colonial records over the following decades the Bengali–Khasi ‘mixed race’ communities no longer appear, neither are they found in colonial histories of the region, nor in anthropological accounts of Khasis. The existence of such communities threatened the neat categories upon which colonial governance was predicated. The manner in which such complexities were sought to be resolved is examined in the latter half of the paper. 

From The Khasis by PRT Gurdon

Robert Lindsay’s report described the Khasis as ‘hill tribes’ distinct in race, religion, and social conduct from the Hindu landholding caste communities and Muslim peasant subjects of British territories. Lindsay’s report was one among a large number of geographical treatises, revenue surveys and judicial accounts in which racialization of communities was linked to spatio-temporal notions. Raids originated and disappeared into the primitive and uncivilized terrain inhabited by hill tribals. These ‘incursions’ were feared for their recurrent nature, and their disregard for colonial spatial units of hills and plains.Gunnel Cederlof’s also argues that racial distinctions were not relevant to Company boundary making initiatives. That such civilizational hierarchies were characteristic of a later period of colonial rule as Nick Dirks pointed out in his conceptualisation of the ‘ethnographic state’. She argues that in the early nineteenth century commercial interests preceded all other interests, and races were understood as groups and communities.  Gunnel Cederlof’s also argues that racial distinctions were not relevant to Company boundary making initiatives. That such civilizational hierarchies were characteristic of a later period of colonial rule as Nick Dirks pointed out in his conceptualisation of the ‘ethnographic state’. She argues that in the early nineteenth century commercial interests preceded all other interests, and races were understood as groups and communities.  See Gunnel Cederlof ‘Fixed Boundaries, Fluid landscapes: British expansion into the North East Bengal in the 1820s’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review 46, no. 4  (2009): 518-519 Also See Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001): 125-228.

Robert Lindsay’s efforts to contain the hill tribal within a spatio-temporal classification emerged from concerns of British political and commercial ambitions.Board of revenue papers1782 File no. 8 Serial No. 3; 1783 File no. 12 Serial No. 2; 1787 File no.13, ASA.  Lindsay’s personal trading interests were also at stake since he had large investments in trading limestone from the Khasi hills. Lindsay first resorted to military offensive aimed at disciplining ‘raiders’. Military action was deemed necessary not only to ward off incursions, but also due to a threatening alliance noted between villagers in the lowlands and the ‘hill people’. Colonial officials represented raids as proof of a predatory, savage, and lawless culture of frontier hill inhabitants.Jangkhomang Guite shows that raids were mechanisms for procuring labour in the case of Kuki, and Chin hills, and also demonstrate significant transformations in political economy if these hills and the emergence of new forms of authority relations.See Jangkhomang Guite, ‘Civilization and its Malcontents: The politics of Kuki Raids in the Nineteenth Century’, Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol.48, No. 3 (July/September2011) pp. 339-376

Robert Lindsay’s Memoirs

Lindsay’s report to the Board of Revenue included Lieutenant Davidson’s account on the condition of the raided villages, presented to the Board an account of the deplorable condition of famine-struck lowland villagers. He pointed out that the cause of raids was a famine, which had affected a large number of people in the hills and at the same time held these affected groups responsible for incursions into British territory. He described the measures he took to counter the raids including burning several villages and driving off their cattle. In response to Lindsay’s report the Board of Revenue suggested a diplomatic course of action and ‘the introduction of an influence that may prevent the disorders which now subside there…’ Jurisdictional boundaries it was believed could offer respite to the raided lowlanders, and strengthen the hill-plain classification.

In April of 1789, the Board of Revenue passed resolutions that clearly defined their aims and anxieties in relation to a boundary between Khasi hills and Sylhet. The new Collector of Sylhet, John Willis, was instructed ‘finally to settle the boundaries between Sylhet and the Cosseah country… That he take every measure to convince the Cosseahs of the Justness of Government’s title … and to bring the several points in dispute to an amicable adjustment and to be careful not to make use of force except in cases of absolute necessity’.  The urgency in this correspondence was related to concerns that were not only about marking the limits of Khasi territory. 

Lost Story of Syiem Gunga Sing

The Collector had been given the responsibility to clarify the nature of land in Sylhet, particularly closer to the Khasi territories. A dispute between settlement holders in Sylhet and Syiem Gunga Sing who also held lands in Sylhet hastened the need to establish a boundary. Following a legal tussle it was established that Syiem Gunga Sing had control over the land in question before the English East India Company acquired Diwani rights in 1765. Therefore, the company could not include this land as part of its revenue yielding territory. The government of Bengal seemed willing to forsake the revenue from those lands. The government stated that expenses to defend the Sylhet-Khasi hills frontier would outweigh the expected revenue. At the same time, military force was deemed necessary to guard the supposed boundary between Khasi hills and Sylhet plains because of the possibility or unpredictability of raids. Despite the court’s ruling that the land in question was under the control of Gunga Sing the Company justified its military presence because of incursions ‘in view to plunder the country and distress the inhabitants’.Board of Revenue Papers, April 1789, no.8, ASA The Company demonstrated its concern for distressed and famine stricken populations in this presumed jurisdictional no man’s land. The temporality of raids and famine was crucial to the laying down of jurisdictional boundaries. 

Gunga Sing’s rights over the frontier lands did not preclude the Company’s rights to establish military posts in the supposed border between Khasi hills and Sylhet. Gunga Sing’s assertive measures of acquiring levies from boats along the river Surma were framed as regular attacks on merchants and trading boats. The government supported Aboo Sing in replacing Gunga Sing as Syiem. According to an agreement the Company would ‘not interfere to prevent his [Aboo Sing’s] taking possession of the country of Gunga Sing’, provided he agreed to certain conditions. Aboo Sing in turn was prepared to apprehend Gunga Sing and ‘hand him over’ to the Collector of Sylhet to be tried for murder charges. The agreement signed between Aboo Sing and the Company gave the former responsibility to look over the safe passage of merchants and traders navigating the river Surma, and rights to arrest anyone other than the Company’s agents collecting taxes in the region. To protect the Company’s sovereignty the diplomatic assistance of Aboo Sing was crucial. 

The separation of British and non-British territory and the concomitant hill-plain separation produced the Khasi hill tribal. The colonial construction of ‘tribe’ varied across the colony. Several scholars have examined the category ‘tribal’. For instance, James C Scott argues that tribes were ‘barbarians by design’ and evaded imperial and civilizational forces as a political response. Tribes, he points out were not genealogically or culturally homogeneous units but created as such by the colonial state in order to exert control over them. See James C Scott, An Upland, p. 209In directly administered and agricultural areas tribes were idealised as aboriginals and sedentarised for agricultural labour and revenue. See K Sivaramakrishnan, Modern Forests: Statemaking and Environmental Change in Colonial Eastern India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999)Also see Kavita Phillip, Civilising NaturesRace, Resources and Modernity in South Asia (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2003); Prathama Bannerjee, The Politics of Time: Primitives and History-Writing in a Colonial Society (New Delhi:Oxford University Press, 2006)The image of the ‘noble savage’ was invoked in Ootacamund and other hilly areas where colonial stations were built and a resolution for creating European enclaves demanded such definitions. See Judith Kenny, ‘Climate’; In the north west frontier province, tribes were characterised as inherently aggressive, trained in warfare since childhood, fanatical and brave. See Sameetah Agha, ‘Inventing a Frontier: Imperial Motives and Sub-Imperialism on British India’s North West Frontier, 1899-98’, in ed. Sameetah Agha and Elizabeth Kolsky, Fringes of Empire: People, Places and Spaces in Colonial India, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009):94-114; Radhika Singha has pointed out that the colonial state attempted to create an encompassing typology of tribal and incorporated diverse groups like the Thugs, Pindaris, Bhils and others. Such classification enabled distinguishing between the productive revenue yielding subjects and the non-revenue yielding subjects. More significantly, such classification enabled legalised coercive measures against certain groups, culminating in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871.  See Radhika Singha, A Despotism of Law: Crime and Justice in Early Colonial India. (New DelhiOxford University Press, 1998)The transformation of subjects of Khasi polities into ‘hill tribals’ – a category imbued with legal and political associations and meanings- enabled imperial sovereign authority to be extended in non-British territories through rights of jurisdiction. Tribe as a legal, political, and administrative category has to be examined in relation other categories such as directly and indirectly administered territories, cultivator subject, swidden agriculturists, zamindari, and proprietary rights. Inhabitants of Sylhet and the frontier hills of Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo cannot be classified into rigidly defined categories of revenue yielding plains subjects and non-revenue yielding tribal communities. The foothills, which were a site of many jurisdictional disputes, show an overlap between these categories. The foothills were of crucial commercial and political importance for the Company and local authorities. They were marked by dynamic market centers like Pandua, where trade was carried out between Khasis, Bengalis, Armenians, English, and Afghan traders. Pandua was one among many vibrant market centers in the foothills. It is not surprising that Pandua was the focus of one of the first political claims outside the scope of the Diwani territories resulting in a war with Khasi Chiefs and other trading interests in 1788–89.

Treaties and Agreements

Treaties signed between the EIC and Khasi polities were a culmination of legal processes that prefigured the sovereignty of Chiefs, Rajahs and headmen. The terms of the treaties were revised periodically allowing incremental British claims on jurisdiction and rights to land and other resources, and a concomitant loss of the very sovereign status of Khasi Syiems that made agreements and treaties possible. There were between twenty-five to thirty Khasi polities, integrated through overlapping judicial and political systems, origin myths, and customary practices framed within a matrilineal kinship system. Colonialism in these polities was not a result of direct annexation or conquest. Starting in the 1820s agreements were formalized and given legal shape. Individual agreements of a commercial nature evolved into treaties and agreements that recognized the authority of the colonial government to establish enclaves of direct administration, build circuits of communication, and administer law and order. 

David Scott, formerly magistrate of Rangpur a frontier district of Bengal adjoining the Garo hills and later Agent to the Governor General in the North East Frontier, was the architect of treaties and agreements signed between the Company and local authorities in the hills.  As a response to raids by “Garo mountaineers” into British territory Scott formulated the Bengal Regulation of 1822- a special code of regulations to suit non-cultivator, and uncivilized inhabitants of the frontier.

Plan for a memorial to David Scott in Cherrapunji/Sohra

The regulation of 1822 framed the future engagements between the colonial administrators and local sovereigns and Chiefs of polities across the frontier region. David Scott located the sovereign authority of local communities, formalized through decrees, agreements, and treaties. Scott resorted to the legal science of treaty and jurisdiction in his efforts to come up with a pragmatic solution to the problem of raids. However, the fact that several communities or their Chiefs did not sign treaties complicated the efforts at ordering relations by locating and contracting away sovereignty. The Jaintia polity was split into two administrative units and divided among a melange of jurisdictions. After a military expedition in 1774 the Raja of Jaintia was forced to retreat into the hills while the Company took control of the Jaintia lands in Sylhet. In the years preceding the Anglo-Burmese war David Scott renewed agreements with the Jaintia Rajah.David Syiemlieh, British Administration in Meghalaya: Policy and Pattern,(New Delhi: Heritage Publishers, 1989), Also Cederlof, Founding, pp. 60-61 The treaty signed between David Scott and the Jaintia Raja Ram Singh was a precursor to formal annexation on pretexts of British moral concerns and ‘barbaric’ practices by inhabitants.Examples of alleged kidnapping of British subjects from the Sylhet plains for the purpose of human sacrifice can be found not in official correspondence and in officially produced historical accounts. See R B Pemberton, Report: 210- 221; Also, Alexander Mackenzie, History of the Relations of the Government with the Hill Tribes of North East Bengal (New Delhi: Mittal Publications,1979, 1844):217-244 Such agreements signed with Chiefs often contained a clause that identified practices as immoral and unethical, and thereby illegal. For instance, agreements with Garo Chiefs at the frontier of Mymensing included a clause that forbade storing or displaying human skulls in their houses in formal agreements signed with the Company.Bodhisattva Kar has shown that headhunting tribes of the frontier became targets of colonial efforts to find singular authority or headmen to represent the figure of the sovereign. The allegorical power of heads linked sovereignty and primitivity. See Bodhisattva Kar ‘Heads in the Naga Hills’, Partha Chatterjee, Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Bodhisattva Kar (eds.) New Cultural Histories of India: Materiality and Practices, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014)

The question of jurisdiction in the annexed Jaintia territory developed into a series of debates about the relationship between jurisdictional units, administrative ease and topographical fluidity.For instance, after a part of the Jaintia lands known as the Seven Reaches or Shat Bank was annexed to Cachar the commissioner of Sylhet wrote to the Sudder Board of Revenue insisting that the Shat Bank “naturally” belonged to Sylhet. The correspondence indicated that there was a general opinion that once Shat Bank was amalgamated into Sylhet and all the laws and regulations of settlement imposed upon it, the same could be extended to the rest of the Jaintiah territory. The Government of Bengal sanctioned the former under Act XXI of 1836. From Secretary to the Government of India to the Revenue Department, Government of Bengal, BG Papers 1837, No.353, ASA With the passing of the Act VI of 1835 Company jurisdiction was extended into the hills of Jaintia. This Act empowered Captain Lister the commandant of the Sylhet Light Infantry and Political Agent to act as Magistrate in charge of trying cases involving British subjects and those considered “heinous crimes”.Foreign Political, 7 February 1835, no.101, National Archives of India (NAI) The Dolois or headmen in the Jaintiah hills were recast just like Laskars in the Garo hills as juridical agents of the Company. 

Company relations with the sovereign Khasi polities shifted following the outbreak of rebellions in the hills against the Company in 1829.Cederlof shows that relations between the Khasi Chiefs and the Company was primarily dictated by the rich market of limestone trade until the 1820s. Several agreements were drawn with the Company to control the market and secure leases to the quarries in the hills. See Cederlof, Founding, 164-168 The murder of two British officers who were supervising the construction of a road connecting Sylhet with Assam through Nongkhlaw polity was used as the justification of renewed agreements with Khasi polities. Khasi polities such as Mylliem, Rambrai, Mawmluh, Mawsmai, Suparpunji, and Byrong on the Southern fringe of the hills were subjugated through new and revised treaties. Many of the Syiems who supported the initial resistance were reinstated to their Chieftaincies with new sanads.Sanad was the descriptive term for agreements signed between a centralised Mughal authority and titular rulers of the Mughal Empire. The use of sanads instead of treaties signaled the changing position assumed by the English East India Company in relation to Khasi Chiefs.

From The Khasis by PRT Gurdon

There was a significant shrinkage in the power of Syiems to state and negotiate the terms of agreements with the English East India Company. The office and nature of Syiem’s authority shifted in this period. The most visible of these changes was the masculinization of political authority, and the imposition of proprietary rights as essential for holding political power. Resistance took many forms including attacks on sites of colonial power such as police stations, burning revenue papers, ambushing military contingents, desertion of villages prior to the arrival of surveyor and revenue collectors, and a flagrant disregard for English East India Company’s political authority within Khasi polities. 

In  1837 a detailed report submitted to the Commissioner of Dacca stated that half of the lands acquired in the Sylhet means by way of the recent negotiations were under cultivation and that there was ‘room for population more than twice the number stated … who might under good management in a few years afford to pay a yearly revenue of nearly one lakh rupees and that on a very light assessment.’ The suggested increase in population and revenue would result from the settlement of lands under proprietors. The ushering in of taxable subjects to settle into the lands fed into the spatio-temporal hill plain distinction.

Boundaries of civilization, revenue, and jurisdiction

Constructing the Khasi subject as a potentially dangerous ‘hill tribal’ enabled the colonial government to extend its jurisdiction first in to those portions of Khasi polities that extended into the Sylhet plains. However, what was considered the Sylhet plains included an undulating and fluid landscape. It proved difficult for colonial administrators in Sylhet and the Khasi hills to establish a natural geographic distinction between hills and plain. This section will highlight recurring boundary disputes in the region and how governing strategies were used to cope with the persistent failure of colonially established boundaries. 

Natural boundaries like rivers were used to define frontiers in pre-colonial Bengal between the Mughal Empire, other dynastic powers, and smaller autonomous polities. This practice was replicated by the early colonial survey operations of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The emerging association between topography and political and cultural forms in the colonial period was always already imperfect. This imperfection and incompleteness characterised nineteenth century geographical and legal discourse on the frontier. Colonial officials played on the imprecision and overlapping forms of authority relations to their advantage.

Geographical knowledge was produced through cartographic representations, geographical expeditions, individual and collected publications of manuscripts, diaries and reports. Geographical expeditions were simultaneously military and revenue surveys. Maps, published reports, and unpublished journals not only provided company administrators with a cartographic imagination of the unevenly controlled frontier space as unified and even, but also with details about inhabitants, communities, and groups several of whom were not subjects of the Company government. The dissonance between cartographic imperial vision of a unified frontier space and realities on the ground are to be found in recurring disputes regarding boundaries.  

View of the Sylhet plains from the Khasi Hills

Where do the hills end?

In 1835 Francis Jenkins Agent to the Governor General in the north east frontier noted, ‘… [It] seems expedient that the question of boundary should be decisively arranged early for the present want of a determined frontier keeps the borders in a very unsettled state and may lead to breaches of the peace…’ These breaches continued into the following decades because the territorial boundaries marked by the British in their early surveys were unable to establish where the Khasi hills ended. Disputes between the new proprietors who settled in Sylhet and subjects of Khasi polities who had been using the Sylhet lowlands for agriculture, grazing, and other purposes demonstrate the contentious nature of territorial and topographical divisions. Lieutenant Thomas Fischer’s survey of 1827-8 became the focal point of many administrative, political and judicial debates until the 1870s. The purpose of this survey in Fischer’s words was to ascertain in detail the quantity of land in each estate of Sylhet to assess land revenue. The survey was supplemented by a specific report on the boundary between the Khasi hills and Sylhet.  In Fisher’s words it consisted of ‘a map of the country contiguous to the Cossya independent hill estate together with a statement of proceedings and the information collected for the definition of the boundary and the settlement of the disputes between the landholders of this district and the Hill Chiefs.’

The report aimed at marking a boundary line between British territories and the Khasi hills by examining pre existing boundary disputes between proprietors in Sylhet and inhabitants of the Khasi hills. In one such boundary dispute on lands bordering the Maharam polity, Fischer referred to a case brought to the Sudder court of Sylhet in 1806 by Talukdars[settled proprietors] who claimed the ‘low hills covered with jungle’. According to Fischer, the Court ‘decided against them, awarding all the continuous chain of hills branching from the mountains to the Cosseahs and leaving the plain country including the detached hillocks to the Talukdars.’ Ambiguity surrounded what constituted the plains or British territory, and where the hills that is Khasi territories actually ended. 

It was hard to characterise where the hills ended because hillocks and undulating lands merged into the Sylhet plains at variable distances. In the situation described above, there was a portion of undefined land between the actual mountain range and its mirror ranges. Settlers and proprietors in the Sylhet plains were employed to police boundaries that were demarcated by Fischer’s survey. Zamindars were compensated with land grants ‘on condition of defending the frontier and confining Cossyas to their mountains…[emphasis added]’Fischer’s account does not provide a date or details of this grant but he wrote that the grant was given Board of Revenue Papers 48, file no. 8-100, ASA The settlement of taxable agricultural subjects indicated a move that affirmed the boundaries of civilization, jurisdiction, and revenue. The settlers were given responsibility to police boundaries synthesizing temporal and spatial governance strategies. The movement and assertive presence of settlers became significant to confining the Khasis to their mountains. Jurisdiction allowed the hierarchisation of not only subjects and non-subjects but also of authority within a spatio-temporal unit.

Therria Ghat – a river port on the foothills of Khasi Hills

Fisher noted that no actual measures were taken in the preceding decades to define the precise limits of the Company lands ‘… but it was intended to include all the lowlands within the Company’s frontier leaving to the Cossyas the undisputed possession of the mountains.’ At the same time the report attested to the impracticality of demarcating the precise territorial and thus the political limits of Khasi territory. For instance, Fischer stated that it was difficult to ascertain strictly where the mountains ended and the lowlands began ‘…the former being often intersected by low ranges of hills branching from the latter as well as by isolated range of hillocks the connexion of which with the main chain in a wooded impervious country cannot satisfactorily be ascertained.’’ These difficulties, he concluded, resulted in Khasi possession of a lot of plain country north of the Surma River. He insisted that existing boundaries between English East India Company  territory and the Khasi polities were drawn with a ‘spirit of moderation’ on the part of the company leaving a lot of the plains under the authority of the Khasi Chiefs or Syiems.  

The inability for the colonial administrators and surveyors to validate the idea that Khasi territory was restricted to the hills is evident in their repeated references to Fischer’s survey. The interruption to imperial sovereignty was manifest in the inability to draw firm boundaries between the hills and plains. For instance, in a letter to the Agent to the north east frontier the District Commissioner posted in the Khasi hills wrote,

The complaints of Maharam Poonjee and other Rajas on the boundary are quite groundless… there have never been any dispute between them and the Zemindars but on the ground that their predecessors had much of the plain country in the foot hills, they have thought fit to endeavour to get it back[…]years gone by the Cossyas did hold lands in the plains but were eventually driven back to the hills and Captain Fisher’s boundary report distinctly states the foot of the hills to be their limits. 

There were recurring boundary disputes between the Chief of Nongstoin and Zamindars in 1844, 1853, and in 1862. Cederlof argues that recorded instances of jurisdictional disputes between Khasi Syiems and the colonial government in judicial department minutes show that the Company was not interested in settling disputes as much as maintaining a stronghold over the markets. 

Dividing the Khasi hills and the Garo hill district

In 1870 the Government of India passed orders to suspend an ongoing topographical survey of the frontier hill districts including but not limited to the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo hills. This caused great consternation among regional and local officers keen on the new survey being completed. The Government of Bengal and the Surveyor General of India strongly expressed that to abandon this project would be detrimental due to the recurrent legal disputes caused by indeterminate boundaries and indeterminacy of jurisdictional limits. The Government rescinded the suspension in part, and survey operations were resumed in the Khasi and the Garo hills.

Spatio-legal administration was not neat. The need to demarcate a jurisdictional boundary between the Garo and Khasi hills did not appear until the second half of the nineteenth century. Laws enacted in this period sought to define authority relations more precisely. The Act of XXII of 1869 also called the Garo Hills Act was passed 1869 to take effect from 1870. It replaced Regulation X of 1822 and sanctioned the extension of any law or any portion of law passed by the British Government into the Garo Hills. The Garo Hills Act could also be extended to the Khasi, Jaintiah and Naga hills by notification in the Calcutta Gazette.  The Scheduled Districts Act was passed in 1874, which identified tribal areas throughout British India, and the application of special laws therein. Despite the highly inflated centralized authority of the Lieutenant Governor in jurisdictional boundaries remained in flux. 

Map of “Bengal” from Pope, G. U. (1880), Text-book of Indian History: Geographical Notes, Genealogical Tables, Examination Questions, London: W. H. Allen & Co. Pp. vii, 574, 16 maps.

In a letter to the Commissioner of Cooch Behar officiating secretary to the Government of Bengal in the Judicial Department Alexander Mackenzie revealed the nature of survey operations. He stated that the ‘primary object of the expedition’ was to separate the Khasi and Garo hills. He insisted that this separation would not be achieved ‘until the independent Garo circle in the centre of the hills [was] brought into subjection.’  The separation involved categorising inhabitants of British territory or most of Garo hills and Khasi polities as ethnically distinct. The Khasis and Garos were understood as distinct based on different languages spoken by people of the two groups. However, in villages at the cusp of Khasi and Garo hills dialects were of a mixed form. Additionally the authority of Khasi Syiems of adjoining polities, Rambrai and Nongstoin in particular, was not strictly demarcated and the bordering villages often owed allegiance to both Syiems. 

The boundary line separating the Garo and Khasi hills, which topographically were part of a single mountain chain, was designed for administrative convenience. The indeterminacy amongst people defined as Garo about whom they considered their sovereign head caused persistent unrest among colonial officials. The colonial district administration’s correspondence suggests that officials wanted to define sovereignty in Hobbesian terms as precise, indivisible, and territorially demarcated. In the bordering villages inhabitants owed their allegiance and paid tribute to the Syiems of Nongtsoin and Rambrai polities. The practice of recognising both Syiems as politico-spiritual authority or in the language of the colonial state as sovereign heads with jurisdictional authority was deemed cumbersome. The colonial officials insisted on demarcating a territorial boundary that would the limit of the respective Syiems’ jurisdiction.

From The Khasis PRT Gurdon

The process of establishing a boundary marking jurisdictional limits of Syiems of Rambrai and Nongstoin depended on the support and participation of both. Their authority was essential to conducting village durbars or councils summoned by the colonial government. In these councils information on new boundaries were announced alongside new revenue arrangements. The presence of the Syiems, it was hoped, would preclude the possibility of any major resistance to changes. The presence of Syiems also helped legitimise the authority of colonial district official whose role was to represent company jurisdiction in those pockets in the Khasi hills under direct governance of the colonial state. The authority of the District Commissioner of the Khasi hills was officially restricted to colonial stations but he extended his authority to matters of succession of Syiems, and all other kinds of civil disputes where he was often summoned to interfere by local authorities. The plurality of authority was not invented during the colonial period, and dual jurisdiction had been in existence. This made the presence and functioning of colonial officials in these polities much easier.

From The Garos – Major A. Playfair

Dual jurisdiction (between the Syiem and colonial district administration) was established in those villages at the border whose inhabitants owed allegiance and paid taxes to the Khasi Syiems, but fell within the newly defined Garo hills boundary. In such villages the Deputy Commissioner would collect the dues ‘paying them over to the Khasi chiefs, less 25%.’  Official correspondence on the subject stated that many new villages that were outside colonial control should be annexed and ‘put at once on par with villages already dependent.’ The colonial government ensured that in violent subjection of these villages Khasis were not employed ‘for offensive purposes or in any other capacity than as coolies.’The government was well aware of the dangers in employing Khasis to coerce or violently supress Garos. The ethnic differentiation was not entirely trusted. The military offensives against independent villages was meant to place them at par with dependent villages and thereby create homogeneity of Garo British subjects. There arose a need for jurisdictional boundaries to supplement this process. The existence of independent pockets in the Garo hills destabilised imperial sovereign authority, and so did the overlaps between inhabitants of Garo and Khasi spatial units. The overlaps between independent Garos and dependent villages, as well as Garos and Khasis in villages in the prescribed border of Khasi and Garo hills interrupted colonial spatio-temporal classifications. 

In 1873 the Commissioner of Assam wrote a pressing letter to the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of the Khasi hills urging once again the necessity of completing the settlement of the boundary between Garo hills and the Khasi-Jaintiah hills. Describing the preparations he had undertaken for the demarcation of the boundary, the DC stated that he had placed military units of the native infantry at the newly understood border of the Khasi and Garo hills. Colonial violence in boundary demarcation, military offensives, closure of market centres, and in the movement of law across these hills was at the core of imperial sovereignty as governance strategy. In addition to coercive measures local colonial officials were employed to mediate the relationship between subjects and local rulers once again in a complex attempt to define jurisdictional limits. Juridical sovereignty undergirded the shifting arrangements of political, and economic strategies of governance. 

The Commissioner of Assam wrote to the DC a second time insisting on ‘disconnecting the Garrows from the Khasis’ as an objective. The difficulties in determining whether a village was really Garo or Khasi, local officials believed, undermined colonial sovereign status not only in the Khasi and Garo hills but also in adjoining settled territories. The inability to identify certain villages as one or the other was augmented, by the fact that British subjects like ‘the Assamese [did] not distinguish between Garrows and Khasis in speaking of the people of the low hills south of Nusteng [Noingstoin] but always cast them as Garrows…’ The Syiems of Nongstoin and Rambrai were unable to provide a precise list of each village that paid allegiance to them respectively. Colonial officials translated the imprecision as casting a doubt over the legitimacy of the claims of Syiems’ jurisdiction over villages. The DC of Khasi hills restated a claim made by an official in 1863. The memorandum stated the following, 

I suspect the real explanation of the matter is that these States [Nongstoin and Rambrai] have whenever they felt themselves strong enough, levied blackmail upon them [the Garos]…no doubt the authority of the Khasia Raja is little more than nominal, but it is highly desirable that those communities should be assigned to him who acknowledge his rule and speak the Khasia language. The great importance of having a well-defined boundary, the people living on one side of which will be subject to your [British] jurisdiction, and those on the other to the Rajas of Nongsteng and Ramrye (for I believe both claim to the north east) must be borne in mind.Colonel Haughten, Deputy Commissioner Quoted in ‘Memorandum on Khasia and Garo Boundary carried out by Colonel Bivar, Deputy Commissioner, Garo Hills, and Captain Woodthrope, R.E, Survey officer, in March 1873’, Assam Commissioner’s Papers, 1871-1873, File No. 635, ASA

The irregularity of levying of tribute by Syiems was translated as blackmail. Time or lack thereof in structuring the relationship of authority of Syiems and inhabitants of these villages was a gross violation according to colonial officials. The villagers’ recognition of the political and spiritual rights of the Syiem were read as nominal because administrators failed to see both temporal and spatial order in these villages. 

Several of these villages inhabited by groups identified as Lyngams who were described as ‘produced by the intermarriage of the Khasis and Garos’ also complicated the attempts as boundaries along the lines desired by local officials. Forty-nine villages were identified as inhabited by Lyngams under the jurisdiction of Nongstoin.  The memorandum contained a short description of their social and cultural attributes both seen as combining elements of Garo and Khasi societies. Lyngngams were included in anthropologist P R T Gordon’s monograph called The Khasis, thereby establishing that they were not Garos but Khasis. See P R T Gurdon, The Khasis (Delhi: Cosmo Publications,1987)  The Lyngams challenged efforts of the British to confine and make sedentary subjects out of inhabitants in the hills, particularly in the annexed parts of the Garo hills. These groups were described as, ‘…very nomadic in their habits and rarely [lived] long on the same village site.’ The nomadism of the Garos was complimented by the Syiem’s use of blackmail according to colonial officials. The memorandum stated that irregular and arbitrary collection of levies by the Syiems was acceptable to the Garos because ‘by doing so they [inhabitants of the villages] enjoy comparative immunity and escape all control, and avoid the more direct and searching [British] Government which they would be liable to under the Deputy Commissioner, Garo Hills.’ 

As a resolution to the problem of Lyngngam villages complicating colonial efforts to ethnic separation they were stripped from the jurisdiction of the Khasi Chiefs except a few hamlets. Eighteen villages were recognised the authority of no local Chief or Syiem at all. These villages then were brought under the control of the British Government. Through a rearrangement of jurisdictional boundaries Nongstoin was stripped of land, subjects, while the Syiem was awarded a few villages as compensation.

Demarcation of boundaries ‘separating the Khasias from the Garos as far as possible’ was strategic. There were occasions when ‘intricate boundaries…through heavy jungles and the densest swamps’ were given a preference over natural boundaries. For instance, suggestions to use the Radiac River that ran from the northern portion of the Garo hills down to the plains as a boundary was found impractical. With this natural boundary, a number of villages – described as ‘purely Garo’ that paid taxes to the government and with no connection with the Khasi Syiems would fall under the boundary jurisdiction of the Syiem of Rambrai. There were also ‘purely Khasi villages’ that fell on the Garo (British) side of the boundary. In such a situation the government came to the conclusion that the Syiems had ‘no territorial rights over their own immediate subjects, the Khasias’, and they would be allowed access only to the ‘usual tax’. The Government in turn would retain all rights of timber, minerals, elephants, fisheries, etc.

In a resolution passed by the Government of Bengal it was emphasised that the Syiems had to be reminded not to collect taxes west of the new yet in\visible boundary line.  To make the boundary visible and firm several options were discussed including ‘cairns of stone’, masonry pillars or iron posts to be placed along the agreed dividing line. The demarcation of the boundary through various measures including military operations remained unsatisfactory and the cooperation of the Khasi Syiems was found to be the most useful means of establishing the authority and legitimacy of colonial officials.


The north east of India is frequently characterized as torn by ethnic strife. The common sense perception of struggles in north east India casts such strife in terms of identity-based struggles wherein the ‘culture’ of the region refuses to fit into the dominant political and cultural mold of the Indian nation-state, while rejecting ‘outsiders’ who come into its space. Not only do such perspectives homogenize national culture, they also homogenize the north east. Such mutual simplifications, as well as dichotomies arising from them (insider-outsider, legal-illegal) are a consequence of ignoring the contentious and tenuous, incomplete and incremental formation of borders and state/non-state sovereign structures. The historical complexity of interrupted sovereignties illuminates the extant political identities and modes of being and belonging of inhabitants of frontier hills. 


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Reeju Ray Written by:

Reeju Ray teaches history at OP Jindal Global University. Ray’s forthcoming book with Oxford University Press titled Placing the Frontier Hills examines the movement of law and its interface with custom in the north east frontier of the British Empire in India. She is currently working from her hometown Shillong.

One Comment

  1. P. D. Nongrum
    June 28, 2021

    Very interesting and informative.

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