Does Meghalaya State Anthem Discriminate Against the Jaintia People?

<This is first in a series of essays about the vexed question of language and Khasi ethnic identity. Is there one Khasi language? Will Khasi identity be weakened if multiplicity of tongues exist? If you want to wade into this debate, please send your contribution to [email protected]>

The Chief Minister of Meghalaya, Conrad Sangma, recently released the state anthem in Tura, which generated a fair bit of controversy. One of the criticisms about the anthem was made by the Jaintia Students’ Union, wherein they demanded corrections be made to the anthem by removing the English words and replacing them with Jaintia. However, is this justified demand? Also, why only Jaintia? What about the inclusion of the Maram, Lyngngam, War, and Bhoi languages into the anthem? What about the dialects within those groups? We also have to remember that the Khasi dialect that is used in the anthem is from Sohra, but among the Khynriam (identified with the group found in present-day East Khasi Hills and West Khasi Hills), there are many other dialects. Should all those dialects also be included in the anthem? Are there “three” indigenous people groups in Meghalaya, or are there actually seven (six from the Khasi and one from Garo, since I am not aware of the latter’s sub-group dynamics)? Finally, why is this question important, and what are its implications?

An argument for the special mention of Jaintia as a group separate from the Khasi is the fact that there are three autonomous district councils: Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills, and Garo Hills, which represent the three different groups. But these are administrative arrangements created in modern times. In the past, there were political entities like the Jaintia kingdom and the various Himas, with Hima Nongkhlaw being an important one from which Tirot Singh came. Does that mean that Nongkhlaw is also actually a separate ethnic group like the Jaintia? Also, accepting modern administrative arrangements as a criterion for classifying ethnic groups would suggest that the unified Khasi-Jaintia identity is a modern construction and is not authentic. However, is that true?

One argument always made about the unity of the six groups (one lost) that today make up the Khasi is their origin story. According to this legend, there were sixteen families who, though they lived in heaven, would come down to earth to cultivate the land. One day, seven families came down but were unable to return because the tree that connected heaven and earth had been cut down. These marooned seven families became the “Ki Hinniew Skum” (the seven nests, or the seven roots). They are also known as the “Ki Hynniew trep” (the seven huts), who are today identified with the seven groups, viz., Khynriam, War, Bhoi, Jaintia, Maram, Lyngngam, and Diko (the lost group), that make up the Khasi. Now this story has been found to have first appeared in written form in Mrs. Rafy’s book ‘Folktales of the Khasis’ published in 1920. Before that, parts of the story about the tree connecting heaven and earth were also mentioned in the 1907 book ‘The Khasi’ by PRT Gurdon. Curiously, the story of the seven groups was not mentioned.

Although the origin story of the seven families was not mentioned, the groups identified with those families did find mention in Gurdon’s book. The War of the Southern Hills was mentioned, as were the Pnar/Synteng (Jaintia) of Jowai, Lynngam staying adjacent to the Garos, and Bhoi to the north, many of whom were identified as actually being the Karbi. The Maram were not mentioned, and the Khynriam were actually called the Khasi, found to be staying in the “central high plateau, Cherra and Nongstoin, Maharam, Mario, Nongkhlaw, and the neighbouring Siemships.” This is one of the reasons why some have suggested that the Jaintia do not prefer the term Khasi since it refers to the Khynriam. Therefore, a term that has been proposed is Hynniewtrep after the origin story. But what is also to be remembered is that in the same book, Gurdon himself mentioned that all the groups mentioned above were part of the “Khasi nation” (page xix). At another place, he stated that “these divisions represent collections of people inhabiting several tracts of (Khasi) country and speaking dialects which, although often deriving their origin from the Khasi roots, are frequently so dissimilar to the standard language as to be almost unrecognizable”.

The story of the seven families was mentioned in Rafy’s book, but not the names of the seven families identified today with the seven sub-groups. Some of the present groups have been mentioned in Gurdon’s book (which was earlier), but not the origin story. Does it mean that the origin story and the connection between the different ‘Khasi’ groups were invented in the intervening thirteen years (between the publications of the two books) by politically conscious Khasis or most astoundingly by the British? The former suggests a very high degree of inventiveness and innovativeness by the Khasis, who created an entire mythology connecting different groups immediately after coming into contact with the British. The latter, on the other hand, implies that the British created a new group called the Khasi, taking all the groups mentioned in the book earlier by Gurdon, but at the same time making sure that they did not mix with the Garo, whom they kept separate. In fact, Major A. Playfair, Deputy Commissioner of Eastern Bengal and Assam, brought out his own book on the Garos in 1909. Did the British do this because they knew that more than 100 years from now, there will be those who will be arguing that the Khasi and Jaintia are separate groups? At that moment, they would need to remind people they were the same. It seems the British had the ability to see the future and make plans accordingly. Or is there a less convoluted explanation?

Even before the arrival of the British, the groups that make up what is known today as the Khasi (which includes the Jaintia) always had the sense that they were a single people. This derives from stories like the origin myth, which was a combination of a group who, over time, settled in different parts of what is today known as Meghalaya (particularly the eastern part), becoming identified with specific geographic locations, which could be the initial criterion for differentiation. This later got ossified into a restrictive ethnic category where lineages became the defining criterion rather than location. But in the end, they are part of the same group, connected to each other. Work done in recent years actually proves these connections to be true.

Linguistically, the language spoken by the different sub-groups, i.e., Khynriam, War, Bhoi, Jaintia, Maram, and Lyngngam, is considered to be part of the Mon-Khmer branch and has no connection with any other languages outside groups that are known to be part of the Khasi group. Their closest cousin is the Munda, who belong to the larger Austroasiatic language family. Recent studies have confirmed what was known from linguistics: that the Khasis and the Mundas also share a genetic link. Coming back to the Khasi, this connection between linguistics and genetics was most interestingly confirmed in the case of the Lyngngam.

From their appearance, dress, and certain cultural habits, the Lyngngam resemble the Garo. In fact, according to Gurdon, they were a mixture between the Khasi and the Garo. However, it has also been mentioned in the book that the Lyngngam insisted that they were Khasi and not Garo. This has indeed been found to be the case. According to the 2012 paper ‘Molecular Genetic Perspectives on the Origin of the Lyngngam Tribe of Meghalaya, India’ Banrida T. Langstieh and her colleagues came to the conclusion that the female lineages of the Lyngngam came from the other Khasi groups, most probably the Nongtrai group found in West Khasi Hills, who are the nearest. In short, the Lyngngam are part of the Khasi group.

Regarding the Bhoi, who were described as mostly Karbi by Gurdon, Philippe Ramirez’s 2014 book ‘People of the Margins: Across Ethnic Boundaries in North-East India’ mentions a peculiar phenomenon of equivalence of surname. Members from the different ethnic communities (Khasi and Karbi) in Ri Bhoi are found to share membership in more than one ethnic group. A surname among the Bhoi-Khasi is found to have an equivalent among the Karbi. This is because sometime in the past, a lot of the Karbi assimilated into the Khasi but kept cognizance of their original clan so that they would not commit any incest in the future (i.e., not marry within the same equivalent clan). The Khasis must have welcomed this because it would have increased their numbers, which, like in the past and even now, is a very important strategy to increase the strength and bargaining power of a group.

So, it has become clear that the books written by Gurdon and Mrs. Rafy were accurate in their description of the Khasi and the unity of the different groups that make up the larger group today. The stress on the books by outsiders like the British officers (I haven’t found out who Mrs. Rafy was, but most probably she must have been the wife of a British officer) is for objectivity. This, of course, has also to be confirmed by testimonies from within the community. In this regard the 2018 article ‘Ïawchibidi: the Pan-Jaidbynriew Clan’ by H.H. Mohrmen is very illuminating. In this piece, he talks about the clan stories, especially those of the ‘ka Ïawchibidi’, the progenitor (Seinjeit/Ïawbei) of Laloo, Pyrbot, Lamin (clans in the Jaintia Hills), Diengdoh, Pariong, and Syngngai (clans in the Khasi Hills). Those well versed in the history of the other clans will, undoubtedly, have similar examples. 

So, whether it’s from inside or outside sources, it is clear that the various groups that are today known as the Khasi (which include the Jaintia) are a single people and have always known themselves to be so for a very long time. This identity is not a recent construction conjured up for political purposes. However, it has to be accepted that groups like the Jaintia might feel left out since the language used in the anthem belongs to the Sohra dialect, which is part of the Khynriam group. The reason for its use as the standard Khasi, though, is pure chance. If the British had established headquarters in Jowai, the anthem today would have had Jaintia words instead. Then it would be the non-Jaintias who would be complaining about being left out.

Personally, though, the more sinister danger is that any divisions that might seem trivial today might become a large fissure tomorrow, which would have devastating consequences for the community. The groups that make up the Kuki-Chin are a linguistically and culturally homogenous group. But there have been violent clashes between the different groups with deadly consequences less than thirty years ago. This has been a feature of the Nagas as well. I know things are not that bad, but if you give enough time and create enough dissension, anything can happen in the future. Recently, the former Lok Sabha Speaker, Kariya Munda, asserted that “those tribals who convert to Islam or Christianity must not get any benefits of reservation meant for the tribals.” This is nothing but an attempt to create hostility between groups that have converted and those that are still practicing their indigenous faith by giving the impression that only the latter are genuinely indigenous (and thus taking away the indigenous status of those who converted). Of course, such thinking stems from a lack of understanding or willful obfuscation of what the term ‘indigenous’ means. Maybe this can be discussed in more detail in the future.

Khasi is a composite identity made up of the different sub-groups, which include the Jaintia, that are linguistically, genetically, and culturally similar. There are local variations, no doubt, but that’s understandable given that the community is spread out and occupies different locations, which has given rise to regional differences. Such a phenomenon is not unique to the Khasi, as other ethnic groups around the world also experience it. Khasi also include the different non-Khasi groups, viz., Karbi, Garo, and non-tribal, i.e., Dkhar (with the numerous Khar prefixes in the surnames), who have assimilated into it over time, boosting its number and enriching its culture. But there is no doubt that Khasi is a community that has been aware of its unity for a very long time, as told through their origin legend and the clans that cut across the present-day administrative divisions. Recent studies in anthropology, linguistics, and genetics have also confirmed this. While the sub-groups that make up the larger identity of the Khasi should not be made to feel left out (not only the Jaintia), that cannot be allowed to create divisions, which will be harmful in the long run. The people who for long were one should not become divided, not by those from within and not at the behest of those from the outside. 

(The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)


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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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