The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.
~ George Orwell, 1984
A year before Orwell’s novel 1984, depicting a fictional dystopian society, was published, the Khasi chiefs in the North East of India signed an agreement with the Union of India consenting to join the State but retaining most of its sovereignty. Little did the leaders of the hill tribe knew that decades after signing on the dotted line, the English novelist’s words would resound with profundity for their descendants. The agreement, known as the Instrument of Accession or IoA, is yet to be constitutionally acknowledged even after 73 years. The demand for incorporating the clauses of the IoA has been raised time and again, and disappointingly, in vain.
“How can the State defy an agreed document? How can you ignore history,” said an exasperated Robertjune Kharjahrin, chairman of the Confederation of Meghalaya Social Organisations (CoMSO), as he spoke about the history and rights of the tribe at his office in
the KHADC Administrative Building. Between late 1947 and mid-1948, the chiefs of 25 Khasi sovereign states, along with many other princely states in the country, gave their consent to be part of the Union of India. However, not all Hima leaders of Khasi-Jaintia Hills gave their consent in the beginning. The Syiem of Hima Nongstoin, who was among the dissenters, was ‘kidnapped’ and forced to sign the agreement.
In a letter dated December 15, 1947, the then governor general AK Hydari wrote to Sardar Vallab Bhai Patel, “I made them realise what the consequences of not signing would be and after nearly an hour’s confabulation among themselves they signed. The rest was easy.”
Why was the dissent? Only months before the IoA was proposed, the Khasi states had signed the Standstill Agreement on August 9, 1947, days before the country got its independence. According to the agreement, the sovereign states had two years to shape their thoughts
on the autonomous powers they wanted post-independence. But IoA came within six months and the Khasi state chiefs were arm-twisted into signing it. IoA gave the Khasi states a broader power in their territory, which included administrative, excise, judiciary, land and forest.
Sadly, the clauses in the agreement were flouted and the Khasiland was relegated to a district under Assam.
“We were promised a state and what we got was a district status. That is not justified,” said Kharjahrin.
Decades later, many local leaders, including elected representatives, are rallying for the inclusion of the IoA in the Constitution for recognition of the Khasi-Jaintia “sovereign state”.
Simultaneously, the debate over IoA has continued for years, raising the question over the pertinence of the agreement in the current socio-politico-economic context in the 21st century. The recent remark by state Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui rejecting IoA has once again fuelled the debate.
“IOA is still very much a valid constitutional document as it was signed between the Khasi States and Shri Rajagopalachari, the then governor general… It is the only link between the Khasi States and the Union of India after power has lapsed from the Colonial British Empire,” said Paul Lyngdoh, a member of the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council.
Home Minister Lahkmen Rymbui’s recent remark against the agreement stirred the old hornet’s nest, prompting many organisations, including the Hynniewtrep Integrated Territorial Organisation (HITO), to remind the ruling power to go back to history and rectify the mistakes.
Also read ‘IoA a ‘national commitment’
Titosstarwell Chyne, the chief executive member of the KHADC, echoes the same sentiment of Lyngdoh. “This is a treaty signed by the Khasi state with the Indian dominion. We were a nation at that time, which means two nations signed the treaty. So, IoA is fully relevant even to this day and we should have enjoyed all the provisions under the agreement. The KHADC will push for IoA’s constitutional incorporation,” he said.
The First Schedule to the Constitution, however, defines the territory for Assam state as, “The territories which immediately before the commencement of this Constitution were comprised in the Province of Assam, the Khasi States and the Assam Tribal Areas…”
The anomaly is stark. The rejection of rights is blatant. In fact, it was this denial and defiance that became the genesis of most of the current day problems, including the border dispute with Assam, feel many local leaders.
John Kharshiing, advisor to the Federation of Khasi States, remembered the violence that followed the unconstitutional merger of the Khasi states within the Assam state under the First Schedule.
“There was lathicharge in Shillong and tear gas was thrown to stop student protesters on the opening day of the United Khasi and Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council on June 27, 1952. This monumental failure by the Constitution framers to right the wrong built up a negative relationship with the Centre and compelled leaders of the Khasi States to restrategise the way forward. This led to the peaceful and prolonged agitation for separation from Assam,” said Kharshiing.
The notification and imposition of Assamese Language was just another fuse that lit the people of the Khasi States to come out in unison and call for the creation of a separate state, he added.
Kharjahrin asserted that had the leaders of the hill state movement raised the demand for inclusion of IoA in the Constitution, their protests would have been doused in the beginning. “They were focused on a greater good.”
To add insult to the tribe’s injury, the Union of India came up with the Sixth Schedule that led to two tiers of administration in the tribal areas. The so-called autonomous district councils are toothless against state laws, which prevail in times of conflict.
“The IoA’s non-inclusion in the Constitution is the reason for every conflict in the state, including the tribal-non-tribal clash. The power should belong to people and not the politicians,” said HITO president Donbok Dkhar.
According to Kharjahrin, both IoA and the Sixth Schedule can co-exist, if the constitutional anomaly can be rectified.
But what would IoA mean today? It would mean a separate Khasi-Jaintia state with reclaims on vast tracts of land which are now counted under the state of Assam. It would also mean rights to natural resources without central intervention and administrative power equivalent to any state and more power to the district councils.
It would also mean unregulated power to the local populace, which makes IoA a cause for concern for the critics.
A section of the citizens critical of IoA, whom Sunday Monitor spoke to, said there was no reason to harangue on the agreement in the 21st century when the “needs of democracy” have changed. “It was in 1948. I agree that the Centre did not fulfil the promise but at this point, is it wise to ask for another state? Instead, we can work together towards building better infrastructure and facilities for the next generation. As far as autonomy is concerned, I feel that there has to be some central control over states,” said a senior citizen on condition of anonymity. One of the demands listed by the militant outfit Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council is either revival of the Standstill Agreement or rectification of the IoA.
Tart Historical documents remain a testimony to the promise made to the hill tribe in the wake of independence. The National Commission for Schedule Tribe had also acknowledged it and agreed that the anomaly needed to be rectified.
“Whoever is critical of the IoA is guilty of deliberately ignoring a monumental historical event. A community or nation cannot aspire to move forward without being tethered to its historical moorings,” said Lyngdoh.
To acknowledge IoA or not depends on the Centre. And the decision is undoubtedly tough. However, what the State can do is admit to the anomaly and accept the shortcomings in the process of acknowledging IoA in letter and spirit.
Dkhar, the HITO president, said the organisation is pursuing an audience with Home Minister Amit Shah and “hopeful;;y, we will be able to make our point”.
The autumn session of the State Assembly will start on September 10. It is to be seen whether IoA makes ripples in the House after 73 years. “If the anomaly is rectified, the proper constitutional status of the Khasi-Jaintias can be restored. To cite an example, the boundaries of Meghalaya were demarcated as per the North Eastern Reorganisation Act, 1971, which is violative of the IoA and the position of the Khasi States which were signatories to the IOA,” says Lyngdoh.
~ Team Sunday Monitor