‘There’s no one way to tell Khasi history or that of the tribes of NE’

Dr Reeju Ray, an associate professor at OP Jindal Global University, released her debut book, Placing the Frontier in British North-East India: Law, Custom, and Knowledge, recently. The book, which is the result of a decade of research for her PhD thesis at Queen’s University Canada, looks into the “rupture, radical transformations, and social transmutations caused by colonial law”. Ray looks at the history of the region through a different lens that has hitherto been unknown. In the process, she also documents the unheard voices in history. In an interview with Meghalaya Monitor, the author and historian talks about her research, the alienation among the North East tribes and the scope of amendments, among others. Excerpts:

Meghalaya Monitor: Tell us how your book has been structured and the focus areas.


Reeju Ray: Yes. I first look at what were the initial most early, writings or records from the colonial government you find on these hills. These are the ones by revenue collectors, by judges, who were based here. David Scott is a primary character who we know. He is the first to initiate these diplomatic contracts and even the framework of non-regulation, which creates the tribal as a legal subject. The first couple of chapters of the book look at the role of David Scott and these early administrators and framing this region as a frontier, as different from British territory, which was the mainland. Then I go on to examining a lot of these colonial narratives, mostly in geographical narratives…

Then I look into other disciplines like botany, geology, anthropology. I also talk about missionary education and how that impacts and creates an English-educated class in the Khasi Hills, particularly those who were then employed by the colonial government and dobasis (who spoke both English and the local language) how they started writing about themselves.

So, the Ri Khasi press comes out and then Jeebon Roy, Radhon Sing produce a lot of literature on who is a Khasi, and was supposed to be a rejection of the colonial ideas of their primitivism. But they also use a lot of what the colonial knowledge has already said about them. But what is really clear is that there’s a very strict gender binary that they create. (For instance) Radhon Sing Berry’s famous book… divides the roles of Khasis as between boys and girls. These are very much influenced by missionary ideas…

Finally, I look at how we then find voices that were not part of this public sphere of the print literature that we see and how do we understand histories that are somehow resisted colonial efforts to flatten identities (like in the case of Lingams who were neither Khasis or Garos).

When you look at the politics now, especially the nationalist-driven politics, whether the Khasis or the Garos, you miss out on these communities who live in these hills who are very much part of the history of this place, but are invisible in the larger conversations. The roster conversation is one thing I was just thinking about. So many groups completely get forgotten in this conversation… It’s like a homogenising of people… It’s very flat.

The last chapter is about the sense of history and belonging of the people who connect to land and environment in different ways and not in one homogeneous way. And that was one thing I learned… There’s no way to tell, for example, Khasi history… for instance the Mawbynna that we see were also inscriptions which people recorded memories. They were also used for secular reasons, like just seats or boundary markers. But when you think of the rituals around birth and death, or even something like adultery, they would set up a Mawbynna for that, which is a way of really writing history without, without literacy. So then how does literacy and orality come together? That’s the end of the book. And where does law fit in? Because law is, again, the first form of literacy in the hills. The earliest contract signed between the British and the chiefs. That’s where literacy begins. We often think it’s the missionaries who brought the written words. Yes, they introduced the alphabet but really it was these pieces of paper which were the beginning of the written word.

MM: Is it the imposition of the colonial laws in these areas that gave a sense of alienation among the tribes in the North East?

RR: I think definitely the way that the legal framework was built of differentiating people based on where they lived, the more remote they are, the less access they have to legal procedures. So, often these people were in a legal limbo. Are we British subjects? Are we not? When there’s a crime, they were taken to courts, but when there’s a civil dispute, they had their own institutions. They relied on these… and there are a lot of resonances with the present.

Just going back, there were these legislations like the 1874 Federal Districts Act, which attempts to create a singular governance policy for all tribal areas in the colonial empire. So, they defined different places across the British colony schedule districts. There are many different names that came up… after that in 1909, there were these reforms and they called these places backward and extremely backward areas. Then in 1919, they called these areas excluded and partially excluded areas. Then finally, in 1935, the Government of India used the ‘scheduled’ again. The 1935 act is what we see in the Constitution. They use that framework entirely. Of course, there were important conversations that were had, during the making of the conversation, but they relied on these frameworks, these existing ideas of the British… I think, definitely there are historical reasons why there is a sense of alienation.

MM: Now to relook at the laws, do you think that the Government of India should amend them or change them completely based on the current census?

RR: I feel like there has to be a very long and protracted effort at dialogues with the authorities and at different levels of governance… When you look closely, at least theoretically, it’s a very good way of governance, you know, the relationship between neighbourhood councils, village councils, and so on. But I feel like if the idea is a uniform civil code, it would really impact the most vulnerable communities the worst. That’s my instinct. But I feel like change always comes with some violence. So, if we are going to bring this change here, then questions may arise. Who is leading the change? Who is, or who are the people not agreeing and not agreeing?

MM: The demand for inner line permit is also based on a colonial law. How can this be addressed?

RR: This is so hard. The inner line permit is something that was introduced by the British to create a fluid boundary for their economic reasons. When we think of the reasons now, it feels very much sort of based on local political aspirations and certain groups that are trying to negotiate for more power and claim a certain political mileage. It’s gone awry and it’s sad. I have to say that it doesn’t feel very different from a lot of movements that you see even in North India where there were groups that blockaded the highway for certain constitutional privileges. We often look at the North East, and when these things happen, we associate it with a different politics. But these similar trends are happening where people are pushing against the law, pushing against governance, demanding certain political mileage. But it’s not because it’s a tribal area, I feel it’s just the nature of people and the state.

MM: How customary laws in the North East, especially in Meghalaya, is in conflict with the laws of the State?

RR: In my understanding, colonial laws almost reframed what custom was, even though custom wasn’t codified in the 19th century… The fact that British administrators intervened in customary processes, they almost gave legitimacy to few customs and not others. There was a very clear process of custom and law not being opposite but actually being in tandem with each other…

What you’re also asking is the places where customary laws actually come into conflict with each other. That I feel is when we think about the autonomous district councils that were set up to protect customary laws. These institutions have shaped in ways that I don’t think was anticipated by the makers or others who were sitting around the table and figuring this out.

I traced… how custom becomes associated with ethnicity. It never really was, custom wasn’t an ethnic thing. It was a very broad idea of jurisdiction. Then it kind of gets reduced to a narrow frame of ethnicity.

MM: How did you chronicle the unheard voices in this process of collecting the history of the frontier?

RR: I think sometimes the silence of the archive says a lot about what is there, who is not there, (and) tells you a lot about why they are missing. So, the fact that there were no written articles by women in these Khasi newspapers… although they’re talking about the matrilineal system and the custom and how important it is to the Khasi identity, but it’s not women who are writing. Not until the 1930s do you see women in active legal roles. So, my effort was to actually then move to the present and have conversations with community leaders, people who are thinking about the environment, about land, about fighting for women’s rights… Sweetymon Rynjah is one person I spoke to.

Desmond Kharmawphlang helped me with a lot of his own research on ‘Tigerman’… I also spoke to Angela Rangad and Agnes Kharshiing.

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