India must look North-East
The reason why the legendary freedom-fighter from Meghalaya, U Kiang Nanbah, is an unknown figure for the rest of the country is that we are so poorly informed about the history and culture of the Seven Sisters
At the first instance, the name struck as perhaps one of some South East Asian political leader. It was later one realised that he was one of the greatest freedom-fighters this country has produced. Unfortunately, not only in the rest of the country but even in his own native Meghalaya, U Kiang Nanbah is not a well-known figure, thanks to a policy of sheer indifference successive Central Governments have adopted towards the history and culture of the people of the North-East,
Remembering Nanbah now assumes all the more significance as 2013 marks 150 years of his execution at the hands of the British rulers. Not much is known about his early days except that he was a child when the British annexed the Jaintia kingdom in 1835. He had no royal lineage whatsoever and was born in an ordinary peasant family, but what ignited the spirit of patriotism in the young Nanbah was the high-handedness of the alien rulers and the daredevil exploits of his maternal uncle U Ksan Sajar Nangbah, who fought against the invaders at a place called Chanmyrsiang.
Like in other places, the British initially adopted a policy of least interference in the internal affairs of the newly annexed kingdom, but gradually started imposing taxes and restrictions on the religious beliefs and cultural practices of the locals, which was resisted by Nanbah and his many compatriots.
The movement against the aliens intensified after they set up a police station at Jwai in 1855 to establish “Government authority” over the hills. The establishment of the military outpost near the cremation grounds of the Dkar clan and orders restricting the burning of the dead was seen as interference in religious beliefs and fuelled popular resistance against the British.
The establishment of a missionary school, the destruction of weapons ahead of a traditional ceremony and attempts by British-supported missionaries to slam the beliefs of the locals as superstitions added fuel to fire. U Kiang emerged as the leader of the resistance movement and led the attacks on the Jwai Police Station, which was totally destroyed. Subsequently, the group burnt down the Christian settlement and besieged the military post. The resistance was so fierce that the British had to rush in reinforcements and launch full-scale military operations against U Kiang and his men. Unfortunately, U Kiang fell ill and was finally nabbed after stiff resistance, with the help of informers.
This revolutionary leader was put on mock trial and was sentenced to death within three days of his capture, before the very eyes of the locals, to send across a tough message that any resistance to the British rule would not be tolerated and would be suppressed with an iron hand.
However, as he was being taken to the gallows on the evening of December 30, 1862, U Kiang said something prophetic, “Brothers and sisters, please look carefully on my face when I die on the gallows. If my face turns towards the east, my country will be free from foreign yoke in the next 100 years and if it turns west, it will remain in bondage for good.”
In less than a century, India became independent. Like the native American Indians, U Kiang fought for the rights of the people in the face of imposition of an alien way of life and values. People of Khasi and Jaintia Hills have since lost much of their traditional culture. In fact, not many in the younger generation even remember U Kiang Nanbah.
The ignorance about U Kiang Nanbah is a reflection on the Government’s education policy, which has totally neglected the history of the North-East. Forget Nanbah, most history textbooks prescribed by the Central Board of Secondary Education do not have any reference to the history, culture or traditions of the region. It seems as if their history begins with the British annexation of their territories. A serious attempt was made in this direction under the leadership of the then National Council of Educational Research and Training Director, JS Rajput, during the NDA regime, but hundreds of textbooks prepared during the time were later thrown into the dustbin under the garb of preventing ‘saffronisation’ of education.
Even 65 years after independence, people from the North-East continue to be clubbed together and singled out, and that too for their racial features. Often, they are mistaken as Chinese, Nepalese or from South East Asia, and referred to even by the educated as ‘Chinkies’ because of their Mongoloid features. Forced to migrate from their idyllic but underdeveloped States for education and job opportunities, these people, mostly women and youngsters, are not only discriminated against but also have often been victims of eve teasing, molestation and rape. What’s more, they also find themselves at the receiving end of the utterly insensitive law enforcement agencies. This has led to a sense of alienation among these people, many of whom have become susceptible and vulnerable to propaganda by the separatists.
While sociologists, politicians and commentators have been attributing it to factors including the insensitivity and conservatism of the North to the lack of infrastructure and employment opportunities as also massive corruption in the North-East, resulting in migration, the fact remains that the wide communication gap between the peoples of the region and the rest of India, as well as ignorance about each other, have significantly contributed to this crisis.
Not that have there not been efforts to build bridges of understanding between the North-East and the other parts of the country, but the few attempts that have been made are few and far between. Few Gandhians, some Hindi activists, initiatives such as Ekal Vidyalaya, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Ramakrishna Mission, cultural centres of the Union Government and even State-controlled media, have been contributing their bit in this direction.
There have been some citizen-driven initiatives such as My Home India, run by Mumbai-based social activist Sunil Deodhar, which seeks to bridge the chasm by helping students and others from North Eastern region in metropolises such as Mumbai and Delhi, in their hour of need. “We not only strive to help the people from the North-East but also sensitise locals about the beautiful region”, says Deodhar.
Nevertheless, this sensitisation has to begin from the school level itself, and that can be made possible only by incorporating the history, culture and traditions of the North-East in social studies textbooks taught across the country. There cannot be a greater and better opportunity to reach out to the people of the North-East than by observing the 150th anniversary of U Kiang Nanbah’s martyrdom. This can be done with the active involvement of the people of the region and by educating the rest of the country about the contributions made by the freedom-fighters, intellectuals, artists and sportspersons from the North-East towards the building of a modern India.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)