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A Royal Tribe Under Threat
The ancient traditions of the Khasi tribespeople in India's northeast are being threatened by modernization and the government administration

November 29, 2000
Web posted at 10:30 a.m. Hong Kong time, 9:30 p.m. EDT

PHOTO ESSAY: The Nongkrem Dance Festival

Every so often, some academic pops up with a grim view of India's future. They mention the F-word. "Fragmented," they warn, shaking their heads sadly and pointing to the numerous secessionist battles raging in different parts of the multiethnic, multi-religious nation. Of course, politicians and nationalists take instant umbrage. But ask them to explain the mounting call for disunion and chances are that an accusing finger will point at Pakistan. Not that Pakistan is totally innocent. But India has always refused to acknowledge the disenchantment of its people, until of course the guns start blazing. Then the army is sent in and an unending civil war begins.

Almost all the northeastern states of India are in various stages of insurgency. Open war in some places, uneasy cease-fires in others, and in the rest, the beginnings of what could end up in another bloody call for autonomy.

The Nongkrem dance festival of the Khasi tribe in India's northeastern Meghalaya state is a multipurpose event. In the past, tribespeople would get together from their scattered hamlets to thank the gods for a bountiful harvest, encourage nature to keep up the timely delivery of rain and ward off evil disasters.

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This year, though, the Nongkrem dance had another purpose as well. Khasi tribal elders are worried that their fragile hold on ancient traditions is slipping. They blame outside influences, non-tribal migration, and most of all, the administration imposed by democratic India. So, after this year's Nongkrem celebrations, important members of the community held confabulations to determine an action plan for their collective future. The most concerned are the Syiems, or kings of the Khasi hill regions, among India's last remaining royalty. Increasingly sidelined by district officials, they want to reclaim their authority. "The bureaucrats say we have become redundant," says Labgrious Manik Syiem, the king of Mylliem hill county. "Let us have a referendum to see if the people want their traditional rights."

New Delhi, if the past is anything to go by, will either ignore this talk or sternly warn against anti-nationalism. That will only add to the local gloom. The northeast is largely cut off from mainland India, and in these remote pockets, unhappy youngsters are easily prone to feeling persecuted. They feel their community is singled out because they belong to a different ethnic stock. This resentment, if not addressed, can easily be fanned into violence. It happened in Kashmir. It happened in Nagaland, and in Manipur. And it could happen again in Meghalaya.

For the moment, the people in Meghalaya have simply voiced their concerns. The demand for a referendum will be legal, say the kings, because unlike India's other former princely states, these hill kingdoms -- actually nothing more than a collection of hamlets -- did not sign a merger agreement with the Indian union in 1947. They joined up under a special provision that allowed the Syiems to retain their royal privilege to preserve the customs of the tribe.

It is not that the Khasis are desperate to cling to their customs. Much has changed in the past 50 years. The Nongkrem dance is hosted by the Syiem of Khyrim, custodian of the original animistic religion in a society that is now mostly Catholic Christian. Blajied Sing Syiem, himself, is no hatchet-wielding, grass-skirted barbarian who lets off alarming bloodthirsty whoops. Instead, he is a gentle 48-year-old doctor dressed in suit and tie who speaks flawless English. National Geographic, he says laughing, would have no time for him.

But unlike his predecessors who were happy enough to mind their tiny kingdoms, sorting out marital squabbles and gathering revenues from land and shops, the new generation of Syiems like Sing feel they have to address the needs of their people. They talk of education, opportunities and infrastructure. And they are willing to challenge the Indian administration, which, they say, has failed to deliver.

Zealous missionaries have produced a highly literate population in Meghalaya that has happily adopted leather jackets and MTV. There are not enough jobs, however, and the Khasis, looking for someone to blame, are in a tussle with non- tribal migrants. Aggression is building up with numerous secessionist bands demanding their (mostly unspecified) rights and, every so often, intimidating the non-tribals into moving out. The Syiems say that despite Christianity and western influences, the young still obey their village elders. "The army or the police can never wipe out terrorism," says Sing. "But we can bring peace because the young people know that the traditional institutions will not play with their fate."

The bureaucrats, predictably shortsighted, don't agree. They are perfectly happy to let the Syiems carry on with their cultural functions. (Most senior officials including the Chief Minister and the Governor of Meghalaya turned up at the Nongkrem dance.) But when it comes to the actual business of governance, such as law enforcement or revenue collection, they are a little patronizing about the authority of the Syiems. The kings have their own courtroom, complete with a witness box, but any verdict can be overturned by the district council. Meghalaya's enormous forest cover is community-owned, but timber merchants often bypass the local leaders to strike up deals with foresters. In the past, police could not enter a village without permission from the village elder. Now, they stroll in unchallenged.

If the federal government does not watch out, the Syiems says, these social transgressions can eventually grow into a full-blown insurgency like those in most of the other northeastern states. The Khasis, especially those in the rural areas, still treat their Syiems as benevolent masters who settle disputes and help in a crisis.

Sing's family is highly respected because of its religious function. The revered high priestess belongs to his clan. For a week before the final Nongkrem dance, Sing and his sister, who took over as priestess after their mother's death two years ago, go through ritual prayers, dances and sacrifices to propitiate the gods and seek blessings for the people. According to the Khasi matrilineal system, Sing's sister's son, not his own, will inherit his title. "This system does not allow for dictatorship because my son cannot follow me," he explains.

The Syiem is also obliged to act with the consent of his darbar, or council of village elders and priests. "It is a very democratic system and a bad Syiem is punished by the darbar," explains Stephen Mohlong, a 67-year-old farmer, one of the rifle-wielding guards during the ceremonial procession. He spits emphatically and watches with satisfaction as the blood is squeezed out of a sacrificial rooster and its entrails examined to determine the future of the Khasi people.

For the rituals, Sing has exchanged his well-creased trousers for a silk sarong. Over his tie and jacket, he wears a sash of red and gold beads. Young boys dance with their swords in front of the royal family. Young girls shuffle around in a circle. The priestess glowers under a red silk umbrella. The drums beat and the trumpet wails. It is a great spectacle and Mohlong is very pleased. "The Syiem and the priestess are very important. We will destroy any government that harms our king," he declares. At the end of the festivities the Syiem walks over with a glistening sword and decapitates a dozen goats. Then his work is done, and if the gods are pleased, he might well be the one to lead -- or prevent -- a mass rebellion against the kind of modernization and democracy that has been forced upon the Khasis.

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