I was expecting many people to join in the debate on the dilemma of identity among the people who live in the Khasi and Jaintia hills but except for bah Armstrong Syiem, Kong Patricia Mukhim, Bah C Wanniang and Broncostar Thyrniang no one else took part in the discussion. I was hoping our scholars in the ivory tower to enlighten us on this important issue but the men and women of letters in the NEHU chose not to join in the debate, perhaps the issue is not relevant.
We have debated at length on the name of the tribe, some are of the opinion that we should continue with ‘Khasi’ as a common name of the tribe/community/society while others are of the opinion that Khasi is the name that other people use to describe us, so we need a name that best describes us. For the later section of our society perhaps ‘u hynniew trep or khun u hynniew trep’ is an appropriate name because it encompasses the entire community- the Khasi, the Pnars, the Wars, the Maram, the Lyngnam, the Bhois and others whom I might miss. The argument is strong because it is based on our common roots – the creation story, a mythology that we all share.
A large section of the Pnars in the Jaintia Hills District have their own reservation in calling themselves Khasi, for them Khasi is just another sub tribe of the pan-hynniewtrep-tribe. To the Pnars the Khasi are the Khynriam and may be the word Khynriam is derived from Khyriem the name of the state (hima) with which the then Jaintia Kingdom shared a common border. A recent debate which was carried out in the vernacular papers between the Seng Khasi and the Sein Raij is a case in point. When an elder from the Seng Khasi suggested that all the followers of the indigenous religion should come under one umbrella and register their religion as Niam Khasi in the recently concluded national census, Sein Raij vehemently objected to the idea. They are of the opinion that the followers of the indigenous religion in Jaintia hills should retain their own identity and register their religion as Niamtre. A senior Pastor of the Jowai Presbyterian church in a private conversation told me that Presbyterian Church too faces a similar situation when a section of the church leaders suggested that the church change the name of the Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Assembly to the Khasi Presbyterian Assembly. The leaders of the Church from Jaintia hills opposed the idea and the issue was nipped in the bud and the Church retains its name as the Khasi Jaintia Presbyterian Assembly.
Perhaps Bah Paul Lyngdoh will be the best person to tell us about the reservations that the Pnars have against calling themselves Khasi. He had tried to form a unit of the Khasi Students Union in Jaintia Hills during his tenure but failed. Perhaps it is from this experience that in his later incarnation as a mature politician he chose a much inclusive name ‘Khun Hynniewtrep’ for his party. Having said that, a lot has changed since Bah Paul’s presidency of the KSU. Now we have KSU units in many parts of the District, but a large section of the population in Jaintia hills still have reservations about calling themselves Khasi. Don’t get me wrong when the Pnar insisted that they cannot accept the nomenclature Khasi to describe the tribe, it does not mean that they see themselves as a different from the Khasi. The Pnars believe that the Khasi, the Pnar, the Bhois, the Lyngngam are all but one community but each have their own unique history and identity that one cannot just wish away but needs to be respected by everyone. The Pnar believe that the Khasi, the Pnar, the War, the Bhoi, the Lyngngam share a common culture and a common language hence they are one. Ma Chaphrang Passah of Jowai in one of his posts on the facebook page “Save the Pnar Language” posted ‘Khasi Pnars are of the same race but of different tribes’ perhaps like the Nagas.
The call to use Khasi as a common name is based on the recent patriotic song, “Khynriam, u Pnar, u Bhoi, u War, u dei u paid Khasi ba iar,” but then there is also another patriotic song “Ri Khasi, Ri Jaintia nga ieid eh ia pha/ ka ri kaba ieid u barim u bajah/ ki tymmen mynhyndai la ngam iohi shuh/jingkynmaw ia ki kan ym duh…” This song recognizes the existence of the two erstwhile kingdoms of the Khasi and the Jaintia. To underline the uniqueness of these two aspects of the community; the land, the two communities live is sometime called ‘ka ri ki laiphew syiem, ki khad-ar daloi’ which means though our political system may vary; yet we are one community.
There are many poets and writers, who recognized and understood the distinctiveness of the Pnars who live in Jaintia hills, Victor Bareh in the opening lines of his patriotic song which is also the name of the poem, sings “Ri Khasi Ri Jaintia, Pangsngiat jong nga.” Hajom Kissor Singh Nongbri a lesser known Khasi poet realized the truth that the community (whatever we call it) comprises of many sub-tribes and opened his hymn known as the Unitarian anthem with this line “A Blei kyrkhu ia ngi Pnar, War, Bhoi bad Khasi, pynbha ia ngi.” Maintaining the fact that each unit of the community is unique; in another hymn he called “Ko paralok Khasi, ko paralok Pnar, ko paralok na ka pyrthei ba iar.” HK Singh Lyngdoh Nongbri who lived in the later part of 1800 and early 1900 spent his early adulthood in Jowai and hence must have understood the sentiments of the Pnars even in those early days.
I am all for using the inclusive name ‘hynniewtrep or khun u hynniewtrep’ to describe the tribe. I don’t foresee any objection towards the using of the name because all the Khasi, the Pnar and the Lyngngam share this common creation mythology. If we agree with the nomenclature of our tribe then we can continue on the next level of the debate, and that is are we still tribal. But can we still call ourselves tribe?
The Scheduled Tribe status is like a cocoon that we feel safe to wrap ourselves in. Nowadays even well to do families and the crème de la crème of the Khasi Pnar community use the Schedules Tribe tag, not because of anything else but to enjoy the benefits that come with it including not having to pay income tax. They live a western way of life and cannot even speak Khasi or Pnar and they don’t even follow any of the Khasi Pnar culture and traditions and they still call themselves STs. But we cannot deny the fact that there are also those who live in the villages whose way of life can only be described as tribal.
The next question is who is a Khasi Pnar or who is khun u hynniew trep? Kong Silverine Swer provided an answer to this question (rather unexpectedly) in the letter to the Editor the Shillong Times (March, 10, 2011.) She said “Please don’t ever forget your roots and your value system. It is your identity as u Khun U Hynniewtrep and this identity is inevitably link to nature and environment around us. As Khasis we have the responsibility to remind each other of this heritage and the ancient wisdom inherited from our forefather. Our wellbeing is today threatened because we seem to have forgotten our timeless connection to nature and environment.” A Khasi Pnar or Khun u hynniewtrep are those who still follow the culture, the tradition of the tribe and live by the value system that we inherited from our forefathers.
It is rather interesting to note that recently a conglomerate of NGOs under the leadership of the KSU and the FKJGP immediately after the preliminary report of the state census was declared, met the Chief Minister to discuss matters pertaining to threat of large scale influx to the State which they claim is the cause of the abnormal increase in the States’s population. The NGOs among others demanded that the Chief Minister introduce a mechanism to curb the influx of non-native populations to the State but at the same time demanded that the government introduce legislation for equal distribution of the family property in the Khasi Pnar society. This is confusing because the NGO went to meet the CM to with an intention to protect the identity of the tribe from being overwhelmed by outsiders, but what identity are we talking about when the demand is also to do away with the tradition of the youngest daughter inheriting the lion’s share of the family property which is part of Khasi identity? With the SRT (Syngkhong Rympei Thymmai) in the bandwagon, I will not be surprised if next time around the demand of the conglomerate of NGOs will be to do away with the lineage system that we follow. Then the question will be what identity are we trying to protect?
(The writer ia a scholar and an elder of the Unitarian Church)