By HH Mohrmen
They are the victims of political deals that India and Pakistan made after the two young countries gained independence and the second time around the community was not even taken into confidence when India and Bangladesh demarcated the boundaries of the two countries after the Bangladesh liberation war. They are minorities in the country of their choice and are not cared by their country of origin. The powers that be at different points of time decided the border of the two countries in the capitals of the countries far away from where they live and sealed the fates of the people in the borders. It reminds me of an incident, two decades ago in the International Students’ Center of Manchester University when I happened to meet an engineer from Bangladesh who was there for further studies in the University. When I introduced myself to him and told him that I was his neighbour from Meghalaya, the Bangladeshi engineer gave a blank expression. He had evidently never heard of the name Meghalaya but when I told him that I am a Khasia, he said, “Oh yes there are many Khasia in our country!”
The Khasi Pnar or as the Bangladeshi would call them- the Khasia has been living in what is now Bangladesh since time immemorial. When their ancestors first migrated to the land, it was under the Jaintia kingdom, later on it was under the British Empire, then it changed hands to East Pakistan after independence and now it is in Bangladesh. The Pnars in Jaintiapur are the descendants of the people who live in the area since the day of the Jaintia Kingdom said Pradip Lanong a senior citizen of the town and a retired school teacher. They trace their origin to villages like Nangbah, Nartiang, Shangpung and other villages of what is now known as Jaintia hills district. The 45 odd Pnar families in Jaintiapur speak Pnar and it is one of the very few Khasi villages where the medium of communication among the Khasi Pnar community is Pnar. The rest of the Khasi villages in Bangladesh use War Jaintia language as their medium of communication. Majority of the people of Khasi Pnar descendants who live in less than 50 Khasi villages in Bangladesh are people from Khasi and Jaintia hills but the majority of them belong to the War Jaintia community of Amlarem sub division. Some have been living in the many villages in Bangladesh since the day of the Jaintia raj and some live in new settlements as recent as few years ago.
One can hardly find an old Khasi village precisely because the people have no permanent settlement; they migrate from one place to another in search of forest land to farm. With pan leaves as the only crop which sustains their livelihoods, the Khasis are forced to migrate from one place to another in search of greener pastures once the fertility of the land starts to diminish. The system of land holding in the areas where Khasis live is another factor that makes the Khasis not to feel at home in Bangladesh. Because the Khasis lives in the forest areas and most of the time along the Bangladesh border with many north eastern states of India, the land does not belong to them. In most cases the land is either owned by tea companies or individuals and the companies then let it out to the Myntri (like a headman and a landlord rolled in one) who then sublets the land to the Khasi farmers. Except for few Khasi villages like Jafflong, Nohksiar and about four or five more villages, which are recognized by the government and where people have proper documents of all the land they own, the Khasis who live in the remaining villages don’t even have documents of the land they occupy and farm in. Jino Lamin Myntri of the Nerila village the largest Khasi village in Bangladesh also perhaps one of the wealthiest Khasi in Bangladesh has himself admitted that it is very difficult to be a poor Khasi in Bangladesh. Khasis are no doubt quite well off when compared to their neighbours the tea tribes of Bangladesh who in fact work for them, but the problem is they have no ownership of the land they use. The Khasis lives mostly in the forested area of Bangladesh and are not only neglected by their own government and lack basic necessities like proper roads, electricity, health care and schools, but they are even exploited by their own Myntri some of whom behave like despots. The schools most Khasi villages have is up to Lower Primary level and they provide their own electricity using solar energy but of all the problems that they are facing, that of not owning any land is what makes them feel aliens in their own land.
I asked many Khasis especially the older generation, if their heart is in Bangladesh or in India. Except for the new generation in the age group of 16 to 20 who are now pursuing their education in cities like Dhaka and had never been to the land of their origin, the answer everyone gave is that their heart is in the hills. They long to go back home but Bangladesh is where their livelihood is. Most of the Khasis in Bangladesh have foreseen the uncertainty of their children’s future in Bangladesh. Most of the people I interviewed who can afford to send their kids to school, send them to schools and colleges in Meghalaya rather than in Bangladesh albeit illegally. Some families I met said that they send girls to school in India and boys in Bangladesh. When asked why they said at least in India the girls’ future is secure and boys can always find their way. It again reminded me of another incident many years ago when I met a young educated person from Bangladesh who is now working in a prominent IT company in Bangladesh and asked him whether he considered himself Indian or Bangladesh. He was lost for words for some time and later on answered, “I am a citizen of southeast Asia.” This is the dilemma that the Bangladeshi Khasis face. They cannot own land in their adopted country and do not feel at home in Bangladesh while India is a strange country. They do not belong here nor do they belong there. In a way they are the nowhere people of Southeast Asia.
Bearing in mind the above problems that our kith and kin face in our neighbouring countries, it is therefore imperative that the state government and our MP, finds ways and means of extending the ‘People of Indian Origin’ (PIO) status to the 30,000 (thirty thousand) Khasis in Bangladesh. If the same status can be given to people of Indian origin who live elsewhere in the world, the same should be extended to the Khasis of Bangladesh. By giving them the status, they can easily visit their kith and kin during times of joy and sorrow which is part of the Khasi value system ‘ka tip kur tip kha.’ And for the students who study in India, the degree that the young Khasi- Bangladeshi earns in the country can be legitimized and that will give them advantage over others in the job market. The opportunity to study in India will also open up prospects for the young Khasis to study in their native Khasi language which is currently not possible in Bangladesh. Until the PIO status is extended to the Bangladeshi Khasi, there will be opposition to fencing the Meghalaya portion of India-Bangladesh border, because the fence will not only divide people who used to be one but it will also be a barrier that separates people who share the same culture. It will be like a sea that cuts them from their roots.
(The writer is an environmental activist and a researcher)