17th January 2021
From the book, Imperilled Frontiers. I was surprised recently that some young Assamese folk are not aware of this perspective about why Assam got divided into so many pieces.
It is an irony that it has been the plainsman’s well-meant efforts to woo and ‘uplift’ the hill tribal people that have been so largely responsible for engendering separatist urges. The Assam-ese felt it incumbent upon themselves to atone for the supposed injury done to the tribal people by the British through their policy of ‘excluding’ the hill districts and so isolating them from the rest of the province. The hill tribals on the other hand, and the Nagas in particular, were nervous at the prospect of the Assamese embrace. The culture of the tribal people had already suffered shock from the advent of the British a hundred years back. They had scarcely adjusted themselves to the impact of one alien intrusion before being threatened by another.
It could not have been easy for the primitive Naga to understand and accept the mores of the first European entrants. The structure of the English language had no affinity with any of the Naga languages and the very concept of literacy was foreign. The Christian dogma again, which the missionaries were bent on introducing, was at variance with tribal ideas of the supernatural. The general belief of primitive tribal communities was in a host of spirits, mainly evil and hostile, which had to be appeased if the community was to survive. The idea of a loving God sending his son to atone with his blood for the sins of man was too novel a concept for the tribal mind to readily apprehend. And then, on top of it all, the hillman was subjected to the rigours of schooling in the hieroglyphics of the Roman script so that he might be enabled to ingest more thoroughly the holy word.
While all this indoctrination was initiated in the nineteenth century, it took time for its ultimate message to penetrate the remoter frontier areas where, after a considerable effort of adjustment, the inhabitants were gradually beginning to see the glimmerings of the new light. What they had been so laboriously taught was assuming meaning at last and they were looking forward to enjoying the fruit of their toils. But now, at the threshold of their enlightenment, they were being told by the Assamese that they had been misled all this time, that they should have been taught not English and the Roman script but Assamese and the Assamese script so that they might have enjoyed freer and easier intercourse with their ‘brothers and sisters’ in the plains. Whom were they to believe ? Were they to unlearn everything they had worked at with such earnest effort and start again the long and tedious process of grappling with yet another language and yet another script? And suppose some great leader came from Delhi a few years later and told them that Assamese was of no use and that they should better learn Hindi so as to be able to participate more fully in the mainstream of India’s culture? How many languages and scripts were they going to be asked to learn and unlearn? And how often were they going to be advised to change their gods ? They had been persuaded once already to give up the beliefs inherited from their forefathers and to put their trust in Christ. They were now hearing talk of the religious teachings of Sankardev and Ramakrishna being more suitable for their spiritual well-being, not to speak of Vishnu, Ram and the infinitely complex hierarchy of the Hindu pantheon. The bewilderment of the tribals was total and it is surprising, in retrospect, that there were so few at the time to appreciate and sympathize with them in their predicament.
Assam was fortunate in having at her helm at this critical juncture an astute Governor, Sir Akbar Hydari, and a Chief Minister, Gopinath Bardoloi, of wide and liberal outlook. As Hydari was a Muslim, the tribes enjoyed a sense of security, albeit temporary, that they would not be subjected in the immediate future to any massive Hindu proselytization. To counter the Assamese complaint that they were being debarred from the governance of the tribes, Hydari asked Bardoloi to submit to him a panel of names of Assamese officers and selected the most efficient of them for appointment to key posts in the Naga and other tribal areas. This allayed for a while the Assamese feeling of resentment that, even after the departure of the British, their policy of excluding Assamese from the administration of the hill areas was being perpetuated.
Despite this carefully planned scheme to create a climate of confidence between the people of the hills and plains, Assam found herself bereft, within less than thirty years, of all but a bare handful of her hill tribal population. The Assamese had looked forward to the departure of the British as the opportunity for the creation and consolidation of the ‘Greater Assam’ which they envisaged as the union of the plainsmen of the province with the entire hill tribal population extending to the international frontier with China, Burma and East Pakistan. Hydari and Bardoloi could never have foreseen that their plans for bringing the hill people closer to Assam had precisely the opposite effect and were in part responsible for Assam’s final disintegration. For the hill tribals apprehended that all this talk of integration was nothing but the prelude to a wider and fiercer cultural campaign in the future. Hydari and Bardoloi were, after all, birds of passage, and while their more enlightened and liberal approach might be helpful in mitigating the harshnesses of an apprehended Hindu domination, they would be powerless to stem the tide.
Within two years of projecting the vision of a Greater Assam, the principal architects, Hydari and Bardoloi, were dead.
Popular pressures had meanwhile built up to such an extent that, even in cases where, under the Constitution, the Governor enjoyed discretionary powers, he found himself in practice being pressurized to act not in his own discretion but on the advice of his popularly elected ministers. Hydari was able by virtue of his commanding personality to exercise a restraining influence on his ministers and give them sound and helpful guidance. With his passing away, the weight and prestige of the Governor’s office diminished to the proportionate gain in favour of the Chief Minister. Bardoloi’s successor, Bishnuram Medhi, was his direct antithesis, shrewd, narrow-minded and parochially Assamese. In his view the integration of the hills with the plains needed to be brought about immediately, if necessary by force. It soon became abundantly clear to the tribal people what he was about and they reacted as their interest dictated. The leaders of those tribal districts (e.g., the Khasi and Garo hills), which had experienced longer and closer association with the Assamese and were already to some extent ‘detribalized’, made a final effort at coexistence with the Assamese.
Their representatives were accommodated in the Assam ministry and they harboured hopes that, through progressive increase in their political weightage, they might yet succeed in holding their own against Assamese pressures. The Nagas had less vested interest in the continuance of the status quo and to this extent felt free to make an immediate break. While there were moderates among them who held that a break with Assam would suffice and that it was in their interest to continue as a separate state within the Indian Union, there were extremists who advocated total independence. It was not long before even the tribal districts which had originally agreed to give a trial to coexistence with the Assamese within a single state found disillusionment. In 1962, the Assam legislature passed a bill prescribing Assamese as the official language for the entire state. This, for the tribals, was the point of no return; for with Assamese as the official language, the tribal minority would at once be placed at an unfair disadvantage. Admission to the public services, universities and training institutes, the grant of scholarships and governmental patronage were likely to depend increasingly, in the future, on expertise in the Assamese language, and the tribal people, however hard they might try, could not expect to stand successfully in competition against plainsmen for whom Assamese was their mother tongue. It was Assamese chauvinism, ironically enough, that diminished Assam and lost her tribal population.
It is anomalous that the Assamese failed to anticipate the re actions of the tribal people to the imposition of Assamese when they themselves were so sensitive over the issue of language.
Their sensitivity may be gauged by their stance, soon after Independence, on the occasion of the inauguration of Assam’s first radio station at Shillong. As broadcasting was a central subject, the arrangements for the inauguration were organized by officers of the central government, who rightly took the view that the proceedings should commence with the playing of the Indian National Anthem. The Assamese have a very beautiful song of their own in praise of Assam, her culture and her people, which is often performed during ceremonial occasions. A demand was voiced that the inauguration ceremony should start
with the performance of this song and not of the Indian National Anthem. Processions paraded the streets of Shillong, brandishing flags and shouting patriotic Assamese slogans in support of the demand; but the organizers stood firm and regretted their inability to concede to it. As the Governor rose to deliver his inaugural address, there was violent stampeding at the studio portals and the distinguished guests feared that at any moment the doors would be forced open and the raging crowd surge upon the assembled gathering. The Inspector General of Police at the time was an elderly Englishman, one of the few Europeans whose services had been retained by the successor Indian government in recognition of his deep affection for Assam and freedom from racial bias. It was this venerable stalwart who personally stood guard at the entrance of the hall and succeeded, by skilful deployment of his force, in ensuring a safe retreat for the Governor and Chief Minister on conclusion of the function. Bardoloi was gravely shaken by this unseemly demonstration of Assamese irredentism and there can be no doubt that the tribals were also duly taking note. When the time came, they did not miss their cue but reacted as spontaneously to the decision to introduce Assamese as the official language of the state as had the Assamese to the singing of an anthem in a tongue other than their own. And so the gap of understanding between the hillman and plainsman progressively widened. It was a grievous shock to the Assamese to find the hillman rejecting the hand of brotherhood so generously proffered. The Assamese took just pride in their culture and their language, and it seemed inconceivable to them that the hillman should not wish to be admitted within their fold.
It is the British, however, who have to bear the brunt of responsibility for the plainsman’s lack of understanding of the tribal mind. Since the first years of their occupation, the Naga hills had been administered as a British preserve. The frontiers were regarded as sensitive areas to which it was preferable, for reasons of security, to post British rather than Indian officers. British officers also adjusted themselves more easily to the rugged life of the mountains. With gun and rod, they happily passed away their days, untroubled by the proximity of awkward politicians or the interference of higher authorities. Above all, they were relieved of the ever-oppressive heat of the plains. The Indian officer, on the other hand, was inclined to regard a posting in the hills as a penal infliction. The Indian is, by temperament, more gregarious. The joint-family system makes him more family-minded; there are perpetually funerals to attend and marriages to celebrate, not to speak of the ceaseless round of religious rituals to be performed at regular intervals. At a time when road communications in the hills were non-existent, it would take a week to a fortnight to reach the nearest railhead in the plains and the Indian officer would be obliged to spend a lot of his time on journeys back and forth to attend to his various family obligations in his home district. The consequences were twofold. As Indians were so rarely posted to hill districts, there were few Indian officers available on the transfer of power with any experience of the hill areas and their problems. Conversely, the tribal people also had no experience of dealings with Indian officers and apprehended the worst. The situation was not helped by the fact that mischief-mongers had deliberately put out propaganda that the new Indian government would ban the eating of beef and ease the way for outsiders to infiltrate into the hills and dispossess the tribal people of their land.
The dearth of Indian officers with knowledge and experience of the hill people during the transfer of power was a serious handicap to the administration. While the British must have foreseen that a time would come for the hills to pass over to Indian control, no serious effort was made to train non-European officers to hold positions of responsibility in the frontier districts. The result was that, when the time came for the British to move out of the hills, there was a wide and gaping administrative vacuum.
The first problem was to fill the key post of Adviser for the tribes and frontier areas. Hydari decided, after consultation with Bardoloi and the central government, that this post should be offered to me. Apart from any consideration of my competence—I was then a very junior officer, with no experience of the tribes—Hydari’s instinct perhaps told him that the appointment to this post of a Parsee, a member of a small minority community, would be acceptable to the tribal people as a token of the essentially secular basis of the administration. And although I was not an Assamese, the Assamese regarded me as an officer who respected their language and culture. I had taken pains to learn Assamese and had been a not unsuccessful District Magistrate in the largest and most important Assamese district of Lakhimpur. I also belonged to the Assam cadre of the Indian Civil Service and was likely therefore to be sympathetic to Assamese interests.
It seems extraordinary, in retrospect, that an officer as junior as myself and of such limited experience should have been selected for this key appointment. I had served for four years as a district officer in the plains and two years as a Secretariat officer dealing with problems relating to the regularly administered plains districts. I had not had a single day’s experience of administration in the hill areas and was being called upon to organize and head an administrative machinery for the governance of an area of over 50,000 square miles whose inhabitants were, for me, virtually unknown. After an overlapping period of two weeks’ briefing by my British predecessor, I was expected to advise on the laying down and implementation of policy on issues as divergent as devolution of power to indigenous tribal institutions and defence of a frontier several thousand miles long. The tools at my command were a team of officers equally devoid of experience of hill administration, save for a couple of Englishmen whose services were temporarily retained to provide, in name at least, a measure of continuity.
It was also unfortunate that, apart from the unavailability of experienced field officers, continuity of policy was so often disturbed by the frequency of changes at the highest levels of administration. During my ten years’ tenure as Adviser, I saw the installation of nine Governors—six permanent incumbents and three who officiated during an interregnum. Of the six permanent incumbents, two had been drawn from the Indian Civil Service, two from the political field, one from the judiciary and one from the army. The frequency of the changes and the widely differing background of the appointees reflect to some extent the attitude to tribal affairs of the policy-makers in the central government. Assam had been known during the British period as the Cinderella of the provinces. It was so remote from the main body of India, both geographically and culturally, that nobody was aware or cared much what went on within its largely undefined boundaries. A short-lived interest was aroused
in the province by the Japanese invasion during World War II, but otherwise, Assam was left to lie sleeping on, reconciled to its neglect and lack of attention. Until disturbances on the frontier assumed alarming dimensions, Delhi attached little importance to the murmurings of the hillmen, appointing as Governor whosoever could most readily be spared and was prepared for what was regarded by many as a sentence of exile. However, in Assam, unlike other states, the Governor was not a mere figurehead but had been vested under the Constitution with special responsibilities, to be discharged in his individual discretion, for the administration of the tribal areas. He ruled as well as reigned and the office was no sinecure.
Assam has nevertheless had the good fortune of being headed by a series of extremely competent Governors. The tribal people were however confounded by the frequent change of countenance at the apex. They had scarcely come to recognize and have some understanding with one Governor when they were peremptorily faced with another. The tribal attaches importance to the man, whether he be the District Officer, Adviser or the Governor. Many British officers became over-attached to the tribes in their jurisdiction, virtually assuming proprietary rights over them. Their attachment became so strong emotionally that they resented any suggestion of their being transferred away from them to another station. While such an attitude had its risks and drawbacks in that a tribe might fall victim indefinitely to the idiosyncrasies of a single individual, the tribals at least knew whom they were dealing with, whether for good or bad, and felt a sense of stability and security. With frequent changes of officers, there was apprehension that com-mitments made by one officer might not be honoured by his successor. In an illiterate milieu, business was carried on by word of mouth, there was nothing on record, and the successor officer, however honourable his intentions, might well be unaware of his predecessor’s commitments.
Apart from the break in continuity caused by over-frequent changes in the higher echelons of the administrative pyramid, the tribal people became confused by the differences of attitude and approach emanating from an ever-shifting, gubernatorial kaleidoscope. There were Governors (prompted by their consorts) with an exaggerated taste for pageantry, sticklers for
protocol who would not move a step without their gold-braided ADC’s. There were others who preferred to affect a Gandhian style of egalitarian simplicity. Hydari could drink any Naga under the table and made no secret of his bibulous predilections. His successor, Sri Prakasa, was no prude, but, being a lifelong Gandhian, was unaccustomed to drinking alcohol. He managed to devise stratagems, however, to avoid wounding tribal susceptibilities. We were sitting together one day during a break for refreshments while touring the Naga hills. Our hosts were serving us, as is the custom, with the local brew of rice-beer, and I was surprised to observe that, within less than five minutes, our Gandhian Governor’s cup had been drained dry. He noted my astonishment and, without uttering a syllable but with a mischievous wink, flicked his wrist in the direction of a nearby window to convey that he had surreptitiously flung the contents outside. Little did he know that Naga hospitality will not permit of a cup resting empty, and it was soon replenished. He realized he could not repeat his dodge without being detected, and accepted my advice to raise his cup to his lips at periodical intervals as a token of his appreciation of hospitality offered.
The tribal is shrewd and perceptive, and can soon size up if an officer genuinely enjoys his work in the hills or is performing it as an enforced penance. Vishnu Sahay, a Governor drawn from the Indian Civil Service, once consulted me on the advisability or otherwise of participating in the somewhat rugged and exotically served feasts offered by the tribal people. I gave it as my view that this was one of the occupational hazards of a frontier officer and that it would be impossible for him to function effectively if he were constantly worrying if the pork offered him was not properly cured or the rice-beer not brewed in chemically disinfected vessels. And here lies the difficulty of selecting personnel for these unusual areas. For a little something extra is needed, apart from mere cleverness, for the makings of a good frontier officer. India has a surfeit of smart officers, officers with brain-power. But there are not so many who are sufficiently sensitive to human responses as to take the trouble, and often the risk, of accommodating themselves to such responses. Eating, drinking, dressing—it is in the common participation of such primary activities that people feel a sense of community amongst themselves.
The subject of dress, again, has been an issue of controversy from the time that outsiders first made contacts with aboriginal peoples. In tropical regions, aborigines had been accustomed to wear the very barest clothing, in some regions no clothing whatsoever, until the advent of the administrator and the missionary. It was the latter who felt offended by ‘indecent exposure’ of the body and set about propagating the propriety of ample coverage. Shorts and blouses were lavishly distributed by missionaries to the uninhibited dwellers of the hills, forests and mid-Pacific islands, and the shielding of the bosom from public view was heralded by them as the triumphant first-fruits of the civilization they were bequeathing to the rude and ignorant savage.
It has since been proved beyond doubt that the introduction of an alien style of clothing has been a major factor in the decline of tribal populations. Primitive communities cannot afford the luxury of frequent changes of clothing and have perforce to continue wearing their single set of soiled and sweat-soaked clothes on completion of their hard day’s labour in the fields. It is not surprising therefore that they fall victim so quickly to pneumonia and other sundry diseases. They do not have the wherewithal to wash their garments regularly and, in the absence of any spare set of clothing, are obliged to wear the same shorts or blouses day after day, night after night, until they are tattered to shreds. Much of the disease and infection prevalent amongst primitive peoples can be attributed to the wearing of soiled and damp clothing and there is scarcely any region of their habitat where scabies and pulmonary diseases are not endemic.
The administrator, on the other hand, has not always seen eye to eye with the missionary and, in the matter of clothing, has hesitated, for hygienic as much as for cultural considerations, to encourage foreign modes of dress. Some administrators have fallen to the opposite extreme of fining or otherwise penalizing tribal people for wearing foreign apparel. This however has not always had the effect intended; for though the intention is to encourage the tribal people to retain respect for
their own traditional mores, the administrator’s ban on modern clothing can be misinterpreted by them as intended to hold them back and deprive them of the supposed fruits of progress and civilization.
Taking their cue from the Englishman who was reputed to dress for dinner when camping in the jungles of darkest Africa, Indian officers posted to the hills also started off by sporting the traditional and formal Indian style of dress when they first took over charge from their British predecessors. I possess still a photograph of myself robed in a long, formal achkan, buttoned up to the neck, and with churidar, performing a tribal acrobatic rite’ on a precariously suspended cane swing. Nothing could have looked more ridiculous, but this was all a part of the first flush of enthusiasm under which the tribals were being baptized in the chaste springs of Indian culture from which they had been so long excluded by the schemings of British imperialism.
Most of the hill frontier tribes are skilled weavers. Each tribe has evolved its own distinctive designs, with tasteful matching of colours, and takes pride in presenting visitors whom they wish to honour with a sample of its creative art. Some of the tribes also wear a charming, loose jacket2 prepared from their home-woven cloth, which too they customarily present to their guests and friends. I was attracted by these jackets, as they are not only aesthetically beautiful but eminently practical; they are light and comfortable when trekking during the warm weather and require no ironing as they do not easily crease. I made a practice of wearing these jackets not only when touring in the hills but also in the Secretariat at Shilling and during my official visits to Delhi. Soon other officers followed my example, each competing to acquire a better and more beautiful specimen than his colleague’s.
This, of course, was exactly what was intended. For apart from the incongruity and impracticability of our more conventional style of dress for rough trekking in the mountains, it seemed a cultural waste that the lovely weaves of the hill people should not be put to wider use. With the wearing of clothes of tribal design, our officers blended more gracefully with the landscape. Hill people of the Mongoloid regions are fairer in
complexion than” the plainsman and of lighter physical structure. The presence of even a few plainsmen in their midst becomes immediately noticeable, and particularly so if they are attired in a dress that is completely alien to the local environment. Psychologically, again, the hillman feels a sense of pride to find his handiwork appreciated and put to practical use by prestigious officers of the administration. It is one thing to see his exquisite weaves exhibited as curios in a museum, it is quite another to find officers competing to acquire and attire themselves in his tribe’s creation and designing.
Verrier Elwin was our main champion in this endeavour to promote a deeper and more lively appreciation of the tribals’ creative urges. My friendship with Verrier sprang from the time he was first invited, in 1953, to assist us in our work amongst the tribal people of the frontier. From long before, however, Elwin had been occupied in research and social work amongst the tribes of Central India. A self-trained anthropologist, his studies of the tribes of Central India had earned him international recognition. But, for all his anthropological research, Elwin was first and foremost a humanist, sensitive to beauty and sensitive above all to suffering. There was no aspect of tribal life that did not evoke in him a sense of poetry. For him, the tribes could do no wrong and he felt such disgust at the ugliness of society as it had evolved after the industrial revolution that he dreaded the same degradation befalling the children of the hills and forests.
Elwin’s publications, profusely illustrated with photographs of tribal weaves and artifacts, went a long way towards dispelling the popular notion that the tribal people were nothing more than backward primitives. Christoph von Fiirer-Haimendorf, one of the most eminent anthropologists to have made a study of the tribes of Nepal and the Indian subcontinent, was equally sympathetic to tribal interests and no less sensitive to the richness and beauty of primitive cultures, as evidenced by his splendid photographs of the tribal scene in his several definitive studies. The choice of title, however, of one of his more popular works, The Naked Nagas, was not perhaps the happiest, as it projected in the public mind an image of the tribe which was farthest from the intention of the author. For, of the many who have seen or heard of the title of the book, only a few have taken the trouble to read the contents. The impression that has stuck in the popular imagination, therefore, has been not so much of the fascination and richness of the cultural evolution of the Naga tribes as their rude primitiveness.
While exploring the motivations of tribal behaviour, we do not take sufficient account of the sensitivity of the tribal people to what is presented as the popular image of themselves. There are numerous theories regarding the derivation of the term ‘Naga’ and the simplest is that which relates it to the Assamese word ‘noga’, meaning ‘naked’. For what could be more natural than for the Assamese plainsman to refer to the lightly-clad hillmen of the eastern hills as ‘noga’, in the same manner as he referred to the turbulent plunderers from the hills north of the Brahmaputra as ‘Abors’, the Assamese word for ‘untamed’ ? But though the Naga may not give overt expression to his feelings, he resents the implication that his most distinctive attribute in the eyes of the world is his nudity and he feels slighted that the study of his people that has reached the widest readership should by its very title have highlighted the one attribute of the tribe to which the Naga himself does not give so much as a thought. When I first met Phizo thirty years ago, he was known by his full name, Zapu Phizo, but he later dropped the first name, Zapu, as having too exotic and oriental a ring. Similarly in the matter of dress, I have never seen Phizo except in Western-style attire, suited and bespectacled. I have no doubt that this leaning towards Western and supposedly modern modes, whether in the matter of dress or style of language, is a manifestation of a subconscious revolt against what the Nagas hold to be a humiliating and derogatory image of their tribe in the minds not only of their Assamese neighbours but of the public in general. As long as the Nagas were isolated in their hills, with little outside contact, this sense of humiliation, if present, remained dormant and gave vent to no overt manifestation. The Japanese invasion brought the Nagas out into the forefront and gave them an opportunity of knowing more of what the outside world thought of them. Their brave contribution to the country’s defence was duly recognized, commended and rewarded. They were splendidly received at New
Delhi by the Governor-General, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and sumptuously entertained at the Viceregal Palace. But the stress throughout was on their fine physique, their gay and colourful attire, their prowess as fighters, their essentially ‘tribal’ attributes. And the term ‘tribal’ had hitherto been associated in people’s imagination with primitiveness, head-hunting and African tom-toms. The educated Naga was beginning to feel that the time had come for a refurbishing of the Naga image, and he found in Phizo the spokesman of his aspirations and the symbol of his newly-awakened consciousness, pride and self-respect.
We find thus two distinct and contrary currents underlying tribal attitudes during the period following the departure of the British. There was on the one hand a leaning towards European modes, partly as a reaction against the image of tribal primitiveness, partly as a defence mechanism against the tribal’s apprehension of Hindu cultural dominance. Amongst tribes on the other hand that had been less violently exposed than the Nagas to physical and psychological assaults from without, there was more sympathetic response to the administration’s policy of fostering the development of their traditional institutions and arts.
The policy of promoting and focusing attention on the tribals’ traditional institutions and arts was not however unreservedly endorsed and there was apprehension in the highest echelons of government that this emphasizing of the tribals’ cultural identity was an indirect, if not direct, incitement to the forces of separatism. There was a school of thought that considered it preferable, in the interests of the unity of India, to focus attention rather on the broad mainstream of Indian culture—to promote the study of Sanskrit and inculcate the patterns of behaviour, dress and belief prevalent in the main body of the country. Even amongst the most able and experienced members of the civil service, there was failure to appreciate that tribal attitudes and tribal apparel were neither un-Indian nor anti-national. There was thus a wide divorce between policy as enunciated and its implementation in the field. Nehru had explicitly declared that ‘there was no point in trying to make of the tribals a second-rate copy of ourselves’. But that was precisely what was happening in many places—and the tribals were not so obtuse as not to sense it.