KNOWING THE CITY, SILIGURI

Paromita Ghosh

The city, Siliguri has been a refuge to millions of homeless who had crossed the newly created border and settled after the Partition of Bengal. This city weaves series of settlement stories that began after the British laid jute and tea cultivation and later magnified with the partition. Partition has played an important role in making of Siliguri and by walking down the memory lane of individuals this narrative would tell several unheard Partition stories of displacement and settlement experienced both by migrant Hindus Bengalis and local Rajbanshis and their process of claiming identity.

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“Pardesi howa jachii

Elaye hamra laye pardesi howa jacchi

Hath gila boro basar nakhan sokto howa jaye

Hamare agil-purusher naki aja chilo

Boudiya bairagir moton hamrae laye

Bhita -r jomi ,haal goru bechara hath patodi”

 (we are becoming foreigners in our land, our hands are becoming tough. Our ancestors happened to be rulers but we have lost everything -our land, cows becoming recluse)” (Ganguly as cited in Ghosh, 2013,pp.70)[1]

Introduction:  Partition, as underlined

Our Independence had a disguised partner called Partition and history locked the violence and trauma that partition bore in the timeframe of 1947 only, not looking beyond that time and one particular region i.e. West Partition-Punjab for long. Partition was experienced differently in different regions, Eastern Partition did not experience this bifurcation in one time just in 1947 but twice/thrice- as an ongoing process, in a varied and multifarious way struggling through time. To unravel such silences Partition is still remembered and rewritten even after 72 years to bring out the several faces of East Partition (Roy, 2012).

East Partition was silenced over West Bengal experiencing continuous partition was not identified. The refugees from East Bengal remained a ‘problem child’ for a Nation whose path to self-reliant citizenship was handicapped due to illegitimacy of claims and with every riot, there was mass migration taking place and unplanned settlement (Sengupta, 2015). Therefore, Bengal experienced the most haphazard divide making people still suffer the consequences of the divide. Individual space within the collective is often constricted and the collective claim has more moral supremacy over individual needs. While Bengal became a subject of understanding Partition in the later years by nation, hegemony still played an important role in understanding how the partition of Bengal is represented. A peculiar hyper visibility of Calcutta (Kolkata) coming to stand in for all of Bengal and landscape of writings about/on Bengal Partition has been uniquely hegemonized by Calcutta (Kolkata). These representations at every step of time have often left many crucial gaps in knowledge where living conditions beyond cities, mofussil areas like Uttarbanga-North Bengal hardly found space in history, art, culture, or literature.

Uttarbanga

Uttarbanga[2] shares a distinctive history and socio-geographical condition from the rest of Bengal. This area with long past royal heritage was once covered with thick forests,experiencing incessant rains throughout the year keeping the land mushy and accommodating very less population of inhabitants: Rajbanshis[3], Meches[4], Rabhas[5], Totos[6], etc among which Rajbanshis were the largest ethno-linguistic and most notable community owning large acres of land as well as they have a ruling legacy (Gupta,1992). However, this region, with her history, had been in the dark corners for a prolonged period until recently. The differences and problems faced by partition in Northern Bengal was different from the rest of Bengal, there was a vast migration in Northern Bengal after Partition and is continuing because of the unplanned settlement and haphazard division mapped by the Radcliffe Line[7].

The history of displacement, dispossessions brought forth here was expressed through personal experiences more as History did not iterate, thus, creating an alternate history to challenge the ideological readings shaped by violence and neglect of a non-linear past.

Moving beyond the collective hegemonic frame of remembering Partition and bringing an alternative space where individuals share their memories, photo, visual memory through their everyday living. Memory has been passed on to generations and in this intergenerational movement of memory there has been a process of ‘amnesia’ – a process of forgetting and thus for retrieval of memory, poems, lost places, history of food, music is recollected and connected (Kabir,2013). Ananya  Kabir also explains that through a holistic understanding of how individuals in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh respond to everyday existences by forgetting and remembering circumstances and narrating the Partition story, Partition’s Post-Amnesia is created, to denote the deliberate return to the exploration of places lost to the immediate generations through a combination of psychological and political imperatives. The feeling about the Partition, the events, the process of voicing the longings for places, those times, and the lives of various individuals living beyond the drawn national boundaries encircles here. Through an explanatory lens and mode of analysis, the events of Partition are understood and therefore this continuous moving to and forth between narratives, history, various scholarly writings, and personal understanding, paves the understanding of how partition memory connects individuals through objects, places, and memory is passed down to generations making partition as part of one’s every day.

The complex story of Partition of Northern Bengal is intertwined with Nation, Geography, Caste and power dynamics of :

1. Kolkata and mofussil areas,

2. Bhadroloks to lower caste,

3. State exploitation,

4. Landowners with tillers,

5. Migrated Hindus and inhabitants.

Thus, this research work looks beyond the famous narratives of violence brought about by the Partition divide, religion, and pain of losing Land, and focuses on memories of Rajbanshis and migrated Hindu Bengalis to share a different story of partition. Focusing in Siliguri the memories talk about power dynamics that did make the story of Partition against the other but also shares a story beyond these polarised or fixed separate dichotomies where, time, space makes every individual victim of time, juxtaposed around, linked closely in a circle where every individual in one way or the other has been victims to partition.

Siliguri in Northern Bengal…

Siliguri had been a refuge to millions of homeless who have crossed the newly created border and settled here after Partition. Located in the foothills of Terai, Siliguri was once a marshy less known area recording just 8% of the population then, now is regarded as the second most important city of Bengal after Kolkata.  This city weaves a Partition story with continuous migration that continued after Partition that led to the growth of Siliguri.

A very common narrative to define old Siliguri was, ‘malaria-prone, empty land’ that was covered with the thick forest. In 1920Siliguri had a very sparse population of inhabitants and Rajbanshis were economically more sustained than the other inhabitants of Northern Bengal (Gupta,1992), owning vast stretches of land. They were big jotedars with fixed jotes(land) under Raja of Baikunthapur for generations, and no outsiders were allowed to own land in Siliguri until the Land Settlement Act was passed after partition in 1950. When the British were attracted to the thick forest cover of Northern Bengal in the 1920s’and decided to lay Jute-Tea cultivation and also establish administrative offices here for better administration of Northern Bengal, several rich, upper caste-class Bengalis from south Bengal, Marwaris, and Biharis started settling here for business or work. Along with them Santhals from Central India and Nepalis from Nepal also settled to work in the tea plantation area. Siliguri started developing as an urban space setting up medical, school, administrative offices, the market for Tea, Timber Trade, and further setting of the Road and Rail to connect plains with hills it initiated a social and identity turmoil among the inhabitants. Migration, urbanization, development led to land alienation and land transformation leading to marginalization and “proletarianization” (Basu,2017) of original inhabitants who were dependent on land and agriculture, and this alienation magnified after Partition. 

The story of Partition in Siliguri did not just comprise of Bengalis-upper caste-class who came and settled during the colonial period for work, but after Partition several middle class and lower castes dependent solely on cultivation settled here- Namashudras, Malo, Mahisyas, Yadavs, etc. from Mymensingh district, Kochbihar, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri, Pabna, Dhaka, Bengalis, non-Bengalis, even Rajbanshis settled here. The memories of Partition in Siliguri share about how settlement and displacement both were experienced by refugees/migrants Bengali Hindus- as well Rajbanshis. Both Rajbanshis and migrated Hindu Bengalis shares the indifferences as well mutual feeling towards Partition. Siliguri was never an option for the evacuees as it was in no way a place for settlement- being malaria-prone, empty village but after Partition the close proximity to people living in Pabna, Rajshahi, Dhaka, Dinajpur, Rangpur, etc in the Northern Bengal made people settled here by just walking few miles and assurance of returning home when situations calm. The loss was very mutual, the displacement shared by both was the same, however, in this mutual sufferance the struggle of identity is stark, where the loss of the Rajbanshi community was much more.

The Swindle…

Land-dependent Rajbanshis’ land loss led to impoverishment, shifts in livelihood, and occupational transformations(Basu,2017). The biggest land dispossession that started with the Colonial period, then Partition, has been continuing till today making Rajbanshis almost landless and shift further away from city, Siliguri. Rajbanshis had learned the value of land economically with settlement and introduction of jute-tea and later when migrants from Bangladesh started settling here and this allurement made many sell away lands in return for cash, thus settlement slowly decreased their right over land. Nitish Ghosh[8], shares that there used to be a Rajbanshi family staying right opposite to his house in Hakimpara but as the migrant population increased in the locality, they sold off their house and moved somewhere else. Subhash Ghosh[9] also shared a somewhat similar story of displacement, his father had bought a paddy land near Noukaghat, Siliguri, and those rice were stalked in house, a Rajbanshi would come to buy rice from him to make puff rice and flat rice, they even exchanged their rice products for rice. Eventually, this man – remembered as Muriwala(puff rice seller)became very close to the family. Subhash Ghosh remembers visiting his house with his father, however, in one such visit, the man shared the agony of selling off their land and further moving to the outskirts of Siliguri. He persuaded Subhas ji’s father to buy his land so that they could shift to another place where most Rajbanshis has eventually settled. The continuous settlement after the partition made Rajbanshis’ lose their occupancy.

Land dispossession was also largely contributed by the Government who forcibly in the name of development snatched away the lands from Rajbanshis. The Land Reformation Act 1953 was introduced to settle the issue of settlement of refugees after partition but this land revenue reformation did not prevail equality and the Rajbanshi faced a major loss of land. Hemantika Basu (2017) in her research explains how lands were acquitted leading to deprivation and alienation of inhabitants from their land. She shared several interviews of land dispossessions; a Rajbanshi family living in Hyderpara, Siliguri possessed 36 bighas of land out of which more than 1 bigha had to be donated under compulsion for the development of the school, and no compensation was made instead more lands were grabbed in the preceding period leaving not much for their subsistence. Another interview shared, a Rajbanshi who possessed a good amount of ancestral property that covered almost 200 acres was attacked by the ruling party members. The intruders mostly political broke into their house one night and burnt their land document papers, injuring family members and throwing them out of their own house, later when the family returned home, they found out their whole land was acquired and the house was sold off to some Eastern Bengalis by political party men for a hefty price. Land dispossessions continued highly, the famous Vivekanda school in Hakimpara, Siliguriland was donated by Sarat Burman, a Rajbanshi in memory of his late father. When the school was constructed, it was named after his father ‘Darpa Narayan School’ but in the later years without any prior notice to Sarat Burman, the School Committee members mainly comprising of migrated Bengalis Hindus changed the name to‘Vivekanda School’, in the same way, the Siliguri College land was donated by Rajbanshi educationist named Biren Roy Sarkar but the name of the contributor is not mentioned anywhere in the school foundation list (Nag, 2015).

Forceful grabbing of lands was further instrumentalized by Government for the development of Siliguri by validating that the land belongs to the government. Tebhaga Movement and then the Naxalite movement, these land movements were further anti to Rajbanshi as randomly acquired lands in respect to exploitations. Mass exploitation in cultivation among Rajbanshis in Siliguri did not exist but the mass spreading of the movement later made many adhiyars stand against their Rajbanshi Jotedars as well through falsified manner or tricks lands were grabbed from Rajbashis (Basu,2017). Dr. Ray[10] laments, “Jara mulbasi tader ar kichui nei, electricity hoyegeche, jomir daam bere gelo kintu local lok kichui korte palona. Jara bairer lok tara boro building gore fello, ar mulbasinda ra ekhono competition e darate parlo na, tara pichiye poreche ebong manoshik dik thekeo pichiye poreche. Eto unnoti hoyegelo, airport holo, university holo, college holo tader I jomin te kintu tader i kono kaaj dayini (inhabitants couldn’t stand in the development of their land as they still could not get the opportunity to progress and bring changes in their lives as well even when their lands were taken for development purposes, they were not provided any scope to be part of that development process)”.  

The conflict…

There is a conflict of hierarchy existing in Siliguri, the superiority of migrants and dominance recurred and it has always been in an active relationship with inhabitants. East Bengalis in every way regarded themselves as superior and there can be no scope for East Bengalis to learn anything from inhabitants. The existing pride among migrants of being superior, smart, educated always made Rajbanshis be seen and treated as lowly. The ‘sons of the soil’ were beleaguered and their struggle for a better living and livelihood still pertains, whereas the migrant population was much successful in their land.

Migrated Bengali Hindus settled in Siliguri is a minority settled in new land yet, they claim to be superior to the inhabitants- Rajbanshis who were landed. The dominance by the landless individuals towards the landed-inhabitants and ridiculing them, treating them as inferior links to their pride of being more educated, rich, smarter coming from a progressive, much arable-prosperous land. They were forced to settle down in this uninhabitable land, narratives share how they made Siliguri into a city, development, health-educational and administrative services as well introduced market, regularised economy, brought about a flow of economy as well altered the cultivation process with hard work changing the soil texture for better agricultural produce (interviews)[11]. Space- land acts as an important tool to demarcate the hierarchy and estimate superiority, and therefore this tussle of claiming oneself is very complex. Revolving in the circle of hegemony marginalised under the other who claimed to be more dominant to the other, Rajbanshi lost their way of living to migrated Bengali Hindus with the loss of Land, whereas, the migrated Bengalis lost their land, displaced from Eastern Pakistan by partition and then settled here in Siliguri, they were ridiculed by the Bhadrolok’s – the higher caste, who claimed to be the most cultured, educated Bengaliof Kolkata, by epar-opar (this side and the other side Bengalis) dichotomy.

Every migrated Bengali Hindus interviewed said that Rajbanshi were lower to them, they had nothing to learn from them, they are stupid and were meek and therefore if scolded with a strong voice as Chandra Ghosh[12] describes, the scared Rajbanshis would give away things. He shares that in the weekly market, Rajbanshis were easily exploited, and with one scolding they would easily sell away the vegetables at the lowest prices as demanded. The migrated Hindus always made fun of Rajbanshis by ridiculing and calling them as ‘bau’[13], ‘bahe[14]. The conflict of hierarchy existed is so deeply that ridicule-jokes became part of the popular culture and normalised in everyday lives and common ridicule in most households. A kind of inferiority complex emerged after Partition among the migrated community magnified the differences to ridicule Rajbanshis’, underestimating them, their way of living, their culinary skills. Chayadida[15] shares Rajbanshis food habits were different from migrated Bengali Hindus, with an expression-mixed with laughter, pride, ridicule shared that Rajbanshis used to put pumpkin in their meat recipe and the Rajbanshi workers who used to work in their agricultural field used to love the food made by her mother.

Conclusion

The process of ridicule, a game of inferiority made Rajbanshis alter their lives, but this won’t be true to even contradict that Migrant Bengalis settled here haven’t altered their living. There has been a whole population march in Bengal after Partition, showing the differences that occurred questioning the right to own identity. The culture of Siliguri does not represent the culture of the migrated population of Bengalis nor Rajbanshis instead of Bengali Bhadrolok’s that engulfed away the dialect, way of living of individuals. Being a prey of time, hegemony, and politics, the memory of Partition shares the nostalgia of loss of identity that is re-iterated through the memory of culture and re-lived through oral narrations passed on to generations.  Identity is perpetually mobile that is always changing. It is a continuous process and in this change/evolution, respective identities do evolve, formulate leading to a redefinition of identities. In the social turmoil of indifferences, ‘othering’ and getting trapped in the vicious circle of hegemony, alienation made people think to reclaim themselves(Das, 2015).

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[1] Excerpts were taken from a poem written by Tushar Ganguly in 1977, in “Uttar-SadhinotaPorberUttarbang-e osthirota-r utso o sahitya- silpo-sanskriti-teprobhab”.In. Ghosh, Dr.Anandogopal and Saha, Kartick (eds.), “1947- Paroborti Uttarbanga-1: A Collection or regional Bengali essays”, N.L Publishers, Shibmandir, Siliguri, West Bengal, 2013 .

[2] There has never been any straight title nor legal document to support Northern Bengal as North Bengal or Uttarbanga in Bengali, but addressing the Northern regions together as so is a political stand to highlight it as distinct from the rest of the Bengal (Nag, 2015).

[3]Rajbanshis- the inhabitants were rulers, land dependent individuals, belonging to the mixed breed of Mongoloid, Dravidian and Aryan race and having mongoloid features. The last existing royal lineage survives in Jalpaiguri and Coochbehar (17 kilometer from Siliguri)

[4] Mech tribe belonged to the Bodo-Kachari group of tribes. A Mongoloid race speaking Tibeto-Burman dialect

[5] Belonging to Mongoloid group migrated to India through North-Eastern Hill passes around thousand years before the birth of Christ.

[6]Toto, the least populous tribe residing in Doars area, has its Bhutanese-Tibetan origin.

[7]Radcliffe Line ripped through the soul of North Bengal cutting sharp through Rajshahi, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Pabna, Bagura, Malda, Jalpaiguri, and Darjeeling districts.

[8]Aged 60 he was born in Siliguri, however his family migrated here after Partition. He doesn’t relate with Partition but while talking he shared about the displacements in Siliguri. This interview taken on June, 2017

[9]Born in Siliguri, his parents settled here in 1960s from Bangladesh. This interview was taken in 2017.

[10]Born in Shivmandir, Siliguri to a Rajbanshi family has grown up listening to the stories of displacement, loss faced by Rajbanshi community after partition. This interview was taken in 2016.

[11]“Siliguri Purobartan”, Siliguri Corporation, Srijani Printers: Siliguri, 1986.

[12]Aged 80 was born in Bangladesh and later after partition shifted to Siliguri with parents. This interview was taken in 2016.

[13]An affectionate address in the local society but it was referred to as a slang naming rural idiots by migrated Bengali Hindus.

[14]an affectionate address in the local society but it was referred to as a slang naming rural idiots by migrated Bengali Hindus.

[15]Born in Pabna in 1944, shifted to Jalpaiguri after partition and then after marriage settled in Siliguri. This interview was taken on 2018.

This article is a part of M.Phil. research submitted in Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, Savitribai Phule Pune University by Paromita Ghosh (paromitacg@gmail.com).


Bibliography

  • Basu Hemantika, “Urbanization, Land Alienation and Proletarianization: A Study of Rajbansis in North Bengal”. In Work, Institutions and Sustainable Livelihood, Xaxa V., Saha D., Singha R. (eds). Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-5756-4_8

  • Das, Kumar Samir. “Living the ‘Absence’: The Rajbanshis of North Bengal.” TISS

Working Paper, No.5, Tata Institute of Social Science (2015),pp:1-15. doi: http://rnd.tiss.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/TISS-Working-Paper-5-Samir-Kumar-Das.pdf.

  • Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. Partition’s Post-Amnesias:1947,1971 and Modern South Asia. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2013.
  • Gupta,Das, Ranajit. Economy, Society and Politics in Bengal: Jalpaiguri 1869-1947. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • Roy, Haimanti. Partitioned Lives: Migrants, Refugees, Citizens in India and Pakistan,1947-65. New Delhi: Oxford University Press,2012.
  • Sengupta, Debjani. The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities. Delhi:Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Nag, Soumendra Nath(2015), Kamtapur movement in North Bengal geo-ethno environmental and historical perspective, Thesis Submitted in the University of North Bengal for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Geography and Applied Geography, University of North Bengal.

http://hdl.handle.net/10603/174126

Koch Identity and Unity: Still a long way to go

Arup Jyoti Das

When it comes to understanding Koch identity, we often tend to understand it either from a colonial perspective or from a nationalist perspective i.e. Assamese or Bengali.  Colonial historical literature, as well as anthropological literature tells us to see communities or groups of people like Koch as a part of some racial box, putting them in language groups, as well as racial groups.  Communities like Koch, if we follow colonial narratives, have to be part of the Bodo race, a term used by colonial administrative scholars and self-styled anthropologists.  This generic term (Bodo) was used to include many other tribes like Mech, Kachari, Garo, Rabha, Tiwa etc into it. In the post-colonial scenario, banking on the colonial literature, the Mech community of Assam abandoned the Mech identity for Bodo. This new identify benefited the Mech (now Bodo) in many ways. Whatever belongs to Kacharis or Koches has been claimed by the Bodo tribe as their own. This became fatal for the Koches, as Koch history and Koch historical areas have been claimed by the Bodos. Taking advantage of the inclusive Bodo term, the Bodo tribe successfully established an autonomy arrangement called BTAD exclusively for them in an area which was part of the historical Koch Kingdom.

The Bodo case is only one example. There have been some serious political and social invasions on the Koches which have put the Koch identity into crisis. The Rabha tribe of Assam has been accused of using Koch culture and traditions heavily. The Rabha community has one section called Koch Rabha, who are actually Koch, but entered the Rabha fold in Assam, most probably to avail the benefits of Scheduled Tribe (ST) as Rabhas are ST in Assam. Its an irony that when the Koch identity in Assam (as well as other parts Northeast India) is in crisis, one section of the community is trying hard to reclaim or save what the Bodos have intellectually taken from them, while another section has given up the identity just to avail some constitutional benefits. Moreover, the Meghalaya Govt. has recently taken an initiative to take away the political rights of many minority tribes which include the Koches of Meghalaya.

It is worth mentioning here that the vast literature that was produced under the patronage of Koch King Narnarayan is now a part of Assamese literature history. Literature produced under Koch King Prananarayan was almost equally claimed by both Bengalis and Assamese.  In Garo Hills, local sources report that there are many archeological evidences which prove that Koches are the sons of the soil of Garo Hills i.e., Meghalaya, but there is no initiative to unveil those truths. In West Bengal and Bangladesh, there is an everyday attempt to erase the Koch history and heritage. Such is the situation of the Koches around South Asia. The question is, who to blame for such a situation? The Koches have the tendency to blame others and their own destiny for everything. However, it is not always true. Rather than others, it is the Koch people who have done the most damage to themselves. If we look into the history a bit critically, we will find that its not foreign invasion but internal conflict of the Koch Royals which weakened the Koch State for centuries till it disappeared. Even now, Koch Civil Society organizations and student bodies are divided and hardly come together to work for the Koch Society. Moreover, they maintain close relationship with political parties of contradictory views. The conflicts among various organizations as well as individuals are not only political but also social and cultural. Social and cultural differences among the larger Koch society is more damaging in the present time, since it is also contributing to identity conflict.

The main challenge of the Koch society at present is to solve the identity conflict which prevails within itself. A large section of the community is abandoning the Koch identity by following Hindu ways of life and believing that they are the Kshtraya Varna of the Hindus is the core this indentity crisis. This section of the Koch society likes to call themselves as Rajbanshi and they have dislike for the Koch term. Though in the recent time, particularly in Assam, the gap between Koch and Rajbanshi has been bridged to a great extend, it has a long way to go in West Bengal.

The Koch community has come a long way; hence, it cannot be compared with the other present STs of India. They formed one of the powerful Janapadas (republics) of the 16 Janapadas of ancient India called Komboja or Kocha Janapada. This community has gone through many social, religious and political changes. Sankala Deep Koch of 6-7th century was a renowned warrior of his time. The community has still preserved its ancient language, astrology, weaving, art, music and much more. A group of new generation Koches have started their quest for the truth of the Koch people. The truth will indeed enlighten the community.

(In this article, the term Koch includes all the Koches who consider or like to call themselves as Rajbanshi.)

The Case of Hasha: Why Koches are son of the soil

Jajang Kama Koch

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Photo: KNC

Present day Rajbanshis of Bengal and Koch-Rajbanshis of Assam are originally Koch. This claim can be affirmed through several evidences, scattered throughout the linguistic, cultural and other social practices. As such, requiring a critical evaluation and closer inspection of the documents available.

In the year 1837, Martin had published a report, in which it is written “…in the Sanskrita language of the Tantras, the Koch are called Kuvacha, and by the neighbors they are called Hasa (Martin. Eastern India. Page-538; 1837 Vol-5). This calls attention to the fact that Koch have been addressed as ‘Kuvach’ in Tantras written in Sankrita whereas the local Kacharis have addressed them as ‘Hasha/hasa’.

A similar discourse has been reiterated by another colonial ethnographer named Hodgson. Hodgson  writes, “…They are called Kuvacha in Tantra, just named Hasa by Kacharis or Bodos of Assam, Kamal by the Dhimals, and Koch by the Mech or Bodos of Mechi (Hodgson B.H., Essay First on Koch, Bodo and Dhimal. Page- 145: 1847). Hence, an analogous conclusion can be drawn, that the  Koches  are referred to as Kuvacha or Kuvach in Tantric texts, whereas the Kacharis address them as Hasa. On the other hand,  the Dhimals inhabiting the area around Mechi river call them Kamal, and the Bodos living in the same area  addresses them as Koch.

The Case of Hasha

The word Hasha (ha nifisha) in Bodo language means ‘son of soil’. This can be easily discerned from the following Bodo linguistic pattern; ‘dawnifisa’  is pronounced as  dawsha meaning baby chick, ‘daw’ meaning hen ‘fisha’ meaning child , again ‘boronifisha’  means child of Boro, which is pronounced as borosha, similarly ‘ha nifisha’ pronounced as hasha, means child/son of soil, ‘ha’ referring to land or soil.

A notable phenomenon in this respect is that the Koch, Mech and Tharu  communities have lived together concurrently for a large  period of time. In which case, the usage of the term ‘Hasa’ to refer to a Koch logically points to the fact that the Meches residing in the Mechi valley and the Bodo Kacharis of Assam are not the same. Because the Meches of Mechi river valley use the term Koch whereas the Bodo Kacharis of Assam use Hasa referring the same group of people (ethnic/linguistic group).

Such appellative variations used for Koch by Meches/Bodos of Nepal and Bodos of Assam also

 suggest that the Meches have lived/socialized with the Koches longer than the Bodo communitywho have migrated from Kachar region at a much later point in history, and have thus come to refer the natives or indigenous Koch as ‘hasha’ or son of the soil. Regarding the migration theory of the Bodo Kachari community Dr. Francis Buchanan, had mentioned that:

“… The Kacharis are from a tribe, of which few families are settled in two eastern divisions of this district, and a great many in the lower hills of Bhotan, an in Assam.Indeed, they allege that their prince was sovereign of that country, when it was invited by its present rulers, and he still retains the sovereignty of a considerable extent of hilly country south from Asam, and east from Silhet (Cachar). It is perhaps from his territory that they derive the  name usually given to them, for my informants say that the proper name of the people is Boro.

Although long separated from their prince, and scattered through dominions of more powerfulsovereign, they allege that they still retain their loyalty and every year contribute to give him to support, its family wherever settled, gives from one to five  Rupees. Which are collected by persons regularly deputed from Kachhar the number of families in this district may be about 200.”

The land in which the Bodo community of Assam had later migrated was hitherto inhabited by the native Koch community and likewise referred to as Hasa by the Bodo community. The same land or the geographical area is now claimed by them as their homeland, ‘Bodoland’. While historical evidences reveal the otherwise, that they were merely migrators, in the post-colonial period.

In a pamphlet (or book) titled ‘Why Separate State’ published by All Bodo Students Union (ABSU) referring to the history of Bodo Kachari State and its authenticity, they cited Dr. S.K. Bhuyan stating:

” According to him the kingdom Cachar or which TamrodhwajNarayan was the ruler in the reign of swargodeo Rudrasingha and Govinda Chandra at the time of British occupation is only one of the numerous states brought to existence by political generous of Kachari people. Because the name, after which the district is called at present time the superficial observer is led to suppose that the habitant of Kacharis is ‘Cachar’ and that is only in ‘Cachar’. That the Kacharis experimented in the arduous task of state building”

Oral Perspectives

 Litterateur Raghunath Choudhury confides the same thing “Bodo people call the Koch-Rajbangshis Hasa, Muslim are called Bangal, Bengali as Bengali, Kolita as Kholta, Santhal asSantthal, Bhutanese as Ganga and Nepali as Nefal. They use the word Hasa even in their wedding songs…

Dawgabochoi aaoi dawgabochoi

Jingya dawcchi aaoi jingya dawcchi.

Hasa hobawnoi horawthoi

Gangya hobawnoi horawthoi.

 Translated-

Don’t cry daughter don’t cry

Don’t worry daughter don’t worry

We have not married you to a Hasa (koch-Rajbanshi)

We have not married you to a Bhutanese.

(Ashar Bati Alochona, MareyaDipak Kumar Roy, First year, third edition, May 1999, Shakti Ashram, Kokrajhar page no. 7-8)

Belated Jamini Kumar Barua too has confided that the Rajbangsi are known as Hasa. He has stated “we are the old inhabitants of this region. Previously only Koch-Rajbangsi and Bodo communities were to be found in Kokrajhar. Only after the British invasion other communities started migrating here. When Koch-Rajbanshis and Bodos were present here, the latter referred to them as Hasa… Hasa means son of the soil, we are the indigenous of this region” (Housh Alochona, sixth year first edition, 2016 page- 15).According to British documents, the Assamese  Bodo Kacharis called the Koch as Hasa. Also, the Bodo refer to the present-day Koch Rajbanshis or Rajbanshis, as Hasa. Emphasizing on the fact  that the present day Rajbanshi is a new ethnonym used for the Koch.

There are several references scattered which indicate that the Rajbanshis are Koch. A detailed study can help explain and specify the truth better. The Koch residing along the banks of Mechi river have mostly adopted the Rajbangsi identity. For which Koch are very hard to be found in this region.

(Translated from the original by Noya Koch, The views of the article is of the Author. The writes is a Guwahti based Activist and Researcher)

The Future’s in the Past: The Koches and the Worship of Hira Devi

Anuj Choudhury

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Idol of Hira Devi in the form Kali..Photo: Anuj Choudhury

The Koches are generally theist of pluralist deities. They worship nature with profound devotion. Their deities are known as wai (God or Goddess) according to their Koch language. Religion and belief system of the Koches can be broadly divided into two categories- one form which encourages ‘growth’ of positive elements and the other form which reflects ‘restriction’ of negative elements from the society. In the prior we see religious practices like Hudum, Ranthok, Madam Kam, Kartika, etc which essentially celebrate fertility cult and in the latter we see worship of demigods like Desphura, Raja Thakur, Walk Rabai (Bishohori Devi in Kamatapuri/Koch Deshi), Mashan, etc which are basically worshipped for the wellbeing of community members and protection from any harm or misfortune. Hindus see the belief system of these Mongoloid tribes as continuity with their own ancient pre-Hindu worship in the form of Shaivism and Shaktism. Worship of Hira Devi basically falls under the second category of religious beliefs among the Koches.

Hira Devi is one of the most important deity amongst the plethora of deities worshipped by the Koches and can be found in every Koch household. One can also get a glimpse and seek blessing of the Koch Goddesses at the famous Charantala Temple in Meghalaya. This temple located in the interiors of the state, is one of the most visited religious sites in North East India today. The temple is located at Babedpara village in Selsella block, about 55 kms from Tura in West Garo Hills and about 30 kms from Hatsingimari, district-headquarter of South Salmara Mankachar district, Assam. According to local history, the temple dates back to 1965 when there was a major outbreak of cholera disease. According to folklore, a nearby village which had lost 17 people to the epidemic and another neighbouring village had the same kind of losses, a Goddess is said to have appeared in a dream to one woman wherein she called upon the villagers to venture the Goddess which she would wipe out the suffering. After the end of the outbreak, the women created a small temple in her honour and offered prayers. This spread far and wide leading to a huge number of devotees queuing up to offer prayers. Thus over the years the temple has become an important pilgrimage for not only the Koches but thousands of Hindu devotees around the world.

At the Charantala temple one can see a plethora of deities- Hira Devi, Hawa Devi (Walk Rabai), Chitala and Kali. Also, other than these deities a sculpture of a Koch Man and Women in their traditional attire also finds a place inside the temple premises. The most striking feature among these deities is the portrayal of Hira Devi itself. It is surprising to see how Hira Devi, wife of Hariya Mandal and mother of Koch King Biswa Singha, the founder of 16th century Koch kingdom, has been portrayed by the Koch tribals and worshipped with immense devotion. The image of Hira Devi resembles that of Khorlo Dechok in Vajrayana Buddhism and that of Kali in Hinduism, naked and consuming her own flesh.  This may be in relation to the popular mythological belief among the Koches that Lord Shiva, in guise of Hariya Mandal had one day sexual intercourse with Hira, and in due course she gave birth to Bisu (Biswa Singha), giving the king a divine origin. As, Hira Devi is considered to be wife of Shiva, this may be the reason that Hira Devi is imagined as manifestation of Kali, Shiva’s ‘other wife’. However, the reason why she is portrayed as consuming her own flesh is still unknown, but the rationale might be that, as she has the power to protect and even take away lives, the creator must have visualized that instead of taking lives of others, she should take her own life.

A three day grand ritual at the Charantala temple takes place on Tuesday, sometime in the month of April every year. It attracts over 10-15 lakh devotees from the length and breadth of the country every year. Devotees from as far as Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Nepal and Bangladesh flock to the remote Koch village of Babedpara in the month of April to worship the Goddesses. Devotees basically offer sacrifices of animals and birds to please the Goddesses, the belief being sacrificing a life to protect another (human) life. Devotees also stay in make-shift tents, staying awake at night to make their offerings. The holy site also gets festive with the fair (mela) alongside, which is another attraction in itelf.

As Meghalaya being a Christian dominated state, a temple in the interiors of the state has caught the attention of many outsiders.  Huge donations have also poured in for the expansion of the temple. Hindu assimilation in the indigenous religious affairs of the Koch tribes is not new. The professional Brahmin priest has also appeared in the scenario though he has yet to dominate the decay of indigenous deities. The Hindu architectural design of the temple that we see today is not very old, the earlier structure was dismantled and given a facelift in 2016.  The new temple has been designed by an architect from Mumbai and idols have been brought from places as far as Rajasthan.

Thus, what we get to see today, that religious practices observed by the Koches are influenced by two different trends of religious rites and social usages. While some of their observances and festivals have been influenced by the neighbouring Hindu Bengali or the Assamese, others are the reflection of their own traditional beliefs and customs. Even though contact with caste Hindu society brought many religious changes in the Koch community but its influence could not altogether transform the tribal society. In fact the adoption and adaptation of the religious practices influenced by Hinduism can be viewed as an extra addition to the Koches already existing traditional practices.

(Email: anuj@srd.tiss.edu)

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Sumi Pegu’s dream-like yarn

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Sumi Pegu’s Loom. Photo Credit:author

Rini Barman

Every winter Sumi Pegu, a fifty year old Mising woman runs the single ply yarn into exquisite horizontal patterns. A narrow paddy field in Gohpur’s Mising-gaon (about 230 kms from Guwahati in Sonitpur District, Assam) leads me to her loom. If you walk some kilometres further, you can get a serene view of the hills of Arunachal. The sound of working looms takes over the chirrup of tiny local sparrows looking for some grains to chew. The grain providers, mostly neighbours of Sumi, have to tend to the poultry and pigs regularly. Their children go to the nearby primary schools and have picked up the dominant Assamese tongue fluently—yet, all through the year, there is someone or the other tending the fibres of the loom.

Formerly, Sumi’s children would weave using a back-strap loom (xoru-xaal) which is a dying practise— alive perhaps only among the state’s ethnic groups. They are taught the basics in their Mising language, which mellifluously they use to recall, remember and revive an entire ancestry. “I gave it to my daughter as a plaything, so she could wrap it around her waist. Once the fingers are stronger and the grab steadier, it makes her job easy at the future xaal”, Sumi says. Womenfolk in this village believe that the one who cannot weave among them may bring bad luck. A grandmother herself, Sumi has seen the Ege (lower garment worn from waist to ankle level with a minimum of two-three pleats) go through decades of changes in terms of designs, superstitions and thread quality.

The traditional Mising loom is a wonder made out of bamboo and tree wood—both these raw materials are sacred in a poignant way. When they show signs of wearing out after years of usage, they are not broken down to ignite the kitchen fire. Even the poorest of Mising houses will tell you that. Special care (like placing the loom constituents on top of the dhuasang-clay stove) is taken to drive termites away. “When we spin the yarn, it is considered inauspicious for small boys to cross it. It not only puts the thread at risk but tears off the wheel and we have to redo all over again”, she says before pointing at me.  “You see this hunchback? It is testimony to my dedication towards the most meticulous of designs. I regret I cannot go to the wild now to collect plants that were used to naturally dye our threads. The artificially dyed reels in the market are not to be trusted entirely”, she sulks.

Machines over all else

Over the last six-seven years or so, there has been a massive mechanisation of handloom in this village. The mass entry of mill-made Ege has gradually influenced the aesthetic appeal of fabrics. The signature Mising diamond pattern for instance, is getting indistinct and smaller. The butties, on the other hand are chaotically mixed with tree motifs and they no longer carry artistic finesse. Clothes that are transported to the urban areas with their ubiquitous synthetic assemble reveal these modifications very well. Sumi shares, “I am not competitive by nature, but the generation of my daughters-in-law are, they want to make a few more bucks. I really cannot blame them, as they sincerely manage the fields, household and the loom single-handedly. They hardly get any praise from their spouses”.

As Sumi plays around with the maku (weaver’s shuttle), her granddaughters try to help around the sang ghor.  “In the summers, young girls are seen rowing rice saplings and due to the humidity, weaving takes a backseat somehow. The ideal time begins end autumn, though we weave in every season. These fingers are so accustomed to the loom that they begin to hurt if unused”. Sumi’s grandchildren had inherited textile memories passed through orally retold stories. They tell me that the colours represent nature in the clothes their granny weaves. The geometrical designs come paired with a range of motifs—fish heads, animals, flowers, butterflies, trees, stars and others. “It does not matter whether you are working on zero ply or single ply—if your hands are efficiently experienced, you can ace the motifs. My own grandmother used to weave one Gasor (upper garment) a day, probably the pace is reduced when one has to multitask and has fewer hands to help”, shares Sumi.

The expiry of older designs and motifs is not simply because of the tribeswomen being overburdened with other work, but also due to the soft cultural appropriation by the dominant Assamese elites. It has created a cold war kind of situation over who owns the “authenticity” in this craft. “My Ege do not yet have the “silk mark”, so they probably won’t do very well in the market. But the silk has been reared from scratch by me and the motifs are distinctly Mising”, Sumi complains. Literary thinkers like Nilamani Phukan in his collection of essays (?) had mentioned that tribal motifs like diamond, triangle and square and the configuration of star/fern motifs into dominant Assamese weavers came through years of borrowing. Isn’t it ironic that once any dominant identity labels a particular textile as their own, the ‘other’ stories of the weavers, their ethnic evolution etc, recedes to the background?

Bodices, boundaries and tradition

There are differences in the way married and unmarried women among the Mising community dress up. According to Sumi, “The old ladies at home use Segreg to wrap around their busts. The girls who attained puberty wear finely textured Ku: Pobis to wrap around the body beneath the armpits covering the upper part of the body. Married women on the other hand pull the Ege till their breasts and tie a firm methoni.” Talking to Sumi informed me that when we mention the traditional wear of Assam as a “three piece” mekhala sador, the above mentioned nuances are forever lost. These inadequate translations, in their attempt to ease out meanings for the one outside the region end up causing semiotic damage. The supposed “three piece” of women’s wear has a long folk history.

Among the Koches/ Koch Rajbanshis in Assam, the traditional weave Patani used to be worn in Tin-Tekia format (3 parts/layers–Agran, headgear, Patani). The Riha which is now worn as a sador was initially a breast cloth, it had different types: boroi-loga, gariyali, gunakata etc. It is interesting how diverse forms of breast clothes were replaced by blouses and brassieres and marked as “traditional” “civil” components of attire by the upper caste women. I myself recall one such incident in Jalukbari, when a local fish-seller in her late 30s was donated blouses as she would not cover her breasts. The women were convinced they were doing something very noble and “bhadra” for the seller whom they perceived to be poor. When I asked her few years later, she went on to say how nobody in her native village ever wore blouses. She would tell, “It wasn’t a taboo at all in Belxor, Nalbari district. Even men wouldn’t bother us—be it public or private spaces. When I was nursing my children, it was rather helpful. I still am uncomfortable with blouses.”

Policing and standardising the “three-piece” as the traditional wear had its micro and macro context. Nandana Dutta in Questions of Identity in Assam (2012) makes careful note of one such example in Assam Engineering College in 2007. Speaker Ismail Hussain had made dangerous associations with one’s cultural affiliations and one’s attire. It was reminiscent of Assam Andolan days (1979-1985) when there was tremendous insistence for the females to adopt mekhala sador as daily wear. “It was declared and implemented by self-appointed leaders of protesting groups, especially those carrying out dharnas and strikes or taking part in processions”, Dutta writes. What happened as a result of this is its continued (secret) abuse in spaces like college hostels, primary schools and so on. My aunts who were born in the late 60s recall vividly how ragging sessions in their educational institutes would comprise of whether or not they know how to wrap the mekhala sador with propriety. The tribal students were worst hit as humiliating remarks were made on their preconceived “barbaric” ways of dressing up.

It was during the same time that mekhala sador draping rules (full sleeve red blouses) for female dancers of Bihu (a folk form) were laid out. Gradually, as these folk forms were standardised, they began to represent the dominant Assamese attire in all its rigidity. Around May 2017, this debate fuelled up yet again, when the State Govt employees were urged to wear traditional dress (mekhala sador for women and dhoti kurta for men) on third and first Saturdays every month. Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal in the current BJP-led Govt had hoped that such a move might enhance the spirit of regionalism and unity. It was rightly opposed on the grounds of exclusion—as it limited traditional wear of so many ethnicities in the state to the mekhala sador. In the midst of these contentions, what was missing was the life of a handloom weaver. Her weaves become agents of the identity battle, but she is effectively erased from that discourse.

Evil Twins

 Gayatri Das, seller of mekhala sadors at Beltola thinks that the future of handlooms is very bleak. “The common people, who used to weave eons ago, have forsaken the looms for the dream of white collar jobs. The women now have to think economical viability first and foremost. When I was a kid, I remember my mother from Sirajuli would set the loom for two attires simultaneously. Among the final products, one would be hers and the other would be sold at Rs.1000 for example. This sustainable practise is no longer present, not even in rural areas”. Ms Das herself has to convince customers with half-truths about the weaves that they buy as traditional wear. “In my ten years of having met so many female buyers in Guwahati, only three have enquired about the raw materials of their clothing. Rest were in a rush and enamoured by the glittery threads that make up their mekhala-sador sets, which they finally chose”.

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Weaves of the Mising Tribe. Photo Credit:author

The politics of threads and lack of knowledge of the same has created a huge gap among the weavers, sellers and the buyers. While hand-woven cloth may speak of the tedious hours spinning the wheel, the duplicates replace them only because a class of the society choose to make accessories out of them. The craft then recedes to the background for the minute designs of creepers, flowers etc when imprinted with bulkier machine technology fails to create that magical effect. It is important to interrogate why hand-weaving isn’t empowered via local methods and readily replaced by a faster, capitalist mechanism. Rita Barua, an intermediary between the weavers and urban sellers from Gohpur says, “The problem lies in the inequity of distributing income here. As opposed to the popular notion that “middle men” eat up all money, I earn very negligible. To transport crafted goods is a hectic affair, and when floods hit, I alone have a lot to manage. During festivities, the pressure increases, and consequently, the weavers have to readily produce twice the number of sets. It leaves them little time to weave something of their own. Time is money”.

Rita also informs that plenty of things have changed post the notorious GST was imposed on handloom items recently. It might have been uplifted now, but the fears still gnaw weavers from the within. “Though I don’t know of any impactful protest against it in Assam, sellers of traditional items have developed innovative ways to resist. Many have taken down hoardings across the highway, it’s their bread and butter, let’s not forget”. Today, the Govt. showrooms also sell duplicates under the banner “traditional handloom”—it is a sign of major insecurity and shall put an end a very rich culture of weaving one’s identities.

Sumi as Hambreelmai: Will the erased weaver be heard?

From Gohpur’s Mising gaon to state funded art and crafts showrooms in Guwahati, handlooms clearly are a vulnerable industry today. As older motifs and stories about them keep falling from the weaves, one wonders if women like Sumi will be remembered in another decade. The folk memory of the Mishmi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh retells one such story—about their first weaver, Hambreelmai. “Hambreel” is, in Mishmi, a species of little fish, and it is said that the nature around her—butterflies, birds and fishes were so attracted to her weaving that when her loom broke, the broken parts metamorphosed into varied forms of life. Every single day, looms of weavers like Sumi and Hambreelmai are being replaced and wiped away in Gohpur. Some remain glorified in folk tales and legends while most are made to look pretty in glossy magazine covers so that businesses are lured into the region. In the words of Mrs. Pegu, “These photographers, they come and they go. My daughters are now accustomed to posing for them, though we never make the headlines of any local daily. The spinning wheel goes round and round, just the usual”.

(The author is a Guwahati-based researcher and independent writer).

Internally Displaced Koch-Rajbanshis of Assam- A Status Report 

 IDP girlAnuj Choudhury: Conflict has been the main cause of mass displacement of population in Assam. Among the internally displaced persons (IDPs) the population that has received no attention in Assam is the indigenous Koch-Rajbanshis. At the peak of Bodo movement for separate homeland in the 1980’s the first community that was targeted, looted, killed and displaced, with the intend of ethnic-cleansing were the Koch-Rajbanshis. From my visit to the field it was reported that around 60 people belonging to the Koch-Rajbanshi community were brutally massacred by the Bodo militants. Haris Pathak (38 years) can still recall the heinous crime he saw when he was a child. He narrates one of the incident where a poor old Koch-Rajbanshi lady, who used to live her life by selling betel leaf, unable to pay ransom to the militants, was tutored, the militants stabbed her eye-balls mercilessly with sharp weapon and made her blind before killing her. With the rising violence, in the year 1989 from the northern part of Bongaigaon (now Chirang) district, about 220 Koch-Rajbanshi families from 43 villages fled from their homes leaving behind their valuable property like land, cattle, crops, etc and took shelter in various designated camps to escape the carnage unleashed by Bodo armed militants.

After being displaced, the victims for a year were kept in various camps in Bongaigaon district. They were first made to settle in Dolaigaon Lower Primary School and then from there they were shifted to North Boitamari High School, from Boitamari High School they were again shifted to Dangtola Lower Primary School and then to Kukurmari, where they stayed in make-shift tents.  After a year, after being made to shift different places, in the year 1990 finally they were made to settle in Phoolkumari, Babunitila-I, Babunitila-II and Pochim Bhadragaon relief camps in Bidyapur in Bongaigaon. As a relief material the displaced only received a 5-6 meter plastic sheet and Rs. 2,500 per family. In these relief camps there are also few Rabha, Sutradhar, Nath and Kalita families who have also been victims of mass killings of the Bodo movement.

25 years have passed till now; these families are still living in these relief camps in most pathetic conditions.  Once these people who were proud farmers and tilled their own ancestral land have been pushed to extreme poverty and are fighting for their basic survival. Also, due to river bank erosion the land allotted for Babunitila-II relief camp is also no more. The river water has washed away this land. The 200 families that were taking shelter in this relief camp have moved to other camps and some have settled in the outskirts of Bongaigaon district on barren lands. The locations where they have settled are in Sanyasi Pahar, Khokorpur, Karigaon, etc.

Present Situation of the IDPs: 

The inmates are having a hard time leaving in these camps. The civil society organizations, student unions and the local administration have completely neglected this population. Majority of the population works as daily wage laborers for their income. The condition in the relief camp is so degrading and poverty ridden that the livelihood of many families is also dependent on selling of country liquor. There are also families in the relief camp where prostitution has become their means of survival.

The government has allotted 332 bigha of land for the Phoolkumari relief camp inmates but till today none of the displaced has received any land patta from the concerned authorities. This has also led to other communities who are in majority in that area, mainly the Muslims, forcefully occupying the relief camp’s land. Similar is also the case with Bamunitila Relief Camp where Muslims have occupied a major portion of the relief camp’s land. Moreover, the inmates themselves have sold lands to other communities at very cheap rates due to poverty. The land which current price would be around Rs. 1.5 lakhs per bigha, the inmates have sold it for just Rs. 10,000.

At present the main concern among the inmates has been to legalize these lands.

There is also problem of high dropouts and illiteracy in the village. The village school is not functioning properly as the teachers don’t turn up regularly. Same is the condition with the anganwadi also. Moreover, anganwadi workers and teachers have been employed from outside the village which is against the rule.

Phoolkumari, Babunitila and Bhadragaon have been brought under the ambit of revenue village and the inmates got their voting rights in 1997. But this population has mainly been seen as second class citizens and only used as vote banks. Every time before the elections they are promised many things by the leaders but after the elections none of the promises are fulfilled and the leaders only turn up after five years again. MGNREGA is functioning in the village but none of the inmate of the relief camps has got job cards. However, recently few families have received Rs. 10,000 under Indira Awaz Yojana to build houses and the families have BPL card and are beneficiaries of the Public Distribution System.

(Prepared in March 13, 2015)