To be scheduled or not to be scheduled: The 1996 Ordinance, Its report and the tryst of Koch-Rajbangshis of Assam to be Scheduled Tribe

Nirban Ray

The Koch-Rajbangshi community of Assam had been demanding scheduled tribe status since the 1960s. But it was only before the general election of 1996, this demand had gained a peculiar momentum. Prior to 1996, the two Backward Classes Commissions- the 1955 Kalekar commission and the 1980 Mandal commission- had recommended the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbangshi community as an OBC (Other Backward Class) and not as a ST (Scheduled Tribe) community. Similarly, neither the advisory committee to revise SC/ST list in 1965 and nor the joint committee of parliament to examine the ST Orders Amendment Bill 1967 recommended the inclusion of Koch-Rajbangshis as a ST in Assam. 

The 1996 Ordinance, the bill, and the Select Committee 

However, in 1996, the Assam Government led by Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia had recommended the inclusion of the Koch-Rajbongshi community in the list of Scheduled Tribes(Plain), excluding the autonomous districts of Assam. Assam Government not only recommended the proposal of inclusion of the community as ST to the then Narasimha Rao Government at the centre,  but it had also persistently demanded the inclusion on an immediate basis. The government of Assam was so persistent that- even though the Parliament was not in session, the Narasimha Rao Government advised the President to promulgate the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Ordinance, on 27th January 1996 in order to include the Koch-Rajbangshis in the ST category of Assam. A Bill seeking to replace the Ordinance was also introduced in the Lok Sabha on 29th February 1996 but it lapsed with the dissolution of the tenth Lok Sabha. The ordinance was re-promulgated a record number of three times and later was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 12 July 1996 as the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill 1996. The House, then authorised the speaker to refer the Bill to a select committee of Lok Sabha with instructions to report back to the house. The committee submitted its final report in August 1997 but the bill was neither introduced for voting nor enacted in time and thus it lapsed and the Koch-Rajbangshis became OBC again, having been lived a short span of less than a year as Scheduled tribes. In order to illustrate the gravity of the situation, a member of Parliament from Mangaldai, Madhab Rajbangshi expressed his anguish in Lok Sabha on 20 July 1998 as follows-

 “It  is observed that all the Ordinances pertaining to the inclusion of the communities as SC/ST in the past were  replaced  by  the  Bills  within  a maximum  period  of six months after the promulgation of the Ordinance. But in the case of Koch Rajbongshi community of Assam, even after lapse of two years, the promulgation of the 1st Ordinance No. 9, 1996 dated 27  January, 1996  is yet to be replaced by a Bill. The Parliamentary Select Committee has submitted its report in the month of April, 1997 recommending for the inclusion of Koch Rajbongshi Community as ST(P). The Government  of  Assam  had  also  submitted their  opinion  on  the report the Parliamentary Select Committee recommending for the inclusion of Koch Rajbongshi Community  as  ST(P)…  In spite of continuous re-promulgation of the said ordinance for the fourth time, it was not enacted in time leading to its lapses. This  way, a great injustice has been done to the Koch Rajbongshi Community of Assam by denying the fundamental rights under the Constitution of India as the issue under reference is still hanging.” (XII LOK SABHA DEBATES, Session II, (Monsoon) Monday, July 20, 1998)

  Reading the reports 

The primary objective of the select committee was to consider whether the Koch-Rajbongshi Tribe of Assam should be included in the ST list of Assam or not while taking into consideration the claims of other tribal groups for their inclusion in the ST list of Assam. 

Before making any claim based on its observation, the select committee first took notes of the reports submitted by the Assam Institute of Research for Tribal and Scheduled Castes. The institute was asked by Assam Government to examine whether the Koch-Rajbangshi community was entitled to be enlisted as ST. The institute submitted two reports to the Government of Assam.

 The first report

 was sent to the Government of India by Assam Government on 3rd April 1993, in which it stated that the Koch Rajbangshis do not deserve to be included in the Scheduled Tribes list of Assam. The report expressed doubt as to whether the ‘Koch’ and ‘Rajbangshi’ are knitted together or they are in two different communities. Further, as the Koch-Rajbangshis claim themselves to be “Kshatriyas” their present demand to become “Shudras” is more confusing. The report followed five criteria – primitiveness, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness regarding contact with other communities at large, and overall backwardness to determine its finding. And it found that none of these criteria applies to the “Kshatriya” Koch-Rajbangshis living in plain districts of Assam (such as Sonitpur, Nagao), except the Koch-Rajbangshis living in the districts of – Goalpara, Dhubri, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon. Considering all these aspects the report did not recommend the inclusion of Koch-Rajbangshi/Koch Rajbangshi-Kshatriyas in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Assam.  

 The second report

 was sent to the Government of India by Assam Government on 9 August 1994. Contradicting the first report, the second report provided adequate justification for the inclusion of Koch Rajbangshis-Kshatriya in the List of Scheduled Tribes in Assam. After analysing the historical and anthropological past of the Koch-Rajbangshi Kshatriyas, the report concluded that the Koch-Rajbongshi-Kshatriyas of Assam are of Mongoloid tribal origin and linguistically they belong to the Tibeto-Burman family. It further said that Koch, Rajbongshi and Kshatriyas are simply three terminologies adopted by the people of the Koch ethnic group on various socio-religious political situations. Regarding the five criteria to determine thier  tribal orgin, the report, first of all, made a clear distinction between the Koch-Rajbangshis of Upper Assam and Lower Assam and then concentrated its detailed field study on the Koch-Rajbangshis of Lower Assam particularly inhabiting Goalpara, Dhubri, Kokrajhar and Bongaigaon districts. For instance, the report found that the villages viz. Bhamandanga, Chuprikuti, Pokalagi, Kherbari, Jhaskal, and Ghariyaldubi etc. located near the Bangladesh border under Golokganj Sub-division of Dhubri district are found to be devoid of road and other infrastructural facilities, which hindered proper interaction of the people with the outside world. This report had taken into consideration the ruthless suppression of the Koch-Rajbongshi people of undivided Goalpara district by the Zamindars and its psycho-social implications, as it produced inferiority-complex among the population. The report also cited a 1969 report of the Department. of Economics & Statistics, Government of Assam which clearly found landlessness with mounting pressure on agricultural land, lack of industrialisation and that the present Koch-Rajbangshis were not economically well-off than their previous generation. In order to highlight the educational and employment position among the Koch Rajbangshis, the report represented a sample from the Koch-Rajbangshi dominated areas of Golokganj and Baitamari (North & South) of Dhubri and Bongaigaon districts, which depicted a very sorry state of affairs. Considering all these relevant aspects, the report found adequate justification for the inclusion of Koch Rajbongshi-Kshatriyas in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Assam. 

It is to be noted here that based on the findings of this second report, the Government of Assam recommended the Registrar General of India (RGI) to include Koch-Rajbangshis in the ST list of Assam. And when the select committee reached out to RGI for the same matter, the RGI office replied that it had in 1981 rejected the proposal but in the light of the empirical data furnished by the Tribal Research Institute of Assam, the RGI office had no objection to include the Koch-Rajbangshis in the list of Scheduled Tribes of Assam. 

 Concern and opposition of other Tribals 

The select committee received a total of 282 memorandums from various associations/organisations and individuals etc. containing comments/suggestions on the provisions of the Bill. Among the individuals, former CM of Assam Golap Borbora not only advocated immediate inclusion of Koch Rajbangshis to ST list but he also pushed for the inclusion of other tribals such as Chutia, and particularly the tea labourers on the ground that since the 13% general population were getting more than what they were needed to be given, it would not cause any harm to increase the reserved quota for tribals to 85%. On the contrary, another former CM Anwara Taimur opposed the inclusion as she believed that Koch and Rajbangshis were not the same, Koch Rajbangshis came from Cooch Behar of West Bengal and they were not tribals. Instead, she emphasized on the OBC Muslims of Assam and their demand for inclusion in the SC list. However, she stated that she would not oppose any decision taken by the government. Similarly, the United Tribal Nationalists Liberation Front of Darrang opposed the inclusion as the Koch-Rajbangshis had joined and assimilated with the Assamese culture, civilisation, and language of their own volition and they failed to conserve their own language, culture, and civilisation. Further, it found the community to be at its highest stage of development as the community produced a very renowned and advanced person like Sarat Chandra Sinha, who was the Chief Minister of Assam, from 1972 to 1978.

Among the opposition to the inclusion of Koch-Rajbangshis in the ST list by other tribal groups, the Dibrugarh Nagar Deori Unnayan Samiti presented the select committee a copy of the 1992 report of the Assam Institute of Research for Tribals and Scheduled Castes, the first report of the Institute which rejected the proposal of including Koch Rajbangshis to the ST list. The representatives of the Samiti opposed the inclusion based on their observation that Koch and Rajbangshi were two different groups, that in the social order of the Hindu caste system of Assam, the Koch comes next to Brahmin and Kalita and form a major constituent of the population of the Assamese society having Vaisnavite Sankari culture and that the  Koch-Rajbangshis are far advanced than the present group of scheduled tribes of Assam. Therefore the Samiti expressed its fear that if Koch Rajbangshis are included in the ST list then ‘it will have far-reaching consequence and will break down the entire infrastructure of the developmental programmes of the tribal people in the country.’ On a similar tone, the Sonowal Kachari Jatiya Parisad opposed the inclusion because according to them ‘the Koch Rajbangshi people are regarded as “upper class Hindu”, they are very intelligent, talented and the community is developed in all respects. To support their opposition, the Parisad also conducted a field investigation on its own and found out that since the ordinance included Koch-Rajbangshis as STs in February 1996 till August 1996, 25 out of 42 medical seats reserved for STs in Guwahati Medical College, 8 out of 10 seats reserved for STs in Jorhat Engineering College,  were occupied by Koch-Rajbangshi students, among other institutions and services. Therefore, the Parisad stressed the need to not dilute the existing 10% reservation quota of the regional tribal people of Assam and suggested a separate provision for the Koch Rajbangshis, if necessary.

 Verdict of the select committee

 After going through the various works of literature, reports of the Tribal Research Institute, comments of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, etc. and the evidence taken from various associations/organisations, the select Committee found the Koch Rajbangshis to be of Mongolian origin and one of the earliest inhabitants of the undivided Assam – living mainly in the districts of Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Goalpara and Kamrup with scattered presence in the remaining districts. The select committee observed that the Koch Rajbangshis of lower Assam, particularly of Dhubri, Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, and Goalpara districts possessed all the criteria – primitiveness, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness regarding contact with other communities at large and overall backwardness- in order to be included in the ST list of Assam. The select committee, therefore, recommended that the Koch-Rajbangshis should be included in the list of Scheduled Tribes so that ‘they may come in the mainstream of the public life’.

In its final remarks, the select committee provided a possible way out from the discontent which might arise as a result of diluting the existing tribal reservation in the following words, –

 “that presently there is 15% reservation for Scheduled Tribes (10% for plains and 5% for hills), 7% for Scheduled Castes and 17% for other Backward Classes. The total reserved quota thus comes to 39%. As per the Supreme Court verdict, a State cannot have more than 50% reservation. The Committee oobservesthat, in view of the Supreme Court verdict, there is still scope of increasing the reservation quota by 11 %. The Committee are of the opinion that the Government may explore the possibility to increase the adequate quota of the Scheduled Tribes. The quota reservation may be decreased from the Other Backward Classes list, If necessary, as a large chunk of Koch Rajbangshis, Chutias and others would be transferred from OBC list to the ST list. This proportional quota can also be added to the ST list. The Government may also explore the possibility of creating a separate reserved quota for Koch Rajbangshis and other communities to be scheduled by this Bill so that the reservation benefits enjoyed by the notified tribes are not affected.’  

 The Aftermath 

The report of the select committee of 1996 had failed to be translated into the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill as the general election of 1996 resulted in a hung parliament with no single party having a clear majority. The BJP formed a short-lived government under Prime Minister Vajpayee but two weeks later United Front coalition secured a majority and Deve Gowda became Prime Minister. Again in 1997, I.K Gujral succeeded Deve Gowda and became the Prime Minister. Amid such instability in national politics, the select committee report eventually was forgotten and with it, the aspirations of the Koch-Rajbangshis to be included in the ST list lost its momentum.

 But, it was not in isolation for long as the ST question of the Koch Rajbangshis received yet another momentum in 2014 as well as in 2019, both times before general elections. In 2014, Narendra Modi came to Bongaigaon and announced on 19 April at Kakoijan election rally that within six months, ST will be given to Koch Rajbangshis if BJP comes to power. But it was not until 2019 that a bill was placed in Parliament for the same. The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 9 January 2019 by the Minister of Tribal Affairs, Jual Oram, intending to grant Scheduled Tribe (ST) status to six communities in Assam, including the Koch Rajbangshis. But, the day after the Bill was tabled, the existing ST communities came out to the street as a sign of protest. The Coordination Committee of Tribal Organizations of Assam (CCTOA) called a state-wide 12-hour bandh on 11 January 2019 to protest against the bill as they feared that the amendment bill would eliminate the “genuine tribal people” of the state by enlisting six new ethnic groups of Assam as STs (Outlook 2019). Following this, on 13 January 2019, the union home minister asked the Government of Assam to prepare the modalities for granting ST status to six communities of Assam without harming the rights of existing STs. Immediately after this Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma took responsibility to recommend measures. But all this happened before the general election of 2019 and the Assam State election of 2021.

The elections are over now and Himanta Biswa Sarma has become the new Chief Minister of Assam. The modalities on the other hand have not yet been prepared and the inclusion of Koch Rajbangshis in the ST list of Assam still hangs like a pendulum. After all, to be scheduled or not to be scheduled is more of an electoral question rather than a developmental and identity question of the community. And who will bother?

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 ( Nirban Ray is a Ph.D. student at the  Centre For Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He can be reached at raynirban1@gmail.com) 

 ***Select Committee Report (1997): “The Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill,” 1996 C.B.(II) No 426, Presented to Lok Sabha on 14 August 1997, Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi, 1997, viewed on 12 January 2019, https://eparlib.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/757628/1/jcb_11_1997_scheduled_tribes.pdf.

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

Untitled-1
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

hira devi
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).

Meghalaya Daughter Harolyne Koch Shadap wins the Miss Koch International title 2018

MKI 3Guwahati: Harolyne Koch Shadap from Meghalaya, India was crowned as the Miss Koch International(MKI) 2018 in the mega final of the event  which was held on 15th December in Dhulabari, Nepal. The moment was witnessed by hundreds of people from  both India and Nepal who gathered for the glitzy event of Saturday.

Horolyne Koch Shadap works as an Assistant Lecturer and is a Post graduate from North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Prior to winning the MKI title, she also won the title of MKI Meghalaya in the Meghalya Audition of the event. MKI is the first ever beauty pageant in South Asia which has brought together the Koches of the region in an international platform. The auditions of the event were organized in Assam, Meghalaya and West Bengal besides Nepal.

Pratima Singha from West Bengal, Indian became the first runners up and Sonali Rajbanshi from Jhapa, Nepal became the Second runners up in MKI 2018.

The MKI has been seen as the most important event and initiative in uniting the Koches of South Asia in the recent past. The koches (also known as Rajbanshi in some parts of South Asia) are considered as the largest ethnic group in South Asia.  The organizer of the MKI 20018 was Jhapa Media House Pvt. Ltd.