Karbis Of Assam

Ethnology on the Karbis also Known as Mikirs

Archive for the ‘Unsung Heroes’ Category

A Tribute to Semsonsing Ingti : The Father of Karbi Nationalism

Posted by Administrator on October 26, 2007


Dharamsing Teron


Semsonsing Ingti is undoubtedly the most towering and iconic figure of Karbi nationalism whose intense commitment towards his own people helped shape its destiny at a turbulent time when everything only seemed a distant dream—a dream that was shaped by a fierce imagination of a people who were only faint outlines in the periphery of the emerging India. But the man, to the majority of lesser mortals, has continued to remain an enigma whose life and contributions have never been evaluated in the truest sense. The general amnesia of the Karbi intelligentsia, both of the past and the present, has almost rendered him into a shadowy figure, coming ‘alive’ only during ritual official commemorations. The mass amnesia has manifested through the confusing and often contradictory information about even this man’s birth and death. To confound the confusion further, a tombstone at his grave at the Nowgaon Baptist Church cemetery ‘recorded’ his date of birth as 8 February 1904! This ‘record’ has contradicted and in a way invalidated all the existing literature, though rather sparse, on the man. There even exists the controversy around the date of his death and as regards the place where he was born. Did he breathe his last on 29 February, 1948? Was he born at Tika or Golaghat? These and many more such confusing questions on the life and works of the man have only helped to build an increasingly dense aura of myths around him. Sadly, this reflects upon our own criminal indifference to our history.

Imagining a Political Community:

Semson has been hailed variously as the ‘Architect’, ‘Founder’ and ‘Father’ of Karbi Anglong. There is no denying that all these epithets fittingly describe the one man who dared all odds imagining a political community out of the Karbis who remained ‘scattered over a wide area, from Golaghat to Kamrup and the Khasi Hills beyond Guwahati, and from the Cachar plains near Silchar to the forests north of Bishanath in Darang’…..speaking a language that is ‘practically one and the same throughout’ (Walker/1925). The Karbis were undoubtedly ‘one of the most numerous and homogeneous of the many Tibeto-Burman races inhabiting the Province of Assam’ (Stack and Lyall/1909). From Sibsagar to Sylhet in the present Bangladesh, the Karbis inhabited this long track (Stack and Lyall/1909). Beside this cultural homogeneity, when Semson traveled through this wide, wild and weird country of the Karbis who were ‘among the more numerous of the Assam frontier races’ (Walker), there possibly existed no imagination of a community within the community itself. It was the fierce sense of imagination that Semson had that guided him to realize that it was possible to unite the Karbis into a single political community. Because Semson, born at the turn of the 20th Century and who very briefly lived through the series of rapid and rather tumultuous upheavals that also gave birth to ‘modern democracies’ across the globe. Our own India, one of the biggest ‘democracies’ today, was just an emerging idea. Semson dared to merge his little idea of a Karbi homeland with the big idea of an India that was itself struggling to free from colonial subjugation. And it was a pledge that Semson, the first modern, educated and fiercely nationalist of the Karbis, along with a handful of his fellow nationalists such as Sarsing Teron Habai (Habe) of Hongkram, Harsing Ingti of Longre, Biren Teron-Mouzadar of Duar-amla, Borgaon and Langtukso Ingti Borgaonbura of Silimkhowa, Moniram Langne of Deithor, Barelong Terang of Diphu, Rev. Hondrovel Milik of Putsari, Dhoniram Rongpi (ex-Assam Minister) of Hongkram, Joysing Doloi (ex-CEM/KAAC of Diphu and Khorsing Terang-ex-MLA, John Kathar of Borthol, Khoiyasing Ronghang-Mouzadar of Borneuria, Bonglong Terang of Dillai, Thengklong Rongpi-Mouzadar of Deithor and Song Be of Golaghat (Song Be/Monjir-1980), committed to himself. From within the narrow confines of a colonial service under the watchful and at times possibly wrathful eyes of the colonial masters, Semson carefully and painstakingly continued in his mission disregarding his own career, future and even health. ‘Karbi Adorbar’ came into being as a weapon to draw the first political, cultural and geographical map of a Karbi homeland at the threshold of the birth of a new independent India. He diplomatically overcame the stiffest and at times the most communal opposition from the then Assamese leaders, prominent or rather most infamous among them —one Motiram Bora who tried everything under his command as the Revenue Minister of the British Provincial government of Assam. Semson never lived to see the fruition of his idea of a Karbi homeland but he saw to it during his brief but intense lifetime that the worst of adversaries cannot prevent a community of people staking its rightful claim.

The Price of Sacrifice:

The most tragic disappointment for all the present and future Karbis is not only the premature death of Semson at the most crucial juncture of the tribe’s history, but also is the fact that the rich legacy of sacrifice and selflessness that the architect, father and founder of Karbi identity did not live to preside over the political destiny of the community. Towards the untimely end of his life when Semson chose to contest the lone assembly seat against Khorsing Terang, he was hailed by the most furious communal hate campaign simply because he was a Christian. And this tragic communal divide did not desert us during the creation of Meghalaya when Karbi Anglong and NC Hills were given the option either to continue remaining with Assam, have an Autonomous State of their own or merge with the new state. This divide continues to haunt and imperil us at the present juncture when the Karbis as a people are facing the most dangerous situation—politically, economically, geographically and demographically. The one man who stood so fiercely for Karbi pride, Karbi unity and Karbi nationalism, his legacy is today condemned to a ritualistic vanity. In fact, Semson’s legacy is more endangered now than ever before if we look around at the prevalent mess in the Karbi political and cultural atmosphere that only embodies decay and defeat. The message therefore should be clear before each one of us that the legacy of Karbi nationalism inherited from Semson must be imbibed in its truest spirit so that his idea of a Karbi homeland does not remain trapped in our imaginations alone. ‘Thurnon…Thurnon’, the theme song of the Karbi awakening that fired the imagination of every Karbi heart when Semson led the identity struggle, is even more relevant today than ever.

(Author’s Note: This small write-up was read out in the Seminar held on 26 Feb 09 at Diphu Club, organized by a People’s Initiative to Commemorate the 61st Death Anniversary of Late Semsonsing Ingti. Mrs. Rani Ingtipi, the eldest daughter of the late leader, inaugurated the Seminar where she clarified many important issues such as the date of birth and death of her late father. The information furnished by her was later corroborated by her brother, Mr Pabansingh Ingti, a retired IAS officer, now based in Kolkata, who also attended as the Chief Guest in the 3-Day Commemoration from 26 Feb to 28 Feb 09 at Diphu. The date of birth of the late Semsonsing Ingti as confirmed by the family members is now 8 February 1910 and the date of his demise is 28 Feb 1948.)



The Unsung Heroes—
Remembering Sārdôkā!

• Dharamsing Teron

SP Kay.

Does it mean anything to new generation Karbis? Or does it mean at all to the generations of Karbis? We Karbis, either of the old or the new generations, who seldom care about history, are obviously oblivious of both the man and his work. Not that Karbis are traditionally history-shy people with all the ritual paraphernalia to keep the past alive through some age-old practices such as ‘ancestor worshipping’ that requires every Karbi family to keep track of its family genealogy. But the malaise that is affecting us is a kind of mass amnesia that has rapidly corroded our common memories to recall even the few illustrious ancestors of the like of Sārdôka!

Yes, we are talking about Sārdôkā Perrin Kay— a Karbi from an obscure corner of Karbi Anglong whom we barely remember as the co-author of the ‘English-Mikir Dictionary’ , published in 1904. Sir Charles Lyall, in the introductory note to his ‘The Mikir’ spoke of a ‘bright young Mikir…..a convert of the American Baptist Mission at Nowgong’. SP Kay is none other than Sārdôkā Ingti ‘to which he was accustomed to add the names of his sponsor at baptism, Perrin Kay’. From a humble beginning, under the guidance and care of the missionaries, Sārdôkā toiled to have this remarkable work published. Both ‘Stack and Sārdôka worked togther at the language, correcting and largely supplementing the material contained in their text-book’. The two based their book on the work — the first ever ‘dictionary’ of the Mikir language— done by Rev. RE Neighbor with the title ‘Vocabulary of English and Mikir, with Illustrative Sentences’ that was published in 1878. Apart from this invaluable contribution to the Karbis, Sārdôka and Mr Stack ‘went on to folk-tales, which were written down, with a careful attention to systematic orthography.’ While Stack certainly led the fruitful venture as the senior and more knowledgeable partner, Sārdôka remained ever the fateful collaborator. Both Sir Charles Lyall and Edward Stack, the twin authors of ‘The Mikir’, had also reasons to be thankful to Sārdôkā, who collaborated tirelessly as the sole English speaking native providing original inputs in the compilation of the path-breaking ethnographic work on the Karbis till date. ‘The Mikir’, that has reappeared in the market under a new title, ‘The Karbis’, still remains the only reference book (in English) on the tribe.

But neither Sārdôka nor his compendium (The English-Mikir Dictionary) has been as fortunate. Copies may still be intact in some Karbi hamlets and in the hands of a few researchers, but the man behind this stupendous work is well nigh a forgotten figure. Sārdôka, one among the most few fortunate Karbis to have grown up in missionary care and equipped with English education, ‘helped the preparation of the specimens of Mikir’ section for the pioneering works of the ‘Linguistic Survey of India’ (1902-1909) by George Abraham Grierson. Sir Lyall too, “had hoped to have the assistance of Sārdôka himself in revising the translations”… of ‘The Mikir’, as ‘other help was not forthcoming’. Sārdôka served in the Assam Secretariat for many years after Stack’s death on 12th January 1887. Probably, in recognition of the faithful services Sārdôka rendered to the British and the American Baptist preachers, he was transferred from the Secretariat in 1904 to serve as a Revenue Collector, popularly called the Mauzadar of the territorial division of Duar Bagori, a powerful posting among the tribesmen during the British administration. But this pioneering Karbi ‘most unhappily died of cholera’ on 8th March, 1905. Sārdôka died unsung and virtually unknown, precariously remaining only in the official ritual-homage of the ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’ .
The culture of keeping alive the family genealogy, may it be in the form of a ritual, is fast vanishing. The fate of Sārdôka and his book, if anything, is a telling commentary of the mass amnesia that is corroding the Karbi psyche. The man who laboriously collaborated in the production of the pioneering dictionary of the tribe is now lost as neither his predecessors nor his cemetery are nowhere in our memories. History has no records of when and where this great man was born, but thanks to the Baptist Missionaries and the British ethnographers, at least we have the date of his demise. To begin with, won’t it be apt to pay homage to this great son of the Karbis on his death centenary, albeit its 2 years delayed?

[1] Sār:ānthok—a Karbi ritual wherein dead ancestors of a family are recalled and propitiated for their blessings.
[2] Sārdôka’s word-book is the first ‘dictionary’ in the history of Karbi language by a native.
[3] The Mikir (1908)—by Sir Charles Lyall and Edward Stack.
[4] Rev Neighbor was born in Wisbeach, England, in 1842. He moved to the US with his father in 1854, ordained at St. Charles, Illinoise, in 1867 and in 1870, accepted a service with the American Baptist Mission and was assigned to Assam. He returned to the US eight years later due to failing health. (From the website of the ‘Indiana Baptist History’ 1798-1908.)
[5] Ibid
[6] ‘Karbi Lammet Amei’, established in 1966, 27th March, is the only literary organization among the Karbis, engaged in the development of the language and literature of the tribe.

Posted in Unsung Heroes | 13 Comments »