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Talk on “Colonial Borders as ‘State Simplification’ Project: Garo Hills in the late 19th and early 20th Century”, by Shri Sanjeeva Kumar, IAS, former Secretary (Border Management)

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  • February 02, 2022

    The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) organised a virtual Talk on “Colonial Borders as State ‘Simplification’ Project: Garo Hills in the late 19th and early 20th Century” by Shri Sanjeeva Kumar, IAS, former Secretary (Border Management) on 02 February 2022. The discussion was chaired by Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA, and was attended by Maj. Gen. Bipin Bakshi, Deputy Director General, MP-IDSA, Dr. Pushpita Das, Col. DPK Pillay, and other members of the MP-IDSA fraternity.

    Executive Summary

    The State ‘Simplification’ Project in the Garo Hills was essentially a new resource management regime designed to give the colonial power larger control over the fertile Garo Hills. The Project imposed artificial boundaries in the region by dividing and delegitimising the Garo community. It completely destroyed the Garos popular culture, customs, practices and social relations. A majority of the contemporary border disputes in Northeast India stem from the colonial period and necessitate a thorough understanding of the boundary notifications and the lines that preceded them.

    Detailed Report

    Ambassador Sujan R. Chinoy, Director General, MP-IDSA, initiated the talk by introducing the audience to the speaker’s diverse background and his extensive experience in Northeast India. Ambassador Chinoy, at the outset, acknowledged that the majority of the problems Northeast India faces today have their roots in the colonial period, when Britishers loosely defined their borders in order to serve their ultimate goal of building a colonial empire. Thus, their policies and practises in Northeast India, as well as in Myanmar and adjoining areas, were derived from the 'holistic frontier policy'. Ambassador Chinoy emphasised the importance of viewing and understanding contemporary challenges in the Northeast through the lens of its colonial history.

    Shri Sanjeeva Kumar depicted the manner in which Britishers drew artificial lines in the Garo hills of Meghalaya (then part of Assam) during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the disastrous impact they had on everyday issues of livelihood and social relationships. He claimed that the 'project' was undertaken haphazardly to simplify the limited state functions of taxation and law enforcement, as well as to facilitate greater control over natural resources. This, in turn, resulted in large scale discontent and displacement of Garos and eventually led to widespread protests erroneously referred to as "irrational acts of barbarism and idiosyncrasy of the hill men".

    Shri Kumar termed the colonial efforts in the nascent South Asian states as State 'Simplification' Project, claiming that the Project was essentially a 'new resource management regime’ driven by the exigencies of the Industrial Revolution. The same was true of the Garo Hills, where the Britishers strived to expand their control over the fertile foothills by completely dividing and delegitimizing the Garo community. Shri Kumar discussed the manner in which the State 'Simplification' Project was facilitated in the Garo Hills through gradually declaring 'reserve forests' in 1864 and then declaring the community land as 'Wasteland' in 1878. According to him, the entire process overlooked record keeping, land demarcation, and the creation of revenue maps. Meanwhile, surveys and settlements received adequate attention as these provided ‘documentary intelligence’ in the forms of making of theodolite stations, drawing of cadastral maps etc.

    Shri Sanjeeva Kumar also delved into the modus operandi of the State ‘Simplification’ Project in the Garo Hills. He noted that the Britishers, in a bid to make the Garos more ‘legible’ and easier to govern, consciously arranged them into five ‘artificial categories’- Bemalua, Bibhagnama, Nazrana, Zamindari and Namdani.  This also gave the State a greater control over the population. Habraghat Pargana, located in the south of the foothills, became the actual point of contest where the boundaries were frequently drawn by the Britishers and where the non-tribal Zamindars, Garos and the Britishers- were engaged in a war of attrition for exercising greater control over natural resources of the foot hills. The Project resulted in large-scale Garo displacement and mindless violence manifested during the 1807-1819 raids, and, ultimately led to a protracted conflict for the Garo land. He opined that the subjectivity of the Garos shifted with shifting boundaries in the foothills. While ‘Bemalua’ remained free, the others moved on the continuum from freedom to subordination.

    The speaker underscored that the year 1901 marked a watershed moment in the Garos’ history, as their protests shifted from a tribal-based movement to a larger struggle for Garo land. He also emphasised Sonaram Sangma's pivotal contributions to the protracted Garos' agitation. Sangma used history and the legal system to restore the Garos' customary rights over 500 square miles of land, including the Garo Hills, foothills, and parts of the plains. Although the Garos' long battle with the Colonial State yielded little fruit, the community heroically confronted the artificial barriers with a variety of responses.

    Shri Sanjeeva Kumar concluded his presentation by emphasising the need to rethink border studies in South Asia, which have mostly focused on 'security' issues while completely ignoring the eco-system of border regions. The speaker also alluded to the north eastern states' limited success in resolving the boundary disputes, cautioning them against interpreting colonial borders as "sacrosanct" and "immutable." Shri Kumar advocated for an "open-minded" approach to resolve the existing boundary disputes, backed up with a thorough grasp of border-making procedures throughout the colonial period.

    Discussion and Key Takeaways

    During the discussion, the panellists expressed their concerns over important issues like colonial division of East Bengal from rest of the Northeast, settlement of boundary disputes between Assam and Nagaland, and the restoration of tribal customary rights while redefining the colonial borders in the Northeast, etc.

    As a way forward, the panellists concurred on the importance of studying the nitty-gritty of colonial border marking exercises. However, the same ought to be seen in the backdrop of customary usage of the past and the existing ground realities in the Northeast.

    The talk concluded with the vote of thanks by Dr. Pushpita Das, Coordinator, Internal Security Centre, MP-IDSA.

    The Report has been prepared by Ms. Rajbala Rana, Research Analyst, Internal Security Centre, MP-IDSA.