In Meghalaya's Smit village, examining the insiders versus outsiders debate at close quarters

  • The realities of Indian villages belie romanticised ideals, throwing up risks and challenges usually absent from the popular imagination.

  • There is a dearth of stories from rural India — often dismissed as “boring” — in the mainstream media that might challenge our sepia-tinted ideas.

  • This is the story of how I ended up living and working out of a village called Smit, in Meghalaya.

Journalist Parul Abrol lived and worked in the village of Smit, Meghalaya, for a period of six months earlier this year. The objective was to examine how governance works at the grassroots level in India — a question complicated further when a place doesn’t necessarily identify as being part of ‘India’. This six-part series documents the pull and push of tradition, culture, indigenous identity, modernity and outside incursions on the lives of Smit’s people.

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1. The Outsiders

“How does governance work at the grassroots level in India?” — was the question that led to this particular project. The method was to pick one village anywhere in India, become a part of the community, see how individuals interact with various bodies of the government and examine its impact on their lives.

I knew the answers to this question would be further complicated if the village didn’t identify as ‘India’, or simply didn’t care about that label — as is the case in large parts of the Northeast. In a region where ‘the outsider’ is a constant threat to a way of life, how do locals navigate a system where ‘outsiders’ are an explicit part of governance? This is important to investigate and understand in India today, which has registered a growing clamour for a homogenous society regardless of the history and cultural background of the various regions that comprise it.

When undertaking the project, my instructions were simple: Pick any village in India, but be safe. That second clause, and my own curiosity in seeing how these above mentioned questions were navigated there led me to pick the Northeast as my workstation.

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The realities of Indian villages belie romanticised ideals, throwing up risks and challenges usually absent from the popular imagination. This romanticisation has to do with the nostalgia of city-dwellers with parents or grandparents who hailed from a village — where the homes and backyards were grand, and life uncomplicated. There is a dearth of stories from rural India — often dismissed as “boring” — in the mainstream media that might challenge these sepia-tinted ideas; the limited reporting from Indian villages is usually about the economics of agriculture. The lack of nuance in our understanding of Indian villages is, therefore, hardly surprising.

All of this is to note that villages are tricky places, and finding a village where safety is (at least on the face of it) guaranteed, is trickier still. This is how I ended up living and working out of a village called Smit, in Meghalaya.

 In Meghalayas Smit village, examining the insiders versus outsiders debate at close quarters

Smit, Meghalaya. Illustration courtesy Satwik Gade/Firstpost

Meghalaya is considered among the more peaceful of the Northeastern states. There are also fewer day-to-day challenges here, be it access to a clean toilet, internet availability, electricity, etc. The Northeast in general is under-reported, but Meghalaya fares worse in the national media since there hasn’t been any big conflict story to sell recently, except for the coal mining disaster. It made sense to explore the intricacies of this society.

Residing in Delhi, with barely any knowledge of Meghalaya, it wasn’t easy to zero in on a village. Conversations with friends who had worked in the Northeast helped me get the lay of the land, and a Khasi acquaintance suggested four villages that might work as possible locations for the project. Three of these I was able to find via a Google search. One among them — Sohra (aka Cherrapunji) — I dismissed immediately courtesy its reputation as the wettest place on earth. (A horrifying experience during the monsoons in an Odisha village, where an almost six-feet-long snake nearly fell on my head through the ceiling, has led to a lasting and fearful association between the rains and reptiles, in my mind, especially in an area surrounded by wilderness.) Umiam, a lakeside village, I discarded for similar reasons.

But option three — Smit — was beautiful. Photos on the internet indicated a place of scenic hills spread like bumpy meadows. It also turned out to be the seat of the East Khasi Hills chief, and of the traditional palace and treasury. In short, it seemed like a place where I could gain a real understanding of Khasi culture and traditions.

From my past experience with tribal communities, I knew that the stronger the roots, the more wary these societies are of external interference, especially governance. In spite of the challenges it would put forward, Smit also offered the possibilities of a genuine study.

***

Meghalaya, like other states in the Northeast, comes under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. This grants autonomy over traditional local governance, rather than an otherwise compulsory system like the Panchayati Raj elsewhere in India.

In Meghalaya, every village is divided into dongs (blocks), each with their own executive members — all elected by the people. There is one sordar (headman) who oversees all dongs in a village. Everything in the village happens with his permission. Elections are held every three years. There are women’s committees as well, with an elected head.

My landlady in Smit, who belongs to the local royal family and is called Mei Tew (“mother figure”) by the village, told me, “It is very important that we have our own system of governance. Otherwise we will lose our identity, our culture, our tradition. The outsiders cannot rule us and define terms to us. What do they know about our lives here?”

This was one of my first lessons here: local rules rule. But how does that work when there are still systems of central government in place, such as the police. How does local governance work alongside these bodies of central government? How do people trust government banks, schemes? These were questions I would have a chance to focus on over my months in Smit.

First view of Smit. Photo by Parul Abrol/Firstpost

First view of Smit. Photo by Parul Abrol/Firstpost

Governance is about people. The Khasi hills belong to the indigenous people who take pride in their lands, their culture, their language, and their way of life. With changing times, and Meghalaya in particular finding itself sandwiched among troubled areas, there is a growing sense of ownership of land and of unease with outsiders.

“Outsider” is not a new concept for local people; in fact, there is a word for it — “dkhar” — in their language. Initially I thought it was a derogatory word for outsiders, a bit like slang. However, the roots of the word are not particularly derogatory, even if it’s used as an exclusionary term now. Dkhar is even a popular surname here. A local activist explained that traditionally, since this is a matrilineal society, if a family didn’t have a daughter, the son was supposed to marry an outsider to keep the line going and avoid incest. To mark this transition, the family name was changed to Dkhar.

Nonetheless, tensions have been running high here as regards non-Khasis. Among the most peaceful parts of the Northeast, Meghalaya has in recent times seen a huge influx of people from the neighbouring states as also from across the border with Bangladesh. With land and resources being finite, locals have started feeling the pressure. There are localities in Shillong that are virtually ghettos with Naga, Mizo and Manipuri population.

The sentiment, as Mei Tew tells me, seems to be: “We feel bad for these people but we don’t have the resources to support the outsiders. We are running out of land for our own people. What can we do?”

Smit may seem like a sleepy village, but people here are aware of the Citizenship Amendment Act [then Bill], if not all its details. Many think the intent is to include Muslims from Bangladesh, but they also resent Assamese, Bengalis, and people from other neighbouring states — religion and tribe are of little relevance. In this Khasi dominated area, all outsiders are “dkhars”. It doesn’t take long to feel their resentment and displeasure at your presence, or the sheer unwillingness to deal with you.

***

Having spent a lot of time in Odisha’s tribal areas, I’ve seen closely what being an indigenous person means to them: it’s not only that identity as a tribal person is important to them, but also there is a sense of pride and exclusivity to being a tribal person. They resent government officials marking them as “Hindus” in official identification cards, but shrug it off so their immediate needs can be met, rather than engaging in a fight that will lead nowhere because the Indian government, apparently, doesn’t recognise their religion. While talking about non-tribal locals, a tribal person would always call them “Odiya” — clearly indicating oneself as another. The permanent entry of ‘outsiders’ has brought conflict in the lives of the tribals: there are prevailing tensions with Dalit forest dwellers who deal in money lending or run local breweries, Telugu people who buy land, and Odiyas who treat them as unequal.

Even as the indigenous people of Odisha have no way to ban the entry of ‘outsiders’, they shun them from occasions in the personal sphere, such as the celebration of festivals, and so on.

Meghalaya is similar and different at the same time. With the influence of Christianity, there has been an inevitable exposure to the outside world, especially western societies. There have been changes in cultural practices, festivals, traditions, food habits, music choices, sensibilities, with a focus on individuality that is usually missing in indigenous cultures. A mixture of these circumstances and new sensibilities has also led to a more boisterous version of Khasi pride, and desire for exclusivity.

The hillsides of Smit. Photo by Parul Abrol/Firstpost

The hillsides of Smit. Photo by Parul Abrol/Firstpost

A friend who belongs to an old Punjabi settler family in Shillong recently remarked: “Non-tribals do not venture into tribal areas. You are living amongst them. It is unheard of and strange; a medal worthy effort. All Khasis, and one you [sic].” It sums up the daily struggle I had to go through in the village. I look as different from the locals as a person from north India can; I was taller than most men in the village, and when I’d go to the village market, I would be stared at, like a pig among chickens.

It wasn’t until the village headman decided I could stay and work in Smit, that I could. The block head gives permission to stay, and village headman grants permission to work. Before starting, anybody who wants to do any sort of work in the village has to take permission from the village headman. I had arrived here without any such prior knowledge. It helped that my landlady, belonging to an influential family, could put in a word. (I got to know of her through friends, by pure chance.) I first had to explain to her what I wanted to do, gain her trust, then meet the headman with a letter from my editor explaining what we hoped to achieve. If it all seems rather stressful, that’s because it was, given the uncertainty, and yet, I had already had several wonderful moments there. The initial awkwardness and suspicion was soon replaced with curiosity and jokes, then kwai (local paan) and tea.

As I settled in for my stay, I hoped to understand the individual stories of the villagers, their daily life and struggles. To meet with them regularly and trace the graph of their lives, whichever way it went…from the students who are the first from their families to attend college in Shillong, and dream of becoming urban professionals. The kids who learn kickboxing, and are crazy about football. The older women who still have some knowledge left of the forest around them, but nobody to pass it on to because everyone is busy earning a living. Men, women and children who attend church regularly and in such large numbers on Sundays that the weekly market — held every eight days — has to be shifted if it happens to fall on the same day. The young men who assemble on the village ground every Sunday afternoon to practise archery, the traditional sport, with competitions and bets placed on the best archers during an event held in October-November.

Smit fluctuates between its old and new values and systems, navigating the pull of modernity and tradition. Follow us follow their stories — a different world, within our own.

Part 2 — a village tour.

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Updated Date: Dec 25, 2019 10:17:41 IST