Colonial politics of labelling communities have had disastrous consequences which continue to impact the lives of the colonized. Identities were created and circulated through this act which in turn had categorised, included and excluded the communities living in the colonial fringe. Karbis were labelled ‘heathen’, ‘worshippers of malignant demons’, ‘unwarlike’, ‘timid’, ‘coward’ ‘bloodthirsty’ and such other colonial vocabularies which continue to haunt them. Colonial authorities persisted with the misnomer, ‘Mikir’, over the ancient indigenous nomenclature Karbi and the label remained in force for centuries. Colonial categorisation of Karbis into Hills and Plains simply because of geographical locations continues to divide and distance the tribe psychologically, socially, culturally and politically. The colonizers however saw in the Karbis their ‘industriousness’ as it served the colonial enterprise.
Living with Labels
Colonial labelling is ‘a political act since labels include and exclude.’ 1 The colonial administrators and ethnographers preferred the misnomer Mikir over Karbi, the indigenous nomenclature, goaded by local assamese intellectuals like Gunabhiram Barua.2Karbis have been singled out for being ‘unambitious’, ‘cowardly’ and ‘wanting in martial spirits’ 3 and taken advantage of for being ‘unwarlike’ and ‘peaceful’. Sir Charles James Lyall and Edward Stackk, the first ethnographers to write on the Karbis, also called them ‘mild and unwarlike’ who asserted that the ‘Mikir have never been a warlike race…’ 4The American Baptist Missionaries described the Karbis as ‘demon worshippers’ 5 and labelled them as ‘savage and bloodthirsty’ 6 The ‘distinction’ of ‘Hill Meekirs and the Plain Meekirs’7though historically belonging to the same ethnic group was insisted upon and dividing them under these invented categories in the colonial constitution making exercise through Government of India Act, 1935. 8
The psychological, cultural and political divide between the ‘Hill and Plain’ Karbis still continue who are paying the price of colonial politics of labelling. The myth has persisted and disadvantaged the Karbis in more ways as Independent India has retained the similar framework with active conspiracy of the State of Assam.
We will critically analyse the impact of colonial labelling of Karbis to question the modern myth of how ‘backwardness’ is measured in terms of ‘laziness’, ‘peacefulness’ with ‘timidity’, ‘unwarlike’ with ‘racial inferiority’ and how these invented categories have traumatized them.
No colonial sources have ever described Karbis as ‘lazy’. Rather, in various available documents, Karbis have always been hailed as ‘industrious’. American Baptist missionaries too likewise have praised the Karbi trait of being ‘particularly quiet and industrious.’
Rev. J Rae of Serampore Mission, the first European to have ever visited the Mikir areas in April 1836, ten years after the infamous Yandabu Treaty, had given a fair detail of the tribe existing then in his appeal to Capt. Jenkins in these words:
The Mikirs never cultivate the valleys between the hills. On my asking why they did not do so, their answer was, that they had no cattle, and where were they, being such poor people to get them? Yet their appearance did not indicate poverty, for, as I passed along, I saw their women and children covered with silver bangles and ear-rings etc. Some had brass, mixed with silver; and every village seemed to have an abundance of fowls, pigs, and sometimes goats. The dhan was quite abundant, and was stored in houses: the coolies that came with me from Kazi Runga to the first Mikir village, told me, that the Mikirs sometimes supplied the people of the plains with dhan when it was scarce there. This must be owing to the more industrious habits of the Mikirs, who are able to get a sufficiency for their own wants, and even to spare to others, from their scanty and hard soil. The Mikirs are very different from their lazy apathetic neighbours, the Assamese in the plains; when it is also considered what the former people use only a small hoe for cultivation, we must certainly speak well of their industry.9
The colonial authority was meticulous in its observation of the various tribal communities and their cultural and physical traits. William Robinson in his accounts of the Karbis of 1841 had described:
‘That division of the Nowgong district known as the Mikir hills, occupies a tract of hilly country covering an area of 1710 square miles. These hills are occupied by a fine athletic and industrious race of people, called Mikir.’ 10
Robinson, further taking note from J Rae’s observation of 1836, also had reiterated the fact that Karbis were ‘industrious’:
‘The occupation of the Mikir consists chiefly of agriculture, in which cotton forms a principal article; rice is also very generally cultivated. These articles are usually grown on the slopes of the hills, the Mikirs seldom availing themselves of the valleys. They have notwithstanding an abundance of grain, and in times of scarcity, occasionally have the means of supplying the people of the plains. This must chiefly be attributed to the more industrious habits of the Mikirs, who from their hard and scanty soil, are able to procure a sufficiency to meet their own wants, and even to spare a portion of their hard earnings to others.’
Lieut. R Stewart in his report summed up in the ‘Notes on Northern Cachar’ (1855) labelled the Karbis as ‘unambitious’ and remarked that:
‘The single exception to the prevalence of warlike feelings and habits in these hills is afforded by the Meekirs, and industrious but unambitious people in North Cachar. Though they carry spear and dhao, they use them only for the purposes of cultivation and wood-cutting. Literally, they have beaten their swords to ploughshares. The result is that they are the constant prey of the Angamee Nagas, and other tribes, whose trade is war, and whose chief joys are those of the fight. The Meekirs must be classed with the Bayeiye and the Banuyeti of Africa; they are the Quakers of the Indian hills, as the latter are of the African plains.’ 11
Dismissing the traditional values and institutions of the Meekirs, Stewart also commented that
‘The Meekirs appear to have no government; nor can it be imagined for what purpose a people could require government who have abandoned the idea of defending themselves or their property.’
Stewart had also labelled all the tribes of the region as ‘savage tribes’ or ‘naked savages’ that invariably included the ‘Meekirs.’ In fact, the label ‘savage’ finds regular mentions in almost all the colonial and missionary accounts that described the hill tribes of the North East.
Horatio Bickerstaff Rowney repeated with the same dismissive colonial attitude and labelled the Karbis as ‘not warriors’ and ‘cowardly’ but found them ‘laborious’ by observing that
‘the Hill Meekirs are not warriors. But if cowardly, they have the credit of being very laborious, and raise rice and cotton in abundance, the latter of which they sell to advantage. The only weapon they carry is the dao, of which no use is made except for cultivation and wood cutting. Their dress consists of two pieces of cotton cloth dyed with red stripes and sewn together like a bag, with aperture left for the head and arms; and this is put on in a manner of a shirt.’ 12
WW Hunter in his account of 1881 maintained the Karbis as being ‘universally described as the most pacific and industrious of all the hills tribes of Assam…’ who cultivated cotton in large areas or 3846 acres (9602 Bighas) according to the Revenue Survey of 1872. He went on to assert that ‘They are a fine, athletic, but poor in spirit, and somewhat devoid of personal courage…’ In the same account, Hunter reiterated that ‘As a rule they are a laborious people…’ 13
Hunter’s observations give some important insights into the changing socio-economic dynamics among the Karbis. He noted:
‘Each little hamlet manages its own affairs. In their own hills, the Mikirs cultivate cotton and summer rice, according to the nomadic system of agriculture known as jum, in forest clearings made mostly on the slopes of the hills. Their implement is the hoe; cattle are not kept, and milk is regarded as impure. In the plains, however, they are giving up this prejudice and learning to cultivate winter rice with plough.’
From simple hoe to plough, from hill slopes to wet cultivation in the plains, the transition is remarkable. This transition must have made a tremendous impact on the economic life of the Karbis. This change in the mode of production during the early colonial days was indeed a remarkable phase in Karbi history.
GD Walker, the author of the first Karbi dictionary, ‘A Dictionary of the Mikir Language’ (1952) had in his preface to the book offered a theory of why the tribe is ‘unwarlike’. According to him, the language had been ‘practically one and the same throughout’ which was then spread over a ‘wide area from Golaghat to Kamrup and the Khasi Hills beyond Gauhati, and from the Cachar plains near Silchar to the forests north of Bishnath in Darrang’ because of the ‘unwarlike character of the Mikir people.’
Maj John Butler who had toured the Karbi territory as a military officer described that ‘…the Meekirs seem devoid of anything approaching to a martial spirit…’ but praised them for their quality of being ‘…a quiet industrious race of cultivators…’ 14
From 1826 onwards, the British started imposing its administrative system in the newly acquired territories and had deputed special officers in each area to understand the various tribal people, their social, cultural, religious and even physical traits. The ‘first European who ever penetrated into that country’ Rev. J Rae of the Serampore Mission stationed at ‘Gowahatti’ wrote ‘an appeal’ in February 1836 to Capt. Jenkins urging him ‘to endeavour at the same time to show the feasibility of doing something for their moral and religious instruction…’ wherein a fair account of the economic life of those inhabiting in the Karbi areas of ‘Noagong’ was given. The American Baptist Missionaries also similarly described the Karbis as ‘particularly quiet and industrious’ in a ‘Report of the American Baptist Mission to Assam, 1845’. The Karbis were also described as ‘shy and timid with strangers and usually bolt into the jungle on seeing a European’ as Waddell had observed. He further noted that ‘In the vicinity of the Hinduised Assamese the Mikirs are rapidly however giving up their primitive habits…’ 15
A fairly elaborate account of the Karbis in the ‘Notes on Northern Cachar’ repeats the same observation:
‘The Meekirs though cowardly are laborious and persevering, and are considered the best subjects in N. Cachar, keeping clear of courts, paying revenue regularly, and working hard at their vocation as cultivators. They rear rice and cotton in abundance, disposing of the latter to Cossiahs and to merchants who come up the Dyung. When not employed in agriculture they fell large trees, construct canoes, and float them down to market in Assam, realizing considerable profit by this manufacture. The labour of their cultivation is greater than that of the other tribes, as bamboo jungle is scarce in their locality, and they are necessitated to clear forest land.’16
Colonial Revenue System and the ‘laborious’ Karbis
After 1826, the colonial authorities gradually took over the tribal territories and the Karbi inhabited areas scattered over a large areas of NC Hills, Jaintia and Khasi Hills and in Nowgong and Sibsagar districts too came under the British revenue system:
‘Soon after the British annexed the Ahom territory on February 24, 1826, the Karbi territories, which were under the domain of the Ahoms, automatically became a part of the British territory. The Karbis of the adjacent Janitia hills came under the British in March 1835 when the Jaintia kingdom was annexed by the British. The North Cachar Hills, part of the Karbi territory, was free from British India up to 1854. Finally, Lord Dalhousie accorded his approval to the annexation of North Cachar Hills on the ground that the ‘occupation of the territory was a less objectionable alternative than letting it alone.’ Accordingly, in early 1854, the British annexed North Cachar Hills. Thus, by 1954 the whole of Karbi land came under British domain.’ 17
The colonial authority was swift in imposing its own revenue system in these territories, and by 1838, brought the Karbis under the first revenue settlement:
‘…it was determined to bring them under a revenue settlement of some kind, and to raise them, if possible, in the social scale by putting them on the same fiscal platform as the Assamese of the plains. The Assamese had always looked upon the Mikirs with contempt and dislike, and the tribe had kept itself aloof in the jungles, away from all civilizing intercourse. The hills were now visited by a British officer and a settlement affected with the consent of the Chiefs, by which the old tributes were converted into an assessment upon each house according to the number of the male cultivators living therein. The total net revenue so assessed was about Rs. 1700.’ 18
W W Hunter mentioned that:
‘When the country was first brought under British rule, a small tribute in kind was exacted from the Mikirs; but in 1837-38, this system of taxation was abolished, and the tribe was formed into three imaginary grades or classes, and a house tax was levied of varying amount on each of these classes. On the first class a house rate of Rs. 4 or 8s. per annum was assessed; on the second class a tax of Rs. 3 or 6s; and on the third class a tax of Rs. 1.8 or 3s. This settlement yielded a net revenue of Rs. 1711.8.0 or 3s in 1837-38.’
This system did not work well for the British and two years later, a uniform house-tax was levied on the Karbis at the rate of Rs. 2.4 abolishing the three imaginary classes irrespective of the number of families sharing the same house. The British found out that, in order to avoid the house-taxes, ‘many families herd together in the same house.’ (Hunter, 1879; 189) The problem of British revenue collection was made harder by the fact that the Karbis changed their habitations ‘every two or three years’ looking for ‘fresh lands for cultivation.’ Hunter described that the Karbi houses were ‘clean and healthy in appearance, and very picturesque.’ He also mentioned about the Karbis engaging in trades ‘carried on with the people of the plains’ through ‘bartering in cotton, aria thread, caoutchouc, and bees-wax for salt and piece-goods’
Rev. Rae in 1836 had already mentioned of such barter trades the Karbis engaged in with their new liking for ‘hukkah and cloth etc.’ Rev. Rae had described that the Karbis were ‘extensive cultivator of cotton, which is their principal commodity for export. How much is cultivated, I am unable to say, but it must be to a great extent; indeed, were it not for the Nagas, Mikirs, and Lalongs, the people of Asam would fare but poorly in cotton…Their common practice is to exchange their cotton for salt…’ Rae had mentioned about ‘hats’ (markets) being established in the vicinity to conduct barter trades with the tribal people. These ‘hats’ (Karbi = hithi) played multiple functions in the lives of the hill people besides serving the mercantile interests.
Lyall and Stack in ‘The Mikirs’ had described the ‘institution of cooperative agriculture by the village lads, the bachelors’ house or terang’ or the ‘association or club of the dekas’ being the ‘most important institution from the point of view of agriculture…useful form of cooperation’ which was then ‘falling into disuse.’ The Karbi economic life was a cycle of ‘raising in ordinary years sufficient food for their subsistence, and a considerable amount of cotton and lac for export to the plains’.
Trade with Plainsmen and the Opium Havoc
However, the growing trade relations with the plainsmen were also beginning to have other adverse effects on the Karbis. A Missionary wife Mrs. PH Moore had remembered
‘One sad result of the Mikirs coming to the plains is that they are fast learning to take opium…’19
Wild tea plants were already discovered in Assam in 1823 and crossbreeding of Assam tea with smuggled Chinese tea plants was started by 1834. By 1839, Assam tea began to be transported to England with the intention ‘to compete on the open market with Chinese tea, with the hope of eventually eliminating Britain’s reliance on China.’ Opium poppy also ‘grew abundantly in Assam’20 and the colonial masters began to exploit this to their commercial advantage. The opium cultivation began by 1847-1848 and introduced opium as cash crops and started the sale of manufactured opium in the market. By 1860, opium trade became a government monopoly criminalising non-licensed cultivation of opium. Licenses were sold to ‘respectable persons’ who offered the highest bid. There appeared 5137 opium shops in 1873-74 period surpassing the number of villages in Assam. Opium revenue increased in leaps and bounds from 1875 to 1879. Colonial government defended its policy by claiming that opium was required by the people ‘in order to protect themselves from the diseases that are prevalent in a very damp and malarial climate like Assam…’ As a result, the consumption of opium far surpassed the Indian average and much in higher quantity that was set by the League of Nations and Assam was declared a ‘Black Spot’ where consumption was highest during 1920-1921. And ‘the largest consumers’ were ‘the Mikir tribe, of whom, 80 to 85 per cent’ in a population of 1, 18, 629 ate opium according to the Final Report of the ‘Royal Commission on Opium’.
The colonial government actively promoted opium sale and Karbis were defenceless against this assault which ruined them permanently. JH Hutton, Deputy Commissioner of Naga Hills, wrote in his Naga tour diaries dated 31 August 1920, which gives a crucial insight into how opium was forced upon the ‘wretched Mikirs’ –
‘Disposed of the opium shop which I have settled with one Gupteswar who seems less likely than the other applicants to put the shop to illicit purposes. He will be rationed at present with 30 seers of opium monthly. There are some very high offers for this shop as compared with the bids made in Kohima when it was sold by auction. I suspect that the reason is partly that it was the only unrationed shop on the Railway in the neighbourhood and therefore of value for smuggling purposes as I understand a good deal of opium is smuggled into Burma via the Assam-Bengal Railway and Chittagong. Partly, however, the competition for the shop was in order to exploit the wretched Mikirs for cane and lac and agar, the last of which has now a tremendously enhanced value. Under the present system the opium shops are simply used as a handle to induce the Mikirs to bring in jungle produce, for which I fancy they are paid in opium instead of cash, and it is well known that the Marwari trader who wants to make a fortune in cane, cotton, agar or lac must control the opium shop either directly or Benami, and it is obviously to his interest to encourage opium eating, and that much more so than the man who merely sells it for the profit on the opium, since he stands to make a huge profit in so many ways of each opium eating Mikir.’
It was the time when opium contributed ‘more than one-fifth of the government revenue in the vast empire in British India’ and the ‘wretched Mikirs’ were easy victims. During the period, Hutton and other colonial sources described, the Karbis were as not yet used to wet cultivation. They were dependent on bartering petty forest items with traders in the plains and the best they did were engaging in large-scale cotton cultivation. It may be assumed that the majority of the people depended on shifting cultivation in the ‘slopes’ using only the ‘hoes’ and producing only what were needed for sustenance. No surplus was produced or it was not even possible to do so in such a mode of economic activity. Paddy cultivation in the plains came very gradually and in a haphazard manner. Opium habit introduced by the British soon consumed almost the entire Karbi population. The ‘industrious’ Karbis bartered away household items, domestic animals, ornaments etc. to pay for the deadly habit and within a short period of ten to twenty years after 1826, they were pushed to abject poverty. The subsistence economy was thus completely ruined, so was the ‘industriousness’. The new British revenue and land policies wrecked the old social, cultural, and economic traditions by creating a new class of middlemen who collected revenues as mouzadars and rapidly rose in prestige and power, even overshadowing the traditional chiefs.
The Politics of Labelling
There is a general idea that Karbis are ‘lazy’ and this trait is attributed for their ‘backwardness’. Many have succumbed to this theory and blame their own tribesmen for the economic mess that they are in today. The celebrated Malay author Prof. Syed Hussein Alatas in his book ‘The Myth of the Lazy Native’ has attempted to debunk the myth essentially as a colonial creation and thus called it a ‘colonial ideology’. Alatas argued that
‘…ideology of colonial capitalism evaluated people according to their utility in their production system and the profit level’ under Western rule, with the result that the capabilities of the indigenous inhabitants were denigrated through various myths and stereotypes, notably, the myth of the lazy native.’
The colonial ideology of being ‘superior’ was used to justify how the colonized people were classed and categorised that played a crucial role in constructing new and potentially negative identities for them. Labelling Karbis as ‘unwarlike’, ‘timid’ or ‘devoid of anything approaching martial’ had remained in popular discourse beyond colonial time, shaping the way the Karbis imagined of themselves with all negative impacts. In Hunter’s own admission, the ‘Mikirs were found very useful as coolies in the Lushai Expedition of 1871-72’. Karbi coolies who were forced to fight the British war of conquest against the Lushai that fitted the colonial design and were praised – ‘Hitherto they have borne a bad name for cowardice, but their character in this respect was cleared by their conduct at the time of the Lushai expedition.’
Colonial Coolie Corps, composed of various hill tribes including Goorkha, Kookies, Cosseyahs, Cacharies, Nagas and Mekirs, were employed to carry out the most dangerous missions such as reconnaissance, cutting jungles, building huts, who faced deadly cholera epidemic without much or no supply of medicine and often left unguarded by sepoys.21 But colonial dependence on various tribal communities, including the Karbis, for manpower in its army was never acknowledged in public discourse. Mackenzie mentioned:
“Our own population of Mikirs being very scanty, we shall be unable to continue to employ them in conducting expeditions into the Angami Naga Hills, for rather than submit to this service, I am persuaded they will leave the district, or be utterly ruined from not being able to do their cultivation.”
After the failure of ‘absolute conquest,’ the British attempted to recruit Nagas as soldiers. This was one of the strategies adopted for pacifying the Nagas, but it failed as the Nagas would abandon the service in a short time. So the British army was mostly made up of the Manipuris, Kukis, Kacharis, Mikiris and Assamese. Latter, Nepali immigrants were brought in to serve as well.’
Colonial era Karbis were praised for being ‘industrious’ but in spite of this, they were also categorised as ‘backward’. In one of his secret cables to the British parliament, Governor Reid had confessed that the Karbis ‘…pay proportionately more in taxes and receive less in amenities than any other area in the Province…’ and even ‘proposed’ that ‘neglect of this kind would be remedied’, which however was never done. The ‘laborious’ Karbis were subjected to maximum taxation in the new colonial revenue system and in the ‘Jaintia Hills territory, which is wholly British, a house-tax at the rate of Rs.1 per house is levied, the Mikir and Kuki settlements paying double this rate.’
The British administration, for good reasons, is also blamed for dividing the ‘backward’ hills from the prosperous plains and perpetuating the binary for political and economic control over both. Irrespective of the multiplicity of hill people and their cultures, the British labelled them equally as ‘backward’. Against this sweeping generalisation, JJP Wouters has argued that;
‘…hill dwellers came to be seen as the opposite of ‘British civilisation’, as well as inferior to the alternative civilisation presented by the high castes of the ‘mainland’. This eventually led to the ‘invention of tribes’, a process through which uplanders became socially construed as collectively backward and sharing characteristics that were fundamentally different from those inhabiting the plains.’
Backwardness is therefore constructed in terms of ‘British civilisation’ and this colonial construction has remained in circulation influencing even the policy makers in modern India. Being ‘industrious’ alone counts less or even nothing in the post-colonial ideology too in the same manner as the qualities of being ‘peaceful’ and ‘unwarlike’ are condemned as distinct racial ‘inferiority’. In the colonial greed for power and profit, opium trade was aggressively promoted, destroying the Karbi trait of being ‘industrious’ and condemning them to perpetual backwardness. The truth is:
‘Negative labels (and implications) can disempower groups through the creation of potent negative stereotypes and can thus be a powerful means of exercising social control and a tool to manipulate identities.’ 22
Decolonizing Colonial Construct
The impact of British colonialism is a rarely discussed issue among Karbis. The Historical Trauma (HT) inflicted on Karbis is therefore not realized. Traditional Karbi territories were dissected multiple times at the whims of the colonial state. As a result, the ‘Hills’ and ‘Plains’ categories of Karbis were constructed, categorised and forced to remain isolated from each other for centuries and the political, cultural and linguistic impacts are still being felt. The ‘industrious’ Karbis were forced to wholesale opium addiction which totally crushed their economic backbone forever. The middlemen, such as mauzadars and opium lessees, created in colonial economic and political interest introduced a new social class which asserted its illegitimate authority over entire Karbis. Missionaries who accompanied the colonial administrators introduced modern education among Karbis, but even they too were not free from colonial attitude. Missionaries cannot absolve themselves from negatively portraying the Karbi ideas of the ‘self’ by attacking their religious and cultural foundations as ‘unmeaning’.
The territorial, economic and cultural disruptions caused by colonialism continue to impact Karbi life in many negative ways. Many of the crucial issues facing present generation Karbis are rooted in colonialism and it is therefore important to understand them in the larger framework of ‘Historical Trauma’ and begin the process of decolonization. In other word, this process for Karbis may perhaps begin with such an effort of deconstructing colonial policies and practices in the light of critical scrutiny.
Dharamsing Teron is an indigenous activist hailing from the Karbi people in Assam’s central hilly region of Karbi Anglong. He has been in the forefront of a long-drawn autonomy struggle since 1986 participating in the political, cultural and literary aspirations of the Karbi people. He has initiated documenting vanishing Karbi folklore and publishing books in English, which include the popular ‘Karbi Studies’ series in a collaborative effort with young Karbi researchers, writers and translators. He is currently the founder Director of ‘Centre for Karbi Studies’ which aims to foster indigenous research initiatives in the ‘most under-researched area’.
Linso Timungpi is an Assistant Professor of Geography. She is an executive member of Centre for Karbi Studies and has translated Karbi fiction into English.