Before departing for a year as a volunteer teacher at a school in the Garo Hills of northeast India, I tried to learn about the place I was soon to visit. I managed to come up with a few facts from reference materials in my library and books I got through interlibrary loan. The Internet—this worshipful medium through which all things may be known—was hardly any help at all.1 I learned that the Garo Hills are inhabited by the Garo people, and that it rains heavily there. I didn’t learn much else.
None of the sources I was able to find seemed to have any sense of the history of the place and the people that lived there. The brief references to Garos I was able to find mentioned their having been converted to Christianity by American missionaries in the nineteenth century. Where the Garos had come from and what they were doing in their pre-Christian days, I couldn’t tell. And since their conversion to Christianity, the Garos seemed not to have done much of anything.
Over the course of my volunteer term, and in the years since, I have been able to gather some information about the Garos and the land they inhabit. It appears that a complete history of the Garos has not been written—or in any event, has not been translated into English. My intention here is not to write such a history. Rather, in this and the next several blog posts, I intend to historicize the Garo Hills, to provide some of the context that I was unable to find before I visited the place.
Except in accounts by foreign missionaries—which present their own difficulties for interpretation—Garos typically only appear on the margins of other people’s history, if at all. They deserve to be at the forefront of their own history. The Garos offer a case-study of a people on the margins of a nation-state, both literally and figuratively. The Garo Hills, along with the rest of northeast India, are isolated geographically from the mainland of India. Culturally and linguistically, the Garos are distinct from the majority of the Indian population: they have no Hindu heritage, and they do not speak an Indo-Aryan or Dravidian language. Studying the Garos can help us see how minority peoples respond to marginalization in modern nation-states.
The Garo Hills comprise the western end of the Meghalaya Plateau, which rises between the Brahmaputra River Valley and the flatlands of Bangladesh. The predominantly limestone hills catch a significant portion of the monsoon that sweeps in from the Bay of Bengal. The rains nourish forests that grow thickly on uncultivated hills. The seasonal rains feed rivers that flow out into the plains; the rivers are low in the winter months and subsequent dry season, but high in the summer monsoon. The highest portion of the Garo Hills is the Tura Range, which reaches its climax at Nokrek Peak.2 Most of the land in the Garo Hills has been encroached upon by human settlement, but a few places are set aside as protected areas. The ecologically diverse Nokrek National Park, near Tura, was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Preserve in 2009.
The modern-day Garo Hills are divided into three districts (West, East, and South Garo Hills) of the state of Meghalaya. The ethnic and linguistic majority population in these hill districts are the Garos. Some Garos live in adjoining districts of Assam and Bangladesh, and thus I use the term “Garo-Land” when I wish to refer to the ethnolinguistic region straddling state and international borders. The population of the Garo Hills is overwhelmingly rural. The largest settlement in the Garo Hills is Tura, which is the district headquarters for the West Garo Hills district. Situated on a hillside at 1200 feet, Tura has a population of barely 60,000. Important market towns line the few highways that run into the hills; smaller settlements are dispersed throughout the backcountry of the hills. The 2011 Indian census reports that 88% of the 1.1 million inhabitants of the three Garo Hill districts are rural.3
In the next four blog posts, I will attempt to place the Garos and their land in historical context. After discussing the historical background of the Garos, I will conclude with an analysis of a recent event in Garo history: the September 30, 2005 shooting of students in Tura and Williamnagar, an event that has since become known as Black Friday.
- Playfair, A. The Garos. 1909. Reprint, Guwahati, India: Spectrum Publications, 1975. The new introduction of the reprint, by Parimal Chandra Kar, provides the most useful postcolonial history of the Garo Hills that I have yet seen.
- Taher, M, and P. Ahmed. Geography of North-East India. 4th ed. Guwahati, India: Mani Manik Prakash, 2007.
- On Google Books, I found a very dated Garo grammar, which I got printed and bound into a book. I brought the book with me to India and tried to study it, but the language—especially its written form—had changed so much between 1874 and 2009 that I found the book useless. [↩]
- Published sources give varying figures for the elevation of Nokrek Peak, ranging from 4633 feet (1412 meters) on US Defense Mapping Agency Charts, to 5016 feet (1529 meters) in Taher and Ahmed, Geography of Northeast India. [↩]
- The 2011 Census has a useful interactive interface: http://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/censusinfodashboard/index.html. Only 132,000 inhabitants of the Garo Hills live in urban areas, which were defined for the purposes of this census as places that fulfilled all of the following conditions: 1) population 5,000 or greater; 2) at least three-quarters of male workers employed in non-agricultural professions; and 3) minimum population density of 400 per square kilometer. [↩]