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Category: Tribal India (Page 2 of 3)

The Great Meghalaya Floods of 2014

Over the past two weeks, I have read with bewilderment as news has unfolded about a spate of catastrophic floods that struck the Garo Hills in Meghalaya state of northeast India. The Garo Hills have a special significance to me, because I spent nine months teaching at a school there, five years ago. I knew the Garo Hills mainly as a quiet place of farms and jungles, and friendly but reserved people. It is hard for me to imagine it as the site of a major natural disaster, and harder still for me to read about the destruction thousands of miles away without being able to do anything about it.

In the predawn hours of September 22, catastrophic floods struck parts of the Garo Hills, particularly the outskirts where the hills meet the plains of the Brahmaputra River Valley. According to the local and regional news, the floods are the worst in the hills’ recorded history. The rivers that flow down from the hills swelled from late monsoon rain and found new channels. The floods washed away almost everything in their paths, destroying huts, toppling trees, wrecking crops, and even demolishing some brick structures. More than a thousand villages were submerged, and fifty-six people lost their lives.

The floods disrupted the transportation and communication infrastructure of the Garo Hills. Landslides blocked NH-51, which is the main road to Tura, the Garo Hills’ largest town. The population of Tura depends on regular shipments of goods coming up on trucks from the plains below. At one point, the Shillong Times reported that Tura had stocks of rice for seven days and sugar for only four. Indian Air Force helicopters airlifted medical supplies into Tura, but since the town has no airport for fixed-wing aircraft, a full-scaled resupply airlift was not possible. Fortunately, relief crews were able to reopen the road before supplies in Tura reached critical levels.

Also affected was the Meghalaya electric power grid. The state’s grid runs entirely on hydroelectricity. Barapani Reservoir, near Shillong on the eastern side of the state, feeds water into the five-stage Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project. In other circumstances, the heavy rainfall could have been a boon, as it filled Barapani to capacity. For the first time in several years, the Meghalaya Electric Corporation Ltd. was forced to open the spillway of the dam to prevent the reservoir from overflowing. At the same time, though, the floods damaged the state’s transmission infrastructure, leaving many areas incapable of taking advantage of the electricity. Some of the damage has proven difficult to repair. In Bajengdoba (where I lived and taught), the substation was flooded and powerlines washed away. Local boys and young men have volunteered to help the state authorities erect new powerlines, but according to the latest reports I have read, electricity has yet to return to Bajengdoba.

Although the immediate danger of the floods is past, the hazard of epidemics, particularly malaria, remains. Even after the monsoon ends, the hills dry out, and the mosquitoes die off for the winter, recovering from the floods’ destruction will be a continuing project. I have no doubt that the people of the Garo Hills will dig out and rebuild, but it may take years. In this work, I wish them all the best.

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

A Bajengdoba sunset in happier times (July 2012).

(For more about the Garo Hills, please see my post series that begins with “A Short History of Garo-Land.” Also, please see my posts about the Umiam-Umtru Hydroelectric Project, part one and part two.)

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September 30, 2005: Black Friday

On the morning of Friday, September 30, 2005, dual demonstrations in Tura and Williamnagar—the Garo Hills’ two most populous towns—erupted into violence. In both places, police fired on demonstrators; by official counts, the police killed four demonstrators in Tura and five in Williamnagar. All were teenaged students. (Unofficial counts placed the total death toll at eleven.) This tragedy would become known as Black Friday. It continues to be commemorated and memorialized in the Garo Hills to this day, seven years later.1

The demonstrations in Tura and Williamnagar were just two of many protests staged in the Garo Hills in response to the Meghalaya state government’s plans to restructure the Meghalaya State Board of Education (MBoSE). Earlier in 2005, the Khasi Students’ Union had placed pressure on the state government to move the education board’s headquarters from Tura to Shillong. A State Level Committee (SLC) submitted its report on August 29, stating that MBoSE should be split between Shillong and Tura. The state government agreed to act on these recommendations in full.2

In the Garo Hills, groups such as the Garo Students’ Union (GSU) and the Garo Hills Citizens’ Forum (GHCF) voiced their opposition to the state government’s plans to “bifurcate” MBoSE. The GSU started a “non-cooperation movement” in Tura on September 15. Calling for a mass strike, GSU agents coerced managers of shops, schools, and banks to close for the duration of the non-cooperation movement. Heightened police security allowed government offices to open during the strike.3

The restructuring of MBoSE was symbolic of a larger and longer-running struggle over the distribution of state power. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Garos in Meghalaya had felt marginalized when their state was created with its capital far away in Shillong. MBoSE was one state government ministry that was headquartered in the Garo Hills. The Garo activist groups thus resisted the Khasis’ attempts to move MBoSE to Shillong, an act that they felt would lead to their further alienation and exclusion from political power.

The GSU called off the non-cooperation movement on September 28, replacing it with a night curfew and road blockade. In calling off the strike, the GSU announced its intention to stage a rally at the Chandmari Playground in Tura on September 30. After speeches, the demonstrators would make their way down the town’s winding roads to the Deputy Commissioner’s office.4

It was during the first phase of this demonstration, at Chandmari Playground, that Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) officers clashed with the demonstrators.5 The police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing at least four. In the firings and the ensuing riot, at least ninety other people were injured, including fifty-four police officers. In Williamnagar, at roughly the same time, demonstrators at the Rongengri grounds threw rocks at CRPF officers, prompting a similar response as in Tura.6

The killings caused an immediate uproar in Meghalaya. Purno A. Sangma, the representative of Tura in the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament), called for president’s rule and the dismissal of the current Meghalaya state government. Later, he made the audacious demand that if MBoSE was split, then all state ministries that were headquartered in Shillong should also have branches in Tura. The GSU and other groups attempted to use the killings to their own political advantage. After another attempted non-cooperation movement, as well as a hunger strike, the GSU invited representatives of the state government to Tura for talks. Despite reports that the talks had gone well, tensions continued to simmer between the state government and Garo groups. The MBoSE bill passed in the state legislature the following March, leading to the creation of a regional education board office in Shillong.7

The much-delayed official inquiry into the Tura and Williamnagar shootings was finally released in April 2007. The investigative commission, led by retired Gauhati High Court judge D.N. Chowdhury, evaluated the firings in the two towns differently. The police in Tura behaved irresponsibly, because they fired at retreating demonstrators. By contrast, the Williamnagar shootings were declared “just and proper,” because the police had been provoked by protestors’ hurling stones. Neither demonstration had been sanctioned by the governing authorities.8

Efforts to commemorate and memorialize the victims of the killings began shortly after the day that was to become known as Black Friday. When Tura was still locked down by curfew after the shootings, hundreds of students in nearby towns marched silently with black flags to show their solidarity with the victims. A week later, the residents of Mahendraganj9 held a condolence service and prayer meeting. On the first anniversary of the killings, six thousand people gathered at Chandmari playground in Tura to unveil a cenotaph inscribed with the names of the shooting victims. Residents of Williamnagar unveiled a similar monument.10

The fourth anniversary of Black Friday took place during my own sojourn in the Garo Hills. On that day, the teachers at my school joined teachers at hundreds of other schools throughout the Garo Hills by going on strike. The teachers refused to work in protest of the killing of unarmed students four years earlier.

Although Black Friday was an important part of cultural memory in my part of the Garo Hills, my school’s commemoration of the fourth anniversary was perhaps superficial. We did not spent the day in mourning and reflection for the lives lost. Rather, most of the teachers sat through a committee meeting, while I went to Guwahati for shopping.

  1. “Nine killed in student protest,” Calcutta Telegraph, October 1, 2005; “Police says they fired in retaliation,” Times of India, October 1, 2005; “10 killed in Garo Hills police firing,” Hindustan Times (HT), October 1, 2005. []
  2. “Lapang defends report on MBoSE,” HT, September 8, 2005; “MBoSE controversy behind violence, HT, October 1, 2005. []
  3. “Garos hit hard by GSU non-cooperation,” HT, September 15, 2005; “Garo students’ non-cooperation continues on 2nd day,” HT, September 16, 2005. []
  4. “Non-cooperation to be lifted, night blockade to follow: GSU,” HT, September 26, 2005. []
  5. A police force operated by the Indian central government, the CRPF is used to supplement state police forces in trouble-prone areas. The CRPF also monitors elections. []
  6. “11 students die in Meghalaya firing,” HT, September 30, 2005. []
  7. “11 students die in Meghalaya firing,” HT, September 30, 2005; “Non-cooperation movement by GSU in Garo Hills today,” HT, November 6, 2005; “Garo Hills NGOs strike over MBoSE starts today,” HT, November 16, 2005; “GSU to launch hunger strike in Garo Hills from Monday,” HT, December 1, 2005; “GSU gives time to Garo MLAs to prove sincerity,” HT, December 15, 2005; “MBoSE bill passed amidst resistance,” HT, March 24, 2006. []
  8. “Probe holds Tura firing ‘irresponsible,’” HT, April 19, 2007. []
  9. The southwesternmost town in Meghalaya, Mahendraganj is located in the flatlands at the foot of the Garo Hills. []
  10. “Partial relaxation of curfew in Meghalaya,” HT, October 5, 2005; “Mahendraganj holds public condolence meet,” HT, October 12, 2005; HT, “Sept 30 victims remembered in Garo Hills,” October 4, 2006. []
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Independence and Unrest

On August 15, 1947, after three-quarters of a century of British rule, the Garo Hills became a part of independent India. The hills—and by extension, the people who lived in them—now belonged to the new nation-state. But national identity would not develop immediately among the Garos. Aside from their differences in language, culture, and ethnicity from the majority of the Indian population, the Garos’ recent history also separated them. Because of the colonial policy of partial exclusion, the Garos did not participate in, and remained largely unaware of, the Congress-led independence movement.

Although the majority of Garos now lived in India, the Partition of India and Pakistan left tribal communities isolated on the other side of the international border in East Pakistan. The Garos who lived in the Bengali district of Mymensingh differed in some ways from the hill Garos; nevertheless, they hoped that all Garos would be included in the same country at independence. In the immediate prelude to independence, a Garo delegation from Mymensingh met with the Radcliffe Commission in Calcutta and requested that their district be annexed into Assam. Radcliffe refused their request, on the grounds that Mymensingh was too small, and therefore inconsequential.1

In East Pakistan, and later in independent Bangladesh, the Garos were marginalized. During the Bangladeshi independence struggle in 1971, many Garos joined the Mukti Bahini (the Bangladeshi insurgent army) and fought alongside the Bengalis. When India invaded East Pakistan, Garo refugees poured across the border into the Garo Hills. After the end of the conflict, the refugees returned to their villages, hoping that they would receive a more prominent place in the new Bangladeshi nation-state. They were soon disillusioned when, in 1973, Sheikh Mujib announced that Bangladeshi national identity would be based on Bengali language and culture. Garos and other tribal groups received no special protection—and they continue to feel that they are second-class citizens.2

In India, the Garos remained on the fringes of the nation-state, but they were not marginalized to the same extent as in Bangladesh. The Garos of India have offered modest resistance to their condition as a marginalized group. Compared with other minority groups in northeast India, the Garos’ resistance has been tame. For instance, the Mizos fought the Indian Army for twenty years, before finally making peace. By comparison, Garo insurgent groups have been little more than gangs, painting graffiti on public buildings and occasionally staging road blockades.

Anti-Congress graffiti on a post office in the East Garo Hills.

Anti-Congress graffiti on a post office in the East Garo Hills.

At independence, the Garo Hills was a district of Assam; a significant Garo population also lived in the adjoining districts to the north. Assam was a multi-ethnic, polyglot state; diverse hill tribes surrounded the predominantly Assamese-speaking communities in the Brahmaputra and Barak River Valleys. In 1960, the Assam Official Languages Act, passed by the state legislature, declared Assamese as the official state language. The act was meant to hasten the linguistic unification of the state, but it had rather the opposite effect by spurring unrest among the minority language groups in the state. Although the Garos had little in common with the Khasis and Jaintias besides geographical proximity, they banded together in the Hill States Movement, calling for a separate state within the Indian union for the tribals of the Meghalaya Plateau.3 In 1970, Meghalaya broke off from Assam into an autonomous state. Two years later, it became a full-fledged state. Capt. Williamson A. Sangma, a military veteran and long-time MP in the Assam state legislature, became Meghalaya’s first Chief Minister.4.

In forty years as a part of the state of Meghalaya, the Garo Hills have developed slowly. While Shillong, the state capital and district headquarters of East Khasi Hills, is a cosmopolitan hill station with high-speed internet access, a multi-stage hydroelectricity project, and the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command of the Indian Air Force, the Garo Hills remain underdeveloped and overlooked. According to the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (a central government agency), the three districts of the Garo Hills have the least-developed infrastructure among the seven districts in Meghalaya. Among the eighty districts of the eight states of northeast India (including Sikkim), the West, South, and East Garo Hills rank 37th, 42nd, and 43rd, respectively, in terms of infrastructure development. By comparison, East Khasi Hills ranks fifth in the entire region.5 Most development funds for Meghalaya are spent in the larger and more populous Khasi-Jaintia Hills. This leads to a feeling of alienation that occasionally spills over into unrest.

At Partition, the one major highway to Tura—the Garo Hills’ only major urban area—ran southward into what was now East Pakistan. In sixty-five years of independence, a network of national highways, state highways, and local roads were constructed to connect the major towns and villages in the hills, thus connecting Tura directly with the rest of India. Because of the difficult terrain between the Garo and Khasi Hills, no national highway connects the two hills directly; instead, the easiest route from the Garo Hills to the Khasi Hills runs through Assam. Roads are the primary means of mechanized transportation in the Garo Hills. India’s rail network does not touch the state; the rivers running out of the hills are not navigable for large boats. Baljek Airport, the Garo Hills’ only facility for fixed-wing aircraft, remains shuttered.

The Garo Hills have minimal modern industry—some textile mills, the occasional concrete plant, as well as printing houses in Tura. As mentioned in an earlier post, much of the population of the area relies heavily on traditional technologies. Nevertheless, despite the isolation and underdevelopment of the area, the Garo Hills have many contacts with modernity. Satellite television brings Indian and foreign news, TV shows, and movies—as well as an limitless supply of cricket—to mountainous areas that would never have received either a cable hookup or broadcast reception. Similarly, mobile phone networks have brought telecommunications to areas that were never served by landlines. In addition to voice communication and SMS, the mobile phone networks are also used for internet access by means of USB datacards. In some towns, locals can rent time on computers at Common Services Centers.6 With the exception of mobile phones, which seem to be in almost universal use in the hills, use of modern telecommunications technologies has spread slowly in the Garo Hills. Nevertheless, the introduction of these technologies in the Garo Hills shows that the area, as isolated as it may be, is still very much a part of the modern world.

Microwave and cell towers on a Garo hillside.

Microwave and cell towers on a Garo hillside.

This weathered bungalow in the Garo Hills sports its own satellite dish.

This weathered bungalow in the Garo Hills sports its own satellite dish.

In coming into closer contact with the modern world, the Garos have not simply become passive consumers of mass culture. In Garo-Land, amateurs and professionals use modern communications and media technologies to develop their own distinctive culture. Artists produce Garo pop music at studios in Tura and elsewhere. This music is distributed by CD or as mp3s, which young men exchange at CSCs and play on their phones. Garo music videos—many produced with consumer-grade equipment—are also watched and shared at CSCs. Some of these videos have even found their way onto YouTube.

In this video, the dancing is clearly influenced by Bollywood, but the musical track is distinctively Garo:

In addition to capital-intensive, sophisticated technologies like mobile phone networks, people in the Garo Hills use some of what might be called appropriate technologies. These technologies are small-scale and adapted to local conditions.7 An example of appropriate technology are the suspension footbridges that cross some of the swift streams running down out of the Garo Hills. Smaller than capital-intensive concrete road bridges built by state governments, they can be built by local funds, and largely by local labor. Provided they are built soundly and do not collapse (as one did in March of this year8), the bridges can serve communities for years.

A suspension footbridge over the Jinari River, at Rari.

A suspension footbridge over the Jinari River, at Rari.

Appropriate technology projects like the suspension footbridges, I think, represent the future of the Garo Hills. After sixty-five years as a part of independent India, the Garo Hills still have not industrialized; the area may never industrialize. Development capital in the Northeast has consistently been diverted away from the Garo Hills toward more prosperous areas such as the Khasi Hills. Appropriate technology offers Garos the opportunity to develop their land on their own terms.

  1. Ellen Bal, “Becoming the Garos of Bangladesh: Policies of Exclusion and Ethnicisation of a ‘Tribal’ Minority,” Journal of South Asian Studies 30, no. 3 (2007), 447. []
  2. Ibid., 452-55. []
  3. The Khasis and Jaintias are two related tribal groups living in eastern Meghalaya. Like the Garos, they have a matrilineal and matrinomial (but not matriarchal) culture; unlike the Garos, they speak languages derived from Mon Khmer, in the Austro-Asiatic group. []
  4. Shekhar Gupta, Assam: A Valley Divided (Ghaziabad, UP: Vikas Publishing House, 1984), 143; M. Taher and P. Ahmed, Geography of North-East India, 4th ed. (Guwahati, India: Mani Manik Prakash, 2007), 8 []
  5. Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region, “NER District Infrastructure Index,” http://mdoner.gov.in/writereaddata/sublinkimages/Infrastructure%20index7631933225.doc (accessed May 31, 2012). []
  6. Datacard internet connections are generally too slow and unreliable for many of Web 2.0’s more celebrated services, such as YouTube. My discussion here represents the state of technology during my sojourn in the Garo Hills, 2009-2010. When I returned for a brief visit in 2012, I found that things had changed somewhat. USB datacards were cheaper and more accessible, albeit still unreliable. The local CSC that I frequented was closed; its former location was now occupied by a beauty parlor. I did not find out about the disposition of any other CSCs in the Garo Hills. []
  7. The German-born economist E.F. Schumacher is credited with introducing the term “intermediate technology,” which is synonymous with “appropriate technology” as I use it here. Schumacher’s essays and lectures on economics and intermediate technology were compiled into the book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973). The book is essential reading for anybody interested in international development. []
  8. See, for instance, “Principal nailed in bridge fiasco,” Calcutta Telegraph, April 4, 2012, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120404/jsp/northeast/story_15332790.jsp. []

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