"The traditional institution of kingship in states like Meghalaya or Assam may not have constitutional sanction, but the tribal royalty in the region has full social recognition. The kings or chiefs are still the ultimate authority for the people of several tribes," says John F. Kharshiing, spokesman of the Khasi Syiems (kings).
Last month, a vast meadow by the roadside in the small township of Smit, 20 km north of Shillong, saw a congregation of more than 20,000 tribals from all across Meghalaya, led by the Khasi Syiems, the Garo Nokmas (chiefs) and the Jaintia Dollois (chieftains). They had gathered for a 'People's Assembly' that endorsed, through a loud applause, the two main demands of the royalty in a state of 2.3 million people: constitutional recognition for the traditional institutions and direct central funding to these grassroots administrative structures run by the kings and chiefs.
Despite driving 300 km through the night from his native Mendipathar in East Garo Hills to reach Smit, Garo chief Joseph Momim sounded upbeat after the meeting. "It has been a historic day. Once we get constitutional recognition, we can bring democracy down to the grassroots," said Momim, dressed in traditional headgear, bright with bird feathers.
For him, the traditional institutions of kingship and chieftainship are still relevant even if the tribal-dominated states in the Northeast have an autonomous layer of administration under the Constitution's Sixth Schedule that functions parallel to the normal state administration. "Politicians, including those elected to the Autonomous District Councils, are not much revered by the people while the kings and chiefs are considered to be honest and thus command total respect," says C. Lyngdoh, a government official.
And even if they repose their faith in tradition, the tribal kings are in sync with the modern world. Balajied Singh Syiem, for instance, is no hatchet-wielding tribal chieftain who goes hunting or shouts out war cries. But for his turban, this laptop-savvy father of five could easily pass off as any other middle-class Khasi tribesman in Meghalaya. Balajied, 53, a medical doctor by training, may not have any string of royalty attached to him, but he is the Syiem or king of Khyrim—one of the 25 Khasi 'states' or counties that the tribal royalty in the hill state would still like to describe as 'kingdoms'.
Similarly, 12-year-old Dipsing Deo Rajah, while on vacation from boarding school at his humble home near the central Assam town of Jagiroad, is content to play a game of badminton or simply wander around the areca nut groves that abound in his village. One of the seven kings of Assam's Tiwa tribe that has a population of 500,000 or more, cricket-loving Dipsing could be among the world's youngest working royals. But he's revered by his 'subjects' as a patriarch who would lead them along the right path
Kings and chiefs also hear cases at the tribal courts or durbars in Meghalaya and in Assam. The cases may range from land disputes, crime and matrimonial discord. "Because a lot of cases are settled at these durbars, the number of tribal people moving the judiciary, at least in my state, is less," says Robert Kharshiing, Rajya Sabha MP from Meghalaya, who's at the forefront of the campaign for the empowerment of the state's royalty.
According to the Tiwa customary traditions, the king is the religious and administrative head of the tribe and the subjects pay their obeisance to him during community celebrations and other rituals. On January 24, Dipsing, an avid Sachin fan, was driven in a motorcade from his home to the traditional annual fair at the village of Jon Beel, 65 km east of Guwahati, where he ordered his aides to collect the annual taxes from the traders and shop owners. His prime minister, Nagen Borborua, said the tax ranges from Rs 20-30 per trader or shop owner, giving the king an annual revenue of some Rs 20,000.
It is age-old practices such as collecting 'annual taxes', kept going by groups like the Tiwas, that bolster the case. They are helping their claim that kingship is relevant even today. But royalty itself is under threat in the region, with most royals living in penury. Dipsing's family, for instance, survives on a mere pittance in the form of offerings in cash or kind from local villagers, as has been the practice. "We get some rice from the villagers as a token of gift to the king. Besides, people are taking care of his educational expenses," says Anarkali, the queen mother.
Tiwa community leaders have now made a formal plea to the Centre and the Assam government to consider a regular monthly grant for the king's upkeep. "We have made this demand because we are after all keeping alive an age-old institution that still has total social sanction," said Jur Sing Bordoloi, a community leader, after his public appeal to the government for aid before 15,000 tribespeople.
Poor governance and corruption is behind this sudden assertiveness of the northeasterners. Prime minister A.B. Vajpayee said in New Delhi recently that the Centre has pumped in more than Rs 44,000 crore in the Northeast between 1998-99 and 2002-2003. Yet, the region continues to be economically stagnant with the growing number of educated unemployed looking mainly to government jobs.
"Due to corruption at various levels, development funds do not reach the masses. We are sure routing funds through the traditional institutions headed by the local kings and chiefs would ensure maximum transparency," says Manik Syiem, president of the Federation of the Khasi States, the apex body of the 25 Khasi kings and chiefs. Kharshiing has shown the way by becoming the first elected representative from Meghalaya to start implementing development projects through these kingdoms. "I have made a beginning by allocating Rs 60 lakh from my MP's development fund to the traditional institutions to carry out specific development projects," Kharshiing said. The Khasi chiefs are now gearing up to formally present to the Ministry for Development of the North Eastern Region (DONER) a Rs 94-crore proposal on poverty alleviation prepared for them by tcs.
If people today are pushing for the rights of their royals, it's because they're clamouring for good governance. But, there are indications now that the Khasi Syiems would field their own candidate for the Shillong seat in the coming Lok Sabha polls. "This idea of having a representative in the Lok Sabha to lobby for the rights of traditional institutions is being discussed," says John Kharshiing. Do the royals in Meghalaya then have a political agenda after all? If they do, we'll soon have a novelty: democratically elected monarchs.