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Friday, October 22, 2010


The most remarkable feature about tribal life in the hills of Assam is the fundamentally democratic basis of their social and administrative organizations. With minor exceptions, the land belongs to the community and not to any individual. Although in the Garo Hills the Nokma (the head of a clan or a village), in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills the Siem or the Doloi or the Raja, and in the Lushai Hills, till recently, the Chief was the nominal proprietor of all lands within his jurisdiction, every villager could cultivate his plot of land anywhere as a matter of right. In society, there is no distinction between high and low. Wealth and income do not confer social privileges. The once powerful Lushai Chief and the Khasi Siem, who were regarded by neighboring peoples as Raja or King, were as much commoners as the humblest of the humble. The rich is always ready to help those of their co-villagers who are in need and the strong is similarly inclined to the weak. In fact the Lushai Chief, who wielded enormous authority over his subjects, was the de jure father of the villagers over whom he ruled. In times of scarcity, if the villagers committed robbery of grain from the Chief's granary, they committed no offense.
This democratic spirit was strongly reflected in the indigenous tribal administrative organizations. The Khasi Siems were constitutional monarchs. They can hardly ever give any decision independently. It is his myntries (ministers) who generally decide all matters for him. Although the Lushai Chiefs were more powerful and sometimes autocratic, they could disregard the advice of their upas (village elders) only at their own risk. Thus, in spite of the Chiefs and the Siems being chosen on the hereditary principle their administration was thoroughly democratic. In other areas, such as the North Cachar Hills, both the hereditary and the elective principles are followed side by side by different tribes in choosing the chief or the leader. Disputes are heard in open court where all the male members of the village take part. In some areas even the women are allowed to be present at the trial of cases. The judgment passed on an offender is regarded as a judgment of the whole village and not merely of the chief and his advisers. This system of administration suited the genius of the people and they were happy under it. The British, with their experience of administration over half the world, were wise enough not to interfere with the indigenous administrative machinery. Administration was left almost entirely to the village headmen and the elders, the Deputy Commissioner and the Sub-Divisional Officer merely sitting over them as superintendents and intervening only in serious matters, such as a dispute over the boundary between one village and another, or cases of a seriously criminal or political nature.

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