The tribal communities in India have been largely ignored, especially in the north-eastern states. The tribes have not seen many qualitative changes in their lives since independence. Therefore, it is no surprise that very few people know about the once illustrious Jaintia tribe in Meghalaya, and one of the greatest tribe leaders U Kiang Nangbah, whose martyrdom is commemorated on December 30.
Born at a time when the British had annexed the Jaintia kingdom in 1835, Nangbah didn’t come from an aristocratic background. Belonging to a lineage of farmers, at a very early age, Nangbah was distraught by the policies the British had adopted. In spite of annexing the Jaintia Kingdom, the British refrained from interfering in the native administration for 24 years. However, when the British India government wanted to impose taxes and interfere with the local customs and traditions of the people, it led to strong anti-British feelings being developed. The people felt that this was an attempt to make them “submissive to authority” and “acknowledge the supremacy of the British government”.
During this time the Jaintia tribes had chosen Nangbah as their leader who vowed to drive the British out of their land.
In 1860, the British imposed a house tax on the Jaintias. This was when the tribals broke out in rebels under the leadership of Nangbah. However, they were shunned by a large force of British troops. Later, the British also asserted their power by setting up a police station on near the cremation ground of the Dkhar clan. Religious intolerance also grew rampant with the establishment of missionary schools, and police were disrupting local festivals. The acts of the British officials made the Jaintia people rise in arms to protect their land and people.
At this juncture, U Kiang Nangbah signalled a revolt and attacked a British Thana and set fire to its arsenal. They built barricades, stockades, stored grains and manufactured weapons and firearms. Guerilla attacks with bows, arrows, swords and shields, paralysed the British Administration as the attackers would swiftly escape to the jungles of Myngkrem, Myntdu and Myntwa. The attacks spread to Mynso, Changpung, Raliang, Nartiang, Borato, Mookaian, Sutnga and other places of Jaintia Hills. To counter them, the British conducted a full-scale military operation against U Kiang Nangbah and his men.
While the revolution was going on, Nangbah fell severely ill. Taking this opportunity, U Long Sutnga, a key member of his team, tipped off the police. The British captured him on December 27, 1862. He was put on mock trial and was sentenced to death within three days of his capture, before the very eyes of the troops and the locals, to send a message that any resistance to the British rule would not be tolerated and would be suppressed with an iron hand. He was hanged on December 30, 1862.
Describing this event, historian J.N. Chaudhary in his ‘Khasi Canvas’, wrote, “When U Kiang Nangbah climbed the scaffold, he told his weeping countrymen to watch him with courage, faith and hope, and if they saw his face turn east when he swung on the rope they would get back their freedom before a hundred years passed. But if it turns west they would remain slaves forever. The stupefied people could scarcely see what happened, but they believed that they saw his face turn eastward.”