Father of Karbi Nationalism
By DS Teron
Semson sing Ingti is undoubtedly the most towering and iconic figure of Karbi nationalism whose intense commitment towards his own people helped shape its destiny at a turbulent time when everything only seemed a distant dream—a dream that was shaped by a fierce imagination of a people who were only faint outlines in the periphery of the emerging India. But the man, to the majority of lesser mortals, has continued to remain an enigma whose life and contributions have never been evaluated in the truest sense. The general amnesia of the Karbi intelligentsia, both of the past and the present, has almost rendered him into a shadowy figure, coming ‘alive’ only during ritual official commemorations. The mass amnesia has manifested through the confusing and often contradictory information about even this man’s birth and death. To confound the confusion further, a tombstone at his grave at the Nowgaon Baptist Church cemetery ‘recorded’ his date of birth as 8 February 1904! This ‘record’ has contradicted and in a way invalidated all the existing literature, though rather sparse, on the man. There even exists the controversy around the date of his death and as regards the place where he was born. Did he breathe his last on 29 February, 1948? Was he born at Tika or Golaghat? These and many more such confusing questions on the life and works of the man have only helped to build an increasingly dense aura of myths around him. Sadly, this reflects upon our own criminal indifference to our history. Imagining a Political Community: Semson has been hailed variously as the ‘Architect’, ‘Founder’ and ‘Father’ of Karbi Anglong. There is no denying that all these epithets fittingly describe the one man who dared all odds imagining a political community for the Karbis who remained ‘scattered over a wide area, from Golaghat to Kamrup and the Khasi Hills beyond Guwahati, and from the Cachar plains near Silchar to the forests north of Bishanath in Darang’…..speaking a language that is ‘practically one and the same throughout’ (Walker/1925). The Karbis were undoubtedly ‘one of the most numerous and homogeneous of the many Tibeto-Burman races inhabiting the Province of Assam’ (Stack and Lyall/1909). From Sibsagar to Sylhet in the present Bangladesh, the Karbis inhabited this long track (Stack and Lyall/1909). Beside this cultural homogeneity, when Semson traveled through this wide, wild and weird country of the Karbis who were ‘among the more numerous of the Assam frontier races’ (Walker), there possibly existed no imagination of a community within the community itself. It was the fierce sense of imagination that Semson had that guided him to realize that it was possible to unite the Karbis into a single political community. Because Semson, born at the turn of the 20th Century and who very briefly lived through the series of rapid and rather tumultuous upheavals that also gave birth to ‘modern democracies’ across the globe. Our own India, one of the biggest ‘democracies’ today, was just an emerging idea. Semson dared to merge his little idea of a Karbi homeland with the big idea of an India that was itself struggling to free from colonial subjugation. And it was a pledge that Semson, the first modern, educated and fiercely nationalist of the Karbis, along with a handful of his fellow nationalists such as Sarsing Teron Habai (Habe) of Hongkram, Harsing Ingti of Longre, Biren Teron-Mouzadar of Duar-amla, Borgaon and Langtukso Ingti Borgaonbura of Silimkhowa, Moniram Langne of Deithor, Barelong Terang of Diphu, Rev. Hondrovel Milik of Putsari, Dhoniram Rongpi (ex-Assam Minister) of Hongkram, Joysing Doloi (ex-CEM/KAAC of Diphu and Khorsing Terang-ex-MLA, John Kathar of Borthol, Khoiyasing Ronghang-Mouzadar of Borneuria, Bonglong Terang of Dillai, Thengklong Rongpi-Mouzadar of Deithor and Song Be of Golaghat (Song Be/Monjir-1980), committed to himself. From within the narrow confines of a colonial service under the watchful and at times possibly wrathful eyes of the colonial masters, Semson carefully and painstakingly continued in his mission disregarding his own career, future and even health. ‘Karbi Adorbar’ came into being as a weapon to draw the first political, cultural and geographical map of a Karbi homeland at the threshold of the birth of a new independent India. He diplomatically overcame the stiffest and at times the most communal opposition from the then Assamese leaders, prominent or rather most infamous among them —one Motiram Bora who tried everything under his command as the Revenue Minister of the British Provincial government of Assam. Semson never lived to see the fruition of his idea of a Karbi homeland but he saw to it during his brief but intense lifetime that the worst of adversaries cannot prevent a community of people staking its rightful claim. The Price of Sacrifice: The most tragic disappointment for all the present and future Karbis is not only the premature death of Semson at the most crucial juncture of the tribe’s history, but also is the fact that the rich legacy of sacrifice and selflessness that the architect, father and founder of Karbi identity did not live to preside over the political destiny of the community. Towards the untimely end of his life when Semson chose to contest the lone assembly seat against Khorsing Terang, he was hailed by the most furious communal hate campaign simply because he was a Christian. And this tragic communal divide did not desert us during the creation of Meghalaya when Karbi Anglong and NC Hills were given the option either to continue remaining with Assam, have an Autonomous State of their own or merge with the new state. This divide continues to haunt and imperil us at the present juncture when the Karbis as a people are facing the most dangerous situation—politically, economically, geographically and demographically. The one man who stood so fiercely for Karbi pride, Karbi unity and Karbi nationalism, his legacy is today condemned to a ritualistic vanity. In fact, Semson’s legacy is more endangered now than ever before if we look around at the prevalent mess in the Karbi political and cultural atmosphere that only embodies decay and defeat. The message therefore should be clear before each one of us that the legacy of Karbi nationalism inherited from Semson must be imbibed in its truest spirit so that his idea of a Karbi homeland does not remain trapped in our imaginations alone. ‘Thurnon… Thurnon’, the theme song of the Karbi awakening that fired the imagination of every Karbi heart when Semson led the identity struggle, is even more relevant today than ever.