Rise and Consolidation of British Power in Khasi Hills

British Expansion and Consolidation in Khasi Hills

Garos is a tract of mountain territory inhabited by the Khasis. It is situated between the state of Jaintia and the hills on the west. There were thirty states in the Khasi hills before the advent of the British. Each state had an elected chief who had a council, without whose sanction no important business could be performed.

The British first got acquainted with the Khasis in the year 1765 when the company needed the Dewani of Sylhets from the Mughals. The British became a close neighbour of the Khasis after this takeover, and they soon realized the possibilities of trading with them. Consequently, the British started business with the Khasis in items like lime, silk, wax, iron, ivory and honey.

Shortly, the British came to monopolize trade in limestone and after the discovery of coal, they started to monopolize trade in coal too. However, this trade had to face disturbances as well. The Khasis often attacked the plains due to the ill treatment rendered out to the Khasi traders by the traders from the plains.

David Scott was appointed as an agent to the Governor General in November 1823, and he was given the responsibility of developing and consolidating companies and also the administration in the North East frontier.

The view displayed by Scott marked the introduction of a new British policy referring to the North East. At the same time, the British were following a policy of non-intervention with regard to the state of the Khasis.

Scott's view was that for a robust solution to the dispute of trade, the British government had to establish a strong control over all the Khasi chiefs. The Government of Bengal endorsed Scott's views thus heralding a change of policy. Scott realized the needs for maintaining good relations with the Khasis when the need for a postal service from Sylhet to Gauhati was urgently felt.

Scott was also interested in building roads in the region. Militarily, the proposed road would reduce the length of the march from lower Assam to Sylhet. It would also enable the British to keep the Khasi chiefs under control and attracted trade and commerce by giving the Khasis easy access to the markets in the plains.

Scott first contracted with Duwan Singh, Syiem of Sohra. He agreed to permit the British to build a road through his territory combining Assam with Sylhet and in return he demanded to get a zamindari near Pandua.

However, Scott got permission from Raja Ram Singh to construct a road through his region which connected Jaintiapur with Nagaon and Raha by the Burmese. Scott had now looked for a new route; all he could think of at that time was a road from Bardwar to Sylhet.

Scott resorted to a policy of coercion and negotiation to achieve his objective. He ordered the Khasi traders to close down the markets in plains and declared that he would annex Bardwar which belonged to the Syiem (chief) of Nongkhlaw, in the plains.

At the same time, he also stated that a normal trade relationship would be supported, and Bardwar would continue to be a part of Hima Nongkhlaw provided the Syiem Tirot Singh allowed the East India Company to construct his territory connecting the Surma valley and the Brahmaputra valley.

Further, Scott asked Tirot Singh to get the approval of all the Khasi chiefs to give the Company the authority of passage as the road would additionally affect areas beyond the jurisdiction of Nongkhlaw syiem. Consequently, Tirot Singh conveyed an assemblage at Nongkhlaw and all the Khasi chiefs were asked to attend the meeting.

Scott and his men arrived at Nongkhlaw on 3 November 1826, Scott was highly pleased by the method of Khasi sitting-at-council by the strict consideration of rules that controlled and governed such sessions.

Tirot Singh explained the objective of the meeting and requested the different declaimers to express their viewpoints on the proposition of the British government. The debate lasted for two days and ended in favour of the proposition.

The decision of the assembly was represented in a treaty which was resolved with the British government. Subsequently, as per this treaty the Khasis accepted to assist the British government in the development of the road, provide men and materials and donate lands for constructing residential quarters.

Dimarua which is a few miles from Gauhati was upheld by Khyrim as an appendix from the Ahoms, but a subordinate chief held the actual management responsibilities. David Scott took over Dimarua after the retreat of Burmese and forbade the Syiem of Khyrim from consolidating tribute for the chief. These aroused Syiem Bormanick and developed down to Dimarua to capture the revenue collected by the officer of the East India Company in 1828. He also elected a Basan in that area and vowed to return again the following year to receive the tribute.

Scott decided to take action against Khyrim, and he called upon the Jaintia Raja, and other Khasi Syiems to aid the British against Khyrim. This led to tension among the Khasi Syiems as they realized the imperialist design of the British.

Scott did not keep his promise of reviving Bardwar to Tirot Singh. Tirot Singh was also displeased with the denial of the Company to provide him military support against the Syiem of Rani, Balram Singh, against whom Tirot Singh together with Bormanick, Syiem of Khyrim had made a collective stand. He told the Company's revenue superintendent at Bardwar, ‘Mr. Scott made friends with me stating your enemy is the Company's enemy and that he would relinquish the revenue of Bardwar in both money and in paiks. He has not done it and wished to give troops to my enemy.'

Tirot Singh was now conscious of the danger of the agreement he made with the Company for the road construction. Realizing that it would appear obvious, if he suddenly stopped the construction, he waited for a better opportunity to oppose it without actually breaking the treaty.

Again there was high domination of the military at Nongkhlaw. Here, the military harassed the poor inhabitants, and other misdeeds finally led to mistrust and hostility among the Khasis.

Most people were unaware of the construction of road, and a few headmen complained to Tirot Singh that their opinion was being overlooked in certain important matters. They also understood that the British was trying to ascertain its grip over the hills and a rumour spread that the British imposed taxes on the Khasis.

All these aspects together created an environment of general discontentment between the Khasis and the British. Early in 1829, Tirot Singh made plans to expel foreigners from the country. He did not consider himself bounded by the treaty any longer and pitched his lot with Bormanick and other chiefs against the British.

A conference of Khasi Syiems was held at Nongkhlaw, and a decision to drive away the British was taken. The plan was general massacre of all immigrants at Nongkhlaw and the abolition of the Company's post.

The plan was put into action the following day, the Company was attacked at Nongkhlaw and Burlton, and Lieutenant Beddingfield of the Bengal Artillery along with many of the Company's men were killed.

However, Scott who was in Nongkhlaw at the time of the conference managed to escape to Sohra and then to Cherra. From Cherra, Scott conveyed information to the authorities at Sylhet and Guwahati and Captain Lister immediately started out for the hills. 

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