Death of Kiang Nangbah
Nangbah was captured through betrayal by his own people. When he realised that his camp was being surrounded by British soldiers, he immediately fired at U Long Sutnga, the betrayer who took him to the hideout at first and then helped reveal his identity to the enemy. But the gun got stuck somewhere and failed to fire. U Long Sutnga was saved. This implies that U Kiang perhaps used guns more than any other weapon in his fight against the British soldiers. When asked why the people revolted, he firmly stated that it was due to the uninvited interference of the government with the religious rites and rituals of the people. He was chained and paraded to Jowai on December 30, 1862. After a mock trial, Nangbah was found guilty of provoking violence and disorder. He was later hanged in full public view in the evening of that fateful day (December 30) at the local marketplace of Iawmusiang in Galway town of Jowai in the present-day state of Meghalaya. Several other Jaintia warriors died fighting or in custody. He was executed within just a few hours on the day of his conviction itself.
Nangbah was ready for this eventuality as he very well knew that he would be executed if he was captured by any chance. He therefore accepted death fearlessly and unflinchingly. He did not succumb to the tactics of the British colonisers, who promised to spare the lives of those captured freedom fighters if they chose to be informers and supply information to facilitate the capture of their comrades.
The death of Nangbah marked the beginning of the end of the Jaintia rebellion. A glorious chapter in the struggle for the freedom of the Jaintias of Meghalaya thus came to a close with the death of Nangbah. The message was clearly conveyed – anyone who dared to question the authority of the colonial state would be treated with an iron hand and in the same inhumane way as Nangbah. The condemnation of Nangbah to death and his public hanging were aimed to strike a reign of terror among the common Jaintia men and women. The revolt of the Jaintias was finally suppressed by the year 1863. The government had resorted to both punitive and diplomatic measures to subjugate the freedom fighters. Nangbah’s last words while climbing the scaffold before his execution still continue to live on – “Brothers and sisters, please look carefully at my face when I die on the gallows. If my head turns towards the east, my country and its people will be freed from the foreign yoke within a span of a hundred years, and if it turns west, it will remain in bondage for good.”
He told his weeping countrymen to watch him with courage, faith and hope while he was being swung on the rope. As if destiny had already pre-decided the future course of events, the stupefied people could scarcely believe what had happened, for they saw his face turn eastwards! His prophecy turned out to be true! It happened exactly as he had predicted and India attained her freedom from the British rule 85 years later. What a salute to his supreme sacrifice and martyrdom again!
But, even after the hanging of Kiang Nangbah, the warriors continued to persist before it took some time for the Government to re-establish their former position in the Jaintia hills District. The posting of a more responsible British official, designated as the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), gradually brought about its pacification. As time passed, the Dorbars of the Jaintias lost much of their earlier vigour and vitality, which automatically led to a decline in the standard of debates and decorum. The Dorbars usually functioned to provide community discipline, but in view of the changes brought about by urbanisation and the spread of Christianity, they became less and less effective and insignificant. This was also because of the usurpation of the state’s powers by the colonial administration. But, Nangbah’s spirit of patriotism and undying love for his motherland still remains alive in the hearts and minds of the people of Meghalaya through various media such as poems, art, folk songs, ballads, etc. His unrelenting spirit and stiff resistance to never give up despite facing a formidable enemy shall continue to be a symbol of inspiration for generations to come.
Kiang Nangbah’s Memory Lives On
It is important to mention here that the Kiang Nangbah-led people’s rebellion was the third and the last encounter of the Jaintias against the British, which also marked the end of the glorious reign of the Jaintia Kingdom. The Pnar kings who then lived in Jaintiapur still nurtured a faint hope of reclaiming their throne. But, they were moved from Jaintiapur to Dacca immediately after the rebellion was suppressed, perhaps to thwart any chance of influencing their subjects from organising any further revolt against the Raj. The state government of Meghalaya has declared December 30 as a state holiday in honour of this brave son who died a martyr for the cause of upholding the rights and freedom of his land and its people in the hands of the British rulers. Every year, the Government confers a State Award called the Kiang Nangbah Award, upon the most outstanding sportsperson of the state. Various cultural programmes are organised across different places of the state on this day which is popularly commemorated as U Kiang Nangbah Day.
A government degree college was also opened at Jowai on September 15, 1967 in the loving memory of Kiang Nangbah. It was Prof. R.C. Laloo, a noted academician and public leader who, at first, undertook the initiative of renaming the erstwhile Jowai Government College as Kiang Nangbah Government College on December 30, 1984. It is a premier institution of higher education in the West Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya. The Kiang Nangbah Govt. Higher Secondary School, Jowai was delinked from the Kiang Nangbah Govt. College in 2015. The former is affiliated to the Meghalaya Board of School Education (MBOSE) and was established with the aim of imparting education to students coming from a poor economic background in Jowai town in particular, and the Jaintia Hills District in general. Starting from very humble origins, Kiang Nangbah Govt. College has today grown into a multi-faculty institution. A postage stamp was issued by the Government of India in July, 2001 during the regime of former PM of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee to commemorate this lesser-known and unsung freedom fighter from the Northeast. This was done in continuation of the series of stamps released by the Department of Posts, on famous personalities of India who inspired and influenced the course of the country’s national movement.
A set of four stamps were released in the year 2001 honouring Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, C. Sankaran Nair, and Krishna Nath Sharma, besides U Kiang Nangbah. It is important to ponder as to why this realisation never dawned upon the Congress Party despite being in power for more than 50 years!
In 2018, the Kiang Nangbah Iasiat Khnam Memorial Society (KNIKMS), Meghalaya, had demanded for the setting up of a museum (at an estimated project cost of Rs. 4.8 crore) in the memory of Kiang Nangbah to preserve his legacy. It also directed the district authorities that observing the day, i.e. December 30, by only declaring it as a state holiday was just not enough. The museum, which will be the first of its kind, is proposed to be constructed at the historic site of the Kiang Nangbah Memorial Park. It will document the birthplace of Nangbah at Kper Nangkhlieh, Tpep-Pale (erstwhile Dulong, Jowai), the place where he was captured by the British near Khanduli village along the inter-state border with Assam, and the place where the freedom fighter was hanged to death at Iawmusiang, Jowai besides the weapons that were being used by him. This also holds the potential of educating the younger generation about the contributions of the freedom fighter towards freeing his people from the British rule, and transforming the place as one of the prominent tourist destinations of the state. However, approval for the project has yet not been granted by the state government.
The KNIKMS had also submitted a similar proposal to the central government through the state BJP in the beginning of 2019. The construction of U Kiang Nangbah Indigenous Knowledge & Cultural Centre cum Tribal Museum at Jowai, is also on the cards. It is extremely sad to see that Shillong’s very own Secretariat building does not have any statue of any of the prominent freedom fighters of the state even till this day. On December 30, 2014 the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), Meghalaya, in association with the North-East Students’ Organisation (NESO) and the Syiem-Jaintia Women’s Wing, had unveiled a life-size statue of U Kiang Nangbah in his war attire at Barik near the Civil Hospital junction (along the Shillong-Jowai road) in the capital city of Shillong, as a mark of the 152nd death anniversary of this Jaintia patriot and one of India’s legendary freedom fighter. It is an extremely beautiful and elegant monument resembling a hollow tower-like structure of typical Jaintia design, erected by the Jaintias in honour of Nangbah who died after revolting against the British.
A glance at the statue is enough to tell everyone that the sculptors have put in a lot of effort to showcase the accurate physical features of the freedom fighter in the best possible manner with intricate detailing.
Kiang Nangbah Monument, Jowai, Meghalaya. Picture Credits: touristplaces.net.in
Situated on the banks of the Syntu Ksiar (literally meaning ‘The Golden Flower’ in Jaintia), alongside the river Myntdu which originates near Jowai and flows by the name of Hari to join the Surma or Barak river in Bangladesh, the place has a very serene and special feel to it. A beautiful picnic spot, it is located along a suspension bridge far away from the hustle and bustle of the main town in the centre of a huge rice field known as Madiah Kmai Blai in the Jaintia language. The KNIKMS had earlier put forward the proposal of turning this ground into a traditional archery field, besides introducing boating and angling to promote tourism at Syntu Ksiar. Madiah Kmai Blai is surrounded by imposing hills and forests of pine trees. Kiang Nangbah’s monument can be observed from the Chilliangraid viewpoint, Jowai. The paddy field is in itself of much historical importance for it was here that a meeting of the Jaintia leaders took place in the year 1861. It was at this meeting that Nangbah had taken an oath to lead his people come what may, in their fight to drive the British out of their homeland.
The district administration of the West Jaintia Hills District, with the active participation of local residents of the area, undertook a massive cleaning drive of the river Myntdu at Syntu Ksiar on December 29, 2019 with the aim of cleaning and rejuvenating it so as to restore it to its former glory and purity. The foundation of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya which was laid on August 5, 2020 comprised of soil and water taken from these two important locations of the Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya. It was on July 26, 2020 that a few RSS swayamsevaks in the presence of the Doloi of Jowai, took a fistful of soil along with some water from the banks of the Syntu Ksiar which is not only a very important section of the sacred Myntdu river, but is also the place where Kiang Nangbah was ordained as the leader to fight against British imperialism. Both soil and water were taken with due permission from the traditional head of the Jaintias and with prayers that were conducted as per their traditional religion. Another sample of soil and water from this region was given by the Doloi of Nartiang, which also formed a part of the foundation stone-laying ceremony of the temple.
It needs to be mentioned here that a poignant visit to the U Kiang Nangbah Memorial Park constitutes a very important part of the celebrations of the Behdeinkhlam festival of the Jaintias, which is celebrated every year in the month of July seeking the blessings for a good harvest, all-round happiness and prosperity of the Jaintias. Rooted in Vedic origins, the Behdeinkhlam festival is one of the biggest and popular festivals of Meghalaya that was banned by the British in the year 1931 for 16 years at a stretch. It resumed a year after India’s Independence in 1947, at the behest of the religious leaders of the Jaintias who sought to preserve the cultural heritage of the people from sinking into oblivion. The different aspects of the festivals of the Jaintias are not merely confined to the realm of religion alone, but are also social festivities that pave the way for emotional integration, family reunion and the strengthening of community bonds.
As most of the Jaintias have converted into Christianity in the recent times, they no longer take part in the religious ceremonies of these festivals but simply witness the dance performances. At a time when the menace of the Church’s conversion zeal continues to grip several areas of Northeast India not only in the hills but the plains as well including the districts of Lakhimpur, Dhemaji and Majuli in Upper Assam, it is important that we remember the priceless contributions of bravehearts like U Kiang Nangbah, Pa Togan Sangma, and Haipou Jadonang Malangmei of Nagaland. They fought for saving their identity and culture in the face of an alien faith that was threatening to impose itself over the native religious practices and belief systems of the people. By doing so, they also united the people of their own communities in raising the banner of struggle against the one common enemy.
History is a great teacher and the onus lies upon us to know and understand the events as it happened in reality; only then can we secure the future of our coming generations from the two most important existential threats to the Dharmic civilisation and culture – Islamic demographic invasion, and Christian proselytisation activities.
The KNIKMS which was formed way back in the year 1966, has been observing the U Kiang Nangbah Day for the past 54 years with traditional and ritualistic fervour as a mark of respect for this great leader. Another organisation called the Sein Raij Niamtre, based in Shillong, has been commemorating the death anniversary of U Kiang Nangbah since 1964. This year too, December 30 was celebrated as the 158th death anniversary of a patriot with a magnanimous personality, a fearless heart and invincible courage. The National People’s Youth Front (NPYF), Meghalaya of the National people’s Party (NPP) hosted an award ceremony to felicitate three prominent citizens and a society, at Jowai. It was also observed at Khliehriat, East Jaintia Hills District, with members of different social organisations paying rich tributes to the freedom fighter. As a part of commemorating the monumental event, marathon, cycling competitions, slow bike racing, traditional archery contests, etc. are organised by different socio-cultural organisations of the Jaintias. They draw thousands of participants from all over Meghalaya, with prizes ranging from Rs. 1,000 upto 5,000 being awarded to both the winners and the runner-ups respectively.
A grand religious ceremony called ka shad Kiang Nangbah is annually organised on the occasion by the religious chiefs of the Jaintias. Extempore speech and essay-writing competitions are also organised across different places of the state on the three heroes – U Tirot Sing Syiem, Pa Togan Nengminja Sangma, and U Kiang Nangbah – among school and college-going students. Elsewhere in the city of Shillong, members of the Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement (KHNAM) organises awareness programmes about the freedom fighter on this day.
It is said that U Kiang Nangbah was a mastermind in chalking out military strategies to drive away the enemy. He was a man of vision who stood for the principles of justice and liberty, a man who was chosen by the divine force of nature to lead his people towards freedom and independence. Going by the popular beliefs in the region, Nangbah was married when he was arrested and he had two sons out of the wedlock. In 1977, The Meghalaya government laid down a scheme to prepare a detailed biography of the different freedom fighters from the state. However, the scheme could not be executed in the right earnest chiefly owing to the dearth of writers. It is a humble appeal to the Government of India, especially the Union Ministry of Culture, for bestowing proper recognition and respect to some of these greatest freedom fighters from Northeast India who selflessly laid down their lives in the interest of saving the future of Bharat from colonial rule. They gave us the right to proudly call ourselves a sovereign nation free from the control of any external power. It is really unfortunate to see that special occasions like the birth and death anniversaries of these warriors sometimes just end up with a small note from the Hon’ble dignitaries of their respective states. The lands that we call our own today were once soaked in the blood and sweat of valiant heroes like Pa Togan Sangma and Kiang Nangbah who fought for our future, for a free, prosperous and inclusive Bharat.
Celebration of their sacrifices should not, however, imply a dampening of the principles they stood and fought for, their dreams and aspirations of securing the culture and ways of lives of their people in the face of outside threats. Only then can the true fighting spirit of our beloved heroes like Nangbah be instilled in the hearts and minds of our future generations and they can become worth emulating.
Nangbah was unique, for so many reasons and more so for a certain mystique that his name inspires. This may also partly be due to the very little information that we have about him and his life; though, his name has been immortalised through different institutions, roads and buildings that have been named after him in different parts of Meghalaya. A peace-loving man that Nangbah was, he was chosen by his people to fight the “Little War” as the British called it then. He decided to fight back, for he strongly believed in freedom – freedom of the individual self, freedom of the society and freedom of the country – as the highest ideal of mankind. He fought because he preferred death over slavery. Perhaps till today, the identity of the Jaintias (who are not Christians) would have been lost, had it not been for the efforts and sacrifices of this great leader. Since Independence, Indians have been made to adore and worship leaders projected to have played bigger roles in the struggle for freedom only because of the fact that they have occupied a far bigger space than others in the history textbooks of schools and colleges.
Not many might still be aware of little-known heroes from the Northeast like Maniram Dewan, Rani Gaidinliu, Bir Tikendrajit, Chengjapao Kuki, Matmor Jamoh, Shoorvir Pasaltha, Kanaklata Baruah, etc. who played a role of utmost significance to liberate the country from colonial rule. They are role-models and national icons whose struggles and the principles they stood for are universally relevant for the present and as well as all the future generations of this country.
In fact, the Northeast has no dearth of such heroes and heroines who chose their motherland and community over any other luxury of life. The story of Indian Independence is incomplete without an honest and objective appraisal of the contributions of this region. But, the local battles of resistance to the British rule in Northeast India have never found their deserved space in the historiography of the region. These were equally important modes of resistance against the brutality of British imperialism, which the dominant historiography has seldom talked about. India’s freedom struggle was nobody’s absolute monopoly; hence, no particular social group, community or individual can be said to be privileged over the other in this collective struggle. As Meghalaya recently paid a solemn tribute on the occasion of the 158th death anniversary of our very own freedom fighter and martyr U Kiang Nangbah, let us all be reminded once again of his values, ethics and principles that are clearly laid down in the Constitution of India, because, as repeated by PM Modi himself several times, the Constitution alone is our scripture and holy book as a nation. It is indeed tempting to try and create the life story of this great Jaintia hero who had hoodwinked the British till his very last breath and this piece is just a small contribution to that attempt.
Although this is not sufficient, but I do hope that this will reinvigorate further research among objective readers and researchers of Indian history to create a complete biography of forgotten heroes like Kiang Nangbah. If real justice is to be done to his legacy, it is desirable that a proper biography of him should be written in Jaintia, Assamese and English languages which should also be made available to people outside of the Northeast. It is important to know his history from the language of folklore and from his own people, because what the British officials have written about him presents not even a half of the picture! Moreover, articulation of his story through the folk idiom shall help us in a better understanding of community perceptions, institutions and responses. It is this understanding which, in turn, would facilitate bridges of dialogue. Our sacred texts and epics, be it the Kalikapurana, Yoginitantra, Ramayana, and Mahabharata, are replete with frequent references to this region. The canvas of commonness and togetherness in the midst of variations and distances provide the backdrop for an appreciation of the history and rich culture of the Northeast.
Today, people of the Khasi and Jaintia hills have lost much of their traditional culture. In fact, many in the younger generation do not even remember fighters like Togan Sangma and Kiang Nangbah who fought against the tyranny of the British. Their ignorance speaks a lot about the flawed education policy of the government, which has totally neglected the Hindu past of the Northeast and its culture. It seems as if most of the history textbooks prepared by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) begin with the British annexation of their territories (The Pioneer, 2013). A serious attempt was made in this direction under the leadership of the then National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) Director J.S. Rajput and during the NDA-regime of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But, hundreds of textbooks prepared during this time by historians like Dr. Meenakshi Jain were later thrown into the dustbin after the coming into power of the UPA Government, under the garb of preventing “saffronisation” of education. Hopefully, much work will be done in the near future on the life of this pre-eminent Jaintia hero and the extensive cultural and religious contributions of the Northeast to the larger Indian civilisational process.
- K.G. Suresh. (2013). India must look North-East. The Pioneer. https://www.dailypioneer.com/2013/columnists/india-must-look-north-east.html
- Kiang Nangbah – A Documentary Feature Film by D.R. Michael Buam. https://youtu.be/Prgk13FpqOs
Image credit: Office Holidays