The early 19th century was a period of great turbulence in the North-Eastern region of present-day India. The Anglo-Burmese War had come to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo (1826), which finally paved the way for the entry of the East India Company into Assam and other areas of the North East.
In the early days of British rule in Assam, David Scott was appointed as the Agent of the Governor-General for the entire eastern frontier, from Cachar (Silchar in Assam) to Sylhet (in present-day Bangladesh) in the south, to Sikkim in the north. He was also the Special Civil Commissioner of North-East Rongpur (present-day Goalpara and Garo Hills) and Judge of Circuit and Appeal in the Zilla of Sylhet.
Scott was an ambitious British officer, whose primary aim was to consolidate British rule in the region.
One of the main strategies of the British in India was to create a sound network of connectivity across the country, to maintain control over the provinces. With the beginning of British control over the Brahmaputra valley, Scott started seeking avenues to open up a direct route of transportation and communication from Assam through densely forested areas right up to the Surma Valley. He wanted to build a road connecting Guwahati to Sylhet (around 230 km), thus saving travel time through the malaria-infested region.
Since the road would have to pass through Meghalaya, Scott arranged a meeting with U Tirot Singh (‘U’ is the masculine article in the Khasi language), one of the constitutionally chosen chiefs or ‘Syiems’ in the province of Nongkhlow (Nongklaw). Nongkhlow is now a village in the Nongstoin subdistrict of the West Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, roughly 63 km from Shillong and about 101 km from Guwahati. This route was chosen by the British since it would be the fastest route to Sylhet as well as the rest of Bengal, and thus connect them to the rest of the country.
Tirot Singh was a constitutional head of Nongkhlow. He was the king of the Khadsawphra Syiemship. There were 25 petty states in the Khasi Hills. Of these, 15 were presided over by the Syiems; even though all the heads belonged to the same clan, they were all chosen by popular election.
Tirot Singh was a visionary leader and well loved by his people. He had the interest of his people in mind and so, when the British led by Scott approached him with the proposal to build a road connecting Guwahati to Sylhet, he welcomed the idea, thinking it would give him and his tribe access as well as control over the duars or passes in Assam and a flourishing trade route right up to the Surma Valley (in present-day Bangladesh).
With this end in view, Tirot Singh and the other chiefs held a durbar or a court with David Scott in 1827.
The durbar, which lasted two days, left an impact on Scott, who was amazed at the decency, decorum and quality of the debate.
After an intensive discussion among the chiefs, they granted their consent to the construction of a road from Rani (near Guwahati) via Nongkhlow to the Surma Valley. The work started at once and, soon, bungalows came up at Nongkhlow. For about 18 months, work proceeded smoothly and the officers mixed freely with the local tribesmen and maintained cordial relations.
British historian, Sir Edward Gait mentions in his book ‘The History of Assam’ (1906) that in April 1829, there arose a sense of great alarm among the Khasis in Nongkhlow when a Bengali peon told them that the British had ulterior motives for building that road. He said they were planning to levy taxes on the local people and subjugate them as soon as the road was completed.
Tirot Singh also learned of reinforcements being brought in to Guwahati. He convened another durbar and also instructed the British to vacate Nongkhlow. The latter, of course, paid no heed. This angered Tirot Singh and he led a sudden attack on a small band of officers on 4th April 1829 (Prof P N Dutta - Glimpse into the History of Assam, Shillong, 1986 ). One of the officers, Lt Bedingfield was lured to a meeting and killed, while another officer, Lt Burlton, continued to defend himself and tried to flee towards Guwahati but he was overtaken and put to death. Sir Gait, in his narration, mentions that Scott himself had a narrow escape as he had left for Cherrapunjee (Sohra) shortly before the attack.
Alarmed at the sudden development, British troops were immediately summoned from both Sylhet and Kamrup, and drastic steps were taken to put down the rebellion. The Khasis under Tirot Singh offered stiff resistance to the British, resorting mainly to guerilla warfare and the hilly terrain worked to their advantage. But, sadly, they were armed only with native weapons like bows, arrows and swords, which eventually proved futile against the sophisticated guns and battle strategy of the British.
In spite of these drawbacks, the Khasis didn’t give up easily and the conflict dragged on for four long years. But, as days passed, one chief after another began to accept submission. Tirot Singh was also injured and took refuge in the surrounding caves. Even, today, anyone travelling to those areas can get a glimpse of these hiding places, which are preserved with great pride.
Unfortunately, Tirot Singh was betrayed and his hideout given away by a native who had been bribed by the British, and Tirot Singh was forced to surrender on 9th January 1833. After a namesake trial, Tirot Singh was deported to Dhaka (in present-day Bangladesh), where he died in captivity.
Prof David R Syiemlieh, who has done extensive research and is credited with the discovery of the details regarding the death and last days of Tirot Singh, mentions in In Pursuit of History, Discussion on Collection and Interpretation of Data (NEHU journal publication; Vol XIII) that although Tirot Singh was actually deported to faraway Dhaka, he was treated like a native ruler and granted an allowance. Prof Syiemlieh offers documented proof that he had been under house arrest but was allowed to move around in his palanquin in and around Dhaka.
His research led to the discovery that Tirot Singh breathed his last on 17th July 1835. It is believed that he died of a stomach ailment. These findings led the Meghalaya government to dedicate 17th July as Tirot Singh Day and a state holiday. The Tirot Singh Award for Arts and Literature is also a very prestigious state award.
Tirot Singh was not only one of the most loved and respected Syiems, but his patriotism and courage have also made him a household name in Meghalaya. A true son of the soil, who had the welfare of his people at heart, he didn’t hesitate to retaliate as soon as he realized the real motives of the British.
The route carved by David Scott still exists and is broken into many segments frequented by trekking enthusiasts. The most favoured section, 16 km long, extends from Mawphlang to Lad Mawphlang in Meghalaya’s Eastern Khasi Hills and is called the David Scott Trail. While pushing this trail, you can still get a glimpse of the horse-cart track that Scott built from Sohra (Cherrapunjee) to Bangladesh. The route is littered with jaw-dropping vistas but, if you ever make it this far, spare a thought for the son of the soil who gave his life for his people and for these hills.
Mahasweta Dey is an MA in History from Cotton College, Assam and currently teaches History and Social Science in a school in Guwahati.
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