[ Nepha Wangsa ]
India is celebrating 75 years of independence, and the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, with ‘Unsung Heroes of India’ as one of its themes, is well underway.
The term ‘Sadiya Khowa Gohain’ synchronises much to the call, as the uprising of 1839, popularly known as the ‘the Khamti Rebellion’ in the eastern state, is recorded as one among the early resistance against the colonial rule in India.
As a part of the research team on the ‘Unsung Heroes of Arunachal Pradesh’ campaign, I have come across this particular question of adopting ‘Gohain’, a Tai Ahom (Assamese) title, by the Tai Khamti people. It has also popped up on social media sites, questioning their identity. I feel this is an opportunity for us to revisit our history and understand the rich legacy of our forefathers.
‘Sadiya Khowa Gohain’ or ‘the governor of Sadiya’, as described by John F Michel (1883) was an office created by the Tai Ahom rulers after they acquired the territories from the Chutia kingdom during their rule over Assam. This dignified office of governing upper Assam was taken over by the Tai Khamtis in 1794 AD, about 228 years ago. The title had been conferred to the chief of the Tai Khamtis after they ousted the then Sadiya Khowa Gohain during the reign of the Tai Ahom ruler Goureenath Sing.
The Tai Khamti, an indigenous tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, settled down in the present-day Namsai district in about 1751 AD, during the reign of Rajeswar Sing, the king of Assam, as recorded in ‘Sketch of Assam’ (1847).
John M’Cosh in ‘Topography of Assam’ (1837) stated that “The Kangtis (Tai Khamtis) are the most civilised of all these mountain tribes; they inhabit that triangular tract of country bounded by the Lohit on the one side, by the Dihong on the other, and by the mountainous country belonging to the Mishmis on the third.”
This ‘warrior tribe’, after their dismemberment of the Shan empire of Pong, migrated from Putao or Khamti Long to settle down on the banks of the Tengapani. Thereafter, they expanded their rule in the country. John M’ Cosh in ‘Topography of Assam’ (1837) further recorded that “Sadiya is the capital of the Kangti (Tai Khamti) country.”
This title, ‘Sadiya Khowa Gohain’, which is bestowed with great respect, dignity and power over the territory, was adopted by the Tai Khamtis and they established a designate class of rulers over the population of that time. Since then, the title ‘Gohain’ became a household name in the Tai Khamti community.
Records suggest that the title ‘Gohain’ was popularly used by the Tai Khamtis for more than a century. Much before the Britishers took over the reins in Upper Assam, the Burmese invaders in 1818 displaced the Tai Khamti Sadiya Khowa Gohain and appointed their own. However, they acknowledged their prominence and trust of the Tai Khamtis, and the tract was under their control.
In 1824-25, when the British government conquered the province and extended their rule in upper Assam, David Scott, the governor general’s agent, acknowledged the dominion of the Tai Khamtis in Sadiya. Captain Neufville bestowed on the Tai Khamti chief Chausalan the title of ‘Sadiya Khowa Gohain’. He was permitted to collect poll-tax from the Assamese people. The agreement made between David Scott and Chausalan, the Sadiya Khowa Gohain, on 15 May, 1826, is eminent evidence of the rule of the Tai Khamtis as ‘Gohains’ in Sadiya.
On 10 March, 1838, Adam White, the political agent, in his report to Captain F Jenkins (agent to the governor general) mentioned that the Tai Khamti chiefs of Sadiya were “The Runoa Gohain, Towa Gohain, Chowrung Pha (ex-Sadiya Khowa Gohain) and Kaptan Gohain.” These Tai Khamti chiefs led the war against the British on 28 January, 1839, killing Colonel A White, commanding officer of the Assam Light Infantry, and burning down the cantonment in Sadiya. A war was fought with one of the immediate causes being the removal of the office of the Sadiya Khowa Gohain. This war is one of the early resistances against the British government in India, before the first war of independence in 1857.
In 1851, even a French missionary, Monsieur Krick, who was later killed in the Mishmi Hills, had mentioned in his reports about his close affinity of a Tai Khamti chief, Chokeng Gohain.
The title ‘Gohain’ has been significant and widely used by the Tai Khamtis even after India’s independence and a democratic government was set up. It was until their chief Chow Khamoon Gohain, also the first MP of Arunachal Pradesh, suggested to his people to get back to the original titles.
Dispersion of Tai Khamti population
The Tai Khamti people became victims of successive punitive expeditions after the Tai Khamti-Anglo war of 1839, though they bravely fought against the Britishers over the years. The British government came up with a design to disintegrate the Tai Khamti population in Sadiya and dispatched them to different locations.
In 1843, Captain Vetch despatched one group under Kaptan Gohain, the cousin of ex-Sadiya Khowa Gohain, to Chanpura, another group near Tengapani, a group under Chowtung Gohain to settle in Demaji Lakhimpur, and a group under Bhodia, the son of ex-Sadiya Khowa Gohain, was sent to Narayanpur. The majority of the Tai Khamti continue to reside on the banks of the Tengapani, where they first settled after their migration from Burma, and a handful of population are found in Assam.
The question of identity as non-indigenous
Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein once stated: “I am extremely proud to be a Tai Khamti. Your identity is your perception of who you are.” Indeed, he has a legacy to carry forward from his forefathers. Being a son of late Chow Pook Gohain, one of the founding fathers of Arunachal Pradesh who was elected as member of the first Agency Council in 1969, a member of the Agency Council till 1972, when Arunachal Pradesh was renamed from NEFA and made a union territory. His father was born and brought up in Chongkham under the Lohit Frontier Division during the NEFA days, and which became Lohit district.
In 1948, his father Chowpook Gohain Mein also was a great entrepreneur. He established a sawmill in Sunpura to become the first industrialist in Arunachal Pradesh.
There is no doubt about his legacy; his maternal uncle, Chow Khamoon Gohain, was nominated as the first member of Parliament by the president of India in April 1952, representing the whole of NEFA and again re-nominated in 1957 for a second term. His maternal uncle, Chow Chandret Gohain, was also a member of Parliament in the 5th Lok Sabha. His elder brother, Chow Tewa Mein, was elected as a member of the Pradesh Council in 1972. When the Pradesh Council was converted to the provisional legislative assembly in August 1975, he also became a member of the provisional legislative assembly in 1975. In 1978, Chow Tewa Mein was elected from the 23rd Namsai-Chowkham assembly constituency and became a member of the first 30 elected members of legislative assembly of the state and served as minister later.
Recovery of the portrait of Tai Khamti men in British Library, London
The research team on ‘Unsung Heroes of Arunachal Pradesh’ to London, UK made a recovery of the portrait of Chowchali Gohain Khamti and Choganand Khamti with Moti Parshad (elephant and its rider) captured by Reid Robert Niel at the Namsai timber camp on 27 February, 1941. The portrait of the two Khamti men is the grandfathers (paternal and maternal) of Chowna Mein. It is a piece of the glorious legacy of his lineage as a proud son of the soil who has dedicated his life to public service in Arunachal Pradesh.
The photograph of the Chowchali Gohain and Choganand (pronounced Chow Kanan, who was the great chief of the Tai Khamtis and father of Chow Khamoon Gohain, the first MP of AP) is just a living example of their prominence as social leaders of the Tai Khamtis and the importance they held during the British regime, who have been acknowledged upon by preserving their portrait at British Library in London.
Over the years, there have been malicious attempts to degrade the Tai Khamti community for using the title ‘Gohain’ in the past and misrepresent the enduring legacy of the deputy chief minister and his family from the narrow prism of politics. Such malafide attempts do not augur well for a multiethnic state where every ethnic group and tribe have their own distinct history, migration trails, religious beliefs, practices, food habits, etc, which need to be respected and upheld.
The Tai Khamtis were once the rulers of Upper Assam as the governor of Sadiya as we look back into the time, it is a proud piece of history for the people of the state which cannot be subdued or distorted even if attempts are being made from time to time. Hence, it is for us to determine with all honesty without a prejudice mindset whether to question or to celebrate the rich legacy of our fellow Arunachali tribe who officially ruled in Upper Assam as the ‘Sadiya Khowa Gohain’ once upon a time. (Nepha Wangsa is a member of the research team on ‘Unsung Heroes of Arunachal Pradesh’. The photograph publication has been issued with permission from the British Library Board, London. Wangsa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)