Balajied Singh Syiem conveys such timid resignation that it is hard to picture him wearing his royal turban and silken robe as a tribal king in an exotic corner of northeastern India.
And it’s nearly impossible to imagine this mild fellow fulfilling his regal duty once a year: raising his sword to behead two dozen sacrificial goats, each of which must be killed in one stroke.
His first time killing goats, when he was 20, he was not sure either that he could do it. He was only the heir when his uncle, the king, Rajah Dakor Singh Syiem, suddenly took ill and the ceremonial task, to his horror, was thrust upon him.
“I was shaking,” recalls the syiem, or tribal king. “I was nervous. I prayed I would get the power and strength to do it. Luckily for me, the first stroke was clean.”
In the Khasi hills of Meghalaya state, there are 25 syiems like Balajied Singh, loved and revered by their people, who number about 1 million. The syiems didn’t cede power to India’s central government when the constitution was adopted in 1950. But their ability to determine the future of their tribes has been steadily whittled away by district councils that many accuse of corruption and mismanagement.
With a state-owned mining company pushing hard for a $100-million uranium project on tribal land in the West Khasi hills area, the stakes are high. The Indian government has nuclear weapons and covets the Khasi Hills uranium, the richest quality in the country.
The uranium dispute illuminates the struggle over who has more influence with the Khasi tribal people: tribal kings or district councils.
The councils are accused of mismanaging resources such as forests, leading to erosion problems, while the tribal kings have been elbowed aside by various levels of Indian government, leaving them increasingly irrelevant.
“They’re in great danger of dying out,” said John Kharshing, a spokesman for the federation of Khasi states, representing the 25 kings. “The syiems are trying to assert their power in whatever way they can.
“The Atomic Energy Council says we’ll transform your region and make your region the most advanced. But at this stage, we do not agree to the mining of uranium,” said Kharshing, explaining that people were afraid the mine could cause health problems.
Singh sees his role as preserving tribal rights over the land, water and resources, while grappling with problems such as erosion and declining productivity.
As education and globalization trickle into this out-of-the-way corner, the 25 kings may find their role obsolete in a society that traditionally has run counter to the rest of the subcontinent. Here, for example, families long for baby girls, not boys; the dowry killings that trouble the rest of India are absent. And the youngest girl inherits family property, not the oldest boy.
It’s a matriarchal society, but one formally ruled by men. Women are the family heads and property owners, and when a man marries, he moves into the house of his wife’s family, not vice versa.
Kings take their position through the maternal line: The youngest daughter becomes the head of the family and wears a crown, and it is the oldest of her brothers who is made king. She, however, retains important tribal functions such as curing the sick.
Singh is a qualified medical doctor who treats his people’s illnesses with Western medicine, yet his people have equal faith in his sister’s traditional methods, including hair singeing and the use of water sanctified by the plunging of a hot poker.
The syiems never considered themselves and their tribes to be part of India. They agreed to accede to India in 1948 on condition that they kept their traditional powers over land, taxes, law and resources. But the Indian Constitution stripped them of their powers, which were vested in district councils, leaving the syiems politically impotent. So the syiems refused to sign the final Instrument of Merger confirming that they were part of India.
For years, the syiems have fought for legal recognition, but their petitions to New Delhi are always ignored. Their latest call for the constitution to be rewritten, restoring their status, was lodged two years ago.
Both the syiems and the district councils want to take the lead on any decision on uranium mining. The kings have campaigned vigorously against it. So far, the district councils have been unwilling to endorse such an unpopular step, even though it would bring wealth to the area.
“There are very serious conflicts, because one superfluous body, which is alien to the people, has constitutional legality,” said Kharshing, the spokesman for the federation of Khasi states, describing the district councils.
“On the other hand, you have a system of administration widely loved and respected by the people which has no constitutional legality,” he added, referring to the tribal kings.
Locals fear that problems similar to those they face in their forests will be repeated if the district councils agree to the mining of uranium. The tribes own the forests but can’t control them. District councils issue felling permits, but thousands of trees are illegally hauled out at night by armed bandits, or by dealers who bribe people to look the other way.
A district council chairman, David Lyngwi, defended his group’s record: “You cannot physically guard the forest. Gun-toting mafia with Kalashnikovs drive in and fell trees in the middle of the night, and we can’t do anything.”
The row with the central government over uranium mining is unlikely to help the tribal kings’ bid to regain their lost powers. Singh also worries about broader forces that may be working against them.
“I can see that young people are staying away from tradition and customs that were theirs yesterday. Presently, they think of going to the big cities in India to get an education and maybe even dream of going out of the country,” he said.
“It might be that, with the passage of time, the traditional institutions get weakened because of the pressure from different quarters. People might lose track of reality, and we might fade into obscurity. That’s our greatest challenge.”