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Kingdom no more, long live king

They call him payiem or Kingly Father, and he is one man of position in Meghalaya who determinedly distances himself from the contest ó admittedly lukewarm ó to elect two members of Parliament. Dr Balajied Singh Syiem succeeded his maternal great-uncle 25 years ago as hereditary syiem (king in Khasi) of Hima Khyrim or the Khyrim kingdom, a title that could go back 700 years or more. He is also a medical doctor, and when I dropped in at his modest bungalow at Smit, some 17 km from Shillong, he was attending to a huddle of elderly and obviously poor women patients.

If I came away with any message from this retreat of Khasi tradition, it is that indigenous grassroots democracy does not need the imported paraphernalia of elections.

Mainstream politicians would dearly love Dr Balajied as candidate, sponsor or even a benevolently approving presence on their campaign platforms. But he has always refused. Siding with one party exposes him to the risk of losing the loyalty of those who are of a different persuasion. The payiem is kingly father of all ó not just a section of ó his people.

Only one indication of the electoral hurly-burly impinged on the tranquillity of our drive through boulder and bamboo to the syiemís seat. Mists swirled up from the valley, and Shillong peak reared up ahead. On a windswept plateau at more than 5,000 ft, Dr Balajied is rebuilding the wood and thatch community hall where the annual Nongkhrem festival is celebrated. Like Bhutanís towering dzongs, the construction will not use a single nail.

The alien element I mentioned was a small Maruti flaunting an enormous red, blue and white flag adorned with the dao that they call kawai. It belonged to the Regional Peopleís Alliance (RPA), a conglomerate of four small parties known only by their dizzying initials, that is fielding Loniak Marbaniang from the Shillong constituency. Pitted against him are the sitting Congress MP, Ripple Kyndiah, and the BJPís Sanbor Swell Lyngdoh, best known as the son of the veteran G.G. Swell, MP, Speaker and ambassador.

The car was the sole reminder of where the traditional and modern streams meet. Three months ago, the syiems organised a meeting at Smit to discuss their problems which go back to the Instrument of Accession the Khasi rulers signed at the time of Independence.

The attendance exceeded all expectations. Some say 70,000 people were present; some place the crowd at a lakh or more. Encouraged, some of the syiems thought of putting up their own candidate for the Lok Sabha. He would present their views, seek formal constitutional recognition of their land, water, mineral and forest rights, and draw attention to encroachments by district councils.

Khasi society feels ill served by the existing political mechanism. No one regrets the Instrument of Accession or seeks its revocation. But the syiems say they were promised that their rights would be explicitly spelt out in the Constitution. This was not done. It was a point they made in a petition in 2001 to the constitutional review commission. They hoped to follow it up with their own MP, a respected Khasi worthy, John Kharshing.

Kharshing, unfortunately, was in Tura in the Garo Hills when I stopped by at his office in the crowded Shillong bazaar but others told me that the RPA dragged its feet over nominating him. Instead, it chose Marbaniang, a politician who has acquired the reputation of being something of a party-hopper.

But to be fair to Marbaniang, he is trying his best to ingratiate himself with all those Khasis who flocked to the Nongkhrem assembly in January. He has spoken about the Instrument of Accession but his comments have been misunderstood and misinterpreted, and some even murmur that the syiems want to secede. There are 16 of them, always elected from the ruling family, the rest of the 25 Khasi states being headed by elected chiefs. Their only fear is that the tide of social and economic change might sweep them away.

Perhaps the fear is less acute in Hima Khyrim than elsewhere. The state once sprawled over 800 sq. miles, but chunks of territory were lost to Assam and Bangladesh, and now about 50 sq. miles accommodate some 200,000 people. Dr Balajiedís heir is his sisterís 14-year-old son.

Dr Balajied is a slim small man with sensitive features and a shy smile who refuses to take note of my point that constitutional safeguards didnít save the Indian princes. Looking at his slender wrists I am reminded of a friend telling me how the syiem in robes and turban decapitated 17 goats one after the other, each at a single stroke. There must be strength and skill in those wrists and tapering fingers.

No matter what Marbaniang or whoever becomes MP does or tries to do, the Khasi past will be safe with Dr Balajiedís nephew, the next payiem, if his hands, too, are equally powerful.

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