Saga of Fight For Independence!
Chapter 12: Tirot Sing
From the Red Fort, on August 15th when India was celebrating the 70th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi narrated his vision of bringing back tribal freedom fighters into the mainstream narrative. He said, “We want to have museums in each state dedicated to tribal freedom fighters, where their contributions and memoirs related to them would be displayed.”
Unfortunately, syllabus in Indian schools do not recognise the contribution of lesser known tribal freedom fighters. The British had imposed their system and way of working on the tribals. This resulted in a massive tribal uprising against the British. The first and foremost factor to recognise and acknowledge is that the tribals fought for India’s freedom at par with those in the mainstream. Be it water, forest or land, tribes fought for their rights against the British.
It is in this context every Indian should remember and cherish North East India’s legendary freedom fighter, Tirot Sing. He and his band of warriors fought the British, tooth and nail. Tirot Sing was on par with developing guerrilla warfare tactics, like Chattrapati Shivaji to near perfection in the hilly terrains.
Tirot Sing, also known as U Tirot Sing Syiem was the chief of the Khasi people in the early 19th century. He drew his lineage from the Syiemlieh clan. He was Syiem (chief) of Nongkhlaw, part of the Khasi Hills. His surname was Syiem Lieh. He was a constitutional head sharing corporate authority with his Council, general representatives of the leading clans within his territory.
The larger group Kasi Tribe had migrated from Central Mongolia through Kashmir and settled in the plains of Brahmaputra and Surma valleys of Assam in between 4-5 B.C. The Khasis were mainly occupied in agriculture, horticulture, coal mining, iron smelting, and limestone quarrying.
Tirot Sing was an astute organiser and tactician. During his battles with the British, he organised the Khasi warriors. This ability to inspire the leaders and cadre came in for high praise, even from the enemy. He had also mastered the art of guerrilla warfare. He and his band of dedicated warriors conducted night raids on the British outposts and large units of British military contingents were ambushed and massacred. Sing’s guerilla warfare, probably the first of its kind in India that worried the British.
As a master strategist, he selected special bands of warriors and deployed them in caves to produce ammunition for warfare. Having pledged commitment to the Khasi struggle for freedom in full, Tirot Sing knew the importance of being informed. He gathered intelligence to facilitate his decisions and actions.
KM Munshi’s writes “Tirot Sing, and his 10,000-man army, evaded the British and occasionally swooped down upon the plains, causing alarm all over Assam. Once the panic was so great that even in Guwahati, the headquarters of the British, large numbers of people including high officials kept boats ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice.”
Anglo-Khasi War and Martyrdom
The British had gained control over the Brahmaputra valley after concluding the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826. Between their possessions in Sylhet and the newly acquired possessions in Lower Assam intervened the Khasi Hills. They wanted to construct a road through this area to connect Guwahati with Sylhet to save weeks of travel.
David Scott, the agent to the British Governor-General for the Northern Territory, found out that U Tirot Sing was interested in regaining possessions in the duars (passes into Assam) in return for the permission for the road project. After a two-day session of the durbar (court), the assembly agreed to the proposal of the British. Work on the road started. When Balaram Singh, Raja of Ranee, disputed U Tirot Sing’s claims to the duars, he went with a party of armed men in December 1828 to establish his claim. He was confident that the British would support him; instead, he was confronted by a party of sepoys who blocked his passage.
When news came that the British were reinforcing forces in Assam, U Tirot Sing convened a Durbar again and passed orders for the British to evacuate Nongkhlaw. The British did not pay any heed, and the Khasis attacked the British garrison in Nongkhlaw on 4 April 1829. His men killed two British officers, and thus unleashed the fury of British retaliation. Military operations against U Tirot Sing and other Khasi chiefs started immediately.
In the Anglo-Khasi War, the Khasis lacked firearms and had only swords, shields, bows and arrows. They were untrained in the British type of warfare and soon found that it was impossible to engage in open battle against an enemy who could kill from a distance. Therefore, they resorted to guerrilla activity, which dragged on for about four years.
Tirot Sing fought with native weapons such as a sword and shield. He was shot at by the British and had to hide in a cave. He was captured by the British in January 1833 and deported to Dhaka. The location of his hiding place was given by a chief of his who was bribed with gold coins by the British. He died on 17 July 1835. His death anniversary is commemorated every year as a state holiday in Meghalaya.
Sadly Tirot Sing and his contribution have been reduced to a little known figure. It is time India remembers and pays fitting tribute to this heroic tribal figure who was the last independent king of the Khasis. Tirot Sing was caught by treachery , he had assured himself a place of honour and distinction in the history of freedom fighters of India who sacrificed their all in the long struggle.
When Even Strongest Of Polingar Were Surrendering To British, The Ruler Of Nelkattunseval Fought Against Them Like A Tiger! Know The Story Of ‘Puli’ Thevar An Able Administrator And A Great Warrior!
Dr. Sindhu Prashanth