Kolkata: Gabrielle Bertrand in her book ‘Secret Lands Where Women Reign’, wrote, “Recalling my first contacts with the Garo community which has preserved its way of life and remained loyal to its traditions, I remember that the shock was so sharp that what I wrote at the time now seems to lack realism”.
The author interacted with the tribe in Garo Hills in undivided Assam more than five decades ago. The reality now is indeed in stark contrast with what the author experienced and wrote, especially in West Bengal.
A section of the tribe, of the Indo-Mongoloid stock lineage, dwells in North Bengal. They had migrated to Bengal from Mymensingh district in Bangladesh in the 1930s.
Now, the Garo population, which is mainly concentrated in Alipurduar and Cooch Behar districts of Bengal, is only a few thousands. Living among other communities for decades now, the matrilinial tribe is losing its “identity”.
In Alipurduar, Garos can be found in Garam Basti, a village off the highway.
The black-topped road with forests on both sides branches to a graveled path leading to Garam Basti. There are around 125 Garo households in the village living along with Nepali, Rajbongshi, adivasi and Bengali families. They are much different from their counterparts in Meghalaya and speak fluent Bengali.
Fifty-two-year-old Banikanta Marak, a member of the local panchayat, shares that the early settlement of the Garos was in Athiabari. “Later, the British asked them to move out because of plantations. It was then that my ancestors came and settled here in Cooch Behar. Athiabari still has a locality called Garo para (neighbourhood),” said Marak.
However, the population of the Garos has dropped from 3,673 in 1991 to 2,039 in 2011 (Tribal Bengal by Krishnopriyo Bhattacharya).
A major change that this tribe in Bengal has undergone over the years is the decline of matriliny. Unlike the Garos in Meghalaya, those living in Bengal, especially in Garam Basti, take their fathers’ surnames “to avoid confusion”.
“Most of the people in our neighbourhood and in the state follow patriliny. Taking mother’s surname often creates confusion. So to be on the safe side, Garos here too follow patriliny,” said 47-year-old Subodini D Sangma.
For her children, however, it was not a problem as she and her husband have the same surname.
But Marak said he has followed matriliny and his children have taken their mother’s surname. “Matriliny is our tradition, our identity and we cannot give that up. I keep telling people whenever a clan meeting is organised. I have even told this during several village meetings,” he added.
Sitting inside a highway dhaba run by Marak, a Bengali-speaking Garo looked upset at his tribe’s losing identity. He narrated a story to explain the cause of this identity crisis. “I was summoned before my daughter’s school-leaving exam. The officer concerned did not know about matriliny and questioned my daughter about the ambiguity in the surname. I explained it to him,” he said.
Vinod M Sangma, a resident of Garam Basti, said not all government officers who are posted here know about the custom of the tribe and people had to face problems in the past.
He looked tired. A farmer like Vinod in this part of the state has many problems to worry about. He and many others are part of the man-elephant conflict and often lose crops to pachyderm attacks. When earning a livelihood is the primary concern, fighting for identity becomes a secondary one.
Garos and Khasis are the two main tribes which follow matriliny. Women in these tribes are the custodians of property. With change in matrilineal practice, the special power to women also vanishes. Marak insisted that the tribe in Bengal should not forget its identity and strive to save it.
Unlike in Meghalaya where land belongs to tribals, the Garos in West Bengal have no such advantage. Marak informed that since Alipurduar is a forested area it was not till recently that they received land pattas. “We had fought a lot for getting our rights. A bill was passed (in the state Assembly) in 2006 to accord recognition to our land. But we got the land patta in 2013-14 and other compensations around 2016,” he added.
The Garos, most of whom follow Christianity, still have the mahari system. The mahari is a family council and is considered the special guardian of customary laws. However, the system is not that strong as most of the customary laws are not followed.
While Christmas is the biggest festival for the Garos in the village, not many have seen an elaborate Wangala dance, which is their traditional harvesting festival. “I have heard that Wangala is a big affair in Meghalaya where some of our relatives stay. But we have never been there or seen it,” said Anukompa Sangma, Subodini’s teenaged daughter.
Bhattacharya, who is originally from Alipurduar and has done extensive research on the tribes of North Bengal including the Garos, said those living in Kalkut near Assam border have tried to revive their culture and tradition. “They had invited one person from Tura and propagated traditional music and dance form. The Garos in Kalkut have also formed a troupe and they perform indigenous dance and music. So they are trying to revive Garo culture which is not the case in Garam Basti. However, Garos here are small in number and it becomes difficult for them to retain their identity,” added Bhattacharya.