Tirot Sing: Meghalaya King Who was Guerrilla Terror to British from 1829 to 1833
U Tirot Sing! The very utterance of his name instilled terror in the minds of the British for 4 long years from 1829 to 1833 in the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. This Khasi king of a principality in Meghalaya did not bow to the supremacy of the British. He did not surrender to their oppression and injustice or let his people suffer at the colonial enemy’s hands. He kept the flame of freedom struggle alive and inspired the neighboring kingdoms of the Northeast to rise in revolt against the British.
But did we get to read in detail about this brave son of India from Meghalaya? No! Like many other unsung warriors of India, the name of Tirot Sing is in oblivion in the pages of History! How do we then get inspired from the brave feats of our ancestors from the east to west, north to south? History books must be rewritten! Glories of the brave sons and daughters of Bharat Mata should be featured. And let us bask in their glory, their patriotism, their sacrifice and feel proud and get inspired from their saga.
U Tirot Sing was the king of Nongkhlaw, a principality located in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. He was also the constitutional head of leading clans within his territory. He drew his lineage from the Syiemlieh clan of the Khasi tribe that migrated from Central Mongolia through Kashmir to Assam and the Khasi hills in between 4-5 B.C.
The British established their supremacy in parts of the northeastern states after the Treaty of Yandaboo signed in 1826 with Burma. It was a peace treaty that led to the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War. This war that continued for two years led to the death of fifteen thousand European and Indian soldiers. As per the treaty, the British would occupy Assam, Manipur, Rakhine (Arakan), and the Taninthayi (Tenasserim) coast south of the Salween River besides supremacy in Cachar and the Jaintia Hills district. After the treaty was signed, the British planted tea gardens in most of these places and stationed British planters and forces.
The road leading from the Brahmaputra valley to Cachar and other regions of the Barak valley was hilly, treacherous, and daunting. There were no direct roads that connected the two valleys. Before the treaty of Yandaboo was signed the British had already established their supremacy in the Barak valley. After the treaty was signed, the British found it difficult and time consuming to maintain a communication link between the two valleys.
The British wanted to establish a strategic road to link the two valleys, from Guwahati to Sylhet. That would mean it should be constructed via the Khasi hills for the road to be short and less time consuming. Passage through the Khasi hills would save the British several weeks of time. David Scott, the political agent of the British for the northern territory, approached U Tirot Sing, the king of the Khasi Hills for seeking permission for the construction of a road through his kingdom. David Scott promised free trade for the Khasis with other regions through this road once the road project was completed. Scott also promised to give Tirot Sing complete control over Bordwar (territory that leads to passage to Assam) in the Meghalaya Assam border.
U Tirot Sing summoned all the chiefs of the leading clans and convened a session in his durbar. He presented to the chiefs the proposal presented by the British. The discussion went on for two days with few opposing and few agreeing. And then it was decided that Tirot Sing would give his consent to the British proposal. Little did the Khasis know the clever policy of the British.
Following the acceptance of the proposal, a British garrison with labourers to construct the road was posted at Nongkhlaw. The construction process started in full swing. Meanwhile, the British reinforced their forces stationed in Guwahati and Sylhet. Why increase forces and add more weapons to the artillery when there were no wars to be fought in the near future? Tirot Sing came to know about this development. He sensed the ulterior motive of the British to ultimately grab the entire hill territory cleverly and treacherously. Tirot Sing immediately served a notice to the British to quit Nongkhlaw. But the British did not pay any heed to the notice. Neither did they think it important to discuss with the Khasi chief related to the notice. They continued with their construction activities. Meanwhile, the British stationed more British officers and laborers in other posts across the Khasi hills in the name of road construction.
During this time, Balaram Singh, Raja of Ranee, another principality of Meghalaya, disputed U Tirot Sing’s claims to the Bordwar. To establish his claim U Tirot Sing marched towards Bordwar in December 1828. The British forces blocked his way to proceed further. This angered Tirot Sing and the ulterior motive of the British trying to establish their supremacy in the Khasi hills was further demonstrated.
Tirot Sing declared war against the British. On 4th April 1829, the Khasi army under Tirot Sing attacked the British garrison at Nongkhlaw. Several British officers were killed. The British immediately responded. They send fresh troops with artillery to the Khasi hills to control the situation. The open battle led to the martyrdom of many Khasi warriors. The Khasi army, equipped with swords, shields, bows and arrows were no match to the British forces who were equipped with firearms and killed the opposite forces from a distance.
If this open war were to continue, the British would certainly win. Tirot Sing devised a plan. He held a meeting with the other chiefs and together they decided to employ guerrilla warfare techniques. The Guerrilla warfare involved involvement of a small group of combatants in ambushes, hit-and-run tactics, sabotage, raids, etc. using arms. Tirot Sing perfectly gave shape to his strategy, attacking the British in small groups in different places. He organized the Khasi chiefs from other principalities and together they created terror amongst the British. His advantage was his familiarity with the hilly terrain of the region.
Tirot Sing mastered the art of guerrilla warfare. He himself trained his men. The emergency situation led to the requirement of more arms. Sing entrusted a select band of Khasi warriors and deployed them in caves to manufacture tribal weapons for warfare. He also entrusted spies all over the region to stay updated about any movement from the British. Accordingly, he planned every attack. The Khasi king and his men conducted night raids on the British outposts. A number of the British units were destroyed and hundreds of Britishers were massacred. This worried the British. The remaining Britishers stationed in the Khasi hills stayed in panic.
Additional forces were sent by the British in the Khasi hills. Tirot Sing and his men hid in secret caves. They continued with their guerrilla warfare tactics. The British carried out search operations in each and every corner of Khasi hills to capture Tirot Sing but in vain. This continued for four long years!
Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi, freedom fighter, politician, founder of Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, and author wrote about Tirot Sing, “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.”
It is but a fact that during Mughal and British rule, many Indians themselves were traitors. Had these traitors not existed there would have been no Mughal or British rule. It is because of these traitors that Mughals and British ruled India for a long time.
The British were successful in luring a Khasi chief with gold coins to pass on information about the whereabouts of Tirot Sing. Based on the information provided by the traitor chief, the British were able to capture the Khasi king on January 13, 1833. Had the traitor not informed the British about Sing’s whereabouts, the history of Meghalaya would have been different! The British imprisoned Tirot Sing at Dhaka Jail till he breathed his last on 17 July 1835.
Salute to Tirot Sing! Jai Hind!
1. Homo in Nubibus: Altitude, Colonisation and Political Order in the Khasi Hills of Northeast India, Andrew J.
3. Tirot Sing was the brave hero of the hills.
Featured image courtesy: Wikipedia and NorthEast Guide.