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Friday, September 17, 2021

In Arunachal’s Mishmi Hills, a community tries to keep the lost stories of two freedom fighters alive

While tales of their heroics have traversed generations, it was only last February, on a hill overlooking the village, that a foundation stone for a commemorative pillar was laid to remember them.

Written by Tora Agarwala | Guwahati |
Updated: August 14, 2021 10:25:05 pm
The foundation stone of the Metaro Pillar honouring Teji and Ponge Dele in Elope.

Ponge Dele and Taji Dele are legends in Elope, a hamlet of 25-odd households in eastern Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Dibang Valley district. Everyone in the village — inhabited by the Idu Mishmi tribe — remembers how more than a hundred years ago, its two residents had bravely fought the British, how they had not just defended their land, but died fighting for it.

While tales of their heroics have traversed generations, it was only last February, on a hill overlooking the village, that a foundation stone for a commemorative pillar was laid to remember them. Installed by the Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society (IMCLS) — a local group aimed at preserving the heritage of the Idu Mishmi tribe — the plaque reads: “The foundation stone of the Metaro Pillar honouring the martyrs and warriors under the leadership of Ponge Dele and Taji Dele, who fought against the British in the three Bebejiya Mishmi expeditions: 1900, 1914 and 1919.” In Idu Mishmi tradition, ‘Metaro’ is the place warriors rest after death.

“They are our unsung heroes,” says Dr Razzeko Dele, an Elope local, who teaches English in Roing town, 90 km away. Adds IMCLS president Ginko Lingi: “We only know of Ponge Dele and Taji Dele because our parents have told us about them. But once we are gone, these stories will die with us.”

The heroes of Elope

It was this fear that led the community leaders to pool in resources and begin work on the ‘Metaro’ pillar. “Hopefully in a decade or so, the actual pillar will stand. We are still trying to collect money for it,” the 42-year-old Dr Razzeko says.

Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society president, Ginko Lingi. Photo Courtesy: IMCLS

For long, the representatives of the Idu Mishmi community — led by the IMCLS — have been pushing for recognition of the two “cultural heroes”. But they claim they have gotten little response from the government. “We have written to them multiple times over the last few years, but there has been no movement so far,” says Dr Razzeko.

Earlier this month, responding to a call by the Social Justice & Empowerment and Tribal Affair (SJETA) department for names of tribal freedom fighters of Arunachal Pradesh, Lingi wrote the letter again, appending with it sheafs of “evidence” — excerpts of academic papers, government gazettes and colonial history books.

According to the Idu Mishmi community, both Ponge Dele and Taji Dele (mentioned as Ponge/Pongo/Pango Mideren and Taji Mideren in British archives) were at the forefront fighting the British in the Bebejiya Mishmi expeditions of the 1900s.

The three punitive expeditions by the colonial rulers against the Idu Mishmis of Ithu Valley (earlier called the Bebejiya Mishmis) took place between 1900 and 1920. According to records, the first expedition (1900) happened when JF Needham, an officer in Bengal Police, had ordered that the “entire tribe be punished” for killing three British soldiers. “A cycle of revenge followed… our leaders retaliated, and the British launched two more expeditions against the small tribe. But we fought back tooth and nail,” says Dr Razzeko. While Taji was arrested and hanged in Tezpur jail in 1918, Ponge died fighting in the last expedition in 1919.

According to Lingi, the duo deserve to be honoured not only because they protected tribal lands but because they essentially stopped the British from expanding territory beyond the Mishmi Hills.

Adds Dr Razzeko: “It is a historical episode that haunted the British government for nearly a quarter of century…it is testimony to the inhuman colonial suppression of the tribal people. Moreover, the constant fight back by a small tribe resulted in restricting colonial expansion to the vast frontier region.”

An archival quest

Among the “evidence” the IMCLS has submitted to the Arunachal Pradesh government is a question paper from the Union Public Service Commission Civil Service (UPSC) exam held in 2009 — what Dr Razzeko calls “the spark” that led him on an archival quest to trace the history of the Bebejiya Mishmi expeditions.

“The paper had a question on Taji Dele,” says Dr Razzeko.“Back then, many people contacted us asking about him but in 2009, even we had not done much research. We only knew what our grandparents had told us.”

The incident, Dr Razzeko says, made him feel like it was his responsibility to find out more.

In 2016, the IMCLS, too, made it a part of their official agenda, and Dr Razzeko immersed himself in research. “From digging through the state archives in Itanagar to poring over colonial history books in Guwahati,” he says, adding while local lore about the two men still echoes in his village, oral history has its limitations. “Like, the dates were vague, for one. But my hours at libraries and archives gave me real, historical facts. I juxtaposed it with what our village elders have been telling us, and that is how I have come to understand what really happened.” he says.

It is these facts, Dr Razzeko hopes, will help them get the honour they deserve. Speaking to the indianexpress.com, an official from the SJETA said they would “definitely look into the requests.”

Dr Razzeko says he is aware that the process of getting official recognition as a freedom fighter may be a technical and long-drawn one. “Even if we don’t get that, it is okay. But for now, all we want is that our heroes don’t fade into oblivion – introducing them in a school syllabus, or erecting a pillar in their honour, may be a good start,” he says.

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