A free man and a lost kingdom
In the hilly terrain of Sunamganj’s Tahirpur upazila, right at the foot of the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya, there is the grave of a visionary leader who dreamt of an independent Khasi state till his last day.
Though his state declared independence in 1948, it was made a part of the Indian Dominion and he was exiled.
Wickliffe Syiem, the khynnah (deputy king) of Hima Nongstoin (State of Nongstoin), located in present-day South Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, vowed neither to go back to his own land nor to set foot on any other Indian territory.
“If I wish to do so, I’ll go as a conqueror, not as a captive to surrender under the control of the foreigners,” Wickliffe used to say, according to his living family members in Bangladesh.
However, his political negotiations and diplomacy failed and he was unable to materialise his dream of an independent state, according to historians and researchers on Khasi independence.
After Wickliffe vowed never to go back, the then Pakistan government permitted him to settle down in Rajai village, where he could be near among others from his own community, his son Andrew Sholomar told The Daily Star.
“The village was historically part of the Khasi Hills. Father felt it was like home and settled down, marrying my mother here,” said his son.
While India was gaining independence, all 25 states in the Khasi Hills signed the Standstill Agreement on August 9, 1947, according to historians David R Syiemlieh and Helen Giri.
Syiemlieh in his article “Constitutional Developments in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills 1824-1950” and Giri in the book “Khasis under British rule” shed light on the events centring on the Khasi states soon after the 1947 Partition.
Besides, the article titled “An Administrative History of Hima Nongstoin in the Colonial Period” by P Gracefulness Bonney also discussed this historic episode of Indian sub-continent.
On December 15, 1947, 19 Khasi states signed the Instrument of Accession that made them part of the Indian Dominion.
But six other states did not sign it and of them, Nongstoin declared independence on January 13, 1948.
King Sib Singh Syiem, Wickliffe’s uncle, was elected as president with deputy king Wickliffe as secretary of the state.
According to historian I Nongbri, the writer of “Ka Histori Ka Ri Hynniewtrep (Khasi land)”, the troops from India came to Nongstoin on March 10 that year, said Andrew Sholomar.
King Sib Singh Syiem was detained and Nongstoin was forced to sign the Instrument of Accession on March 18, 1948. Five other remaining states were also included in Indian Domino eventually, historians say.
As Wickliffe was out of the state capital at the time, the Indian government barred his entry to the kingdom.
Hearing of the takeover, Wickliffe wrote a letter to the then Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru on March 20.
In the letter, a copy of which was shown to The Daily Star by Andrew Sholomar, who lives in Rajai, Wickliffe urged the Indian PM to order the provincial Assam government to stop its activities in Nongstoin.
As an exiled leader, he camped in Dhaka and on March 24, sent a telegram to then UN secretary-general Trygve Lie to save the independence of his state, according to a report by The Statesman on March 28, 1948.
T Rngaid, in his book “U Wickliffe Syiem”, claimed that Wickliffe also went to the UN Headquarters in New York to gain support.
Wickliffe’s struggle eventually failed and Nongstoin remains a part of India.
The Instrument of Accession only gives authority of defence, communications and foreign affairs to the central government. Till today, no Khasi state has signed the Instrument of Merger, which makes it a full-fledged part of India.
WICKLIFFE’S LIFE AND LEGACY
Born on August 15, 1909, in Nongstoin, Wickliffe completed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from a college in Baroda, Gujarat in 1937, and became the first engineer from the Khasi community.
After completing his post-graduation in London, he joined as Attorney General of Nongstoin in 1940.
During the Second World War, he also served in the British Army as a wing commander.
Wickliffe made a career as an engineer at the Fenchuganj Fertiliser Factory, Mitsubishi Motors Factory, and Joypurhat Sugar Mill in the then East Pakistan, said his son.
He was the chief engineer of the Tekerghat Limestone project at Tahirpur upazila before he retired in 1971.
The once deputy king lived by his word of not returning to Nongstoin till the day he breathed his last in exile — on October 21, 1988.
After his death, he was buried at Rajai village. His descendants from two wives live in Meghalaya of India and in Bangladesh.
Like Khasi king Tirot Singh and Khasi freedom fighter U Kiang Nangbah, who fought against British rule in the 19th century, Wickliffe too is remembered as a Khasi revolutionary.
Wickliffe is considered the founder of Hynniewtrep (Khasi) nationalism by the Khasi community.