Before the British occupied the Duars during the Anglo-Bhutanese war in 1865, western Duars was covered by dense jungle and hills. The area was a part of the Pragjyotishpur composed of Kamrup, Kamtapur and Coach Behar dynasties. The royal population and a civic settlement had not spread to this part and were mostly uninhabited other than a few Indo-Mongloid tribes like the Mech, Garo, Rabha and Drucpa etc. As colonial British gripped over India, they introduced the Jyotdari system to take over land and establish tea business there. Since then, the area attracted huge population from the neighboring populated landmass, who started immigrating in search of livelihood. The already inhabited tribes were then practicing a migratory nature-based shifting cultivation and followed their own ethnic culture. With the influx of the other population in these areas, they were threatened with their own identity. Some scholars say that it is since this time, when a particular ethnic tribe who had settled along the river ‘Mechi” bordering India and Nepal derived their abbreviated name ‘Mech’ from Sanskrit name ‘Mlechha’ or the unclean/untouchables.
Mech though have a history of migration much before the arrival of British in India. They are the branch of the Bodo tribe having a Tibeto-Burman origin and belonging to the Tibeto-Chinese linguistic stock. They came from areas like China, Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia though some scholars believe that they are the autochthons of Assam.
The Bodos migrated into India through Patkoi Hills between India and Burma and gradually spread themselves into the whole of Assam, North Bengal and parts of East Bengal. It is said that, during their migration to India, they marched towards different directions.
There is also a mythical story about the origin of Mech people. It says Mech and Limbu used to live together. They were driven out from the northeastern corner of India, Burma and Tibet. They fled along the foot of the Himalayas and came to the low lands of the present Darjeeling district in the midst of thick forests. They lived there temporarily. The Limbus did not want to stay back there. They started towards the hills making the way by cutting trees. The Meches started a few days later. They tried to follow the track but lost the way and came upon the river Mechi between Darjeeling and Nepal. Some of them preferred to live on the banks of river Mechi. They called themselves Meches or Mechias.
The Bodos had a glorious past. Their exhibition of power had reached a superior position during the reign of the Koch king Nar Narayan (1540-84). Thee Indo-Mongloid kingdoms were always in a power clash with the Aryans ruling over the northern and eastern parts of India. It is probably their frustration over the inability to control these Indo-Mongloids which got represented in the Epics as to be the “Kirats, Asuras, Mlech or the Danavas”. It was after the assassination of Raja Govind Chandra by the British in 1832, that the last Bodo kingdom came to an end. With the loss of a glorious monarchial power structure, the Bodos felt marginalized and were submerged under other hegemonies mostly under the Bengali speaking bureaucrats.
This is a political history of the marginalization of the royal kingship. But the story of the subjugated citizens, who were poor and preferred to stay in the laps of the mountain jungles, is more pathetic. The royal kingdom of the Bodos and its citizenry living in the cities had accepted the Hinduism through its own negotiations. But the marginalized tribal people, who relied on their own belief system institutionalised as Bathaoism, faced threats when the forests had been encroached for commercial purposes. The Bodos were then harbinging and upholding the Assamese nationalism against the Bengali influence through preservation of the Bodo language and literature which finally matured to be a separatist movement. These movements were strictly influenced by the paternalistic attitude of the Assamese caste Hindu elites. In order to increase their support base they influenced the tribal population who were then losing their land rights due to the tea cultivation. The Mech as a tribe got influenced too. The Bodo leaders motivated them to revive their ethnic cultural practices and that glorious past where they used to rule Pragjyotishpur for over four thousand years. In this process, their urge to revitalize their glory enhanced, but sadly got influenced by Hinduism. Their religious practices were not enough to keep up the tribal identity but had to be elevated to Hindu philosophical standards.
Cultural movements and ethnic revisionism has to emerge from within the socio political and geographical realities over time and history directly affecting a particular tribe. The Kaahon’s experience of a Mech tribal village is such that the Mech speak more fluent Bengali than the Assamese. They participate in Bodo organizational agendas to keep up the Bodo language and literature, but hesitantly accept the influence of the Rajbanshi population rather than the majority Bengalis. In practice, still now, they do not understand the Hindu Vedic structure much and have no conviction in it and are very much satisfied with their nature based simple religion, their Bathou, who’s associate Gods and Goddesses had taught them how to light a fire and cook food for survival.
They are though proud to be the ancestor of that legacy who had brought the culture of silk rearing and weaving in India. It is a lesson to be learnt that even after so many attacks and socio economic hurdles with their own ethnicity, they are still fighting to preserve their ethnicity even after much dilution.