Dialogue October-December, 2011, Volume 13 No. 2



Role of Traditional Institutions in Governance-

Experience from Karbi Anglong, Assam

Alaka Sarmah*



Governance today is seen as paramount concern for any state.   Governance, therefore, engages in  new areas of articulation for a state and the people living within its jurisdiction. For many, governance refers to certain conditions necessary for a state  through which it can exercise power in managing the nation's social and economic assets and also become the pre-condition for realizing democratic ideals. Though the notion of governance has different meanings for different people, one common understanding of it is the decision making process as well as the process of implementation of those decisions. This process also identifies involvement of different structures from different walks of life, signifying both the formal as well as informal actors. Thus in this background the  traditional institutions of a state also have a claim for incorporation of local structures in the issues of governance. The traditional institutions of Karbi Anglong also entail such claim, because of its involvement in civil, socio-economic and religious jurisdiction of the local interests.Therefore, the participation of people through such institutions recognizes grass rooting the democratic principle of governance in its most popular form. In this paper an attempt has been  made in recognizing effect of the traditional institutions in Karbi Anglong more specifically among the Karbi Tribes.


     The Karbis are the principal tribal community in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam, a district administered as per the provisions of the Para 2 of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India, having an autonomous district of their own since 23rd  June, 1952. They are also known as Mikir, the term given to them by their Assamese nighbours of the plains. But they feel congenial to call themselves as arleng, which means a man.1 Assamese ‘historians’ like Gunabhiram Baruah chose to use ‘Mikir’ from Sanskrit ‘Markat’ (meaning ‘eater of raw flesh’). However, another meaning of the term, may have originated from the term- Mi- kiri, which means, hills tribe.2

    Karbis of Karbi Anglong have their own traditional self-governing institutions, which have three tires. The traditional system of governance is infact monarchical. Whereby the King or the Lingdokpo is at the apex,  followed by Havai (Head of the region) and Sarthe Headmen of a village.3 The local level decisions are, still attended by these traditional institutions, which can be termed as democratic in notion. The karbis also have a tradition of bachelor dormitory locally known as Jirekadam or Farla. It is known as the training institution for all kinds of social activities under the leadership of BASAPO, an officer of the Havaiship.4

     For many, governance refers to certain conditions necessary for a state through which, it can exercise power in managing the nation’s social and economic assets5 and also as the pre condition for realizing democratic ideals. Government (state) is one of such important actors and others composed of political parties, voluntary organisations, research institutions, religious leaders, financial institutions, media, big business houses, international donors etc (at urban and national level) and influential landlords, peasants associations, cooperatives, NGO’s (in rural level), etc. to achieve these ideals.  Therefore, the local level institutions as are vital in Government decision making or in governance and participatory mechanism. In the light of the above the process of governance in the hills of Karbi Anglong, raises a genuine question of participatory mechanism both from the categorized structures of state and traditional actors in the process of decision making. The issues to be discussed in Karbi Hill areas of Assam, where District council (a democratic institution) functions side by side without distinctive clash in their respective areas of operation, and the adaptability of the traditional institutions to the ever changing socio political and socio economic situations in a tribal community.



     The methodology adopted for the study is confining to the secondary data analysis supported with a  field survey. The data has been collected through two broad techniques, one by case studies and other by interview through structured questionnaires. These methods have been adopted to make the study free from any bias of interviewing conditions. For theoretical part, secondary data is also referred to.


Sampling :

    Here four villages, namely- Rong-hang-bong, Along, Rong- Pam- Bong and Umchera, of the Chinthong Block of Hamren sub-division of Karbi Anglong were selected for the study by random sampling method. The samples have been selected through purposive clustered sampling.                          


Location of the Study :

     The  field study has been done  in above mentioned four villages of Hamren  sub-division of Karbi Anglong district, of Assam. The villages situated near the capital complex of the traditional state of Karbi Anglong, which is locally known as- Alongri, comprised of three territorial arrangements such as- Chinthong, Rongkhang and Amri.6 The villages are approximately 20 K.M. west of Hamren town and under the Chinthong developmental block. The referred hill areas are covered with dense tropical forest. The select villages have the traditional institutions which are again  the only source of governing political and economic life in the area.


The Three Tier Administration:

      Though administrative changes have taken place, some of the traditional institutions are still working in its original form. The Karbis have three tier Traditional Self governing institutions; of which at the apex is the “King” or locally known as Lingdokpo or Recho in Rongkhang area and his Parliament or council of minister called Pinpomar, at the middle level there are 12 Habais or administrators one each for 12 Longris' regions, and at the bottom it is the Mei or Village Council.7


King / Lingdokpo:

    In the Hamren sub-division there are three traditional local Kings with their territorial Jurisdiction at Rongkhang, Chinthong and Amri. Though in real terms they are tribal Chiefs, yet people treat them as Lingdokpo meaning a King. Among them the Lingdokpos of Ronghang as considered to be the supreme. In many instances he is treated as Karbi Resho. The Niz- Ronghang village situated at a distance of 20 km from the Hamren sub-division, is also treated as Raja Gaon. In a hierarchical design the Lingdokpo have several subordinate Lingdokpos.8 The Rongkhang King who has been treated as supreme among the other kings has three subordinate kings namely of- Rongchaicho Lindokpo, Killing Lindokpo and Rongpi Lindokpo. The Chinthong King has two subordinate kings Nonglada Lindokpo and Nongpli Lindokpo, and the Amri king also has two subordinate kings namely of- Du Lindokpo and Nongkirla Lindokpo. The kings or the queens in real sense never enjoy any such special privilege, only once in a year the royal darbar is held and the king and the queen get special attentions. Otherwise they lead life  like other fellow villagers  cultivating their own jhum fields and reside in normal houses like others.9 But the people often visit them for seeking solution to the socio-religious and legal problems and offer presents to show their regards to the king.

     In our study we find that 100 % of the respondents accepted the fact that, the king has power to regulate the matters, such as land rights, community relationship and religious life, etc. and they also accepted that they offer gifts to the king as a practice.

     The functions of the Lingdokpo are governed by the Parliament  locally known as Pinpomar. The structure of the senior most functionaries are hierarchal as follows:

      1)   Bardili or the Prime Minister: He is the primary functionary of the king,

      2)   Katharbura or the Priest: He is the loyal priest.

      3)   Pator or the Assistance: He has to assist the katharbura in all activities.

      4)   Dengja or the Advisor: He advises the king regarding the spiritual matters.

      All of these offices are assigned with certain duties and functions in all matters of social, religious and judicial importance. They donot enjoys any political powers as those are now execised by the Karbi Anglong District Council.10

     Functions: The king or the Lingdokpo and his office (Pinpomar) exercise several functions. The king alone cannot work thus it is the responsibility of the Pinpomar to assist him. All the posts in the Pinpomar have their own specific functions.

     Administrative Functions: The King is head of the administration of the Pinpomar followed by his Council. The King and his council have been allotted with some administrative functions . At the administrative level it is the responsibility of the King to allot eligible persons to different posts of Pinpomar. Being the head of the council, all the Provincial Heads, Headman of Villages and Longris have been subordinated to him and also obey the decisions given by him. All the administrative activities are in the name of the King. There is a tradition to conduct an annual Royal Darbar where the king and the queen and also his Council are paid tributes, generally in kind, by the Habais and the other Headman of the Villages and the Longris. The Pheranke or the Mutiyar (the messenger) also has an important role in the King’s administration. T. Bhattacharya has mentioned that: “the coercive authority is exercised through a traditional means of transmission of message by means of a looped ring. In the illiterate society, this type of transmission of message is common and it has the effect of telegraph or postal message. This type of transmission is called ‘Lam Kido’. The seriousness of the crime is judged by the closely woven nature of the loop so made and carried by an important officer like Muityar or Pherenke. More closer the loop, the more urgent is the matter’’11

     Judicial Functions: The king has to attend to all the social matters and to settle all disputes  referred by the Habais and other Lingdokpo. He is assisted by Bardili. Bardili is assisted by another person called Pator. If a case has been settled by the Habai it is the responsibility of the Habai to inform immediately with a bottle of Horlang (Rice beer). If the king is satisfied with the judgment given by the Habai the case is considered as settled. If the King is not satisfied with the judgment he may ask the Bardili to have a second look at it. If the Bardili finds it difficult to arrive at a judicious decision then it is referred to the King and the judgment provided by the king is considered as  final. It has, therefore, been seen that the Karbi King is accepted as the final law giver of the land. But at the same time he is more of a symbolic figure head of the entire set up. As according to the R. P. Athparia; “The recho is the central figure round whom the tribal life revolves and through him the activities of the tribe are controlled. He is the ruler, the judge and the guardian of the customary laws but he is not the absolute ruler of the entire Karbi land. The Karbi recho is thus to be the most effective figure head in the state’s functions of judicial and administrative nature.”12 But he is not a dictator, since he cannot take any decision individually. It is with the advice of the Pinpomar and the Council of the wise man he take decisions.



     The ancient Karbi kingdom had 12 administrative units locally known as longris and each  longris are governed by the head man known as Habai.13 But a king can dismiss him any time if not loyal to the king and to the Pinpomar, found physically unfit, married more than one wife, delays some trials and embraces Christianity. Though the Habai is the primary authority in village, he is assisted by the Regional Council called Longri- a- Mei. The council consists of different members; such as- Habai Kong (principal habai), Habai Riso (assistant habai, must be a younger in age), Brutmen (expert in traditional laws), Mutlar (organising secretary), Hemai (assistant to mutlar), Basapo (One who arranges the sittings of the Longri- A- Mei), Pheranke (Messenger) and the Sarthes (Headman of the village).14 The Habai’s settle all the local disputes with the help of the council which are sent for final decision of the Lingdokpo. Since he is the protector of the traditional laws and social order, he is supposed to be a wise and responsible person. Under its jurisdiction Habai looks after all the matters civil and judicial, and can impose fines or punishment.15 The post of the Habai is hereditarily transferred, but can be changed if he is dismissed by the Lingdokpo or   dies without a male issue. In such situation Lingdokpo can appoint a suitable male member of the clan the deceased Habai belonged to.16

       Function- The Habai performs functions related to civil and judicial matters. He is the provincial head of the Villages. A Habai  is  appointed by the Lingdokpo and placed as the head of a Longri. A Longri  comprises of several villages, including the village of the Habai  Under his jurisdiction he exercises various powers and functions. One of such important functions is that he can appoint the Sarthe or the Gaonbura of the village under him. Habai also looks after the law and order situation of his Longri. Any dispute in his Longri referred by the Sarthe  is decided by him. His decisions are final in such stance but if fails to provide any decision he can take the help of the Lingdokpo. Being the head of the Longri he can take decisions over the customary laws relating to Jhum cultivation and other social practices. It is the responsibility of the Habai to look into disputes relating to land and collective cultivation and is also empowered to impose fine for illegal activity.


Village Council or Mei:  

     The routine administration of a village is run by the village council or Mei headed by Sarthe.17 Nearly 90 % of the respondents said that they have Mei or village council and named the Sarthe. Others said they did not know but named the headman. The post of the headship is hereditary. But efficient people from the same Clan and sub- clan are also allowed to become a Sarthe, after being recommned by the Havai .

     All adult male are the members of the village council known as Chakri. There has not been any limit on membership. The number of such membership varies from one council to another.18 Though the functions and the privileges are prescribed by the District council, yet it does not affect the customary right and privilege of selecting the Sarthe. This institution can be viewed as one of the democratic institutions in any tribal domain, because it contains democratic principle of representation. People can  remove a Sarthe, if found inefficient and wanting. It limits the process of the District Council, as it can only recognize the office of Sarthe and can not retain him or banish him.

      Functions: In true sense of the term the Sarthe is the pivotal actor of the whole traditional political system. The democratic vision of the institution can be understood by looking into the powers of the Sarthe. It has been observed that a Sarthe can never alone make any decision, as it needs prior consent of the members. He can only issue proposals relating to the village affairs in a meeting of the Council for its approval. Under the Sarthe there are some assistants to help him, which are locally known as Sarso. The order of command, therefore, is under:    






The village council or the Mei consists of President and the functionaries. A Sarthe works under the village council or the Mei. The village councils look into the matters of development of the village as also works as the trial court of the village. Whenever any dispute in relation to ownership of the land, theft, quarrel or adultery, etc., takes place, it is referred to the council which settles it cordially. It can impose fine on the person found guilty, not exceeding Rs. 50/- normally. On the other hand, the unsettled case is sent to the Habai or Lingdokpo or the District Council for final settlement.

   The Mei has several functions relating to socio-economic, judicial and religious life of the community. 100% of the respondents said that they have visited the council many time for settling disputes of  socio, economic, judicial and religious nature and are satisfied with the role of the council is solving those disputes.


Case Study 1.

     Name- Hammiri Hanse, age- 45 years, married, village- Hong Kram, occupation- engineer and Havai. He has mentioned one of the important compositions of the Mei that three or more Mei can constitute a great council which is locally known as Mei-pi. This Mei-pi comprises only of the Sarthes from respective villages, which is headed by a head Sarthe, who is selected among themselves and holds office for one year. This institution decides serious matters concerning their community. He also as a Havai has to do lot of work regarding settling disputes. He claimed that, it is the Sarthe who is initially responsible for settling disputes and give decisions, but if fails then only the Havai comes in the picture.


Partcipation and Gender:

     The participation of the people in the council and its different sittings has been a matter of discussion. In the initial part, it has been observed that different clans are not allowed to participate in the sittings of the King's court and Village council and women specially are not allowed to participate in those meetings. Even today some of the important posts of the Council and Pinpomar has been confined to certain clans only and women virtually have no space in those institutions. But with the change of the time they are now allowed to attend the meetings of the king court and the council. 100% of the respondents said that the in village council meetings women are also allowed. But it has been debated if women  be allowed to participate in discussions of those sittings or not? This debate is best defined by the following case study.


Case Study 2.

     Name- Basapi Timungpi, age- 56 years, married, village- Rong Phang Bong, occupation- L. P. School Teacher. Asked regarding the participation of women in the discussions of the sittings of the village council, she agreed that, now women are allowed to participate in the sittings of the village council yet there has been no reservation of seats in the council or in any other of its programmes. But she has ironically mentioned that women in village councils are like speechless audiences assembled for nothing.


The Lost Fraternity :

   The Bachelor Dormitory is one of those important traditional institutions among the tribes of North East and Assam, which is   common among the tribes’ has an important role to foster community responsibility. The Karbi Bachelor dormitory is known as FARLA or JIREKADAM. This is an institution where young boys use to sleep at night after crossing the age of 10 with the other young boys. The membership for the Hall is open to all irrespective of Kurs and  Sub-kurs. One ceases to be its member as soon as he gets married. Usually a bachelor hall is administered by the Sarthe.19 Entrance in the hall is restricted  to the members and others are not allowed to enter  the hall.20 These halls are seen as the recreation hall for the young boys and also accepted as the platform to foster cooperative spirit among the youth. Though these institutions have ceased to exist in urban areas, yet in some of the Karbi dominated interior locality of  hills, these are still there as reported in the Census report of 1961.21 But today those institutions are virtually invisible from the social domain and have been submerged by the modern clubs and community halls.

      About 100 % of the respondents agreed that this institution was no more in their villages. The present king Harsing Ronghang told us that these institutions can now be found only in a few interior villages of Socheng block, but he was not sure.


Local Federalism : The Political Assests

    Karbi Anglong has been known for the dual governance system which constitutes two different orders of life such as traditional way of life along with the modern democratic arrangements. The political assets, therefore, have dual arrangements for power sharing. The core of socio-religious life is governed by the traditional institutions mentioned earlier and the other engagements are looked after by the constitutionally framed District Council. Chances of conflict  between these two domains is obvious. But surprisingly it has not happened yet; reason may be that both of these institutions are  regarded differently by the people. It has been seen that certain degree of autonomy has been given to the traditional institutions to act in  their jurisdiction and hence the Council does not interfere in the matters of the three tier traditional administration of Karbi Anglong. In the villages surveyed it has been found that both systems of governance are working together without hampering each-other. It has been found in the survey that, 100 % of the respondents agreed with the statement that the democratic institutions such as- Elected Government functionaries, police, bureaucracy, judiciary etc can not demolish the status of the traditional institutions. Thus it was found that, all of the four villages surveyed, have both traditional (King, Pinpomar, Longri, Havai, Sarthe etc) as well as democratic (Mouzadar, Sub Divisional Officer, Block Development Officer etc) institutions which work in collaboration with each other.



     Governance in Hamren subdivision of Karbi Anglong  is thus dual,  where traditional institutions work along with the democratic institutions. The traditional or customary laws, rules and regulations are unwritten and uncodified. These laws are able to achieve a public sanction because of its unhindered continuity in public life. The “Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council Act of 1954” also provide that all  disputes in the region are to be settled by customary laws.22 In the area surveyed, all sorts of disputes whether inter or intra villages are customarily solved at different levels, within the traditional jurisdiction. In Hamren it is seen that- the Lingdokpo adjudicates over the customary law disputes and the Sarthe on criminal offences. Earlier the decisions of these institutions were brutal,  but progressively it has taken a more moderate form, whereby they give punishments most of the time in kind, by looking into the gravity of the offences. Even some of the cases are solved by taking oaths (seme).23 This does not mean that democratic institutions in these areas have no role to play. It has been found that with the change of time and environment, people of these areas also- in some stances avail of the govt. justice such as Court of SDO (Civil), Hamren Police Station for solving some of the local disputes, mostly relating to land disputes. However it is noticeable that people's faith over the traditional institutions in the Hill areas of Karbi Anglong Districts are in the process of transition because of the legal, social and economic factors (gradual disappearence of the bachelor dormitory of the tribe areas is one of such example). It is also believed that no society is static; hence traditional institutions and the customary laws are also undergoing changes to meet the needs of the present day society. But still the institution of the village council is strong and use of customary laws to settle almost all the disputes in a moderate form). The legitimization of the actions of the traditional institutions in local governance mostly depends on the customary laws and practices it follows. To avoid confusion there is an urgent need to compile the customary laws of the Karbis in order to preserve their traditional and age old practices and beliefs. This can bring uniformity in its application and continuity, and secondly, if not done, chances of extinction of those institutions in near future is a possibility.




1. Singh K.S., People of India: Assam Vol,-XV, Part-I, Page-373, 2003.

2. N.K. Dutta, Gazetter of India:Assam State, Govt. of Assam, 1979, page-45. 

3. Das, Girindra Nath, “The Customary Laws of the Karbis and the Issues of Codification: A Case Study in Karbi Anglong”, published in Tribal Tradition and Development in the Hill Areas of Assam, March, 2006, page- 191.

4. Duarah, Dharmeswar, “Role of Traditional Tribal Institutions in the development of the Hill Areas of Assam”, published in Tribal Tradition and Development in the Hill Areas of Assam, March, 2006, page- 69.

5. Kashyap Subhash C, Our Political System, National Book Trust, 2008, page- 364. Ibid, page 364.

6. Athparia, R.P., Role of  Traditional Tribal Political institution and Development of the Karbis of the Hill Areas, published in Tribal Tradition and Development in the Hill Areas of Assam,March 2006,Page-113.

7. Goswami, Atul, Traditional  Self  Governing Institutions among the Hill Tribes of North East India,2002.Page-195.

8. Ibid, page- 196.

9.  Ibid, page- 199.

10.  Ibid, page- 199.

11. Bhattacharyya T., Sociology of the Karbis, B.R. Publishing Corporation,Delhi, 1986,Page 57

12. Athpariya,R.P., “Role of the Traditional Tribal Political institution and Development of the Karbis of the Hill Areas”, published in Tribal  Tradition and Development in the Hill Areas of Assam, March 2006, page-115

13. Bordoloi B.N., Thakur Sarmah G.C. and Saikia M.C., “Tribes of ASSAM”, part-1, 1987, page-54

14. Goswami Atul, Traditional Self Governing Institutions among the Hills Tribes of North East India,2002 Page-200-201.

15.  Ibid, page-201

16.  Ibid, page-201

17. Ibid, page-201

18. Census of India: Assam, 1961, Page 28.

19. Bordoloi B.N.,Thakur Sarmah G.C., and Saikia M.C., Tribes Of  Assam- Part-I 1987,Page 61-62

20. Mahanta K.C.,  Encyclopaedia: Profile Of North East, 1998,Page 396

21. Census of India: Assam,1961, page-28.

22. Barooah, Jeuti, Customary Laws of the Karbis of Karbi Anglong in Assam, Law Research Institute, Eastern Region, Guwahati High Court, 2007.

23.  Lyall, Sir Charles: The Karbis (United Publisher 1997) Guwahati.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)                                                Astha Bharati