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A spirit of service

Webster Davies Jyrwa on the contributions of Babu Jeebon Roy (1838-1903) to literature, culture, agriculture and mining in Meghalaya

 “Brave men who work while others sleep

 Who dare while others fly,

 They build a nation’s pillars deep

 And lift them to the sky.”

BABU JEEBON Roy was born in 1838 at Saitsohpen, the headquarters of the East India Company for the Khasi Agency in the state of Sohra (now Cherrapunjee). He was the eldest son of Ram Sing Jaid Rani and his second wife, Bijan Laitkynsew Jaid Mairom. He had a brother Bon Roy and a sister, Tiewbon.

     Right from his childhood, Jeebon Roy was conscious of the call to serve his people which filled him with the desire to extricate himself from the confines of his luxurious home in search of knowledge and experience. His father was the son of a wealthy land owner, Tira Rani, who owned huge landed property in Sylhet. Ram Sing himself was a successful businessman and a respected interpreter with the East India Company.

     Jeebon Roy could have lived an easy life but, even at a young age, his hunger for knowledge made him restless and he spent all his time in pursuit of it, from whatever books he could get hold of and from whoever he came into contact with. He did not get the chance for formal education as there were no schools then in these hills but he studied at home under the guidance of tutors and his father, an educated man who did his schooling in Serampore, Calcutta and who had sufficient knowledge of the outside world because of his work.

     Jeebon Roy also learnt Bengali and Sanskrit. Yet as time went by he was not satisfied with the knowledge he received from his studies at home. He felt he had to gather more knowledge and working experience. He was determined to get into government service and he did so in 1858. He joined the East India Company and was attached to General Showers, the special commissioner during the Jaintia Rebellion of 1860, as writer and interpreter, drawing a salary of Rs. 8 per month. With his dedication, discipline and hard work he earned the love, trust and respect of his superiors, the foreign rulers and rose to the post of senior extra assistant commissioner which was no small feat in those days. He retired in 1894.

     During his service Jeebon Roy gathered sufficient knowledge and experience for the mission he wished to accomplish which was to help his people in the field of education and socio-economic uplift. He firmly believed that education was the indispensable pre-requisite for progress. His resolve was unshakable and, eventually, all the impediments that stood in his way to realize his life’s objectives, slowly melted away.

     In 1875 Jeebon Roy started correspondence with the provincial government urging upon the necessity to set up a high school in Shillong. The government, however, refused on the grounds that as Shillong had just suffered from a massive plague, it was not possible to spend money on a school. He was disappointed but did not give up. He approached the Welsh Methodist Calvinistic Presbyterian Mission and tried to convince Reverend T Jerman Jones to convert the minor school which he had started into a high school. The idea, however, was not entertained by Reverend Jones as he felt Khasi boys and girls were not yet fit for higher education!

     This observation by the Reverend made Jeebon Roy even more determined and, along with some educationists from Calcutta, he then tried to persuade Reverend Jones to upgrade his minor school into a proceeding high school but was refused once again. “We have come for religion and not for education,” they were told. Though hurt, Jeebon Roy did not retaliate and, being a man of strong will and determination, he persisted. He and his fellow educationists approached the Assam government to start an entrance school with the assurance that they would bear the deficit if the need should arise. The Assam government was also deaf to their plea.

     Jeebon Roy alarmed that this most essential asset for the betterment of his people could be stifled, decided to go ahead and start a high school in 1896, with a contribution of Rs 900 from his own pocket. A high school known as the Zillah High School was inaugurated on 2 September 1878 with 50 students, at the site now occupied by the Telegraph Office.

     After seeing that the Zillah High School registered a good number of students, Reverend Jones decided that from the following academic session the Mission Minor School at Mawkhar would be converted into a proceeding high school. He further urged upon the government to amalgamate the two entrance schools and liberal government funds should be extended to it.

     Jeebon Roy, whose mission in life was the uplift of his people, accepted the idea and the two schools were merged and thus the Shillong Government High School was born, the gateway to higher education for the people of these hills. The school’s first headmaster was R Mohan Mitra. The first Khasi student to pass out of this school in 1880 was Sib Charan Roy, Jeebon Roy’s eldest son from his wife Lakreh Jaid Dkhar Sawian. His other sons were Hari Charan Roy, Radha Charan Roy, Dinonath Roy, Chandranath Roy and Jogendranath Roy. He also had two daughters – Lakheitmon and Hinimon.

     Jeebon Roy shared Aurobindo’s belief that real education is that which develops the inner sensibilities of the child and leads one unto the path of mental, intellectual, emotional and spiritual development. Education is not only for material prosperity. Jeebon Roy wrote books in simple language but his works are full of moral values and are food for thought. The Khasi Reader Book I (Ka Kot Pule Khasi Nyngkong) published in 1899 is orthography but it also contains wise sayings for children, for he was also a great advocate of value education.

     In the preface he wrote: ‘I am writing this not only to teach you how to read and write but also how to find truth.’ Book II and Book III contains folk tales and valuable ethical instructions. Hamlet Bareh in his book, ‘Short History of Khasi Literature’ wrote that the literary career of Jeebon Roy started in 1895 after he retired from government service. He wrote in Khasi, ‘The History of India,’ ‘The Religion of the Khasis’ and ‘About One God’. These were followed by translations, from Sanskrit into Khasi, of Hito-Upodesa I, II, III, IV in 1888-89, Ramayana and Chaitanya Charittra in 1900 and Buddha Dev Charittra in 1901. Sib Charan Roy translated the Bhagavad-Gita.

     Jeebon Roy practiced the Khasi indigenous faith, which believed in one god, the divine omnipotent and Supreme Being. Yet he was very broad-minded and encouraged people to read the religious books of different faiths. Kynpham Singh in his booklet, ‘The Life of U Jeebon Roy’ mentioned what Jeebon Roy had said on this subject: “If you read any book on religion you will find the definition of god as the Lord Creator. It is not right to be narrow-minded and abhor reading books on other religions, It is not right to shut ourselves in just one room.”

     Jeebon Roy was also very aware of the rich cultural heritage of the Khasis and the immense resource for literary creation. Concerned about the aspect of Khasi culture which may disappear, once the teachings of the missionaries entered the minds of the people, through the religious books and textbooks used in their newly established schools in Sohra, Mawsmai and Mawmluh, Babu Jeebon Roy took the initiative to start Seng Khasi on the 23 November 1899. Its first Chairman was Rash Mohan Roy Jaid Nongrum and its first secretary was Chandranath Roy, Jeebon Roy’s second youngest son.

     Besides its main objectives to preserve the social, cultural and traditional structure of the Khasis based on the fundamental principles laid down by the forefathers, it also contributed immensely towards the promotion of Khasi literature. It is a fact that had not the Seng Khasi been established, Khasi traditional dance and music, for example, along with all the other aspects of the Khasi cultural heritage would have disappeared. To this day, Seng Khasi stands as the only institution which is dedicated to and actively involved with the preservation of Khasi tradition and culture and the Khasi indigenous faith.

     Jeebon Roy was also farsighted and realized that the availability of higher education would produce more Khasi writers. In 1896 he set up a printing press called Ri Khasi Press in the compound of his Shillong residence, which is fully functioning till today. The idea of opening the press was also inspired by his desire to provide jobs for educated Khasi girls who fought shy to take up unconventional jobs. JJM Nichols Roy wrote: “I have seen Babu Jeebon Roy employing his own daughter in the Ri Khasi Press. In those times respectable Khasi girls were ashamed to take up such employment. This gentleman has led the way in the manner which nobody has ever thought of before.”

     In the field of agriculture, Jeebon Roy did his utmost to encourage scientific methods of cultivation. He urged the people to use grafting methods to increase the yield and quality of fruits, and for the first time to transport them to the plains and Calcutta. Jeebon Roy introduced the pear to these hills. He also pioneered scientific goat and cattle rearing by encouraging Bamon Sing, the then Myntri of Nongkhlaw to cooperate and lead the way. His experiment with coffee and walnuts was not so successful. He experimented with different methods of potato farming. It was after these experiments that potato farming was taken up seriously by the people and potato became a major cash crop and has remained so to the present day.

     Jeebon Roy was the first Khasi to venture into mining. He took on lease, limestone quarries in Mynteng Nongjri in competition with an established English firm, the Inglis Company. Henry Inglis, who headed the company, rankled by this intrusion, gave Jeebon Roy fierce competition and innumerable hurdles. A lesser man would have given up. Jeebon Roy and his sons, however, along with the unwavering support of his wife and young daughters did not give up, and, instead, made a huge success of the endeavour.

     In 1902 Jeebon Roy along with Klur Sing, Syiem of Khyrim and Kine Sing, Syiem of Nongkhlaw, was selected to attend the Durbar in Delhi of the newly-crowned King Edward VII. Unfortunately, on September 6 he had a stroke and never really recovered from it and passed away on 16 May 1903 at age 65. More than 6,000 people, almost double the population of Shillong then, attended the cremation that took place on his land in Mawprem on May 20. All along the route coins were scattered, the bier was decorated in the manner befitting the nobility of Sohra state and a horse was let loose and given away.

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