North East at the crossroads; Meghalaya betrayed

Patricia Mukhim

What we feared the most has happened. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) stares us in the face and dares us to throw it out. We are dumbstruck in the face of a hegemonic power telling us that they can do things that have never been tried before. Indeed never in the past have the people of the North East felt so helpless. We are not the mainstream and I am very clear of the fact that we don’t want to be the mainstream. Our cultures and traditions are dear to us because they give us identity. Now we are at a point in our history where we are unsure if we will be tested to the hilt by a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) hand later by a single language diktat. The question to ask is: How did we arrive here?

As small tribes struggling to fit into a nation, the only safety valve we had up until now is the Indian Constitution. But this Constitution that guarantees us our rights and freedoms is being re-interpreted to suit the agenda of the party ruling the country today. And look at us in Meghalaya. Many voted overwhelmingly for the National Peoples’ Party (NPP) despite knowing it that is a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP. What did we think? Did we not know the BJP’s agenda? Did we think the NPP would be strong enough to fight for its own space in the NDA? And then our regional parties with an eye for the chair with never a futuristic vision were only too happy to lend a hand to the NPP and BJP to form the unholy alliance that has now come to singe us all. Today the BJP says that Sixth Schedule states will be exempted from the CAB. What about the future? Are we sure that the Sixth Schedule too will not be abrogated? How does it matter to the BJP if they don’t get 26 MPs from the region? West Bengal alone has 42 MPs and that’s what the CAB is aimed at, right? So we can expect to be at the receiving end of the BJP regime even while its supporters here give us thumbs down!

 In 2018 we desperately wanted change and change is what we got but its small change. The illegal mining and transportation of coal carries on unabated even while the Chairperson of the NGT panel had to resign in desperation. The Government was stalling all efforts of the NGT panel to stop the illegal transportation of coal. And why? It’s because the machinery for smuggling roughly about 400 trucks of coal daily is well-oiled. If we can do the maths we can deduce how much each person at the helm of the collection business earns per day at Rs 30,000 collected from each truck to allow it free passage. If you try and do some detective work chances are that you will be killed. The mafia is vicious. So guess who gets all this money? The exchequer is empty for sure but the private kitty is overflowing with cash. That’s what we voted for. We voted for a Government that cares more about staying safely ensconced in the chair. So much so that the NPP, MP Agatha Sangma voted for the CAB after making a whimper of a plea that CAB should be exempted from the North East. Look at the very narrow prism through which the CAB is seen by this MP. Does she not know that CAB violates the tenets of the Indian Constitution? That it is aimed at giving citizenship to illegal migrants on the basis of religion? Even the Shiv Sena, a hardcore Hindutva Party had the decency to walk out and not vote. True that was a compulsion because of its love affair with the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra but it still takes a lot of spine to not go with the flow.

Funnily, now the regional parties that are so comfortably located in their seats of power are trying to wriggle out of the embarrassment of supping with the NPP/BJP by saying that Agatha Sangma voted in her personal capacity and that it had nothing to do with the Government here. Are these guys crazy? Are they now trying to con all of us? Sorry, but we are not cretins. And with the current public mood being what it is I am sure those who continue to support the NPP and by extension the CAB will pay dearly for their folly in 2023. The ordinary person today does not think of democracy solely in terms of voting and elections. She thinks also in concrete and substantive terms. Today democracy is about personal rights, personal choices in matters of faith and also about lifestyles. The individual today is repelled by the notion of a singular culture, language and religion and will sooner than later vote out those who cannot guarantee those personal freedoms. True, that the voter is reduced to such levels of poverty as to sell her/his soul for a few thousand rupees but this too shall pass.

 What is troubling today is that the BJP’s agenda is unstoppable. Think of the ordeal we will all face when the NRC regime visits us here. Many of us tribals don’t have documents to prove we exist as citizens of India. We are sure we are children of our soil; the soil gifted to us by our ancestors (gender neutral) but proving our citizenship will be a tough call. What if we were born at home and have no hospital papers? What if we never went to school and so don’t have school certificates? What document can we use to prove we are from this soil? Will the Dorbar Shnong’s certificate be accepted by the NRC big data? Have we started thinking about this? And suppose we cannot prove our citizenship what’s going to happen to us? Will we also have to stay in those relief camps? As humans we are prone not to think too much until the water has risen to our necks. Well, now we should start having conversations about these issues. What will be the outcome of the NRC exercise? Unlike many ‘civilised’ people the tribes don’t have the habit of keeping legacy documents. At that time the indigenous person may well find herself falling through the NRC cracks while those whose antecedents are doubtful might be having all the necessary documents as they always do. Try asking those hawkers in Police Bazar for documents. They will have a bundle of them. But I can safely say that most of the hawkers are new entrants to Meghalaya. Point is who will do the real digging up? Politicians never will. Those are precious vote banks. The tumult in the Khasi Hills District Council was created by such elements.

It is sad that we have come full circle to an ecosystem of confrontation instead of conversation.  The BJP never consulted the people of the region before passing the CAB. It only consulted politicians because they “represent” us. Now this word represent is deeply problematic. I am afraid that MPs and MLAs don’t represent us once the results are out and they have won the elections. They represent themselves and their interests. So representation is a hoax. And now we have a full scale agitation. Agitations in these troubled times are marked by coarse language on social media; of cat-calls that appeal to the worst in us, not the best. Poetry in public discourse ended a long time ago. Outrage is the order of the day. Sadly, the unrest visible in our streets today is led by unaided reason. We have not produced societal leaders worthy of our trust. Most often those who lead such movements have political aspirations. Is this the reason why we find ourselves in these sticky situations time and again and feel betrayed repeatedly? The answer of course is blowing in the hurricane; our own created hurricane. Alas!

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