Las Vegas of the East

By HH Mohrmen

Some are fond of calling Shillong the Scotland of the East; fancy though it may sound, I personally think it would have been appropriate if Shillong is compared with Edinburgh or Glasgow the two major cities of Scotland, but that is not the point, this write up is about another region in the state of Meghalaya which has something in common with the city of Las Vegas in the state of Nevada, USA.

It was an air transit on my way to Salt Lake City in 2009 that I had a brief experience of the famed gambling city. Friends had warned me not to try my hand at the gambling machines (not that I have much dollars to spare) available in plenty even inside the airport. While waiting for my connecting flight I remember a passenger completely engrossed in gambling had to be literarily dragged from his seat by the airline ground staff. He was so obsessed with the slot machine and was oblivious of the final announcement of his flight’s departure. Las Vegas is also called sin city because gambling is legal and slot machines are available even at the airport.

I must admit I owe the idea of comparing coal mine areas of Jaintia hills with Las Vegas to a young filmmaker friend from Shillong who in the span of two years toured almost the entire coal mining areas of the District. It all happened in Soo Kilo a makeshift market situated between Lad Sutnga and Sutnga village and the idea of comparing the area with Las Vegas occurred in one of our several visits to the area. The project was to secretly film the activities inside Soo Kilo market, but before we began I first took the crew for a walk inside the market to get a first hand experience of what goes on in the makeshift bazaar owned by a coal baron. After we have done the rounds we met at a secluded location and I could see the shock in the faces of the entire film crew and particularly my young friend GS or GNS. He was at a loss for words for sometime and finally uttered “My God Bah Mohrmen this is like Las Vegas.”

Few months ago a journalist from Delhi along with a photo journalist friend from Nagaland came to seek my assistance to follow their scoop on coal mining in Jaintia Hills. Rajni George went back to Delhi and composed a very good story in which she described the life of some big time coal mine owners of Jaintia hills. Rajni (with whom I also shared the Las Vegas-Soo Kilo story) reported in the story which was carried by the Caravan Magazine wherein she mentioned her visit to Soo Kilo and called it the Las Vegas of Jaintia hills. Like many makeshift markets dotted in the coal mine areas; Soo Kilo is a hub of the area, everything that miners needs is available in the market and all forms of gambling happen here. These markets have their own rules and the owner of the market is the over-all authority in the market. He is the modern day Raja of the area. Coal mine areas of Jaintia hills District are the only places in Meghalaya where dice and card gambling goes on openly. Earlier if one would travel to Ladrymbai, one would see dice gambling on the road side, right under the nose of the police. This open gambling is still going on openly in many such makeshift markets in the coal mine areas, but the new kind of gambling which is getting more popular is the Bull-fight. If one travels from Jowai to Sutnga or Jowai to Khliehriat every evening one would see hundreds of swanky cars of every hue and colour parked in certain areas. Earlier, my impression was that somebody important had died and the cars must belonged to people, who visit the bereaved family, but I was wrong.

Bull fighting was once the most popular traditional game of the Pnars. It is a game to while away their leisure time, and, money was never part of the game. For sometime this primitive way of spending our leisure time was about to become redundant but the District has witnessed the resurgence of bull fighting with a bang and with big money at stake. The bull fighting show is discreetly organized and the secrecy of the venue is a well guarded secret and only the gamblers and the operators know of it. Now bullfighting has merely become an opportunity for gambling for those who have a lot of dough to spare. It is an opportunity for many types of gambling. Gamblers bet on the fighting bulls and they also gamble on the game of dice that is available in the play ground. It is said that on a typical bullfighting session which may be of two hours duration, a minimum of 20 lakh rupees is at stake. Bullfighting is so popular that a good bulls cost anything from 50, 000 rupees to several lakhs of rupees. Hence breeding fighting bulls is a lucrative business now. The bulls are well fed and even taken for a walk (or jog if you like) regularly; their horns are custom-made for fighting, and organisers pay bull owners big money only to enter the bull into competition.

The open gambling is not only illegal but it is also an act of cruelty to animals which is against the law, but the District Administration seems to turn a blind eye to the illegal activity that is going in the District in broad day light. The only people who benefit from the open and illegal gambling are the Rangbah Shnong and the person who operates the gambling. It is said that even some MDCs of the JHADC are involved in this illegal activity. May be it has to do with promoting traditional game and not gambling per-se.

The July 2, 2011 issue of The Shillong Times (ST) reported that on the 1 July around 3:30 pm a team of nine police personnel, an officer-in-charge, two Sub-inspectors and six constables went to Ynniamer near Ialong which is about 10 KM from Jowai to stop a reported gambling session and apprehend the operators. On seeing the police some gamblers fled the scene and the gambling operator too escaped with their gambling materials and money. It was reported that the Police could only seize few gambling apparatus from the side and around 300 gamblers and spectators were allowed to escape scot-free by the police. The ST correspondent Sannio Siangshai, a senior journalist of the district, and one who knows Khliehriat area like the back of his hand, also reported that the police officer who led the team to conduct the raid stated, “When we tried to arrest them, around 300 people surrounded us so we could not arrest anybody.” Now if the men in uniform who are supposed to stop illegal activities can be threatened by mere 300 rowdy gamblers, the question is, where is the rule of law in Jaintia hills district?

Gambling operators organise the illegal activity by obtaining NOC from the Rangbah Shnong of the area hence with full knowledge of the shnong. This illegal activity should also serve as an eye opener to the leaders of the Khlieh Nongsynshar that the function of the dorbar shnong or the traditional institution too, needs to be examined in right earnest. If the Dorbar Shnong patronize gambling and ostracize RTI activists instead of filing reports against the perpetrators of crime, then there is certainly something seriously wrong with the so called Khasi Pnar democracy.

Nowadays not only bullfighting is a popular gambling opportunity in Jaintia hills, even football matches in the coal mine areas are occasions for gambling for those with plenty of money to spare. The District is becoming a haven for gamblers and the authority turns its Nelson’s eye to the gambling that is going on in the Las Vegas of the East.

(The author is a research scholar and an elder of the Unitarian Church)

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