Meghalaya: The crisis of leadership


By Patricia Mukhim

Meghalaya and its grass-roots governance commonly labeled ‘traditional institutions’ are facing an epic conundrum. After the High Court Judgment in December last year which censured the Rangbah Shnong for use of arbitrary powers such as issuing no objection certificates to their residents for a plethora of reasons, but foremost among them being the opening of bank accounts, applying for electrical connection to a private residence, applying for a rations cards etc. To be fair to the Rangbah Shnong they took on this arduous task because the government system informally pushed that task to them. It was I believe a subtle way of passing the buck and making it easier for themselves. I use the word ‘informally’ because there was no written communication from the Government to the Rangbah Shnong empowering them to issue these NOCs.

The High Court judgment came like a bolt from the blue. The Rangbah Shnong were at a loss as to how to take the matter forward. They are yet to regain their composure. In fact, the internal tremors within this institution was evidenced from the statements made by some of the Rangbah Shnong themselves against the Court ruling and later withdrawing those statements after good sense prevailed. To be reactive is the mark of an unprepared mind. We are yet to see one instance of a Rangbah Shnong with wisdom and foresight to be pro-active. If they were guided even by native wisdom they would have approached the Government half a century ago and demanded that their powers, functions and responsibilities be clearly and unambiguously scripted. To depend on an informal way of doing things and to have thousands of Dorbar Shnong each with a constitution of its own was a disaster in the making. The Dorbar Shnong is not a social organization guided by a memorandum of association. It is a grass-roots governance body recognized by the Constitution but which was never given adequate attention and functioned on ad ad-hoc model.

Amongst other things the District Councils are empowered (Para 3) (g) to make laws for the appointment and succession of Chiefs or Headmen. That the word Chiefs is given the same constitutional status as Headmen seems to suggest that even at that time the Dorbar Shnong and not the Syiemship or the Dorbar Raid were recognized as the grass-roots organization. There is an embedded wisdom in the minds of the political stalwarts who wrote the Constitution which told them that the Syiemship as practiced in Khasi society tended towards tribal feudalism and hence towards a subversive form of oligarchy. That this exists in Khasi society is not in doubt at all. In fact, it has been reinvigorated and taken the form of the Grand Council of Chiefs and its agenda is being promoted and volleyed into the high tables of the Congress Party and is even today being vigorously pursued by John Kharshiing, it’s Spokesperson. How does the Grand Council of Chief have any bearing in a democracy? But again in this society no one wants to raise uncomfortable questions. These are reserved conversations in homes of the bereaved (they must really be turning in their graves to see the hypocrisy of people who pretend to come and pay their last respects to them but actually enjoy that public space for matters of state). The Syiemship is still considered to be an intrinsic part of tradition (although frankly I don’t see how it helps anyone) and therefore one of our Sacred Cows. It is beyond criticism!

But we no longer live tradition in this digital age and if we are to defend tradition only for tradition’s sake then we would be doing injustice to the younger generation who will accuse us of default thinking and complete lack of foresight. Young people, raised in today’s hyper-competitive environment, are, if anything, hungrier to find ideals that will give meaning to their activities. The Khasi society today is facing an intellectual vacuum and above all an existential crisis because of the absence of a moral imagination.  What has happened to the moral compass transmitted by the ancestress? Our narratives tell us the Khasis spend long hours debating an issue to arrive at an outcome which serves the greater good. What has happened to this moral imagination today? The Rangbah Shnong agonize at length over their loss of power but have they ever considered the source of that power. Khasi society has vested on the Dorbar Shnong the responsibility to run the affairs of the village smoothly. In the present circumstances, in the urban areas you need an educated person with some standing and a record of integrity. But since most people abhor the idea of pro-bono work (responsibility without payment), many of those who do become Rangbah Shnong are not necessarily people we would trust our lives with.

Franklin Roosevelt once said, “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” The Khasi society has tried the Dorbar system with its exclusivist nature and its propensity to overreach its mandate. I have not seen any study by any University to assess the fault-lines of this Dorbar Shnong system in its conventional avatar. If I am asked whether there is need for local governance, I would say a resounding “Yes.” But whether the present format is the best one is debatable. At this point there has to be a political consensus on envisaging the Dorbar Shnong in a new avatar. The fault-lines have to be identified and a new format devised taking into account the challenge of the times.

At this juncture one is also disconcerted by the attempts of all political parties to turn this present crisis into a political goal-scoring exercise. Actually the present issue merits a political consensus. All political parties, irrespective of ideologies, should come together and thrash out the current stalemate that has afflicted the Dorbar Shnong. The Rangbah Shnong should not be attending meetings called by different political parties. To my mind they should actually invite all political parties to thrash out the points leading to the passing of an Ordinance on empowering Rangbah Shnong with the necessary checks and balances.

At this point of time the last thing we need is a polarized political environment as this would always involve more than just the specific issue on the table. Hence one is perturbed by the Congress Party’s attempt to turn the issue into a goal-less match. The Government appointed DD Lapang as chairperson of a jumbo sized Committee, much like a big boys’ club, which was destined to fail from the start. A Committee with 43 people has only one destination – a cul-de-sac. No wonder it never met even once in two months until its term expired. And then suddenly we hear that Lapang met a few ministers to brainstorm over the issue. What is this game that the Congress is playing? Is Lapang also dreaming of turning this issue into another jig of his own chief ministerial ambitions? If so, it is an utterly wasted attempt at upstaging Mukul Sangma!

And now to add to the confusion, the HSPDP, led by Vice President, Ardent Basaiawmoit has jumped into the fray to force the issue. The man is a regular street actor and if this important issue is to be decided in the streets of Shillong it will be such a pathetic sight. Of course the HSPDP would have scored many political brownie points. But is that how the Rangbah Shnong want their conundrum to be resolved? It is here that we see a real leadership crisis in Meghalaya. Indeed, who will lead us out of this encircling gloom?



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