Critiquing the institution of the RangbahShnong

By Albert Thyrniang


“A tradition is kept alive only by something being added to it.” Henry James

In July a Rangbah shnong (village headman) in the suburb of the state capital refused to let a person working in Guwahati to attend his father’s funeral though the outstation bereaved person was in possession of the necessary permission from the district administration (The names of the headman and the locality are withheld as the affected person fears backlash for his family).

This is a highly arbitrary and illegal decision. How can a headman ban someone from attending a funeral when the district administration had granted permission? Does the authority of the headman supersede that of the Deputy Commissioner? Does it mean that before the headman the document from the DC is of no value? Under what law did the honourable headman act? If the headman could undermine the authority of the DC, then the DC is not needed. Fortunately or unfortunately,as the case may be, the mourning young man did not inform the police or did not appeal to the concerned authorities otherwise the ‘esteem’ of the headman could have been hurt.

In the past too we saw arbitrary and illegal actions by headmen like ostracising families forfiling RTI to unearth corruption, questioning unfair practices and suspicion of witchcraft. Recently there was a story of a family in West Khasi Hills which faced social boycott for the last 13 years was deprived of government aid even during the lockdown.

From early on Meghalaya government’s COVID-19 response was to involve the traditional local institutions, particularly the Rangbah Shnong to deal with the extraordinary situation. The grass-root traditional bodies were given the responsibility to run ‘community quarantine centres’, facilitate accommodation of returnees in government and community quarantine facilities, man ‘entry points’, supervise containment zones, motivate people to stay indoors, ‘enforce’ shutting down of shops and even restrict vehicular movements.With logistical support from the government task forceswere formed to carry out the mandated tasks. Public representatives are invisible and the ADCs have played a second fiddle in the fight.

The role of traditional institutions has been hailed and they are even credited for keeping the number of Chinese originated virus down. Reports say village and local committees help state agencies manage the situation and ensure strict enforcement of COVID-19 protocols besides being proactive in spreading awareness about the disease to prevent its further spread. The commendable contributions by local institutions in the last few months are appreciated.

However, in the absence of any clear cut rule and procedure the headmen and their dorbar function arbitrarily. The aforementioned example is the most bizarre but is not an isolated case.  We recall the horrendous experience in finding a resting place for Dr. John L Sailo Ryntathiang because the Rangbah Shnong and Dorbar Shnong of Nongpoh vetoed against laying the first COVID victim to rest in his own farm in the Ri Bhoi headquarters. The Jhalupara authorities participated with an agitating crowd and locked the crematorium on flimsy reasons. The government authorities were subdued before unreasonable local bodies hijacked by a mob mentality.

A friend of mine narrated his annoying journey from Shillong to Mawkyrwat, South West Khasi Hills. Though he had the valid pass generated from the online application he was stopped at every village dubbed as entry points. Intimidating volunteers detained him for a long time at each stop asking unnecessary and irrelevant questions. Initially we also saw many villages putting up barricades blocking on-going commuters from passing their village.

Meghalaya along with the states of Nagaland and Mizoram and some areas governed by Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) were exempted from The Constitution (Seventy-third Amendment) Act, 1992 by which the Panchayati raj system was instituted in the country. This ‘recognition’ of the state’s grassroots governance structure with a long history and legitimacy among people of the state does not necessarily mean that the parliament has given a legal stamp on the institution of the Dorbar Shnong in Khasi and Jaintia Hills and Nokmaship in Garo Hills. In fact, not even the state government has enacted any legislation to ‘legitimise’ these village-level assemblies. Their roles and functions are recognised under the law only by KHADC, JHADC and GHADC within their own respective jurisdictions.

There have been instances in the past when traditional institutions were challenged in courts. Way back in 2008 the Gauhati High Court (before the Meghalaya High Court came into existence) ruled that headmen and Rangbah Shnongs were ‘unauthorised persons’ for registration of sale deed or any deed of transfer. In 2015 the Meghalaya High Court passed an order that issuing of certificates by traditional heads to residents is illegal. Sensationally the sordar of Wahkhen village in East Khasi Hills, Skhembor Khongjirem was arrested for violating the court’s verdict. The then CEM, KHADC Adelbert Nongrum had to be charged with contempt of court for terming the ruling a ‘hidden agenda against the indigenous community’ and for‘daring the Court to hold him in contempt’.

Attempting a temporary solution arising out of the Synjuk Ki Rangbah Shnong (SKRS)’s agitating threat for non- cooperation the then state government had the Ordinance that sought to empower traditional heads and institutions, approved by the Governor.

In February 2016 the Supreme Court allowed the headmen in the state to ‘function as per the customs, usages and traditions’ but did not stay the High Court order asking the State government to frame rules for tribal village heads specifying their roles and functions.

The conflict between traditional and modern institutions is bound to occur and reoccur because time and the nature of administration have changed. The claim that NOCs for the purpose of birth/death registration or for registration of any document or for building permissions or for obtaining loan as being part of customary laws is fake because they did not exist even say 60/70 years ago. There was no need of any NOC then, there was no loan, no building permission and no registration of any kind, whether land or vehicle or birth or death. These are recent requirements. Therefore, the question of NOC issuance being a traditional practice does not arise at all.

Reforming and empowering the traditional institution of the Rangbah Shnong and the Dorbar has been the refrain. The Khasi Hills District Council (Village Administration) Bill, 2014 and The Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Establishment of Elaka and Village and Election, Appointment, Powers, Functions and Jurisdiction of Dolloi/Sirdar and WahehShnong) Act, 2015 were passed by KHADC and JHADC respectively but their status are far from being operational. Attempts to codify customary laws were also made in Khasi and Garo Hills but the contentious (and political) issue of ‘tribal-non tribal parenthood’ meant that this compilation is hindered from becoming a law.

The village heads and other traditional functionaries themselves prefer to function sans reforms. Take for example the High Court’s suggestion to adopt the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls to the election process of headmen, bringing them under RTI and putting in place an anti-corruption mechanism! Will the traditional stakeholders agree to these proposed reforms?

Traditional institutions in matrilineal Meghalaya are male dominated.  The village council or the Dorbar Shnong has been an exclusive right for male members. Only two years ago the Meghalaya High Court broke the age-old practice enabling women to participate in the election of traditional heads, thus effectively enabling qualified women to be part of the Dorbar. While women welcomed the judgment men leaders associated with the District Councils were circumspect, perhaps fearing that it could set a precedent for women’s participation in the higher level of traditional institutions like the Syiemship.

If traditional institutions like the Dorbar Shnong are to have a role in the 21st century and beyond they have to adapt according to the ever changing time. Appealing to customs and traditions for something that did not actually exist will lead to irrelevance of these institutions. Our forefathers governed villages in their own setting. There was no elected government, no legislature, no judiciary, no democratic institution, no administrative institution, no health care institution and no law enforcing agencies. There were no government schemes and financial assistance, no accounts and no social audit. We clamour for empowering traditional institutions but are they willing to function according to the principles of democracy, accountability and transparency? Unless modern principles are added traditional institutions will not be alive for long.

With regards to COVID-19 response has the state government gone overboard in involving traditional village heads? Can we say that in volunteers we see extra-constitutional elements? We may not see lathi-wielding volunteers as in Telengana and elsewhere but could similar situations arise? The government which has done very little for so long for the preservation of traditional institutions has suddenly ‘empowered’ them at the time of the endemic. For the government, the practice has  been that in normal times they forget traditional leaders; in challenging times they utilise their services to the point of permitting and overlooking their arbitrary, unreasonable and even illegal actions. How long can this go on?

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