My sojourns: Stray thoughts

By Albert Thyrniang

My two week’s sojourn over Christmas and New Year was also to catch up with friends and interact with people besides visiting a couple of exquisite local tourist locations. The following paragraphs are a fruit of the mesmerising stopover in addition to earlier experiences. For most parts, except for the Facebook streams and Whatsapp messages whenever and wherever there was network service, mainstream news was largely off the routine. On the only day I opened my email I received New Year wishes from a senior and outspoken journalist who stated that in the society there are many silent dissenters who dare not to take a stand.

In my encounters with people I did find dissenters, the majority of whom have to unjustly suffer silently while others have begun to assert themselves. Due to obvious reasons instances can’t be specific on this page. One of the common complaints is against grassroots leaders like the Rangbah shnong who tend to act arbitrarily. Due to lack of education, the inability to identity available means and fear of repercussions victims don’t dare to question the injustice meted out. However, time is changing. A family, for example, decided to call the media to expose the undeserved action of a headman. Many have begun to express their dissent in Whatsapp groups against arbitrary decisions of leaders.

Criticism against religious leaders is another uncommon murmur. Moans include their disapproved and ‘objectionable’ lifestyle, secretive financial management and even suspicious misuse of funds. Credibility of religious leaders is found wanting and financial management is not above board, according to many.

A constant disquiet has been about the ‘bishopless’ Nongstoin diocese. Ever since November 2016 when the first bishop, Rev. Victor Lyngdoh was transferred to Jowai, the 2006 created diocese has been without a bishop. After more than four years Rome has not been able to choose a new ‘shepherd’. Common people simply wonder in their conversation but those-in-the-know do identify the reasons. There are too many candidates who see themselves assuming the coveted office. If anyone other than their own is appointed the innocent person is rejected. It is absolute narrow-mindedness with no universal outlook contrary to their faith. The ordinary faithful have no issue but it is the clique of clergy which is playing havoc. Now that the bishop of Jowai is expectedly headed to Shillong Archdiocese the more complicated 14 year seat of the church in Jaintia Hills will be without a successor for a long time. As self-centric and extreme exclusive attitude of clergymen is unlikely to change, a few have suggested the three dioceses be amalgamated into one as they were prior to 2006.

Inter denominational live-in relationships and marriages are found to be prevalent. Couples try to pull the other to their side. Parents and family members come in ‘ordering’ their boy or girl not to follow the other. Relatives and friends follow up with advice to ‘remain firm’. In many cases things are settled sooner or later but in some cases couples remain unmarried for years together hoping the other will relent. This is not an ideal situation for children. The realistic counsel is to go for mixed marriage each respecting the other. Children too, when they attain the age of reason, can have the freedom to follow their heart.

Staying with religion this writer did meet a person who expressed his desire to return to the Khasi faith. When asked he simply said he wishes to preserve the religious beliefs of the forefathers. When pressed again whether the Khasi religion is superior to Christianity or Islam or other religions he ducked the question. Should one reconvert just to keep the religious and social practices of fore-parents alive?

Letters have appeared in this daily stating that adherents of indigenous religions, namely, Niam Tynrai (in Khasi Hills), Niamtre (in Jaintia Hills) and Songsarek (in Garo Hills) are organising themselves to preserve  and conserve their traditional religion against the onslaught of Christianity. They have every right to do so. If a revival is happening it is welcome. However, the view of a letter writer is quite worrisome. According to him/her only those who belong to Niam Khasi are pure Khasis. Christians are not unless they do a ‘ghar wapsi’. This is an extremist view. When closely examined it is no different from fanatical Christians who are convinced that Jesus Christ is the only saviour or fundamental Muslims who declare that Islam is the best religion. It is essentially the same as those who assert that ‘all Indians should be Hindus’.

Religion does not define nationality, tribal and ethnic identity. If it does we are venturing into dangerous territories. The English were once not Christians. They were ‘pagans’. Are the present day English not pure English? Should they re-adopt the polytheistic and heterogeneous beliefs and cultic practices to be considered as pure English? The same applies to the Germans, the French, the Italians, the Spaniards and all people in all the continents, the Americans, Europeans, the Asians, the Australians and the Africans. Very few have remained in their original religions. As a matter of fact the vast majority have accepted Christianity, Islam, Buddhism et cetera. Should they all go back to their origins to be pure again?

Indigenous communities all over the globe have largely left the practices of their ancestors. The circumstances might not have been ideal. Voluntary conversion might have been absent.  The fact remains that natives of North and South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa no longer adhere to the practices prior to the advent of Christianity or Islam or Buddhism. Should the thousands of indigenous religious ways of life be restored to regain ones’ true identity?

Religion is not the only influencer. The Khasis, as with the case of every community, have been influenced not only by religion. It is not only the way we worship that has changed. The way we live has changed beyond recognition. Our dresses our attitudes, our houses no longer huts, our food are not of the ancestors, our entertainments and amusements are not the same, the means of movements and communication are new and even the way we celebrate traditional festivals have altered. Religious, social and cultural practices have undergone a change. Even those who still follow indigenous religions have been impacted by modernity and education. It is quite sure the way they worship and the manner they conduct ceremonies have varied. Hence there is purity left. Therefore, there is no difference between a Khasi Christians, a Khasi Muslim, a Khasi Hindu or a Khasi Niam Khasi. All are equal. There is no one more or less pure than the other. All are Khasis irrespective of religious affiliation or else we have to go back to pre-British era. Evolution will continue to make its way whether we want it or not.

The other day the Social Welfare Minister, Kyrmen Shylla had to incur flak for seemingly notifying that the Deputy Commissioners (DCs) in Khasi Hills should issue Schedule Tribe (ST) certificates to individuals who have taken their father’s surname. One is aware that as per the Khasi Hills Autonomous District (Khasi Social Custom Oflineage) Act, 1997 Khasis who carry their father’s clan name might not be entitled to be certified a Scheduled Tribe. In the act itself there are descriptions like ‘non­-Khasi father’, ‘non-­Khasi mother’, ‘Rap­-iing or’, ‘adopting Khasi person’, ‘Tang Jait’ etc. So the point is few, perhaps no one, is a pure Khasi. If the act is applied retrospectively many would fail.

Last year I saw a video of one of Meghalaya’s first politicians. He married an American woman. Did his children not inherit his surname? Why should his children be Khasis then and children who take their father’s name today not Khasis?

The pathetic road condition in West Khasi Hills and South West Khasi Hills face a constant curse from the people. The lifeline Nongstoin-Mawthabah road via Rangblang has remained dilapidated for more than 40 years. A few pictures and videos of the ever deteriorating road were posted on social media. The other day a photograph of the highly dilapidated stretch at Wah Kynthei made it to one of the pages in this newspaper. In 2016 there was a great opportunity when the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) sanctioned to convert it into a two-lane road. Work was about to commence. However, anti-development and short sighted pressure groups and the district council shattered the dreams of the people. They opposed the road instead of opposing only uranium mining.

On the last day of last year, in a public function graced by Mr. Renikton Lyngdoh Tongkhar, minister of Public Health Engineering Department (PHE) who is also the MLA of Mawkyrwat, through which the above-mentioned road runs, announced before a crowd that the government will soon call for tenders for all important roads demoting it into an intermediary road. An advocate who also attended another function confirmed that the Supreme Court has ordered the state government build the ‘intermediary’ Nongstoin-Mawthabah road. The question is when? The unconvinced public interprets the adjective ‘soon’ to be at least four years. The Nongstoin-Mawthabah road has been the subject of my lamentations for a number of times. Will it cease to provide materials for stray thoughts?

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