Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Inner Line Permit as Identity Marker and Placebo   

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Patricia Mukhim

The need to differentiate oneself from the ‘Other,’ to my mind (I am not getting into the theory of ‘othering’ yet) springs from two paradoxical factors. One, is the sense of superiority over the ‘Other’ because it has been drilled into our minds that we are a superior race descended directly from heaven( in the case of the Khasis – the Sohpet Bneng) as opposed to the “Others” whose descent we are unsure of, don’t care to know because we consider them interlopers. The second reason could be a sense of insecurity because we consider the ‘Other’ to be more advanced than ourselves and hence we fear that a competition in a level playing field might result in our being outplayed and out-manoeuvred.

The sense of being a superior race has over time given way to the realism that it’s a fantasy because those claims must be backed by real data of human development. A superior people cannot be steeped in poverty. I am referring here to the poverty of earthly goods, poverty of access to resources which have been cornered by the elite of the race and the poverty of ideas that impoverish our minds and hence our ability to look beyond the immediate. The ‘Other’ needs to be constructed if only because we need scapegoats to blame our individual and collective failures on. Hence  every once in a while we blame the ‘Other’ for taking away businesses that we think we could run better than them, again given a level playing field. But the ‘Other’ succeeds despite the hurdles we create for them, from getting trade licences to paying protection money. So now, we believe that a new set of laws are needed to outdo the ‘Other,’ who might slip through the many hurdles we have constructed and who we have adroitly assumed to be using women to slither like snakes and work their way into our otherwise robust land tenure system by using the ‘women’ of the race. In fact, the indigenous land tenure system was found so defective that a modern law had to be enacted in 1972 so that no land could be sold to the “Other” except in the 10×10 sq km European Ward. But the ‘Other’ still managed to get land for setting up cement companies, in this case without using women but the male-centric institutions such as the District Councils and the Dorbar Shnong. Ironically both these institutions are supposed to protect land alienation. How did these institutions fail to deliver on the very premise for which they were created – one as a product of culture and the other a creation of the Constitution?

The ‘woman’ has always been the Eve of the Khasi society although that is a Biblical metaphor that crawled in later into the Khasi psyche. Yet it is the woman whose body is the location of culture and tradition because she is the carrier of the external markers.  In a meeting of the COMSO – the group leading the stir for the Inner Line Permit (ILP) one didn’t see a single woman sitting around the table. Women are only good for a show of numbers but their ideas are never considered sound enough to be taken on board. After so many years of evolution and education both, women are still considered unfit to hold office in the Dorbar Shnong and there are reasons galore to support this view, but tradition trumps all of them.

For a state that is about to complete half a century we really don’t have much to show as credible achievements especially in human and institutional progress. Our health indicators have not improved even as the number of children affected by malnutrition and undernutrition are on the rise thereby affecting their cognitive faculties. This means that we will have many more drop-outs who will not be able to reason their way through but will resort to violence when they fail to win an argument. The number of malnourished and anemic women (56% according to NFHS -4 data) is staggeringly high despite claims of intervention by the Health Department perhaps because the real reasons for anemia remain undetected or because women fail to adhere to treatment protocols either because they are too poor to afford iron tablets or too impoverished to afford a nutritious diet. But above all, anemia is also due to lack of spacing or family planning and no reproductive rights. So far, training for women with health vulnerabilities has excluded men. If marriage is a partnership then both partners have to agree that the woman’s health is more important than producing children and that spacing through family planning methods is no sin.

With all these underlying factors that challenge the very idea that Meghalaya is making progress, since the human development indicators don’t lie, is planted an idea that everything has a reason outside the society. As a people we are not used to introspection because that requires honesty and candour which is alien to us. Introspection means we prise open our inner selves and ruthlessly check out our own deficiencies as a society and admit we have a problem; take stock of our weaknesses and build on our strengths. No society is without challenges but tribal societies somehow feel that if they introspect then their weaknesses would be an open book and the “Other” might prey on those weaknesses. The truth is that after all the decades of interface the “Other” knows us better than we know ourselves and knows our Achilles heel. But that’s because we have succumbed to greed and are ready to sell off our natural wealth from timber to coal to limestone which as we all know have benefitted a few families. The rest remain outside of that personal economic paradigm that defies the idea of shared ownership of all resources, which is the core idea of being ‘tribal.’

It’s a travesty that today even water is a commodity that is bought and sold by tribals to other tribals and without any questions being raised as to how a natural resource has become the property of an individual. It is not the “Other” that owns coal or limestone mines (if they do so it is through the benami route which again is not possible without the collusion of tribals) or forests or water catchments. The “Other” does business and pays income tax and other taxes as well as underhand taxes to sundry groups of tribal pressure groups.

To camouflage our existential dilemma, a few who have learnt the secret of acquiring power, influence and wealth via the route of electoral politics, have successfully trotted the idea that tribals might become a minority in their homeland. This thought carefully turned into lyrics for songs which are played at public meetings turn on our collective emotions and we all converge mindlessly into the fake idea of why we are where we are.  Such patriotic songs and appeals to emotions have been the driving force of all our political movements since the 1960s and continue to this day. Meanwhile those who have successfully sold this idea of fear and paranoia have today become affluent individuals after having won elections. The stark reality is that nearly all of our politicians, right from 1972 never came from among the landed gentry except for Mr Maham Singh Sawian. Yet after two innings in politics nearly all politicians own mansions and enjoy all the creature comforts (including expensive swanky cars) they would not have had outside of politics.

This is the sole reason for Meghalaya’s backwardness and its sordid human development indices. The “Other” has very little to do with our self-inflicted pain. But the “Other” must bear the burden of our crimes because those entrusted with leading us will never admit that they are responsible for the crime of leaving us poorer than we were when we started off in 1972. The ILP is but a drama that is needed as a prop for another set of actors who wish to follow the same trajectory marked out by their predecessors.  And we the people can only watch from the sidelines because we have lost our VOICE to sheer poverty. What’s on offer during the election is enough for us to sell our souls. Why should we care about development which is a chimera anyway?

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