What Mukul didn’t say

By Albert Thyrniang

On a Sunday evening in 1992 we were returning from Rongram to Rongkhon (near Tura) on foot. On the way a group of young men (picnickers) in the scenic Ganol river were on the road waiting for public transport (Those were years when means of public transport were sparse). They asked us where we were proceeding to. When we revealed our destination they offered to join us. As darkness set in and since they were a bit tipsy we were apprehensive. We were three, they were five. But anyway, we agreed. As we started our march the conversation started, “From where are you” inquired one. “From Shillong” was our answer. “Oh! We are friends because we are all Meghalayans,” was the unexpected response while placing their hands over our shoulders. Our fear turned into a joyful stroll in the 8 km stretch as we joked and laughed all along the way till we finally bid farewell to each other.
Recently, the former Chief Minister, Mukul Sangma was almost in tears lamenting the persistent division among the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo tribes. “I am telling this based on my observation all throughout my career and innings as a politician” the two-time Chief Minister was quoted as saying. The current leader of Opposition blames the elected representatives and people with allegiance to different political parties for the failure to unite the three major tribes of Meghalaya.
According to the veteran politician, people whisper, “Why should a Garo or a Khasi be the CM” pointing that ‘Meghalaya will prosper only if we unite and act as citizens of the state instead of confining our thinking to the community we belong to.’ The leader who manifests religiosity on occasions sought divine intervention for unity, urging the electorate to rise above ethnic and regional considerations and look beyond their ‘locality, neighbourhood and constituency’ while exercising their franchise in 2023.
The Ampati strongman who now represents Songsak in East Garo Hills was perhaps denied the chance to become Chief Minister for the third time in a row in 2018 due to the ‘disunity’ factor. Senior Khasi-Jaintia leaders left him just before the polls. They probably did not want to see him make the record because he hails from another part of the state. The expressed reason was that their former boss was ‘dictatorial’ and a one man army. The motivation was different. A Chief Minister hopeful was heard praising his former superior as the best Chief Minister ever because his constituency was upgraded into a C & RD Block only to ditch his ex-colleague soon after.
It is learned that ministers who jumped ship were incompetent during the Meghalaya United Alliance (MUA) government. They could not keep pace with the leadership of the physician-turned-politician. In a casual conversation the then Chief Minister lamented that even the top bureaucrats could not take forward his vision for the state. Some ministers were also allegedly negligent of their duties. Sangma even complained to the press that his then power minister and other ministers were frequenting Kolkata for unknown reasons. For stepping in, during their absence he was branded as an autocratic leader. They abandoned the ‘capable’ leader to thwart his march. Very hurt Sangma might have been.
The tribal divide aside, Sangma was also probably done in by the perception that he was over-concentrating on his constituency, Ampati. Allegedly developmental activities were directed to South West Garo Hills. If one visits Ampati one sees good road networks besides fresh infrastructure in health, education and sports. Though other MLAs should emulate him but being Chief Minister he carried the leverage which no one could. Privately, even MLAs from Garo Hills murmured they were not able to get any road sanctioned in certain financial years during Sangma’s tenure as Chief Minister.
The statement of the Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader came against the background of the appointment of Vincent Pala as Meghalaya Congress chief. Mukul Sangma and all MLAs from Garo Hills skipped the taking-over function in Shillong on September 18 and a couple of days later stayed away from the ‘homecoming’ gathering for R.G. Lyngdoh and P.N. Syiem, Sangma’s known adversaries. The senior leader from Garo Hills might not have been consulted in the appointment process. The undisputed leader in Garo Hills might also have his grudge against the Shillong MP. In the February 2013 elections Pala allegedly supported some candidates against the official Congress ticket holders. A couple of them came out victorious. The three-time Lok Sabha MP probably nurtures the ambition of replacing Sangma as Chief Minister. If one were a mind reader Sangma sees Pala’s elevation as a challenge to the Chief Ministerial post and the re-induction of his antagonists as stumbling blocks in the game of thrones in 2023.
Mukul Sangma obviously has valid reasons to be displeased with the whole affair, but ‘boycotting’ the aforementioned functions has actually widened the tribal divide. Notwithstanding his sentiments if he were to put them aside he would have bridged the gap. He would have won hearts in Khasi-Jaintia Hills. Now ‘selfish’ comments have already appeared on social media. When he himself does not walk the talk, whom does he blame?
Sangma’s sentiments, however, are real. Except for belonging to the same state there is little emotional connection between people of Khasi-Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills. Hardly any effort has been made to bond the prominent tribes together. It is granted that culturally and linguistically there is not much in common. But it does not mean we can’t appreciate each other.
The other day an upset member of a pressure group shouted near the Legislative Assembly ‘Conrad Sangma, go back to Garo Hills’ after being denied entry into the guest gallery during the Autumn Session. Why would Conrad go anywhere? He is the Chief Minister of the state? Another pressure group speaker recently rued ‘We are under the rule of a Garo’. These utterances based on tribal identity are a disrespect to the democratic and constitutional provisions, but more questionable is the mentality that looks down on others because they think they are superior to others. On social media name calling is common and the terms used are indecent. We are a ‘Christian’ state. The Bible says all are ‘created in the image and likeness of God’. ‘God is the Father. All are his children.’ Even if we are irreligious, respect for other cultures is a human value.
This writer is fortunate to have been in Garo Hills for 14 years. One must honestly confess that one faced absolutely no issues while working there. One did not face any barrier. Language was a barricade initially. But that was purely in terms of verbal communication. There was nothing in relation to ethnic differences. A feeling of acceptance prevails. A sense of gratitude overwhelms. The Garo Hills experience is enriching. The great Balpakram national park, the Nokrek peak, Siso Bibra tourist spot, the host of Pa Togan memorial and Rombagre picnic spots with the fish sanctuaries on the mighty Simsang river are nostalgic. The initial apprehension was totally unfounded.
The bias surfaces when one crosses the home-bound boundary. For many, the 14 years are unimaginable in ‘that’ area. Some ask sarcastic questions that subtly depict chauvinism. Being part of the schools there the contact number of this writer appeared in advertisements for teaching jobs. Convincing candidates from Khasi and Jaintia Hills to submit their applications and appear for interviews, particularly for posts where there was likelihood of non-availability of local candidates, was near impossible. Misperception reigns supreme. They literally switch off the moment they hear about Garo Hills.
Who will unite the people of this state? Mukul Sangma indirectly puts the onus on politicians and political parties. Let us make an observation. The HSPDP, the oldest indigenous party today, is a Khasi-Jaintia Hills party. It envisages a separate Khasi-Jaintia state. KHNAM falls within the same parenthesis. The GNC, presently with zero MLA, envisions a Garo state. The UDP is firmly a Khasi-Jaintia Hills centric party. The NPP was, till recently, seen as a Garo Hills party. The Congress is the only pan-Meghalaya political party but it is locked in infighting.
I have met a couple who attended exchange programmes or integration camps in Garo Hills in their youth. They have a better positive attitude. Similarly those who were in Garo Hills for their B. Ed studies and nursing courses have altered their perceptions as a result of their educational sojourn. The government can think of more social and academic exchanges to overturn the gulf.
Let us direct some questions to the elected representatives. How many MLAs from Khasi-Jaintia Hills have visited Garo Hills? Have Garo MLAs ventured out of Shillong? Sohra may be. Other than these? Have any guided tours been organised for legislators of the two regions to see the ‘other side’? How many MLAs are bilingual? How many MLAs have a working knowledge of Khasi and Garo languages? If rulers don’t lead by example tears won’t work!
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