By Roshmi Goswami

We at North East Network (NEN) were perhaps among the few, maybe  first,  in Shillong to organise celebrations around March 8. Back in that progressive era there were  enough reasons to celebrate and truly honourable women to honour – the likes of Sylverine Swer, Queenie Rynjah and Sitimon Sawian. Evolved and broad-minded women of substance, unflinching courage, impeccable integrity and high social morality. In those days it wasn’t simply about achievements but what people stood for and embodied. It was such a privilege therefore to have these stalwarts grace our little function. Over the years as the events around the International Women’s Day have expanded manifold my own celebration of the day has retreated into the private domain and has primarily been a quiet evening of sharing a drink or two and uncensored conversations with friends. This year however there was a real reason  to come together to  celebrate! To celebrate the three persons – two women and a man from the KAM Meghalaya platform who fought the Assembly elections and lost. We (supporters and well-wishers) gathered together in solidarity to  salute their incredible courage, integrity  and resilience and mark Women’s Day in a deeply significant way.

The more I reflect on what the KAM Meghalaya platform set out to do and the layers of patriarchal and societal structures that they attempted to transgress I am astounded and realise what an audacious attempt it was in a deeply conservative society like Shillong with its different levels of prejudices and mindsets. The first perhaps was the temerity of two women and a rebel pastor to venture into the world of money, muscle flexing, misogyny and operating wiliness unbacked by a male mentor/mentors, or a dominant party, or a local heavyweight pressure group or a religious institution and then put forth a different narrative about electioneering and power sharing! A narrative wherein the citizen and the rights and dignity of the citizen was the central focus and the patronised hierarchy of the ‘ruler’ and the ‘voiceless ruled’ was questioned and upturned. Then again a non- negotiable position on gender justice regardless of whoever the perpetrators were. For instance, why on earth should they have had loud and clear voices against the release of the Bilkis Bano rapists and murderers when women politicians of the ruling dispensation and its allies themselves maintained a demure silence? And to top it all they came in with no funds to distribute or party and had to rely on crowd funding for their basic expenses. In this of course they were not alone for the VPP resorted to crowd funding as well which is nothing new in the world of civil society and have also been followed by different candidates in Assam and other places during the last Lok Sabha elections. For both groups of contestants it was of course a political statement worthy of greater attention and appreciation that elections can be and should be fought without the squandering of huge resources even if you are a well-oiled party with access to easy and convenient oiling means.

But the more disturbing factor was perhaps their open and clear stand on a range of issues many of which were uncomfortable and an affront to the delicate sensibilities of Shillongites! Topping the delicate sensibilities was first of all the unspoken issue of class –  surprisingly hugely problematic for the so-called egalitarian tribal ethos of Shillong society.  The fact that one of the contestants was a former domestic worker and headed the domestic workers forum was received with an undercurrent of disdain. Then their uncompromising secular and non-communal position which they proudly and unequivocally declared standing firmly with different communities and religious groups. They were in fact cautioned about being too vocal about their secular stand for these stands are at best to be confined only to closed WhatsApp groups! Thereafter was their commitment to human rights and humanity rather than the much revered jaitbynriew and their scandalous support for the LGBTIQ community and their rights. What I was profoundly struck by was the underlying beliefs that so firmly anchored these non-negotiable positions on rights and humanity. As deeply believing and spiritually secure Christians (with no need for any public  display of their faith) their unequivocal stand against today’s dominant politics of hate and exclusion was driven by their unshakeable belief and commitment to the tenets of ‘love’ which is the very foundation of their religion. At no given point would these be ever bartered off no matter what the lures or arguments are.

For me what was also especially telling was the economic divide and push back on that. The KAM Meghalaya contestants are well known for their years of work for the urban poor  and the unorganised sector having  always stood solidly behind all categories of workers including migrant workers, domestic workers, street hawkers and vendors. And therein lies a catch for the most preliminary of discussions on congestion in Shillong city immediately zeroes in to the street hawkers even by the most avowed social activists! Nobody talks about the number of vehicles on the streets, of the number of cars that each family has and uses and the fact that very few people in Shillong today actually walk for small errands. Many reasons are cited for this, of course, although I think despite all limitations and obstacles Shillong is still quite a walkable city. Nobody has similarly been able to explain to me that if street hawkers are the primary reason for congestion then why is it such a pleasure to drive through Shillong when schools are closed? Wonder if street hawkers  go on holiday too? Obviously, the problem lies elsewhere and has to be tackled from that perspective. I believe it is being initiated but these arguments throw up deep prejudices about the urban poor and the eternal divides of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

On the contrary amongst the street hawkers themselves there are no such divides of caste, ethnicity or religion. Their conditions and economic status unites and gives them a different perspective of coexistence alien to the elite middle class of Shillong. The Kam Meghalaya contestants have enabled that invaluable sense of solidarity. Wandering off into the rural areas and drawing a simplistic notion of village life and rural poverty can be somewhat romantic. Urban poverty on the other hand is more challenging because it is about shared spaces, stares you in the face and pushes you to confront your own biases. Working and dealing with the sex workers of Sonagachi, Kolkata many years ago compelled me to confront my own biases and taught me invaluable lessons on humility. A deep connection with the association of street hawkers then immediately put the KAM contestants in the suspicious category of the ‘other’! And so they lost – weighed down by the heaviness of their values and positions and because they were clearly the ‘other’.  But as Milan Kundera asks, ‘is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid’? Doesn’t heaviness bring you closer to that which is truthful and real while lightness after a while becomes insignificant? Perhaps many years from now the value of KAM Meghalaya’s weight will finally be comprehended and lauded. For now as Shillong flies high on the  ‘lightness of being’ just a handful of discerning minds will understand the full import of this extremely courageous attempt. A truly watershed moment in the history or rather ‘herstory’ of feminists mobilising in NE India. A moment to be treasured.  

As the eternal cynic I did not have any delusions of the possibility of the stereotypical notion of success of a value based platform. The response to the victory of the two women candidates in neighbouring Nagaland has understandably been euphoric. Naga women, at least a few of them have fought a  long, bitter and difficult fight to arrive at this moment and one can momentarily put aside party affiliations, ideological concerns, and share that joy. But as a feminist it is difficult to brush aside more disturbing questions that arise immediately at this point. If women’s political participation is not simply about representation at any cost but much more about women’s agency then it is an extremely challenging moment in Indian democracy to have agency. A repeated word of advice that one kept hearing in Shillong about KAM Meghalaya is that the candidates should have just tried to join one of the ‘strong’ parties! But that is precisely the point. Can ‘strong’ women in ‘strong parties’  really push back on patriarchal gags or can only pursue that which is ‘allowed’ of them by the patriarchs. In the last nine years the toxicity in the  political arena in the country has been unprecedented and continues to rise accompanied by a gagging, shackling patriarchy and feudal paternalism that advances like galloping cancer. Yet through the KAM Meghalaya experience plus the way the recently held elections in NE India played out the feudal paternalism and the hierarchy of the ‘ruler’ and ‘the ruled’ is what people male or female, want – be it the electorate or the politicians themselves. A longing to be blessed by the patriarchal ‘ruler’ ! If more powerful and seasoned politicians have willingly acquiesced to this then could we fault the two women in Nagaland if they are limited in what they can actually achieve? On that note I disengage from ‘the unbearable lightness of being’  and retire into the world of Faiz Ahmed Faiz for solace. There will be other decades.

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