By Barnes Mawrie

This Sunday May 28, 2023 marks the seventh death anniversary of late Dr. Sylvanus Sngi Lyngdoh SDB. With the demise of this great luminary the state of Meghalaya and the Catholic Church of Northeast India lost a very illustrious son of the soil. He passed away at a very ripe old age of 93 years. Fr. Sngi was and is still a household name among the Khasi-Pnar people. He is still an inspiration for many in the community. He was a multifaceted personality, a priest, politician, author, healer and scholar par excellence. He was well known for his intellectual acumen even during his studies abroad. I once met an old German priest in Bavaria who happened to be Fr. Sngi’s university companion. He was all praise for the Khasi priest and called him an intellectual genius. He recalled how Fr. Sngi was the brightest student in the class and was exceptionally well versed in Greek and Latin. In fact, he was chosen by the university to read an address in Latin to the Pope during their visit.

Apart from his immense contribution to the Church through his writings, his inculturation of the Gospel, his pastoral ministry and his ministry of healing, Fr. Sngi was a great social reformer and a political chanakya. It should not be forgotten that he was the one who persuaded the Bhoi people to take up cultivation of other crops like tapioca, yam and maize; fruits like pine-apples, bananas and different types of vegetables. He made the people realize that sole dependence on paddy would lead them to hunger and famine. He taught the Bhoi people not merely to be buyers but to sellers of their own agricultural products. The people of Nongkhrah (now famous for its pineapples) still revere him for insisting upon them to take up pineapple cultivation. Another social work of Fr. Sngi was the eradication of opium plantation and its consumption in the Ri Bhoi region. Earlier the Bhoi people were largely addicted to this substance and as a consequence they became lethargic and unproductive. It was Fr. Sngi and his collaborators who undertook the difficult task and drastic steps of ending this menace to society.

Fr. Sngi was also a political chanakya who played a great role in the formation of the first coalition government in Meghalaya (the first as well in India) famously known in Khasi as “Sorkar lai-lama” in the year 1978. During that political impasse when the state was on verge of President’s rule, Fr. Sngi along with late H. S. Shylla, succeeded in convincing the leaders of the three political parties to come to a compromise so as to form a working government. The people of Hima Sohra still recall with gratitude the year 1985 when he succeeded to organize the cremation of the deceased king Join Manik Syiem and his mother Syiemsad Shinimai whose mortal remains had been lying in state for about twenty two years since their demise in 1963. This brought a great relief to the royal family and to the people of the chieftainship at large.

Fr. Sngi’s contribution to Khasi literature is undoubtedly massive. His Khasi books are rich in linguistic terms and phrases and they contain a sea of knowledge on Khasi culture, myths, folktales and Khasi customs and traditions. His well known newspaper Ka Sur Shipara which he started in 1976 and which lasted for almost two decades, was very effective in promoting political and socio-cultural awareness. It also served as a religious and moral education for people. I would not be wrong to state that he is the greatest Khasi genius of the late 2oth and early 21st Century. But I am painfully shocked to see how shabbily the state, as well as the Church and the Salesian congregation, treat this great son of the soil. Had he been born in any other country or state, many monuments of his would have been erected. It is a sad manifestation of ingratitude to the person who had given so much to the community. In the words of James Thomson “ingratitude is treason to mankind.” I hope this reminder from my part would wake up persons at the helm of affairs (civil, educational and ecclesiastical) to acknowledge the yeoman service that this genius has rendered to the Church and to the society at large and do something tangible to express our gratitude to him. It would really be treason to let the memory of such a great personality pass off into oblivion.

(The author is initiating at Vendrame Institute, Mawpdang, the Sngi Centre of Tribal Studies (SCTS) for promoting researches on tribal cultures of Northeast India in memory of this great Khasi luminary. Admirers of Fr. Sngi and other good-willed persons are welcome to join this venture. The author can be reached at [email protected])