By Kyrsoibor Pyrtuh
With the eagerness to learn more about the idea of freedom, I also watched the Campus Talk on freedom of expression, hosted by a local media person. The campus talk centered around the recent show cause notice against the particular Head of Government School in West Jaintia Hills District, for allegedly allowing the students to play and dance to the tune of an election song “Ha U Prah.” Taking for granted that the Head of the Institution had violated certain government norms, perhaps it is highly unlikely that action will be initiated against the person for fear of public outrage due to the popularity of the song.
It will be hypocritical on the part of the Government not to take any action if rules are violated. Nonetheless, in the recent past in Meghalaya rules are blatantly flouted and law and order vitiated by both State and non-state actors and in many instances the Government had failed the citizens and was not able to maintain the rule of law for the fear of reprisal by the majority. However, the fundamental premise of freedom is to let everyone live in peace and prosperity. At the same time we must not succumb to a popular and completely wrong notion that law and order or for peace to prevail we have to depend on the happiness of the majority. Popularity is not divine, and that a strong government and progressive society is marked by the will to act against the unfounded opinion of the majority. To the extent of refusing to act at the diktat of the popular majority and the recent research had brought to light that even in Nazi Germany, there were German Police from Hamburg City under the Reserve Police Battalion 101 who refused to follow the orders of their superiors to kill the Jews.
Learning and debating on freedom, censorship, societal or religious norms et al are no small matters and it is important that we continue the discourse as these matters shape and mould our world views and guide us in our day to day dealings. Curtailing freedom of expression, artistic or otherwise and behaviour control are not anathema in Meghalaya. There had been orders issued by the State with the intention to stop and even ban art expressions, movies, music etc. Recently both the Government and society found the following artistic expressions to be threats to both and hence the ban was pronounced. These are; (i) In 2006 the Meghalaya Cabinet banned the movie the Davinci Code and ironically no film critic was present in the Cabinet. (ii) In 2013 Tarun Bhartiya and Sanjay Kak’s Red Ant Dream was troubled by the City Police and was not screened during the Indie 8 film festival at St Anthony’s, Shillong (iii) In the 2015 edition of NH 7 Weekender some religious group (s) objected to Megadeth performing at the music festival. (iv) In Shillong, there exists this loud noise which vehemently objects to thrash metal music and people who are associated with it are sometimes considered and condemned as satanic.
In 2014 there was public discourse on the effects of thrash metal bands on society and it was painful to listen to the stories of some talented musicians who played metal songs as they had to go underground out of fear. Even rappers were forced to stop midway during their performance and ridiculed by government officials in the music event held in the outskirts of the city. Once I was baffled when I heard a preacher who preached against the song, Hotel California of the Band Eagles, as being satanic and during the 1980s there was this satanic panic about the pernicious impact of rock music on the youth, especially in America, where evangelical preachers went overboard to denounce rock music for causing havoc to the youths. Also, John Lenon was condemned as anti-Christ for his off-hand remark that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus, which also led to protest and death threats. Such panic and demonising opinions against some of the renowned performing artists of the Universe also reverberated across the Khasi Hills during the penetration of American Evangelicalism. In fact John Lennon was anti-war and strongly opposed violence and his songs bore testimony to that.
On the issue that certain songs or art expressions are satanic and the satanic concept per se have come about because we are a Christian dominated society and for two centuries we have been informed significantly by the Bible and Christian literatures of various strands. Critically speaking, satan or satanic being is foreign to our indigenous ethos and it is a Christian import. On the other hand, the Khasi concept of “u ksuid u khrei” (evil character or being) is not equivalent to the concept of satan. But it cannot be denied that for generations the word satan has been loosely translated as “u ksuid” in Khasi and unfortunately our ancestors who were adherents of primal or indigenous faith were branded as “ki nongmane ksuid” or evil worshippers and children of darkness.
Briefly, the Khasis understand “u ksuid u khrei” as a force or power which causes obstruction to domestic or communal progress or which causes sickness or calamity in the family or community. They also believe in “u ryngkew u basa” or the guardians or protectors of land and in retributive justice or “ka nongkylliang” or “ka ‘la pakhot”, whereby one has to face the same fate or harm which he/she has caused to others. Therefore, prayers, intercessions, rituals and sacrifices play a major role to prevent individual (s)/family (s) and community from impending calamities, obstructions and sicknesses. With the advancement of higher education, especially scientific knowledge, much of our human predicaments and burdens have been eased out. However, an evil force is taking a new shape and comes in the form of new policies to deny citizens and poor people access to basic health care, decent livelihoods and education.
In Hebraic epistemology, Satan is the accuser and occurs several times throughout the Hebrew Bible. In his Khasi Bible commentary, Rev Father Sngi Lyngdoh defines Satan as one of the servants of God and is not an evil being, who worked for God or rather he was a tool which God uses to test and prosecute those who went against God’s laws. Therefore, the accuser is a job description rather than a proper noun and the accuser’s job is to confront and challenge the unworthiness of humankind. The accuser is essentially the prosecutor before the Court of Yahweh. The concept of Satan has evolved over the millennia since the post Biblical Judaism and in modern world it has also reared its racial underpinning that everything which is black is evil and more so red, brown, tribal or primitive and the global south were characterised as heathen and godless region.
Freedom is crucial for our civilization and one must not condone violence, hatred or any act which will lead to destruction of socio-political fabric. On the other hand the society must also move with the times and adapt to the changes, lest the society will be doing violence by its rigidity and regressiveness. Let me recall a conversation with the group of musicians in town. This group belongs to the genre of thrash metal and had their music video shot in a cemetery. This music video was objected to by a section of conservatives who also admonished the group as satanic worshippers. But their story is just the opposite, they are not satanic followers and neither the songs nor the video contained any satanic elements. In fact, they pen and sing songs which are relatable to politics and society. Through the music video they wanted to share their idea with the society at large that the graveyard is another space which is present among human habitation and is a space which represents serenity amidst the din of city life.
Now that the Voice of People Party has issued a disclaimer that the Prah song is not the official song of the party, it can well be opined that the show-cause is ridiculous. Be that as it may, the question still remains as to whether we are a tolerant society. Hence, we need to ask whoever comes to power if they are committed to defend freedom without prejudice? Or will they continue the politics of disallowing freedom of expression and hate opinion (s) which they dislike and which offend the majority?