Monday, May 27, 2024

Divided by politics, religion, education, economics


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By Patricia Mukhim

Those who revel in the use of the word “jaitbynriew” carelessly have hardly delved into its intrinsic meaning. Jaitbynriew would mean a conglomeration of clans that make up the Khasi community. It is a word that suggests inclusion and oneness. Perhaps when that word was coined the world we lived in was simple; our worldviews were unpretentious and not as complicated as it is today and there was little to divide us. At the time there were no elections, only selection of who would lead the tribes in every village so that the leader would show the way. Hence, he had to have better insights into things and also have the personality to lead. And when we talk of leaders at the time, it had to me a male person because women were too tied to their kitchens, their fields; their child-bearing obligations and their caring responsibilities – caring for the elderly; for their children; their husbands but not themselves. It was considered selfish to look after oneself. Hence the woman of the house would only complain of ill-health when she could no longer get up and work in the house or the field.
However, since the gender division of labour was not as austere as today, a man could take on the task of cooking and looking after the kids as much as the woman did. Also, there were other family members in and out of the house. We were a real community then. Each one lent a helping hand. At that time Khasi society was indeed egalitarian. Today we are torn apart by politics; by religion; by disparities in wealth distribution; by an education system that serves the elite and discriminates against the poor. What has divided us the most is the skewed distribution of wealth. There are the few billionaire tribals flaunting over the top, luxury vehicles and driving over pot-holed roads. There are the millionaire tribals who have the best of everything – a good, cushy government job and money to be stolen from every project they handle; the business class tribal that has learnt to tailor the system to its needs. These types are friendly with every government that comes in since the system is so well-oiled. They get all the contract works on a quid pro quo basis. Then there are other ordinary tribals who eke out a living through hard labour and others who spread their wares and hawk them from morning to evening – go back home buy food along the way and cook it on reaching home.
They are all Khasi (I am not going to split hairs and go into the sub-strata), but their aspirations are different. The Khasi that has benefitted from the crony- capitalist system will support a government that facilitates its unhindered wealth creation project. Those that are unable to find a footing in the economic ladder which in this state is a pyramid that gets broader at the bottom and sharper at the top, now want change. They don’t understand the larger picture that this time the voting is for forming a government at the centre. All they want is to punish the present state government which they conclude is serving the affluent while kicking them on their stomachs.
Hence there is a sharp polarisation of political ideals – the poor and downtrodden seem to favour the VPP because of its promise to root out corruption which in other words means that the poor too will have some space for their dreams and aspirations to blossom. Whether that will really happen if the VPP rides to power in 2028 is too distant a dream to even consider now. Besides, we are in a state where the VPP has a following only in the Khasi Hills while its beta noire the NPP is a national party and is present across the state of Meghalaya. It would be tough for a party that is Khasi-centric to dream of ruling the state. Let’s also admit that the Garo people are smarter, more united and vote more strategically than the Khasis do. Isn’t that the reason why Meghalaya has had 5 Garo Chief Ministers whose tenures were longer but the Khasis have had 7 chief ministers with short tenures. BB Lyngdoh had the shortest tenure of 29 days between March 3- 31, 1983. Captain Willamson Sangma had the longest collective tenure of almost 13 years between 1972 to February 1988. PA Sangma could only be CM for 2yrs 47 days in 1988; Salseng Marak was CM for 5 years and 19 days from 1983-1988 followed by Mukul Sangma who was CM for 7 years and 320 days from April 2010 to March 2013. And finally Conrad Sangma is the CM for 6 years running. The longest tenure that a Khasi CM had was when DD Lapang held office for 3 years and 103 days between March 4 2003 to June 15, 2006. Does this tell us anything about politics in Meghalaya?
Instability seems to run in our genes and that instability is caused not by the desire to govern the state better or to chart out a more progressive roadmap for Meghalaya but by the sole desire to be the CM because of the perks that go with the office. Thankfully now the era of ‘iaknieh shuki’ (musical chairs)is over. It used to be a characteristic of the Congress regime then. Congress MLAs with chief ministerial ambitions would take their case to the High Command in Delhi and as one chief ministerial candidate once confided it depended on how much money an aspirant could offer the High Command. One wonders if the Congress High Command has learnt any lessons from these shenanigans which it will not repeat in the future. With the BJP at the Centre we haven’t heard of too many musical chairs being played in BJP ruled states.
When it comes to politics no political party can lay claims to sainthood. All have their well-hidden or whitewashed acts of omission and commission. The BJP’s outright attack on CMs of opposition ruled states and of taking into its fold tainted former Congressmen is disgusting to say the least. Apart from this the BJP government using the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI to get after anyone with even a faint taint of corruption and to then woo them into the BJP fold is scandalous. Like they say anyone who enters the bathing space (read politics) is naked.
Right now the people in rural areas are in a mood to punish the NPP-led government because they feel that life has become very burdensome in the past six years. They realise that education is beyond their reach. In Syntung village for instance, the community are mobilising funds from each household to be able to pay the teachers of Class 9 and 10. Some households pay cash; others pay in kind. The reason they are doing so is because if they don’t have Classes 9 &10 within the village they would have to send their kids to Shillong which means having to rent a house and also pay for education. Alternatively, they would have to send their kids to Jongksha which has a higher secondary school but which is 36 kms away and takes 1 hour 18 minutes to commute. The MLAs they have elected have done hardly anything to improve the educational and health care facilities and these take a huge financial toll on them. Mind you, this is the story of just one village. The story is repeated at every village one travels to. Only villages closer to the state capital or the district headquarters have some semblance of governance which includes good educational and health facilities.
Looking at the villages of Meghalaya, nothing much has changed in 50 years. The roads built are very narrow and designed to last one season only. Two vehicles can hardly pass each other on these roads. One wonders what specifications the PWD uses. But more on that in another article. For now, we are all geared up for the MP elections. Today the deal will be sealed and we will have an MP who will represent the Shillong Parliamentary seat. I intentionally don’t wish to dwell on Garo Hills because we vote differently and I am now quite sure that there is an inherent difference in the psyche of the Mon Khmer group of people and the Tibeto-Burmans. Am I being divisive? As if we ever felt a sense of kinship!
And last but not least, in recent times with the rise of a renaissance in Khasi indigenous faith, religion has become a sword that goes right through the heart of Khasi society. Politics has used religion to create fissures among us and religion has lent itself to politics rather incongruously. There are those who believe that religion is the key that unlocks the doors to culture and others who believe that religion is a spiritual path and culture is what we follow as Khasis. The debate continues even as we find more and more reasons to divide us.
It is on this hugely polarised climate and divisive mindsets that we go to vote for an MP. May the least factious and discordant political party carry the day.


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