Monday, May 27, 2024

‘An enemy is just a person whose story you haven’t heard yet’


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(Old Jewish adage quoted by Palestinian Food Writer Yasmin Khan)

By Janet Hujon

It is evidently clear that ‘passing the buck’ and ‘scapegoating’ count as favourite pastimes in Meghalaya government circles. Following the unprovoked murder of Arjun Rai, cabinet minister A L Hek is reported to have said that ‘criminal activities [are] giving the state a bad name…and promised to write to Union Home Minister Amit Shah to “do something about”’. (ST April 11th 2024). Now wouldn’t that be an interesting conversation? Doesn’t Meghalaya already have a bad name trashed by none other than Amit Shah himself who called the state the most corrupt in India? After that kind of condemnation anyone would hesitate to draw the same man’s attention to a crime fuelled by blind racial bigotry, but not our representatives. Oh no, they are made of sterner stuff because surprise, surprise Sanbor Shullai also promised to do the same.
Then just to make sure the positive message is not lost on us, on April 16 the Shillong Times reports that Himalaya Shangpliang claims ‘the law-and-order situation is quite good despite the unnatural death of three non-tribal people in less than a month [and] he termed the murder of a labourer in Shillong as unfortunate’(italics mine). Unfortunate? Really? Do these people who speak on behalf of the government listen to themselves and actually think about the meaning of the words they use? A brutal act that can only be termed barbaric has deprived a family of a beloved husband and father. Surely that cannot be explained away as ‘unfortunate’. It can only be described as tragic and unthinkable and should be condemned by any society calling itself civilised.
The word unfortunate smacks of condescension and cold indifference. Arjun Rai was a human being whose right to live as one was cruelly taken away from him. But because he was not a member of the tribal population and obviously in need of work which Meghalaya was able to offer – factors which must have made him feel insecure anyway – his death can be brushed off as unfortunate. Not that the hardships of our own people keep those elected to high office awake. The death of a rag picker buried under an avalanche of rubbish would probably, if noticed, be considered unfortunate. Maybe we can shrug that one off as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘Money makes the world go round…the world go round, if you happen to be rich [but] when you haven’t any coal in the stove and you freeze in the winter’…then life sucks. The disconnect between the rich and the poor – read the political class and the people – wryly captured in the old song, has long been obvious. Why else would we have to live with unreliable electricity and water provision, pot-holed roads, poisoned and ‘disappeared’ rivers, shrinking forests, rapacious mining, stinking drains that were once pristine streams? You name it we’ve got it. A regional government that does not look after its own should not be tolerated or respected by the Centre controlling the cashflow. Yet the unholy alliance prevails because of mutual back-scratching. No marks for guessing how the story ends – the fortunate get richer while the unfortunate pay dearly in hardship and with their lives. But what will happen when the Centre feels secure enough not to need the ‘cooperation’ of our representatives? Frightening thought indeed.
Yet after so many decades of self-serving government theft, the people of Meghalaya have become so used to this moral decline that they regard it as the norm which is an infuriating response. Accepting dishonesty and duplicity merely reinforces the government’s disdainful belief that it is above the law and we are powerless. We take comfort in platitudes like ‘Go with the flow,’ deluding ourselves that we are wise and philosophical, but in effect admitting that we are onlookers and not participants in the public life of the state. We have surrendered even before the war has started. Note that those who fall back on these comforting words are usually not the ones struggling financially.
Sadly, there has only been the sludge of corruption and no flow. When the ‘tyrannical practices’ of bribery and bullying (Albert Thyrniang: ST April 18) flourish at all levels of administration then does that not encourage even more criminal elements to feel that the state is the perfect nursery for their growth? For can the pot call the kettle black if the body meant to establish law and order has also got its own hands in the till? It is a government’s sense of right and wrong, its intolerance and punishment of wrongdoing that deters criminals, not some pie-in-the sky $10 billion economy. Who are you kidding Mr Conrad Sangma?
Today it is the hapless outsider who is intimidated and erased, who will it be tomorrow? Suspected extra-judicial killings carried out within the Khasi community have left behind rancorous and smarting hearts growing plump on communal arguments. This does not augur well for the state. How long can this hostility be contained? I know I am being unusually morbid but crimes like these, if left to fester and not brought to trial, will turn our beautiful Meghalaya into a Haiti of which it has been said that, ‘The vacuum of democratically accountable political authority has created space for the gangs to expand their influence in the capital’… ( Corrupt ministers, officials, businessmen intent only on personal gain currently share the spoils of racketeering while the state is left in tatters and uneasy (See CSWO’s appeal: ST April 18th). One day other puppeteers all claiming to have their finger on the pulse of the jaitbynriew will pull the strings, and who knows the chilling viciousness with which history will repeat itself. Haiti was once a favourite tourist destination – it is now a no-go area.
At this moment, I think of all who love these hills: the friends who have now left – Assamese, Bengalis, Punjabis, Tamils. Muslim, Hindu, Sikh; and those who chose to stay – the teachers who saw me through school, the college professors, the lawyers, the civil servants, all of whom contributed and still contribute to the intellectual and cultural life of this state by widening our horizons. Equally important to me were the Nepalis who were part of our Khasi household whose love, loyalty and hard work educated me in the meaning of trust and care. ‘Sngewshngaiñ’ is a rich Khasi word which denotes feeling safe, companioned and not alone. And that is how I felt with these kind people who were present throughout my childhood and beyond, who made easy the daily task of living. Their intangible gifts sustain me to this day. Can we say we ‘sngewshngaiñ’ today? I wonder.
How and why have we lost sight of the greater good, of our need for one another, where difference does not lead to building walls of suspicion and contempt but to a recognition of the other in ourselves. Meghalaya will always be my homeland and I want no other. But while the natural beauty of our landscapes never fails to move me, while indigenous knowledge of the natural world is humbling, while I am reduced to delirious excitement every time a Khasi word reveals insights into Khasi thought and sensibility, I remain grateful that other languages, cultures and peoples have enabled this understanding. I would indeed be a poorer person if I failed to recognise that.



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