Tuesday, July 16, 2024
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The politics of hunger strikes

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By Albert Thyrniang

Bindas Syiem, with a firm demand that the government immediately construct the Nongpoh-Umden-Sonapur road, has been on fast for 5 days at least, in the parking lot of the Additional Secretariat. It has become more and more evident that the decision to go for this form of protest was not a solo one. That the ‘fast unto death’ is devoid of politics does not seem to be true. Whether the Mawlong Nongtluh resident is used by groups or individuals need not be established. What is important to ask is, ‘What will the indefinite fast achieve’?
Over two years ago, from May 23 to June 2, 2023, the whole state watched the high profile fast of the Voice of the People Party (VPP) president, Ardent Miller Basaiawmoit in the same vicinity. What did the 10 day strike do? It popularised the VPP no end. Through the Anna Hazare style protest spread the fame of the new party in the state, outside the state and even abroad. Lip synchronization of the party’s election song ‘Kongdeng Kongnah ha u Prah; Bahdeng Bahnah ha u Prah,’ by social media performers reached Africa and Europe. The modern media helped VPP to meet the target. It propelled the party, with just four MLAs, to a sensational win of the MP Shillong seat by 3,71,910 votes leaving established parties dumbfounded. The likes of Prestone Tynsong and Rakkam A. Sangma had to sound childish while reacting to the massive victory. So politically the VPP achieved much more than expected.
But that was not the stated aim of the fast. It was to demand for the review and revamp of the state’s reservation policy which the VPP had dubbed as outdated. The propaganda was mainly to change allocation of government jobs of 40 per cent each to the Khasi and Garo communities. Basaiawmoit’s fast put immense pressure on the Government as crowds threateningly swelled the venue day by day and night by night. The government said ‘Yes’ to setting up the expert committee to end the fast of the increasingly popular boss of the VPP. More than once the Government had rejected the same demand on the floor of the house but it bent its will to the VPP fearing more damage. After more than a year what has the Committee done? How many times have members of the Committee met? In its demand, during and prior to the hunger strike days the VPP sounded that the reservation be ‘set right’ on a fast track mode. But the VPP has gone silent knowing fully well that the sensitive issue cannot be solved according to one’s fancy. The VPP seems to have accepted that the 50 plus year old policy cannot possibly be touched. In the meantime the people have been fooled though the VPP has gained immeasurable mileage.
We can also question the merits of the indefinite hunger strike of the then KHNAM leader Adelbert Nongrum in 2015 (presently the VPP legislator) over the KHAD (Village Administration) Bill, 2014 and the five-day sit-in-protest in 2022 on his five points charter of demands that included the review of the state reservation policy, the relocation of the Sweepers’ Colony and resolution of the long pending Meghalaya- Assam boundary dispute.
Now we address the Bindas Syiem fast! The widow and mother of three had to leave behind her family and children with a placard demanding the overhaul of the dilapidated 45 odd Km road that has caused immense trouble especially for the sick; to travelers who have to suffer aches and pains while traversing the road and those whose vehicles are damaged. The extreme step is the culmination of various protests, memoranda and ultimatums over the neglected road. The fast has taken place because the sweet promises of politicians have come to naught. While on election campaign the PWD minister, Prestone Tynsong termed the road the ‘backbone’ of the people and assured that the crucial intermediate road would be constructed within a time frame. The present local MLA too gave similar undertakings. Now the blame is on a short duration model code of conduct and various technicalities. Prior to election the promise was ‘very soon’, post-election the appeal to the public is ‘patience’.
In all likelihood the Nongpoh – Umden – Sonapur road will be constructed soon enough. Those demanding this road will get their wishes. It is good for the people of that part of Ri Bhoi district. They have suffered enough. However pertinent questions need to be raised. Is the Government serious only when it is pushed to a corner? Does the Government construct roads only when someone fasts unto death? One wishes the Nongpoh – Umden – Sonapur residents well but the neighbouring Mawhati-Umsiang road is at least 200% worse than the former. On MP election trail the NPP candidate and minister, Ampareen Lyngdoh, after traveling on the bumpy five kilometre stretch from Assam border to Umsiang, was in tears to woo voters. Now those tears have dried up and she may never venture to that part of the world again. She may rarely travel on similar roads to far flung villages even as Agriculture minister.
Recently, I wanted to travel from Umsiang to Mawhati and then to Umsning. He was told, ‘Your vehicle may not reach Mawhati. Even if it does it will land up in the garage.’ So he proceeded up to Sonapur and asked people whether I could go up to Nongpoh through Umden. They signalled ‘yes’. The road was by no means excellent but my vehicle reached Nongpoh without any hitch. There was no need to visit the garage. So which one is more deserving? Which road should get the priority? Does the Nongpoh – Umden – Sonapur road have more weight because it is associated with the capital, Nongpoh while Mawhati is much less significant merely by location?
The Umsning-Mawhati-Umsiang road was supposed to be a two lane road all through. But the project has reached Mawhati only. The NPP government and the former representative Dasakhiatbha Lamare inaugurated the foundation stone with all fanfare. But from Mawhati to Umsning it is forgotten. Even pick-ups and trucks overturn on the road itself because of the 4/5 feet ditches. The Nongpoh – Umden – Sonapur road may be constructed up to Umden only. The Umden-Sonapur stretch might be left behind for a long time. The periphery is of no importance to this and past Governments. Then there is petty politics. Since Nongpoh is represented by the UDP, an MDA partner the attention is right there while Mawhati, a Congress seat in the Opposition is given a royal snub. The deputy chief minister himself said, ‘those outside the MDA bus won’t get water from the Syntex tank.’ Mayralborn Syiem, though under fire, is happy because his constituency will improve and will definitely claim credit for it. He may be in line to join the NPP fold before the next elections.
The Government will give a ‘convincing’ assurance to Bindas Syiem. She and her team will be satisfied. Even a promise to construct the first phase (unto Umden) might do for the protesters. The fast will be called off. The Nongpoh-Umden-Sonapur road will certainly be better. That will be the achievement of the strike. But will it improve the road condition in the rural sector of the state? It is doubtful. The Government has only itself to blame itself. It acts only under pressure and not on a priority basis. The fact that there is no common minimum program even after nearly six years in office speaks volumes. Development takes place haphazardly and not in a planned manner.
Who will fast for the hundreds of roads that are as bad as or even worse than the Nongpoh-Umden-Sonapur road? Even if there are, only a couple of other souls will stand up for the suffering populace. For them the government may complete the executive works. For the rest no one will bother. This is the implication of the Bindas’ fast. Unfortunately this is the sorry state of affairs in Meghalaya today.
Way back in 2022, on Republic day, Chief Minister, Conrad Sangma proclaimed that Meghalaya was to be one of India’s top 10 states in 10 years. Sangma followed it up with the promise to make the state a $10-billion economy. He slammed critics who doubted his ambition. Now what has been achieved? People have to fast for a chance to see good roads. Clearly such utterances are but catchy slogans.
The current protest in Shillong has a message: those who are able to set up candidates for indefinite fasts will reap the benefits. Others will be ignored by the powers that be.

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