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People in Power – Same Old Story

(Appeared in Shillong Times, Jul 2, 2013)

Earlier this month, I was part of a “delegation” to meet the DC at his office.  We were joined by villagers from in and around Diengpasoh – a place now synonymous with resistance to the proposed New Shillong Township. They were wary about being there, conscious about themselves but curious as well perhaps. Before we continue, let us first examine what New Shillong (indeed the Old Shillong itself) means to these villagers and urban poor? It is not mere fear mongering nor slimy motives that has led many pressure groups to decide to aid these people.

Before you condemn, drive through that area and judge for yourself if it deserves to be called “wasteland”, to be drawn and quartered, destroyed and spat out into modular concrete structures. It is not as easy as many people think, to be in the opposing camp, it is not easy to question projects and plans. Or is it? Unlike me, or town planners or contractors, who have the luxury of a home, these people have no time for romanticizing the landscape or the past. They have reached out to the pressure groups with an earnest urgent message – that their lands and crucially their livelihoods are in danger. It is quite simple. Unlike us -jet setters- they see the land as something more than a commodity that could be bought and sold. Our forefathers shared just about everything and it is one of the beauties of many tribal communities the world over. To us – creamy layer tribals – land is about commercial buildings, malls, showrooms and we don’t seem to care how we get them; actually we don’t seem to care, period.

We all waited in line and the DC very nicely decided to see us first because we had a rather large contingency. Whilst our spokespersons, lawyer were trying to debate and tussle about customary laws, 6th Schedule and the (British era) draconian Land Acquisition Act, I looked around the room and observed that not a single villager could understand any of this interesting argument. There we could see the workings of this democracy! Our administrators, using English, to address issues that are related to the lives and have direct bearing on Khasi people. Does that make sense? And if we then talk about having local governmental interpreters, we must be doubly vigilant and always ask what they include and exclude from their “interpretations”. Official interpretations, after all, warrant favour.

Where is the so-called official status then of the Khasi and Garo languages within the government machinery?  Most government literature is in English, why? First, there is this language barrier and then we come to the second hurdle – the laws. Even for people with a good grasp of English, these laws that are quoted are mystifying; can you imagine what our villagers would have to deal with? Let us not toy around with the ideal of Democracy, let us not cheapen it – we either share it, work at it, deliberate and interact over it or we are simply kidding ourselves, trying to fill in the British’s shoes, acting sahep. Let us not make this a democracy for the creamy layer only.

Some people say this New Shillong will give the villagers “jobs”, that the Raid land – inalienable common land meant for everyone to enjoy, handed down by our forerunners – will be used for “public purpose”. Why do the farmers need your “jobs” when they have fields to work and vegetables to harvest? Don’t insult them like that! What is “public purpose”? Who gets to construct the “public purpose”, who gets to live in it?

The bitter anger and opposition from groups has been at the wishes of certain sections to undermine age-old customs which they say are useless and pointless. In truth, these customs are almost all about community and they present a strict opposition (still do) to those who think anything is for sale. These farmers want the government to help strengthen their livelihoods, they don’t need new ones. Transportation can be one, a minimum support price can be another, protecting and promoting local farmers’ products can be yet another. The list goes on. Development of these things first, please. But, of course, construction is better for corruption – oops, meant development; fewer people need to be involved after all, more money to go around. Infrastructure is easier than prosperity.

There are, in fact, just a few people within our society today who are fuelling incredible speculation about land, this has led to an unimaginable elevation in the prices of property within the town, they now plan to do the same in the New Shillong area perhaps. I urge pressure groups to counter these people as well.

The farmers of Diengpasoh form a small group of people who have used their heads and actually questioned why New Shillong needs to be so big and so brash. They have questioned (like many times before) land use and land rights in these hills. I hope the KHADC, JHADC can learn some things from these common peoples’ struggles. After all, there has not been a serious reworking of these old customs since the 1950s, since the formation of the district councils. 

That same day, we went to meet the traditional custodian of that Raid land – the Syiem of Hima Khyrim. Our rationale being, that it was our duty to inform him of what was happening under his very nose. Traditionally, no chieftain (Pre-British Syiems did not act like kings) of any Hima can ever sell Raid land because it was meant for the landless and dispossessed. It is land meant for the poorest of the poor to use and thus to survive. We waited for over 3 hours only to be told off in a rather abrupt manner. There was a village man who was very shocked by this.  Sure, he could not engage with the DC because of the language barrier but the Syiem as well?

For me, however, it was as clear as crystal, both -the new and old overseer- were speaking a common tongue: power. This language of power is designed to exclude, separate, mystify. This form of language is doublespeak, at once filled with half truths and half lies. Fabricated to snake around issues, to posit a logic but not engaging with the logic of the other.

Where do these people go now? When old and new power-holders have forsaken them? The answer is very clear. They will not allow outsiders to devastate their lands, they cannot relocate, move or be uprooted. They’re now with their backs against each other. They have only one another, no great and powerful people at their side, together as a community they can now stand free of delusion and will fight tooth and nail to defend themselves. It is best that civil society should only be the moral (and technical) support, the voices must be those people’s own.

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