Dying with a Little Patience – On the Indian Left

We have heard a variety of opinions from the Left about the events surrounding JNU, Kanhaiya, Umar and Anirban, the Patiala House assault etcetera. Our attention was drawn to the hypocrisies of the supposedly radical (the main stream Left parties) who tried to explain away the issues, or did not acknowledge them at all. Then our already ‘weakened’ belief systems were further complicated with the entry of Dalit perspectives on the matter. One writer commented quite eloquently on how the JNU violence was a response by the Hindu Right at the re-assemblage of the Left into a force that was bringing together non-Manuvad and ‘minority’ elements together. This might very well be true. The whole thing was quite a storm but I think our minds are better for it. I was sitting in Shillong, enthralled by the events that occurred in Delhi, like the rest of the country: I empathised with the trio, I railed against Goswami. There was even a small demonstration here in solidarity with the students of JNU and their cause. The ridiculousness of the situation shall be chronicled for our future generations to ponder over.

Then, Kanhaiya came out of custody and wooed the young men and women with his speech. Sadly as my Hindi is very basic (to say the very least), I could not understand him in entirety. In the English translation text, he hit all the right notes and checked all the right boxes. Some people opined that this “Kanhaiya moment” could be seen as the emergence of a New Left – a Left which could bring together Dalit, tribal, Muslim, LGBT, the poor, farmers, rural workers et al in the struggle for a better future. Well, it is optimism which must be appreciated though realities are, of course, difficult.

In 2014, Scotland organised a plebiscite to decide whether it would continue to stay or leave the UK. It was an actual historic event, it was not simply chatter. No one interfered with its decision to hold the plebiscite, none of its actions were considered sedition, and secessionism was not a crime but a right. In India, words like secession are straightaway censored, speakers of such words arrested. It’s just a word! Its articulation does not mean the breakdown of the Indian state. Its articulation does not mean chaos and lawlessness. It’s just a word. What about the way people in the North East feel (or felt) towards the Indian Union? Do the feelings of difference that they have towards the rest of the country count as sedition? In the eventual course of history, do they not have a right to decide what their own aspirations are?

Now, turning our attention elsewhere. I have a problem with many Leftist friends and foes in that I do not think politics (as in the canvassing-winning-elections type) is a bad thing. This is because I cannot imagine a future where we are simultaneously “emancipated” but also bound by helplessness. If anything, it seems like a very selfish liberation: how can I be “free” but cannot change the world? We MUST change it. Some opine that would be a “co-opting of the radicalism of the revolution”; others say something as insipid as “politics is a dirty game”, to which I say “don’t hate the game, hate the players!” I sometimes wonder if this problem is because Left intellectuals are almost always situated in urban centres – in spite of their contestations to be rural or pro-poor. Could it be that the urban solitude and spiritual distance keeps them (in the Left) from fully imagining a political future together? One in which we could all take part in? How can we talk about workers’ rights, labour reforms etc when we do not think seriously about how to bring them about? ‘Movements’ and ‘struggles’ are all well and good but perhaps we must insist on expeditiousness in the face of starvation, abject poverty and horrible livelihoods. People are dying while we debate revolutionary praxis. The CPI, CPI (M) and others like them have apparently failed us, so do we lose steam and faith because of that? Or do we learn from their mistakes?

Judging from what I read of Kanhaiya’s speech, I personally feel that he would be well-suited to formally enter politics, not just remain within the activism which has made him famous. Someone called him an Ambedkarite. That is very high praise. Do we remember that Ambedkar was not just an activist, a gifted lawyer and academic but also that he was a seasoned politician as well? He contested elections and won. He also lost later on but that is not the point. The point is, and it’s a jaded maxim: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. The Right and Neo-libs might not be evil (or maybe they’re all pure evil!) but we have definitely not done enough. In terms of the footwork and organising, the Left is woefully behind. We are always caught “reacting” to situations, events and then we flex our muscles to show that we still have strength. There is a lot of talk in a lot of universities about ‘revolution’ but very little about people – people like the ones I see daily, suffering and struggling in life. Let’s say, tomorrow if Kanhaiya and thousands like him join the AAP or INC, can we get angry at them, would the decision be entirely their own? Are there no lessons to be had from the path of George Fernandes and others like him? History is cyclical, apparently.

I feel terribly apprehensive about the future of Kanhaiya and his comrades. What will happen to these guys? I am not talking only in lieu of the authorities. What support system can we provide for them after this traumatic ordeal? What about their prospects after being tried and vilified in front of millions? I hope that they are not abandoned by those who cheer for them now. I have been going on about the need for a political groundwork which would challenge the current scenario. Before this, people in the Left must decide what they believe in (I realise this is hard). If one is an anarchist, socialist, Maoist (and everything in between) then declare yourself as one. It’s absolutely fine, you have every right to. But having patchwork ideological frameworks, without any teleological commitment, cannot be the stepping stones to a better future. Perhaps the most crucial question that everyone needs to answer is: what is their idea of the future?

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The Minority Question in Khasi Jaintia Hills

The water seems to have cleared up a bit and so maybe it is the right moment to dip one’s feet in the pond – unsettle things. There has been a large amount of correspondence in the Shillong Times – back and forth – around the issue of whether our local “indigenous faiths” (and those following them) should qualify for “minority” status. If they attain the desired outcome, possibly through reservation, then the perks and advantages attached to “minority” would be open to them (more so than before). So there have been various quarters that have taken this up as an issue for debate. There are some who have straight away rubbished such claims, and there are others who have taken to defending them. Few have said that there is no need for ‘reservation’ because there is no such discrimination against the NiamTre or Niam Tynrai followers. This is hardly correct (more on this later). Still others have got around to philosophizing and discussing the nature of religion, definitions of faith and other stuff. Of them, I ask: whether they are religions or faiths or whatever, do we simply belittle the sentiments of a people who feel slighted? Do people care about the definitions or the real material conditions that they encounter in their day-to-day life?

So the key word here is “discrimination”. This main point of contention is very fascinating for our particular context. We have always, supposedly, been at the receiving end of the stick and our entire political discourse is premised on the presumption of “defense” except for this case in question. In January, I along with a researcher friend, Bhogtoram Mawroh, travelled to Mawsynram, in the company of some pastors. As we made our way along the Lyngiong- Tyrsad road, one of them turned to the other and said “Ithuh phi mo, ki jaka bym pat long Kristan” (you can recognize, places which are non-Christian, by the way they look). My friend looked at me, smirked and shook his head. He did this because we had actually talked about something along those lines much before that moment. Much of our respective works involve travelling to and visiting villages in Khasi, Jaintia Hills. Therefore, it quickly dawned on us that development patterns (roads, electricity, sanitation) within these parts of the state seemed more inclined towards one particular demographic than others (namely Khasi Christians). We are currently pursuing means to validate this supposition. This is not in any way a mission to ‘politicize’ “inclusion/exclusion,” it is for the sake of knowledge.

There are many reasons why the ‘indigenous faith’ followers might be sidelined. The major and most obvious one is because they are fewer in number than the Christians. A political representative such as an MLA would sadly be more inclined to help realize the aspirations and ambitions of the majority. Even if she/he belonged to the minority group, ultimately the majority would have to be satisfied if she/he were interested in being re-elected for the next term. To change this would be far and away an extremely arduous but necessary task. However, even if a more “representative” representation were achieved, the systemic discrimination would be harder still to overcome. How would one begin to confront the privileges accumulated over decades that have been enjoyed by the Christians? How would one begin to unwind the ‘power’ cliques and political “spaces” that have become their prerogative? Would a form of reservation really do anything to uplift the plight of the ‘indigenous faith’ followers? Would it be constructive in the long run, or would it tear our community asunder?

The conclusion I surmise is that this is essentially a critique on the very idea of “reservation” itself. I am not against the idea, I think it is absolutely essential for a more just and egalitarian society. However, even as we ‘rejoice’ in the status of being a Scheduled Tribe (ST) we must acknowledge the bitter reality that most of the benefits and advantages of being ST are enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. I doubt that the poorer sections of our society, and especially those in the villages, can claim to have gained much from an ST/SC certificate. This is the danger too with the current plea by the Sein Raij and co. I am sure they would have thought hard upon this as well. If the minority benefits all go to a Niam Tynrai businessman’s family in Shillong and not villagers like those in Lyngiong-Tyrsad then it would have failed in its objective, in my opinion.

I think that the way forward is to reach out to one another, calling out progressive Christians and non-Christians alike to come together and attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. Orthodoxy, on all sides, is the enemy. In this regard, we have to grow bonds stronger than the religious ones. Pressure and lobbying groups that can bring people together rather than pull them apart should be encouraged. For this to happen, we need dialogue. It might be painful, embarrassing even but it must be initiated. We do not need “outsider” organizations to come and perform charity puja. In our need for political allies and powerful friends we seem to forget that we have more in common with each other (Christian and non-Christian) than Right wing nut-jobs who seek to further widen the schism. This is as true for the Hindutva as it is for the Evangelical Fundamentalists. The tragedy could be that these characters might actually come together to vilify and demonize Muslims (the “dreaded” Bangladeshis) O what a big joke that would be! That cannot be allowed to transpire without resistance.

Frankly speaking, the Niam Tre/Tynrai already have a trump card. On the cultural front, they have won and politics and culture are intertwined. Unless they approach the matter with open-mindedness and self-criticism, Christian Khasis can never truly be “Khasi” again. There are many who would raise objections to this statement and they have interesting points to make regarding definitions of identity, language, customs etc. My point, however, is that from within a conservative or orthodox Christianity (which is most of our Christianity!) we cannot ever (through fear or censure) really know what it is like to be “Khasi.” I realize that many might have problems with my investing so much authority with the Niam Tre et al. After all, are they not also modern? Have they, also, not been changed by the times? How could they survive if they were static all this while? The Niam Tre et al have undoubtedly altered as well but in terms of cultural luggage (the folktales, the beliefs, the songs, dances) they are probably our best custodians. They could be actively teaching the Christians a few things about our common past and maybe with that our collective futures would be clearer, brighter. There would be no need for “defense” or preservation then. They can be the initiators of real ‘growth’, but it must be inclusive.

The Khasis as Hindus

Perhaps this article is ill-timed. Perhaps in the current scenario with various Far Right groups actively seeking a Hindutva agenda it is not the best time to be writing things which they could use for their own benefit. This is particularly true after the recent maiden procession carried out by the RSS in Shillong which has evoked so much reaction. However, these events cannot forestall the need for articulation. It waits for no one. With this in the background, I would like to present an argument that has been brooding in my head for a while now.

I have often heard it repeated over and over again especially by the Christian clergy and its fraternity that Khasis were/are not Hindus. They often say, in a very vague language, that essentially we worshipped One God (U Nongbuh U Nongthaw) through His “ambassadors” here on Earth. So in a sense ‘Lei Shyllong and other ancient deities might be suitably placed within a pre-Christian monotheism. This seems contradictory in more than one way. The most obvious is that it seems the Khasis are the only ones who profess this. Other tribes around us who have undoubtedly influenced and been influenced by the Khasis worship multiple gods not a God – these are full framed figures, resplendent in their distinct tribal garb, not simply allusions to a one Universal. This aspect is something we need to interrogate further because this pre-Christian “Christianity (monotheism)” appears to be revisionist. The frequency of the articulation of this idea among the Christians – especially Catholic priests – seems to betray its origins and motives. After all, it is much easier to convert people by drawing comparisons to that which they are already acquainted with: that the introduction of new gods is in reality just a change in nomenclature and ritual, that essentially they have always been worshipping the same God.

I am personally interested in the fact if the Khasis claim to be a matrilineal culture/society, why is U Nongbuh Nongthaw (The Keeper/ Creator) a male deity? Shouldn’t ‘he’ be a ‘she’? I realize that this is not necessarily an air-tight hypothesis but humour me. The Pnars and Bhois, interestingly, seem to place more importance on female divinities – the goddess Riang Khangnoh, goddess Myntdu, goddess Lukhmi are far more popular than any male counterparts. And they are not simply goddesses of the homestead either, they can wonder outside from spring to spring, blessing the families that stay along their path, they can serve as guardians (‘lei khyrdop) protecting Jowai like Myntdu does and they can also guarantee a good harvest like Lukhmi. They seem to have more character, more nuance than the Nongbuh Nongthaw. To simplify the pre-Christian era has been one of the major projects of the missionaries of various faiths. These include the Christians and the Hindus as well. Both have, in their own manner, drawn attention away from the differences and harped on the similarities that were allegedly shared. The Christians have been vague about it while the Hindus have embraced the ‘nitty gritties’ of the idiosyncratic Khasi myth pantheon as their own.

When we talk of Hinduism we have been warned time and again about the dangers of ‘centralizing’ it: that there are, in fact, many Hinduisms. This is a convenient starting point for interrogating the Hindu processes that went on in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills before the coming of Christianity. To simply state and defend the “Khasis were not Hindus” tenet with no evidence except popular belief is bad science. On the contrary, there is substantial material evidence to support the claim that they were, indeed, Hindus. In Syndai, you will find a large Ganesha sculpture – among others – of some age carved into a large rock; the local people call it ‘U Khmi’ (interestingly the word means “earthquake” in Pnar). Dawki has a number of old rock carvings which seem to be influenced by Hindu traditions. Legend has it that the Kamakhya Temple in Assam was originally a sacred Khasi site – a point acknowledged by temple management in publications – where a type of mother goddess supposedly resided. She was called “Ka Mei Kha” by the Khasis, which over time morphed into Kamakhya. The phonological shift is noteworthy. Nartiang and Iale Falls were important locations for Shakti human sacrifices. The former is still an important shrine for pilgrims to visit. Mahadek,also known as Laittyra, was called that because of the presence of a Mahadev temple within the village. Mawsynram still draws a decent number of Hindu pilgrims who suffer the horrible roads in order to perform puja at the mawjymbuin cave, which they consider to be a shiv-ling. Interestingly, these sites are all near borders – either with Assam or Bangladesh. There are undoubtedly other similar sites and shrines throughout these hills and valleys which await re-discovery.

Beyond the ostensible spaces, there are also a number of cultural borrowings that seem to have been directly influenced by Hinduism. This should not surprise (nor anger) us. The North East is basically a land bridge (possibly one of the most important in history). Materials, skills, ideas have flowed through this region for a very long time from East to West and vice versa. The fairly recent isolationism and the subsequent xenophobia should not fool us into believing otherwise. Many important festivals like Behdeinkhlam, Lukhmi have strong links with larger Vedic currents. The references to Lukhmi/Lukhimai are quite clearly to a ‘tribalised’ Lakshmi. During Behdeinkhlam, the rot (tower-like structures made of wood, bamboo) must be cast away after the religious festivities are over. This is interesting because the worship of the (non-Classical) Hindu deity Jagannath (Odisha mostly) also involves similar structures which are called rath (chariot). Note the similar names. The casting away of the rot is akin to the casting away of the idols at Durga Puja after their roles as ‘cleansers’ have been fulfilled. Even the ritualistic animal sacrifices at Shad Pomblang might be re-seen in the light of other festivals like Gadhimai, Bali Jatra and others. When I was to be married, there was some discussion about putting up banana stalks in front of the entry way which is a very common Hindu practice – this in spite of the fact that my in-laws’ household is almost exclusively Christian. This ultimately did not happen but it was interesting nonetheless.

As I had mentioned earlier, this piece might be misconstrued for obvious political purposes. I am not interested in privileging the mainstream Hindu tradition over the smaller traditions. Further, I hope the reader does not think that I am attempting to locate a “centre” from which all Hindu authority stems out of (which is what Hindutva groups seek). This automatically assumes the position that the ‘tribal’ people are always the ones who “take” ideas and concepts and divorces them of a knowing and conscious exchange with Hindu “missionaries”, maybe even resistance to them. The control room is not in Gujarat, Maharashtra or Ayodhya. If anything, we see the reverse, that in fact, Hinduism has always been shifting and ‘de-centering’ itself according to contexts and areas. The question “were/are Khasis, Hindus” is inextricably linked to the notion of who a Hindu is in the first place. The flexible and assimilative nature of Hinduism ensured its success from Cambodia and Bali through to Kabul etc, it spread through a huge geographic expanse. However, this strength, this mutability is also what permits the Far Right groups to go about proclaiming everything and everyone as being Hindu, everything from “proper” religions like Buddhism and Jainism to smaller belief systems like Niam Khasi (Meghalaya), Donyi Polo (Arunachal Pradesh) and Meiteism (Manipur). Their success in redefining the latter practice as their own is something the Niam Khasi followers should be wary of. Ultimately, religion is less important than politics.