A 36-year-old man lost his job recently. His employer in the wholesale market at Iewduh replaced him with another worker and did not care to explain the reason behind the retrenchment. When asked why he did not protest, the man, who has to support a family of five, said nonchalantly, “I didn’t know how to protest, there is no workers’ union at Iewduh. I would not have got support.” Better accept your fate.
Three years ago, a middle-aged woman lost her baby in a private hospital in the city. The doctors there could not explain the baby’s ailment to the mother, and instead, had cited frivolous reasons for the death. When advised to confront the hospital management and the medical team, the woman, who was still grieving, had said, “What’s the point in raising my voice? My baby will not come back to life.”
These are examples of two vulnerable and helpless citizens of the state whose limit of endurance in the face of crises is laudable and shocking at the same time. They are among the hundreds who suffer injustice silently and rue their fate.
True, silence is golden, but not always. When society wants to unfetter itself from the corrupt ways of the wily handful and end bad governance that annoys like a festering wound, then strong words followed by equally gritty actions are the need of the hour. Human rights are violated each day in Meghalaya and other parts of the country. But only a few have the audacity to question such nefarious intentions. A recent instance is the protest by Angela Rangad, a member of the non-governmental organisation Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR).
Come rain or shine, Rangad made it a point in the last two weeks to visit the Main Secretariat every day, put up the flex placards with strong messages addressed to the state government and sit in front of the gate for hours. She was protesting against the government’s reluctance to pay income support to the poor under the Chief Minister’s Relief Against Wage Loss (CRAWL) scheme that was announced last year. True to its acronym, the scheme moved in a snail’s pace and in numerous instances, failed to reach its destination. The result — hundreds of poor beneficiaries were left high and dry.
TUR launched a movement at full throttle against the “corruption” involved in the disbursement of the money — Rs 2,100 per head — based on documents like replies to RTI queries and investigation at the grassroots level. Several letters were sent to the chief minister before Rangad started the sit-in demanding explanation from the government.
The rhyme & reason
Like every other state in India, Meghalaya too has corruption deeply rooted in the system and the lowest stratum of the society always bears the brunt. But the popular sentiment is to maintain silence and not speak out for constitutional rights. There are stark examples of the government looting public money and violating human rights and private entities flouting labour laws but most of the citizens choose to turn a blind eye and accept what comes their way.
Explaining the diffidence, Rangad points at the cruel reality. “When people are struggling for survival then how can you expect them to protest? Also, there is always a fear of backlash,” she says.
In a small state like Meghalaya where job opportunities are limited to the public sector, not many from the middle and the lower-middle classes would have the heart to speak out lest they are “marked”.
“I have my political views and I have strong opinion about how the society is functioning. But you have to understand that I am an unemployed youth in search of a job and there is always a chance of getting an opportunity in one of the government departments. So, there is nothing much I can do other than sulk. Protests are not meant for all,” says a young man on condition of anonymity. He is annoyed that he has to choose between his conscience and the rigours of reality.
“We are scared of consequences. What will others think? Will I lose my job? How will the shnong react? All these things are constantly troubling people and forcing them to remain silent,” says Kenneth Swer, the 31-year-old president of Nazareth Hospital Workers’ Union.
“We don’t value opinions in our society. We value obedience and silence. I think that is one real problem that our society has,” says Avner Pariat of New Dawn, a socio-political organisation.
The reasons for this opted silence are aplenty. According to Pariat, an important and unfortunate reason is the sloppy media which shy away from asking the right questions to the people’s representatives. The media here have failed to do their part in shaping people’s opinions and “it is scary to think about the future of journalism”, he feels.
For years, people of Meghalaya have been led by leaders who barely have ideologies and change their tack according to political convenience and this has made the under-privileged citizens confused about how to articulate their thoughts on important issues like education, healthcare and welfare, opines Rangad.
Social activist Agnes Kharshiing once rued the silence. “I can direct them what to do but I cannot fight every case. People have to speak out and they have to understand their rights,” she had mentioned a year after the attack on her and her companion, Amita Sangma, in East Jaintia Hills for raising their voices against illegal coal mining and transportation.
The attack left debilitating effects on the health of both the activists and sent a strong message to those who even thought of raising their voices against corruption.
Another reason is that there is no protection to whistle-blowers who are often left to battle alone against the sly hierarchy after an exposé.
“People here are by nature peace-loving. But they have to understand that they need to fight for their rights,” says Swer.
“You cannot be chicken hearted when you are protesting. If you start the fight against dirty politics, then be perseverant. You have to be bold like Agnes and Angela,” Sangma replies to a question on what it takes to be a voice of change.
The manifold reasons may keep people away from hitting the streets for every violation of law but they do not stop citizens from venting their frustration on social media. The effrontery may be lacking but the voice is no more silent.
“Social media platforms have allowed people, especially the youth, to voice their opinions without revealing their identities. There are memes on social media which are not just a source of laughter but also food for thought. People are making strong statements, be it on political or social issue,” says Rangad.
Social media has indeed initiated the disclosure of the Pandora’s Box and instigated many citizens to vent their ire on the state’s failures on several counts. Witty memes and pithy comments have been flooding the social media platforms since Rangad started her protest. Earlier too, citizens had resorted to social media handles to lash out at the non-performing government.
The TUR activist says once the discussion on rights is initiated, people gradually understand what is happening around them and what they need to do. “However, the real challenge is to figure out how to navigate the barriers which stop people from reacting,” she adds.
Rangad sets the example of the city-based street vendors who rose against the authorities’ high-handedness to validate their rights. “Before explaining the laws to them, we had to go through the rigorous work of translating the laws in English to Khasi. Now, after five years, the vendors know their rights and things like holding capacity and vending space. They are realising their rights. At the same time, we keep insisting that it is your fight and it is up to you what direction to take,” she explains.
Shane Thabah, general secretary of the Meghalaya and Greater Shillong Progressive Hawkers and Street Vendors’ Association, became a part of the rights movement after he experienced the state’s haughtiness and saw the imperious problems of the poor street vendors.
“Last year, the state promised Rs 2,100 to the poor people. It was a lot of money for us at a time when the pandemic had made it difficult to earn. However, we found out that most of the beneficiaries (it was during the health protocol trainings that we enquired about the money) either did not get the whole amount or nothing at all. We waited for a year and then decided to start the protest,” says Thabah.
On the awareness on basic rights, Thabah says the scenario has changed and people in the lowest stratum are gradually understanding what is constitutional right.
“Earlier, we did not know about RTI. But now, we have understood the power of it. TUR helped us understand the basic rights. So, we know that when we are asking for the income support that the government promised, we are not begging but asking for what is rightfully ours. If we do not get it within the time frame set by the government, we will resume our protest,” Thabah says, adding, “We do not want to fight with the government but work in tandem with it. But if it does not give us that chance, then what option do we have than to fight for our rights?”
Swer of Nazareth Hospital Workers’ Union says social media and other forms of communication are being used to reach out to people and “they have started to get a grasp on the subject”.
“But it will take time,” he says about the seismic change in the mindset of the citizens of Meghalaya.
Donald Thabah, the general secretary of the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), says the organisation has always taken up issues related to the public and its rights. He admits that citizens here are bot vocal against various issues and believes that there is an imminent need for sensitisation.
“Corruption is one of the dangerous problems and we have to deal with it systematically. People involved know how to cover their tracks. This is the reason why the public has to be aware of the Constitution and the rights it is entitled to,” he says, adding that KSU works towards educating people on various socio-political issues.
Pariat strongly believes that it is high time that citizens call the government’s bluff. “Technology is helping people here to connect with different ideas. True that many of them are gravitating towards right-wing ideas because they are already familiar with those, but some people, even in rural areas, are coming up with new ideas. Our job is to keep talking about the pertinent issues and people’s rights,” he says.
In 2019, hundreds of farmers from the northern states assembled in New Delhi to protest against the Centre’s decision to implement the amended farm laws. A year before, the nation erupted in protests when the BJP-led NDA government in Delhi decided to implement NRC and citizenship act. Those who spent days and nights under the sky protesting against the tyrant State were common people who found themselves cornered by the government. The impasse on the farm laws continues and uncertainty looms over the citizenship act. But the people’s voices were heard and the muscle-flexing government got the message loud and clear: “We are the people. We are the power.”
Though activists like Rangad, Kharshiing and Sangma have made the message clear for the Government of Meghalaya, the latter is yet to hear it loud. However, citizens are becoming aware of the united power they possess, and this in turn, is helping them to be vocal and show the courage to join the fight. After all, “the proletariats have nothing to lose but their chains,” and so be it.
~ Team Sunday Monitor