Monday, April 16, 2012

Of Pressure groups and NGOs

A senior citizen of Jowai town once told me of an incident when an old tailor in Iewduh regretfully said to him, “If only I were a young man now.” When the gentleman asked him what made him say that? The tailor said if he only had the magic to make himself young again, he would join some NGOs. The tailor continued and said “Can’t you see the kind of life style all that the NGOs leaders live? All they have to do is to put on a nice piece of suit and roam around doing nothing”. Well, the tailor in Iewduh raised a pertinent question. What exactly do the different NGOs do and where do they get all the money to run their organization? And most importantly do the NGOs have any objectives?
Before we continue with the deliberations, we must remember that the acronym NGO which stands for Non Governmental Organization has also been used to refer to many organizations like developmental organizations, those which work on socio-economic issues to uplift the poor and the down trodden, to help people with AIDS, drugs problems, welfare of women and children and other issues. In most cases these organizations are registered with the government as per registration of societies act. But the abbreviation NGO is also being used to refer to the various pressure groups, the students’ bodies, youth groups and even womens’ groups which have not necessarily registered themselves with any government institution. One has nothing to say about the former category because the groups always go by the book, but the problem is of Pressure groups and NGOs
The registered NGOs have to fulfill all the necessary criteria like having clear and precise objectives and also to mention specific areas of operation of the organization to get the registration. It is also mandatory that the organization submits its constitution for registration, but the Pressure Groups do not even have to register themselves. Hence we have all this confusion with the Pressure Groups. We have groups which call themselves a Student’s Union but take on all kinds of issues except those for the welfare of the students. It looks like the pressure group does not even have objectives to guide the group’s function and neither has the name of the group any connection with what it is doing. The recent fiasco where two women groups were involved in legitimizing the rape of a minor has not only shocked many people but also raised an important question on the objectives of the establishing these organizations. No one in their wildest dreams would ever expect a women’s organization or a Seng Kynthei to support an alleged rapist of a minor and demand that the accused be granted bail. Obviously these so called women organizations have no objectives of their own; neither do they understand what is expected of a women’s organization or Seng Kynthei.
The question is not only what kind of issues the pressure group can take but there is also a question of area of operation of the group. Here again one can cite the example of the same case. How can, or what business does a Seng Kynthei (of all places) of Mynso village have to do with an alleged rape which occurred in a locality in Jowai? Did the Seng Kynthei Mynso think that the dorbar shnong Tympang Iawmusiang does not have a Sengkynthei of its own? Maybe the Seng Kynthei Mynso think that all the Seng Kynthei in Jowai are dead? Hence a Seng Kynthei (all the way from) Mynso has to come and intervene in the matter!
No doubt, everybody knows that the country’s Constitution gives its citizens freedom to form groups and organizations, but can we allow these organizations or unions to use public space at their whims and fancies and take the public for a ride? It is the citizen’s right to form an organization and the government has no control of who forms an organization and what kind of organization was formed. But the government or if not the public can at least monitor these organizations which have come into the public domain. The government or the public can ask the organizations to come up publicly with the objectives of the group and the area of operation under which the group intends to operate. The newspapers have to annually publish a declaration of the details of the paper for public information, why can’t the same rule apply to the pressure group too. Many a times the public were also made to suffer by the pressure group which does not even have standing in the community. We have instances of pressure groups with not even 20 active members calling hartal or bandh and the public have to comply with the call, even if they don’t have the faintest idea why the bandh was called. Hence it is important that the various groups organize regular shows of strength to prove that they have the number of active members. Perhaps they can organize conferences and conventions to enable the public to see if the group really has the mandate of those they claim to represent. The state cannot be dictated and held hostage by a few people; the public have the right to know the kind of organization we have in the state. Show of strength will also help clear people’s doubt that a non-student can be a member of the student’s body and the allegation that students’ union leaders were not even registered students of any institution or university.
Media is often blamed for making a mockery of the country’s judicial system by giving undue importance to the case it covers. The media hype created was to the extent that it reaches its zenith that it so much so it looks like the media is conducting a trial of the case. But in the recent fiasco in the state, the pressure groups went a step ahead. They not only claim to have conducted their own investigation, but they have even had a public trial of the case and gave a clean chit to the accused. Are pressure groups free to do whatever they like? Isn’t there a line that divides things that the pressure can do and those which have to be taken by institutions sanctioned by the law? In this particular case the pressure groups have taken on the role of the police and the court in one go. Isn’t this a case of interfering with the investigation and trying to influence the court? As educated citizens of a democratic country, pressure groups should know where to draw the line and more importantly not to cross the line.
There are also other questions that people raise. One such question is where from did the pressure group or in some case even students’ organization get the money to donate blankets and other gifts to the people? If the students raise fund by sacrificing the pocket money that their parents provide them, then that is a gesture that needs to be appreciated and encouraged, but if that is not the case then where does the money come from? Where do the pressure groups get the money to run their organizations and have well furnished offices which sometimes make even public representatives green with envy? How can pressure group leaders afford the kind of lifestyle they have now? These questions may not be music to the ears of the pressure groups, but they need to be asked anyway. One hopes that it will help pressure groups do some introspection, or take the mirror and look at the image the mirror reflects.

CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award

The CNN-IBN and Reliance Foundation Real Heroes Award conferred this year on Bertha G Dkhar is an acknowledgement that differently-abled people should be recognised for their selfless work for others. But what intrigues me is why Bertha Dkhar is a real hero elsewhere but remains an unsung hero at home? After she was awarded the prestigious Real Hero award, only The Shillong Times gave a front page report of the award ceremony; other than that there was scant report of the event in some vernacular paper. That’s about it! Neither the government nor the civil society organized any reception or felicitation in her honour. One can’t help but compare Bertha’s quiet return with the kind of public reception the Shillong Chamber Choir (SCC) received on winning the India’s Got Talent competition.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to say that the SCC does not deserve the accolades that the group received, but the question is why this double standard in our society? The way the community treated Bertha G. Dkhar after achieving this great height is the reflection of the way the Khasi Pnar or the Khun u Hynniewtrep society and the Government treat differently-abled people. It reminds me of the sad incident when I had to conduct the funeral of a physically challenged, intelligent young man from a village near Amlarem, who unexpectedly decided to end his otherwise promising life. A third year degree student of a reputed college in Shillong, he was then waiting for the final results of his final year degree examination to enable him to continue with his studies in the University. In his suicide note the young man thanked his family profusely for the care and support they gave him and stated very clearly that no one is to be blamed for his action.
His parents said that there was no sign of distress on his face before the sad incident happened. He did well in his studies and had a loving and supportive family but what made this young man decide to abruptly cut his life short? Now that I come to think of it, and with the circumstances surrounding Kong Bertha, in my mind’s eye I can see much more clearly what could possibly be the reason that made the otherwise jolly young man to take that drastic step. He was about to attend university and in the funeral his elder brother stated that the family had ordered a mechanical wheelchair in anticipation of his new life in the university. But the question is- are the buildings in the university prepared for a wheelchair bound student? How many educational institutions in the state are disabled friendly? How many of our universities have wheelchair ramps or lifts to enable students to commute from one place to another without much difficulty?
Look at our markets, our streets and the design of government offices even the main secretariat. One can conclude that the structures are not designed to be disabled friendly. Everywhere we look we see an attitude of nonchalance which cares very little about the differently-abled section of the society. Behind the design of our educational institutes, our markets, government and private offices and even churches, we see the attitude of a society that consigns it’s differently- abled members to oblivion. Yes, how many churches, mosques, temples, gurudwaras which are supposed to be all welcoming have ramps to enable a wheelchair bound person to come to worship? Or are we trying to say that they do not have any spiritual needs?
The opening shot of CNN IBN’s interview with Kong Bertha was of Pynshngainlang a visual impaired student of her school. Khyndailad was bustling with people who failed to recognize Pynshngain and her walking stick, but the frame moved to the scene when Pynshngain who was walking on the footpath in Khyndailad was about to fall head-on because she stumbled on a stone that some people carelessly left on the footpath. What kind of society are we? What kind of people have we become when we are so lazy to even remove boulders left on the footpath that too in Khyndailad?
In government meetings or even in religious worships do we have any arrangements to cater to the needs of the hearing and speech impaired people? Has the government in any of its big function ever arranged a sign-language interpreter to interpret the proceedings of the meeting for the benefit of this neglected section of the society?
Has the Social Welfare Department ever made such arrangement when the disabled day was celebrated? But this is how we treat our differently-abled section of the society. We think it is enough if we only sympathise with them and the situation they are in. We think that we are doing them a favour by distributing some gifts and occasionally doling out some money to help them. What differently- abled people need is to be treated like normal, independent people. They want the government to give them their right to move freely – they want to be treated equally as citizens of the country. Is the government thinking on these lines? The differently-abled do not want government grants; they want the state government to implement in letter and spirit the 33 percent job reservation for them. The old saying says goes, “ It is better to teach a person to fish than to feed him or her with fish’. It is the duty of the government to treat them with dignity and ensure that their basic human rights as guaranteed by the Constitution are fulfilled.
Kong Bertha was honoured not only because she, in collaboration with the Bethany Society helped build the Jyoti Sroat School for the visually impaired, but her major achievement was also to put the Khasi alphabets in Braille. I call her the Thomas Jones of the visually impaired and suggested that some University honour her with a PhD for this landmark contribution. In response to my post; a facebook friend remarked that since we use Roman script to write Khasi she might not be a candidate for the degree. In that case we should use the same yardstick with Thomas Jones and say that he does not deserve the honour that we are giving him, since he too simply borrowed from the English alphabet to write Khasi. But one thing I know is that only people who have lived in total darkness will be able to appreciate the beauty of light, likewise only the visually impaired will be able to say how they have benefited from Bertha’s contribution.
Readers may not agree with me when I compare Bertha with Thomas Jones, but I have no doubt that she will ever remain a special person amongst the visually impaired members of our community. Now that we have Khasi alphabets in Braille, may I also ask, what has the government or for that matter the Department of Social Welfare done so far for the visually impaired? Has the department ever published anything in Khasi Braille? Or is the government as ill informed as I am that we came to know about the existence of Khasi Braille script only after Bertha was awarded the Real Hero award? What have the faith groups done so far with the Khasi Braille? How many churches have Khasi hymn books written in Khasi Braille? Or for that matter do we have a Khasi Bible in Braille?
Our answers to the above questions will be reflect the kind of attitude we as a community have towards the differently- abled people. It is sad to hear Bertha’s statement in the interview which was televised nationwide by CNN IBN that her institute is facing financial problems. We have only few schools in the state which cater to the needs of the differently- abled people, yet the government is not able to support them. And there are still tens and hundreds more of differently- abled people who languish in their villages because their parents can’t afford to send them to these special schools. The government should take the initiative to start special schools in every district headquarter to enable our differently-abled people to pursue their studies.
Let us salute Kong Bertha and the indomitable spirit of all the differently- abled members of our society.
(The writer is a researcher and an environmental activist)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Customs and Traditions in the Changing times

By HH Mohrmen

Michael Bloomberg mayor of New York hit the bull’s eye when he spoke in Hong Kong about the advent of Social Media Network. Bloomberg said it has become difficult to govern because you have referendum on any issue every day. When Michael mentioned about the change social media ushered, he did not mean only about the change that happens in New York or Hong Kong but he is talking about the global village and the same social media network which provides the same opportunity to net citizens in our society too. Of late one very important subject that escaped media hype was the Rongkhli or Rongkhla festival of Nongtalang village. One is not sure if the festival failed to draw media attention because of the reason that a leopard was killed as part of the festival or for some other reason. But media hype or not, Facebook is abound with debates on one aspect of the festival – the killing of a leopard.
For the village to organize the Rongkhli festival, an animal from the tiger species (other than a cat) has to be killed by a member of a certain clan of the village. One interpretation is that the festival is like a punitive action against the clan whose member had accidentally killed the tiger and the entire clan has to pay for it by organizing the festival. It is also interesting to watch this debate going on in the cyber world particularly in the two Facebook pages, ‘Save the Rivers and Caves of Jaintia’ (which is fast becoming like a Mecca for any environmentally concerned citizen to post and comment in the page) and the War Jaintia tourism page which is an independent effort of a group of young people from War Jaintia to promote tourism in the Amlarem Sub Division. Social medial network is a platform for the people particularly the youths and one thing that a person from an older generation (like me) learns from using the network is that young people of the state have an opinion on almost on any issue under the sun.
On one side of the debate are young people who are of the opinion that killing an animal in the red list is not only illegal but it is also ethically wrong; on the other side of the divide are those who are of the opinion that since it is part of the religious tradition, stopping it tantamount to violation of the rights of citizens to freedom of religion. In a counter argument to the opinion that it is a tradition that has been practiced since time immemorial, one young man remarked that human sacrifice too was part of our tradition in Jaintia hills (which was then practiced in the temple in Nartiang and Borkhat), so should we then revive human sacrifice too? I am not an expert in the subject, but I have been part of almost all the traditional festivals practiced by the people following the indigenous Niamtre religion in Jaintia hills and have joined in the ceremonies of rites and passages observe by the people and have also published work (in the newspapers, magazines and my blog) on the area under discussion. My observation is that like many Indigenous or Tribal cultures, the traditions followed by the present generation of our ancestor’s religion in Jaintia hills proves beyond any doubt that the tribal customs and practices are based on the Khasi Pnar’s profound understanding of the ways of nature.
Just as I was trying to make sense of what I had observed in the Social Media Network, I went to visit Bataw village; one of the oldest village in the District on the way to Borkhat where another famed Hindu temple ia situated. Bataw or Wataw as the Pnar would call it is famous for the Umhang Lake and the sacred forests around it and I was lucky to visit the place when the followers of Niamtre in the village performed the last of the three days annual sacrifices of the community; the last one was to pay obeisance to Umhang. However I will reserve the legend of the Umhang lake for another time, but I’m going to share an instance that is relevant to the subject matter under discussion. The people of Bataw migrated to places like Assam and even Bangladesh in search of green pastures. The founder of Haflong town in Assam was a person from Bataw. According to Dren Biam an elder of the village, Bataw was founded by the 8 clans the Suchiang, the Tariang, the Rymbai, the Suchen, the Sumer, the Rupsi, the Massar and the Lamare but due to migration at one point of time the village met with a challenge wherein due to the incomplete representation of the required clans certain rituals were not complete. The eight clans who are the custodians of the tradition in the village were not able to perform the necessary sacrifices to appease the deities the people worshiped due to this conundrum. The followers of Niamtre in Bataw went to consult the god (a woman believed to be possessed by the spirit) and perform all the required rituals to seek spiritual guidance on the predicament that followers of the traditional religion believe the village were facing. Noren Palong (Suchiang) the Secretary of Seinraij Bataw said that the sign from the divine intervention was that since the founding clan was in disarray and religious rites and activities must continue, it was instructed that the followers can select/elect any clean person from any clan to assume the role which was previously held only by representative of the eight clans. Perhaps the Niamtre in Bataw is the only one which has a common “yungblai” (a common ancestral house) which is part of the same divine instruction.
The point is that reform is possible even in the Niamtre if one only follows the proper customs, traditions and rites. Perhaps Seinraij Nongtalang can also learn from the Seinraij Bataw and try to reform at least the tradition of having to kill a tiger for the festival. Doing away with the tradition of killing a tiger is not only legally and ethically right, it is also for the Seinraij Nongtalang’s own good because the number of tigers which includes leopards is dwindling everyday and a time will come when no tiger will be available for killing anymore in the forests which are gradually shrinking. In such a situation what will the Seinraij Nongtalang do? In my opinion the Seinraij Nongtalang has only two options; continue with the tradition and Rongkhli festival will die a gradual dead or seek divine intervention and reform the tradition to change with the changing times. Talking of progressive approach, Seinraij Jowai has one such example like having religious education (Sein Kyntu Niamtre) for the young ones of the community and having a weekly meeting (Dorbar Niamtre) of the community. These are the outcomes of a progressive thinking in the community and it will surely help the Seinraij move forward. Seinraij Nongtalang too, can think progressively and move in the direction of reforming the tradition.
However, at a larger context one is also surprised that the universities in the state are yet to start a proper study of the Niamtre or Niam Khasi religion. We are also yet to accept an English term to use when referring to the subject. Should we use the term “Traditional Religion”, ‘Tribal Religion’ or ‘Indigenous Religion’ when we refer to Niamtre and Niam Khasi? I hope MLCU department of indigenous studies and NEHU department of folklore will be the right organizations to address this problem. (The writer is a research scholar and environmental activist)

All about a photograph

It is said that picture speaks a thousand words, but the incident last week has given the people of Meghalaya another saying about photographs that one can think of. The new saying is that a picture can also unfortunately land the photographer some punches on his/her face and torso and somebody can just beat a person black and blue for the sake of one photograph. The incident has certainly tarnished the image of the house and the public perception of the MLAs is also at an all time low.
What are Assembly or Parliamentary sessions for lay people like you and me? Well for a commoner; assembly and parliament sessions come and go, One can hardly remember what the debate was about and what Bill was passed in the last sitting of the house except for some important act that was legislated. Yet the last budget session of the incumbent government will last in the public memory for a very long time but for all the wrong reasons. People will not remember this assembly session because many important bills were passed by the august house; nor will people remember it because of the oratory skills of the Sangmas on both side of the camp. Neither will it be remembered about the lung power of Ardent Basaiawmoit and Manas Chaudhuri or about Conrad Sangma’s style and command over English language. People will remember this session for the photograph that has made the MLA of Mawlai assault the person who took the photograph; a photograph that has made to the headlines of many local dailies. Never in the history of this young state has a single photograph created such a furore the way a Cajee’s sleeping photograph did.
This session is all about our sleeping giants in the Assembly, because not only Cajee’s photograph made it to the press but many more MLAs were caught napping in the house. Can the photographs of sleeping MLAs become part of the history of the state in 2012?
The incident hit the social medial network when a senior video journalist reported about the incident on his facebook page. Apart from those condemning the incident and the MLA, a young woman posted in defence of the MLA’s right to sleep in the house. She is right. There is nothing wrong with the MLAs having a nap in the Assembly, but we also need to remind ourselves that the MLAs are paid sitting fees and even traveling allowances (TA) by the assembly office for every single day they attend the house in addition to the regular pay and perks they enjoy as our representatives. Rather than sleeping in the house, the MLAs should forfeit their sitting fees and TA and have a sound sleep at home, thereby saving themselves from embarrassment and wasting public money.
It is not unusual for the paparazzi to be assaulted by celebrities but one has seldom heard of politicians involved in public brawls with photo journalists. In some cases the paparazzi has indeed invade the privacy of certain celebrities and they were not able to distinguish between the private life and public life of a celebrity’s life. But in this case it is not an invasion of the member’s private life. To start with; the person involved is a public representative and he is expected to act and behave like one. And the photograph was not taken in his bedroom or bathroom which might constitute a case of the photo journalist intruding into his private life. The photograph was taken in the august house in the presence of MLAs, senior bureaucrats and reporters so it was taken in broad day light. The photojournalist did not invade the MLA’s privacy, because the photograph was taken of him dozing in the Assembly. And we need to remind ourselves that the privacy of the place or event ceases if a crime is committed in the particular spot. Even if the MLA feels that there is some element in the photo which can damage his reputation (as an individual) and the constitution also guarantees that every citizen has the right to seek justice and to be treated fairly, he still had not right to take the law in his hands and go about beating anybody. As a legislator he should seek justice using the available legal means facility and let the law take its own course. Beating up anyone should not even cross his mind.
Again what is highly unacceptable and childish of the MLA is to involve the people of his constituency in the unpleasant incident. And even if the journalist used foul language and call people names like savage etc. (which he denied and the truth of which will only be known after the investigation), what is expected of a real leaders is to keep it tohimself and use it (if he may) when it comes to defend his case in the court of law. By stating in public that the journalist called people names, Cajee expected that the allegation would save his skin and put him in a better light, but in the process he has irresponsibly put the life of the photo journalist in danger. And this is not expected from a responsible leader. The case has backfired on him.
Even if we give the MLA the benefit of doubt that the photo journalist provoked him, it is unbecoming of a public leader in the status of an MLA to even return the diatribe. We may not expect Cajee to turn his other cheek, but what is expected of him is to use his hands only for gestures while debating in the house and not to punch people. It is notexpected of a public leader to assault anybody and that too in the assembly premises- the temple of democracy. The incident is like a pastor or a priest punching somebody in the church corridor itself just after the church service because the sanctity of the house is being tarnished here.
If an odd photograph; gives the MLA the right to land punches on someone’s body face then we can expect many more incidents like this because a lot more MLAs were photographed catching a nap in the august house and whoever took the photographs should be careful. But we hope that lesson have been learned and that MLAs should be careful not to sleep in the house as it might land the MLA in an ugly situation which he might regret later. The sanctity of the house should be maintained at any cost. The house is no less sacred than the church, the temple, the mosque, synagogue or the gurudwara.
Media persons too are public representatives because whatever they do while performing their job is for the benefit of the public. They too serve the people and in fact in many cases they report history as it happens. If the imbroglio in budget session 2012 of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly is to make it to the history books, it is the media which recorded the history and in this case a journalist and the entire media fraternity are part of the making of history making. This is really one incident that will make it to the history books of the state. And it’s all about a photograph.
(The author is an independent researcher and an environmental activist)