In Conversation Society

‘Where is the development, where are the services?’: Patricia Mukhim

Patricia Mukhim   | Photo Credit: V. Sudershan

On August 13, an ailing former leader of an armed group was shot dead in the middle of the night at his home in Shillong by a police team. The incident led to unrest in Mawlai where the encounter occurred and resonated in the adjoining neighbourhoods of Mawkhar and Jaiaw. The police alleged that the man, Cheristerfield Thangkhiew, among the last of the banned Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) to come overground from his base in Bangladesh, had tried to pull a knife, but that explanation did not sit well with Thangkhiew’s supporters or the general public. There was stone pelting on police posts and personnel, official weapons were snatched, a curfew was declared, and the Internet was shut down. Hundreds of helmeted youth rode in rallies through the area and a large crowd attended Thangkhiew’s funeral. A clamour is on for the suspension of the two police officers involved.

“There’s been a collapse of law and order since this (State) government came to power [in 2018],” says Patricia Mukhim, editor of The Shillong Times in Meghalaya and one of the country’s most outspoken editors, blaming both the political and police leadership. She traces much of the troubles to massive, multi-layer corruption stemming from illegal mining and trade of coal, which thrives despite court orders. Thangkhiew’s killing seems to have triggered an already festering unrest and discontent over failures in governance. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Why has Cheristerfield Thangkhiew’s killing become a flashpoint?

The DGP said the police had incontrovertible evidence that he was linked to the bomb (blast in early August). But if you have such evidence, proceed against him in a court of law, file cases, do the due diligence necessary for a case to hold up in court. Why shoot him inside his home at 3 a.m.? The Home Minister said he would like to be relieved of his post. What kind of a resignation is that? He is still in the cabinet, he is still working; it’s a drama orchestrated for public consumption.

From times past, the Mawlai area, where Cheristerfield lived, has been a location of resistance. The new group active there is the Hynniewtrep Youth Council, led by young, educated people, including a lawyer. They ask uncomfortable questions:

A Shillong neighbourhood in June 13, 2018.

A Shillong neighbourhood in June 13, 2018.   | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

for instance, ₹399 crore is supposed to have been spent on tackling COVID-19 last year, but it has not been accounted for. Where is the development, where are the services? People are asking questions and they have come to a point of intolerance. But there is the other side also: the group assured the government and youth and women’s organisations that they would keep the peace, but the stoning of the governor’s convoy took place. You did not see the police there at all.

There are allegations that anti-government groups are extorting money from the government...

The Chief Minister has said publicly that ministers and officials are being extorted from. Then why don’t we see any action against the extortionists? The morale of the public falls when this happens. There is mal-governance and criminalisation. Just admitting to the problem and not saying what is going to be done about it is blasé. He should have taken action and at least one or two extortionists should have been named and arrested. What about the seizure of weapons and the attack on the police station? Snatching weapons from government officials is a major criminal offence. As is damaging official property. But we haven’t heard of any action taken. To say that the weapon snatchers should return the weapons and no action will be taken against them is political naiveté (following a tip-off, the police found the weapons dumped in a local stream). This is a weak-kneed response and will only encourage such events.

Tell us a bit about Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and the future.

There is a certain naiveté that comes from lack of experience. He knows there are constant efforts to pull him down and he is protective of his brother James, who is at the centre of allegations of financial wrongdoing in a major contract involving rural lighting [Saubhagya scheme]. The leadership has failed. There is no clarity [of policy] from the government. It’s all very well to bring in young blood, but their lack of experience shows. One of the ministers fumbled in the Assembly because he doesn’t speak English well; why can’t they allow members to speak in Khasi or Garo? This is happening elsewhere, in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, etc. There is no challenge from the main Opposition, the Congress. We have reached a point where there is no alternative. With only seven MLAs, the United Democratic Party, which was a coalition partner with Congress earlier and is in Conrad Sangma’s government, cannot make a difference even if it walks away from the present dispensation. Also, they don’t want to be with a Congress led by former Chief Minister Mukul Sangma.

But even civil society groups are not speaking out, which is surprising. Civil society has been pulverised by the pandemic. There is no credible leadership at the helm. People are torn between eking out a livelihood and joining resistance movements. I see unrest growing until 2023, when the next elections are due.

Do you see the need for a vision for Meghalaya?

Frankly, there’s a lack of vision, there’s no long-term planning. In the 90s, some of us came up with an economic roadmap for the State — the Meghalaya Economic Development Council. It pulled together people from government, the Opposition, economists and civil society. It would have been a place to brainstorm on a range of issues, mainly economic. It hasn’t even met for a long time. Compare this with the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh. He is talking about reservation for women to own land, it is being discussed in the State Assembly and outside. Here in Meghalaya, not a single bill has been passed that is pro-people and pro-development, progressive and futuristic.

What do you think of the meat-eating ban in Assam?

India is a diverse country. The Northeast is diverse. It is not just about Hindus and Muslims. Why do political leaders think like that? Don’t they realise there are many tribals and other groups that rely on meat-based diets? Efforts to bring homogeneity will not work, especially in food choices. The beef ban in Assam is creating problems for other States. We seem to have lost our voices. State governments are so dependent on Delhi that they don’t cross swords. Take Parliament: I feel ashamed of our Northeastern MPs. They are silent in Parliament. Rakesh Sinha of the BJP from Bihar has raised the maximum number of questions related to the Northeast.

What has happened to the Act East Policy (AEP)?

Earlier, there used to be a series of workshops and seminars and all you would hear about was the AEP. Now, it doesn’t even figure in seminars. It is not part of the public consciousness or discourse. These clashes between Assam and Mizoram at the border, Assam’s border problems with Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, all these impact the AEP. There is a cascading supply-chain effect and investors and neighbouring countries are all watching closely to see if there is peace, which will make them decide to put their money here. Our region is landlocked. Meghalaya’s trade and economic relations are not with India’s eastern neighbour, Myanmar, but with Bangladesh to our south. A lot of cattle smuggling still goes on. Coal is regulated, but not other products. What is happening to the Kaladan multi-modal project that was supposed to connect Mizoram to the Sittwe port in Myanmar? I wonder if the Mizoram Chief Minister even knows what is happening with regard to this strategic economic linkage.

The interviewer is an author, commentator and specialist on the Northeast and its surroundings.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 10:20:11 PM |

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