|Independent candidate Benedict Alok Areng with his supporters at Hahim. Picture by UB Photos
An ex-serviceman and a cancer survivor has taken his first step into electoral politics, but Benedict Alok Areng, pushing 70, is not intimidated by what he is up against.
For he is driven by his desire to do something for his community and his state.
“I had to retire prematurely from the army after being diagnosed in 1978 with multiple myeloma which is a cancer of plasma cells in the bone marrow. Now, having battled the disease, I want to do something for society,” Areng, who is among the nine Independent candidates contesting the Gauhati parliamentary seat, told The Telegraph.
The 68-year-old had served the Kumaon Regiment for a decade, having also fought the 1971 war against Pakistan for the liberation of Bangladesh, till his retirement in 1978.
“I was treated at the army hospital in Jammu and Kashmir — my last place of posting — before being shifted to the Gauhati Medical College and Hospital and thereafter to the B. Borooah Cancer Institute,” the native of Kinangaon, a Garo-inhabited village near Chaygaon, said.
Chaygaon in Kamrup district is 18km from here and 50km from Guwahati.
Significantly, Areng has also sensitised people of over 80 villages along the Assam-Meghalaya border in Kamrup and Goalpara districts to join hands against goons and say no to extortion demands by militant groups. He has also convinced the Kinangaon panchayat to ban liquor in the villages.
Now, pitted against the “Goliaths”, the man is not flustered about his prospects in the election. Rather, he is keeping things simple, much like the man he is.
“I am a simple man with just a bicycle, cell phone, radio and spectacles among a few other items as my assets. But I am aware that this contest, much like the wars and the cancer I fought and survived, would be hard. But it does not matter. Win or not, I am determined to carry on with my social work,” said the former army jawan who even forfeited pension (that would now amount to at least Rs 17,000).
Areng is one of the co-ordinators of the Ajanajati-Garo Sonmilita Sangram Samiti, an umbrella organisation of groups, demanding exclusion of non-Rabha-majority villages from the Rabha Hasong autonomous council area.
“The samiti members had asked me to contest the elections and I agreed. They have even pooled in Rs 1.72 lakh as expenditure to be incurred for the polls,” he said.
As he sat and sipped tea in his makeshift election office here, the lean but fit man also talked about his agitation seeking exclusion of over 300 villages having a Garo majority from the Rabha Hasong autonomous council area in Kamrup and Goalpara districts.
“I am clear about my manifesto. We do not want Assam to be divided further. All we want is an autonomous council for the seven lakh Garos living in Assam so that their ethnic identity, culture and tradition is protected,” said Areng, who is also the president of the Garo National Council, an umbrella organisation of Garos living in Assam.
“The other focus areas would be to ensure adequate teachers in Garo-medium schools, promote vocational education and cottage industries, check price rise and address river erosion as a national problem,” he said.
Shortage of teachers in the 200-odd Garo-medium schools in the two districts has even forced students to move to English-medium schools.
Asked whether the pending cases against him have affected him, Areng said, “The cases were in regard to the clashes that broke out between the Rabhas and the Garos four years back. But I am not involved in them. As the president of the Garo National Council (Kamrup and Goalpara units), the cases were imposed against my name. But none of them have been heard in court yet.”
l Gauhati votes on April 24