The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The inhabitants of Shillong have reason to celebrate — for a decade now the Durga Puja has been celebrated in absolute peace. Apprehension about ethnic riots breaking out in October and the resulting security overdrive has now become as much of an annual ritual as Meghalaya’s Autumn Festival, an extravaganza organized to woo tourists. Fortunately, the tension has alleviated over the years, indicating, perhaps, that it is time to lay the ghosts of past carnages to rest.

Nowhere was the bonhomie more evident than at the magnificently decorated pandals, thronged by hundreds of revellers of all communities. The more cosmopolitan localities like Laban (meaning “town” in the vernacular) organized the festivities on a huge scale.

Laban is also the constituency that went to polls late last month, so celebrations of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral success here added fervour to the festivities. The mixed population of this panoramic locality, perched high on the hills overlooking the congested capital, was one of the first in the Northeast to vote the BJP to power in 1998.

The electorate vested its faith once again in the sitting legislator, Thrang Hok Rangad, in the assembly elections held in March this year. Although he lived in another locality, Umsohsun, Rangad established a personal rapport with his constituents, right from campaigning door-to-door. He was a rare gentleman, who upheld the decorum and integrity of the assembly by not sliding across the floor at the drop of a coin. Horse-trading, after all, is almost second nature to legislators in these states.

Surprisingly, when the BJP was toting up its victories in the recent byelections in the country, it gave the one in Meghalaya a go-by, possibly because the party retained the seat. But the result is significant for two reasons. First, the BJP is still making inroads in the Northeast and, more important, it catapulted a woman into the legislator’s seat.

The third significant aspect, unnoticed by many, was the virtual campaign coup staged by Phanbuh, who was far from facing a cakewalk. The Nationalist Congress Party had fielded a local strongman, Sanbor Shullai, while the Congress left no stone unturned to boost the prospects of former headman Stalin Lyngdoh; also the erstwhile legislator, Antony Lyngdoh, whom Rangad had unseated, opted to contest on a Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement ticket.

Altogether 13 stalwarts contested, but Phanbuh, who was in mourning and hence conducted a very subdued campaign, emerged the winner. True to form, she did not even take out a victory rally when the results were declared. However, she was visible at puja pandals, gratifying her well-wishers. It was here that a Khasi woman vendor cackled that though she had accepted the wad of notes that a national party was doling out before the election, she had voted for the young widow when it was her turn at the polling booth.

This again, is an interesting sidelight since there have been contentions in the past that women voters, who are in a majority, are vulnerable to material persuasion. This time too, besides the male rhetoric by the likes of Purno A. Sangma, there were blatant efforts to “buy” votes. The result shows that the women have mastered asset management without losing track of values.

Having said that, one must clarify that the detractors of matriliny will see in the disclosure of this shrewd vendor more reason to keep women away from the political arena. For, despite being custodians of property, tribal women are not quite groomed for politics. The Khasi historian, David R. Syiemlieh, recently wondered why Manipuri and Naga women were being projected as torch-bearers while their counterparts in Meghalaya were ignored in spite of their unique social structure. But this phenomenon should come as no surprise to those familiar with the much-acclaimed democratic grassroots institution of these tribes, called the dorbar, from which women are barred.

A few dorbars in the capital city did experiment with inducting women. But these rare cases are like aberrations in a milieu which allows lineage to descend from the mother’s clan, but gives women no power to vent their grievances, except through male relatives or men in the dorbar. Public discourse is frowned upon, to the extent that an oft-quoted Khasi adage goes: “The world will come to an end when the hen begins to crow.” And though men propound this theory, women believe in it wholeheartedly. Any suggestion that a Khasi woman head a dorbar evinces the strongest criticism from both sexes.

This is why only two women won the March assembly elections although 14 of them were in the fray. Two elections ago, another widow, Roshan Warjri, had contested reluctantly from her husband’s constituency and graced the assembly as the lone woman representative. Kong Kei, as Warjri is popularly known, declined to contest this year, possibly having faced enough muck in her unenviable role as member of legislative assembly and minister. This, despite the fact that she was one of the most articulate legislators both on the treasury and opposition benches, enlivening the desultory assembly proceedings with her wit and incisive remarks.

When Phanbuh joins the proceedings in the next session, she too, like Warjri, will have to overcome her diffidence in such alien surroundings in order to continue the commendable work her husband left unfinished. One can imagine her initial difficulties. For one, she lives away from her constituency, Laban, and lacks proximity to her electorate. Besides, she will be told ceaselessly about how the “dirty game of politics” is a male domain.

While global trends in gender equality harp on the need for greater participation of women in public life, if only to check corruption, women in this hill state continue to stress that their status gets elevated if they remain apolitical. This is understandable in patriarchal societies like Nagaland and Manipur, where women may be activists who take to the streets, hold hungerstrikes, organize torchlight marches to highlight social evils, but shun politics. It is incredible however that such a scenario prevails in a matrilineal set-up, with women themselves being the most vociferous champions of the “politics is for men” theory.

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