Meghalaya has stood the old and slightly derogatory term “cow belt” on its political head.
Time was when the Shillong Club, centre of gracious cosmopolitan society, served a succulent steak. The Swiss chalet-like Pinewood hotel, then managed by Mary Chowdhury, the Assamese owner’s petite Chinese wife, prided itself on its tender roast beef and crisp Yorkshire pudding.
Such fare has vanished from Shillong tables, as the bazaar has moved up to engulf the heights, as in so many other parts of India.
Shillong is crowded and squalid, with hardly any trace left of the sanitarium that the British set up in 1864, after Cherrapunji was abandoned.
Beef and pork have today acquired an altogether different connotation. Both are now the food of the masses. The Ahom and Nepalese staff at the Royal Heritage Tripura Castle hotel (which displays a carved four-poster that Rabindranath Tagore supposedly slept in) are horrified at the idea of serving beef.
But bloody chunks of cow on butchers’ blocks, rows of skinned pigs, their trotters and snouts raised to the sky, are a common, if unappetising, sight. They are enough to put me off steak or bacon for life, but not voters.
The Garo Hills have been part of India longer than most other regions of the Mongoloid northeast. It belonged to Goalpara district, administered from Rangpur, and then to the dewani of Bengal that Emperor Shah Alam ceded to the East India Company on August 12, 1765. In contrast, the British did not annex Assam from Burma until 1824.
It might be a perilous fight on Tuesday when Garo voters will have to choose between Purno A. Sangma, elected seven times from Tura constituency and former Lok Sabha Speaker, and his namesake and clansman, Mukul Sangma, Meghalaya’s Congress minister for public works. Some polling areas are infested with bandits, others with elephants. No one knows which presents the greater danger.
There is also taboo meat. I was shown a leaflet which, translated, accused Mr P.A. Sangma of conspiring with the Bharatiya Janata Party to stop Garos from eating beef. The charge is not more unlikely than Mr Sangma’s alliance — if that is what it is — with Calcutta’s raucous Didi.
Khasis and Garos alike readily admit that tubby little Mr Sangma is the only northeast politician to be known in the great world of New Delhi. But it seems a sad fall for a man who boasts of having shaken hands with the Queen of England to cling to Mamata Banerjee as his final sheet anchor in politics. The former Speaker is also accused of collusion with the outlawed Achik National Volunteer Council (ANVC) which wants, among other demands, a separate Garo state. Borders and loyalties are hazy in the northeast, families are divided, and people remind me that ANVC cadres helped — though without conspicuous success — Mr Sangma’s candidates in Assembly and district elections.
No one expects the proponents of Hindutva to have a toehold in these remote and culturally alien hills. But, then, as I am told, you’ll find the BJP wherever there are Muslims. And the plains areas of the Garo Hills are teeming with Bengali-speaking Muslims who have been there since pre-British times. Whether or not they facilitate illegal immigration, they do traditionally vote Congress, which means they support Mr Mukul Sangma.
Here, as in Assam, the BJP is again fishing in troubled communal waters.
The final paradox in these matrilineal hills, where Khasis, Jaintias and Garos inherit through the distaff line, is that there are more male than female voters and that women have never held public office. Local feminists are agitated about this perceived discrimination.
No one has told them the homely saying that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Or of the educated Victorian woman who opposed the suffragettes on the grounds that a woman who couldn’t make her husband and son vote as she wished wasn’t worth her salt.
Next time round, the three hill areas with their age-old durbars (Khasis), dollois (Jaintias) and nokmas (Garos) will have to field women whose token presence alone will assuage the sense of gender prejudice. Even traditional equality needs modern totems.