Dear friends and fellow citizens,
I am writing this letter to you because I will be an independent candidate from your constituency in the upcoming MLA elections 2023 on behalf of KAM Meghalaya – a citizen’s platform with a voice and resolve to bring about positive change. We firmly believe that a collective and participatory space for citizens’ engagement is possible, one that works toward a more equitable, inclusive Meghalaya and believes in justice, development and rule of law. We are ready to fight for that reality, by challenging corruption, criminality and communalism which has captured governance in Meghalaya.
While I am not too comfortable talking about myself, I realise that you need to know more about me and why I am motivated to seek your support.
WHERE DO I COME FROM?
I am a fourth generation Laban person from Harisabha. I have grown up in this oldest locality of Shillong, running down its slopes to catch kites, walking with my grandmother to Lumparing, rushing to Iewdak to shop for essentials or Last stop for Mithai, and once in a while to Jhalupara for Momos. You can say that I have lived the colourful multi-ethnic and multi-religious history of South Shillong whether it is the excitement of Christmas or Puja competitions or visiting neighbours for iftar.
WHERE DO I COME FROM?
I studied in Pine Mount School, Shillong. I did my graduation and post-graduation in Anthropology from NEHU where both in BA and MA, I was a recipient of the University Gold Medal. During my student life I started researching and volunteering with organisations working on questions of environment, development and women’s rights, and saw first-hand the struggles of the people in Meghalaya. I realised that for masses of men and women of Meghalaya, the system was failing them. Their everyday life was full of struggles because their rights as citizens were being violated. Whether it was a woman facing domestic violence, or a family running from pillar to post for a ration card or a young person being denied a job because of favoritism and corruption, or workers not getting their basic wages. I wanted to change things, and hence needed to learn more about how to address underdevelopment, poverty and inequality. I was happy and encouraged when I received the prestigious Inlaks scholarship to study Anthropology of Development at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. When I returned to Shillong from the UK, I was faced by the usual questions that any young person faces about ‘career’.
I come from a family of independent and strong women.My grandmother Dr. Muriel Dunn was one of the earliest Khasi Doctors in the community and my grandfather Dr. Morningstar Diengdoh, church elder of Laban Presbyterian Church. My mother, Dr. Linda Rangad, was a doctor, my father, Paul Sawian, a government servant. My immediate aunts and uncles are teachers, doctors, technocrats and one, Late Mr. T H Rangad, even represented Laban in the State Legislature. Many of them were worried when I decided not to choose a “professional career”.
MY EARLY DAYS AS AN ACTIVIST
At first, I aligned myself with institutions that I thought might benefit from my education. I have worked with both the government and the NGO sector, on projects focusing on gender justice and rural development. I however realised the limitations of treating people as mere beneficiaries rather than empowering them to claim their rights by questioning the status quo of inequality, injustice and exploitation. Something different and radical had to be done. I therefore plunged into activism, agitating and organising for the change I wanted to see in our society. But one cannot do this alone and gender justice was my first call.
STRUGGLES FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS
I began with the women’s movement in Meghalaya twenty-five years ago campaigning to bring justice and welfare to the victims of domestic violence and sexual assaults. Most often domestic violence would be swept under the carpet in the name of family and community honour. We not only involved ourselves in day-to-day case work and filing FIRs, ensuring their safety but also conducted trainings and discussions with communities across the state. Our collective efforts have changed the discourse around Violence against women and children. We have taken on powerful political figures who use their position to assault and harass women and children, be they an MLA who was finally incarcerated for his crimes of child rape or being part of the calling out and ousting a head of state for sexual harassment.
In 2005, along with other friends we fought clause by clause for a powerful Meghalaya State Women’s Commission Law that ensured an independent Meghalaya State Commission for Women.
When we started asking for women’s full participation in the Dorbars and local self-government in the early 2000s, many powerful lobbies were skeptical, and in the name of tradition sometimes downright dismissive. But now the question of Women’s participation is part of society’s common sense. What the women’s movement has taught me is that nothing can stop the struggle for justice and equality. Tradition can never stop reform because making our Shnongs and our dorbars more democratic and more inclusive can only be beneficial to us all.
MARRIAGE, COMPANIONSHIP AND CHILDREN
It was in those campaigning days that I met my husband, Tarun Bhartiya, documentary filmmaker, teacher, writer – a kindred seeker and upholder of social justice issues. We have been married now for nineteen years and have three school going children – a daughter and twin sons. Tarun has been a partner in my journey as an activist and questioning the system. With his support I was also able to gain a Law degree and train as a lawyer while our children were very young and this additional legal education has further sharpened my activism.
RIGHT TO INFORMATION AND ANTI-CORRUPTION MOVEMENT
The Meghalaya Right to Information Movement, a broad-based coalition came about in 2003 to demand for government accountability and transparency. When the national Right to Information Act was being drafted, as a representative of the campaign I was invited by and made submissions to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in Delhi. We insisted that the law should cover all states and that there should not be automatic exemptions for police and armed forces when it came to human rights abuses and corruption, points that got finally incorporated into the law.
When RTI became a law in 2005, we conducted hundreds of trainings for citizens and government servants on using of the law and we continue to be regularly approached by ordinary citizens to help them navigate the RTI process on a variety of issues.
RTI in Meghalaya is a people’s success story. MLAs have lost elections, because citizens using the RTI have exposed corruption and abuse of power in the implementation of MLA schemes. People secured jobs because they unearthed the nepotism prevalent in exams and interviews, many have got entitlements such as housing and ration cards.
While some of the biggest scams in Meghalaya have been exposed through the use of RTI, we learnt that there was no law to prosecute the corrupt. We then started a popular campaign for an Independent Lokayukta in Meghalaya and succeeded in pushing for and drafting the Meghalaya Lokayukta Act 2014. We have also been part of the making of Meghalaya’s unique Social Audit law.
RATION CARDS, RIGHT TO FOOD, MINIMUM WAGES, WORKERS RIGHTS
But Laws without an empowered and organised citizenry remain just pieces of paper. People need to see sustainable changes in their everyday life if any social movement has to succeed. Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR), the organisation of which I am one of the founding member, came about to do this. To seek Development as a right, to fight for workers’ rights – organizing workers across sectors into unions so that they may more effectively claim their rights. Once, Meghalaya had the lowest Minimum Wage in India. It was only with our sustained and collective campaign that the government was forced to revise it. Proper wages, ensuring social security and better working conditions have been some of the major achievements of TUR.
We have been equally active during the COVID 19 pandemic in the state, to ensure entitlements for the struggling and worst hit people. When the political class was silent, we spoke, protested and through concrete evidence ensured that thousands and thousands of people around the state got income and food support.
And yet another milestone that we are rightly proud of is our recent victory when the Meghalaya government was forced to accept in front of the Meghalaya High Court, that the Central Law on hawking and street vending has to be implemented.
There are so many stories, so many victories - whether it is to ensure proper food for our children through the ICDS and Mid-Day meal programme, seeking justice when the corrupt eat into these schemes, or bettering education and pursuing justice on the white ink scam, or pushing for better and accessible health care.
These struggles and achievements are what we have been doing and will continue to do because we are tenacious and we are focused. We can say with conviction that our campaigns have changed lives and made the issues of development and entitlements and rule of law central to the socio-political life of our state.
RESISTING COMMUNALISM, DEFENDING OUR FREEDOMS & PROTECTING OUR RESOURCES
In these dark and uncertain days of divisiveness, distrust and disrespect between communities, our commitment to inclusivity is shown by our track record of work. We have defended the rights of all citizens irrespective of their class or identity and we work towards a society that respects pluralism and secular values. Whether it was about imposition of AFSPA or plans to mine Uranium or about communal violence at the local or national level, or the ecological and political destruction that illegal coal mining has wrought in our state, I have never been deterred from speaking out on issues of violence and criminality in our society.
SO WHY DO I WANT TO CONTEST THE 2023 MLA ELECTIONS FROM 19-SOUTH SHILLONG CONSTITUENCY?
In its fiftieth year of existence, on all developmental parameters—health, food, education, housing, women’s safety, employment and corruption—Meghalaya is fast turning into a basket case of India. Normalization of corruption, entrenching of political-bureaucratic patronage system and the criminal capture of political-economic spaces, where every political party seems interchangeable with each other has resulted in increasing poverty, landlessness, stunted children, dysfunctional education system, inaccessible and deplorable healthcare, shrunken economic opportunities, unemployment, ecological destruction, socio-economic inequality.
It angers me that our public representatives are saying nothing and doing nothing about the crisis our state finds itself in. The only thing our political class seems to be active in is amassing illegal wealth quickly and behaving as Dons Doling out Unaccountable Doles. They think that citizens can be bought over by their ‘charity’. We must not forget that MLAs are not doing us a favour when they extend a helping hand. It is our money that they are distributing and it is our right to decide how our money has to be spent and it is duty of the MLA to give regular accounts of that expenditure.
We have to challenge this.
Electoral politics cannot be a playground for the high and mighty or retired rich government officers or coal barons or family members of politicians whose reputation for violence puts fear amongst the citizens or a politician whose only ideology is to change parties to gain power or who shamelessly defends crude communal talk that dehumanizes communities, or indulges in opportunistic lying to hide corruption.
We in South Shillong should stand up to reject this kind of politics. It is high time that we change this culture.
As a mother, I believe my representative should embody those values that I would like my children to inculcate. Values of honesty, transparency, deliberation, rationality, love and solidarity. And I think you do too.
We therefore need to collectively reclaim truth and dignity for ourselves and for others.
As citizens our struggles are informed by constitutional values of justice, fairness and rationality.
As citizens we have to wield truth as a shield and weapon to keep our societies free and democratic.
As citizens we have the duty to question power in the interest of truth, because governments increasingly monopolize power and try to support it with falsehood.
And democracy dies if it is the culture of falsehood that reigns.
South Shillong is a key urban constituency and we need to reclaim its prestigious place in the history of the state. We have to retrieve its reputation as a place where models of development are based on participation and deliberation with zero tolerance for corruption and favouritism and where the relationship between the MLA and citizen is based on mutual respect and love.
South Shillong has to be a safe, liveable and pleasant space ensuring progress for each and every person of the constituency, where everyone is respectfully heard irrespective of their economic class, community or gender. We must do this now and together WE CAN!
HOW WE WILL WIN THIS BATTLE?
Time has come to begin this movement for transformation. I call this a movement because in my conversations around the constituency I have heard the voices of frustration and anger at underdevelopment and corruption, voices that are tired of not having a choice, voices that are disgusted with the tone of political discourse, voices that want to participate in making a new democratic culture of justice and equality.
Together we can make this election campaign different, meaningful and historic. In spite of some cynics telling me that the only people who can fight elections are those with huge amounts of money, we in KAM believe that those who buy votes are also the ones who are available to be bought and hence will not speak out about issue that matter or stand up for you. Our campaign will be run through public donations and the spirit of volunteerism. This will be a creative campaign rooted in ideas and respectful conversations that listens to the concerns and learns from your aspirations as citizens.
So please do tell me what you think. What are your ideas about the constituency? What should we be doing? How can we make our campaign creative, inclusive and a winning campaign from the word go? This is not my campaign alone. It is your campaign because your voice matters. Let us talk and work together to build a new transformative vision for Shillong South and our state.
And yes, if you have any questions, doubts, even disagreements with what I am saying please message me on 9863097754, and we can meet and talk. You can also come over to our campaign office at Harisabha Laban.
You can learn more about KAM at www.kammeghalaya.in or message us at 6009754626