At 11, Purno Agitok Sangma lost his father, after which poverty forced him to quit studies. Things were so bad that he would tend cattle in exchange for a meal, and went hungry on many days. But a Salesian father helped him return to school and ensured he got a hostel room. Little did he know at the time that the student he was helping would one day contest for the post of President of India.
Sangma, who had six siblings, was born on September 1, 1947 in Chapahati, a village on the border with Bangladesh, about 340 km from Shillong. He would often say that had it not been for Father Giovanni Battista Busolin, an Italian Salesian running a school and a church in Garo Hills, he would not have become what he did.
Once he returned to school, there was no looking back. He did his BA from St Anthony’s College, Shillong, before shifting to Dibrugarh in Assam, where he taught in Don Bosco High School while pursuing MA in international politics from Dibrugarh University. At night, he would attend law college.
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Briefly a lawyer and a journalist, Sangma was eventually drawn to politics, with the Congress appointing him vice-president of the Youth Congress in 1973. Four years later, he was elected to Lok Sabha from Tura, a constituency which he continued to represent almost continuously, except in the ninth Lok Sabha, which lasted about 13 months.
First appointed a deputy minister for industries by Indira Gandhi in 1980, Sangma remained an MoS for over 12 years, serving in different ministries like Commerce, Supply, Home and Labour, until he was made a cabinet minister for I&B in the Narasimha Rao government in 1995-96.
His greatest moment arrived on May 23, 1996 when Sangma, just 49 at the time, was elected Lok Sabha Speaker. This marked many firsts — of being unanimously elected Speaker, of being the first Speaker from the Opposition, the first from a Scheduled Tribe as well as the first Christian. He was also the first tribal to become a cabinet minister at the Centre in 1995.
Uncompromising when it came to safeguarding the fundamentals of national interests, his tenure as labour minister saw a sharp decline in industrial strikes and lock-outs in the country.
Known for his photographic memory, meticulous homework and complete mastery of subjects at hand, Sangma always had total control over the House, ensuring that rules were strictly observed even in the midst of stormy debates. His ability to pick up languages to communicate with members from different states remains inimitable.
Sangma came from a matrilineal society, and his stint as Speaker saw the formation of a Standing Joint Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women as well as a Joint Parliamentary Committee for considering the Constitution (81st Amendment) Bill, 1996 that sought to provide 33 per cent reservation for women in Lok Sabha and state legislative assemblies.
But Sangma faced controversies later in his political career, especially when he quit the Congress along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar over party president Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, and formed the NCP in 1999. He did not get along well with Pawar and left the NCP in 2004 for the Trinamool Congress, from which he was elected to Lok Sabha that year. Two years later, he rejoined the NCP and returned to state politics, getting elected as an MLA in 2008.
Four years later, he stood as a candidate for the President’s office in June 2012, which created another rift between him and Pawar, prompting him to resign once more. Sangma lost the election, despite the Opposition BJP, AIADMK and BJD extending support. In 2013, he launched the National People’s Party (NPP) and returned to Lok Sabha in 2014, attending it regularly — even the day before he died.
While campaigning for elections, Sangma would often crack jokes and tell life stories instead of hitting out at opponents. He would stop for tea at a roadside stall, inquiring about the crop. Sometimes he would even take part in a village football match.
The last time he delivered a lecture was at the end of an inter-college debate organised by Sonapur College on the outskirts of Guwahati on January 28, 2016. “The voice of the Northeast is not sufficiently heard in Parliament, in Delhi and across the country. We have to raise our voice to be heard properly. We need fearless public speakers like Hem Barua, Dinesh Goswami and G G Swell. Those were the kind of leaders and public representatives we had in the past who spoke fearlessly, loudly and clearly. We have to produce such leaders, and in more numbers,” he said.
His name was Purno, which in most languages means complete, total. Sangma indeed lived a purno life.