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‘We look at nature as part of family… only now world realises forests are important’

In the run-up to <B>Copenhagen</B>,Meghalaya’s indigenous activists <B>Toki Blah</B> and his daughter <B>Mebanda</B>,standing in a sacred grove for a conversation with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief <B>Shekhar Gupta</B> on NDTV 24x7’s Walk the Talk,underline what their traditions have to teach the world. They also talk about why identity is still an issue for many in the North-East,and the lack of credible governance....

November 30, 2009 12:30:11 am

Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk. There are days in my life when I really love my job,and this is one of those. Why? Because we stand here in a sacred grove. The only buzz you can hear,in fact,is that of breeze blowing through this wonderful,wonderful forest. And sacred grove because for hundreds and hundreds of years nobody has been allowed to touch a leaf,an animal in this forest because the tribals of Meghalaya protect it. We are in the village of Mawphlang,about 30-35 km from Shillong — really one of the most distinct and forgotten parts of India,particularly when we look from Delhi. And my guests today: two wonderful people,Toki Blah and Mebanda Blah,the father-daughter duo,who will tell us more about questions of identity,insecurity,alienation,distance that the tribal people face,particularly the hill tribal people. So welcome to Walk the Talk,Toki and Mebanda. We stand in this sacred grove,tell us a bit about it. Because you know there is so much tribal tradition that we seem to be losing.

Toki: Yeah,this is part of our culture,the maintenance of these sacred groves. You see in Meghalaya,there are around 8,500 sq km of forest. Of this around 1,000 km are sacred groves,run either by the village committee,by clans,by individuals… and this is one such forest. This is a sacred grove where,as you said earlier,you are not even expected to take out even a leaf or a twig. There is some deity here.


That is the belief?

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Toki: That is the belief and this deity is the one that protects the community,protects the village.

Mebanda: These are guardian spirits of the forest. And it is also said that these are the same guardian spirits who…you know,if women walk alone,these are the spirits who help the women. They also take care of the forest.


Women can afford to walk not only just alone but in the lead in these parts,because this is a matrilineal system. Women wield real power here,isn’t it?

Mebanda: Yes,they do.


And this tradition is common to Khasis as well as Jantias?

Toki: Yes.


The two of you are Jantia?

Toki: Yes,we are Jantias.


And Khasis and Jantias are very similar.

Toki: They are more or less the same.


So are we losing some of this tradition? This,and many other tribal traditions?

Toki: That is one of the main issues for indigenous people like us. The fear of losing our identity… I mean the monetary pressures that are coming up in our society today,most of these forests,the sacred groves have been cut down because of their timber value. This is one of the forests that has been protected. We have faced a number of problems,social and political,in our state,in our community because of this issue of identity. I think this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Mebanda,does the issue of identity worry you? Or should it worry the tribals as much as it seems to?

Mebanda: It does worry me,especially since I represent the younger generation. For us it is not so much,you know,we want to know that we have a future and our future will be as Khasis,we will be known as the Khasis. But slowly,you know,globalisation,Westernisation… we are slowly losing that,even my generation.

You recently went to a UN convention on indigenous people,what did you learn from people from other communities from other parts of the world who came there?

Mebanda: That experience was quite enlightening,in the sense that it made me realise the problems that we as the indigenous people here face,is something that is not isolated but it is a very global problem of all indigenous communities. We are doubly marginalised.  

How do you mean,doubly marginalised?

Mebanda: Well,firstly,thinking about women. This is a matrilineal society but there are other indigenous societies where women do not play such an important role,they are marginalised,in some cases even here. But the fact that we are tribals,so we are doubly marginalised because of this.  

One of the most unusual things about the Khasis and the Jantias is the matrilineal system. Is some of that also being lost now? Are you also becoming male-dominated or are women losing some of the power? I see lot of people in this generation,for example,carrying their fathers’ second names.

Mebanda: When it comes to the second name,that is a more a personal,family thing. But losing power,I don’t really know if that is what the case is. In spite of the fact that it is a matrilineal society,women do not play a role in local darbars. The chief and even the main members of the darbar are male.

Toki: You see,you are talking about losing out. The scariest part is we are losing our social values,the value systems we as indigenous people carry.


You came back to work with your people. You were an IAS officer. In fact,if I remember correctly,you were the batchmate of G.K. Pillai,the current Union Home Secretary.

Toki: Yeah. ’72 batch.


And you chucked it to come back?

Toki: I had to come back. The attraction back home was greater,I think,than the service.    

Are all these fears of identity real? Because wherever you go now,you find posters from students’ unions,political parties,if I read the newspapers… they are full of stories of identity. Is some of that exaggerated or is it real?

Toki: I think it is both ways. Demographically,I think,there is some fear that we may be swamped since we are a minority. But then as I said,we have to live with the times. My daughter talked about globalisation. It is an issue that is going to impinge on our societies. But the fear that is uppermost on our minds is losing the value systems that we have because that will be a big loss,really.

Mebanda: Another thing is that indigenous communities like ours are mostly based on oral traditions. So if nothing is documented we lose more. And I think,no offence to my father’s generation,but they didn’t really do much documenting. Now it falls to our generation.


But Toki,do you think some of these fears are also exaggerated or they are deliberately,politically exacerbated?

Toki: Oh sure. They have political value. If you are able to frighten the population,mobilise them and polarise the society,definitely,that is there.  


And how do you counter this? How do you convince your young people not to be paranoid?

Toki: I think education should play a major role. If we are able to create a level system of education,educate our people,create that awareness,I think that is important. Then we will be able to adjust with the world,not only in the minuscule world of our own.


Why is there so much alienation in the Northeast? We know that Meghalaya,fortunately,has never had an insurgency but there is alienation. There is a feeling of being far away,of being distant,of being cut-off.

Toki: When you ask that question,I can’t but help answer. We hate a person because we don’t know him. And we don’t know him because we hate him. So,this is a vicious cycle. I think a lot of people from mainland India,I will put it that way,are yet to understand us.


The younger people — why the feeling of alienation now that access is much better,there are flights,there are much better connections. I find a lot of youngsters from the Northeast,particularly from Meghalaya,working all over India. So why is there still so much alienation?

Mebanda: Well,I don’t really know but one of the things is that if we go to,like he said,mainland India,we are judged by the way we speak,the way we look. And at the end of the day,no matter how much you try,you will always be just a scheduled tribe,never just a plain Indian like everybody else. We always have this tag with us.

But what is India,if not a celebration of diversity?

Toki: We believe in that. But just because I am different doesn’t mean that I am not an Indian. I am very much Indian but…


But then why the insecurity here? Why the continuing insecurity?

Toki: I think one of the basic reasons is lack of governance in this area. People really don’t see a connect between their own insecurity and the governance around them. That is a fear we have. We see poverty increase,we see the irrelevance of politics in our day-to-day lives,and there is a feeling of isolation,especially in remote areas. Take a village like Mawphlang. It feels like it lives just by itself.


But that is a wonderful thing. That is also a tribal way of living because villages have their own democracy and their own system of governance. We have another village not very far away,which is the cleanest village in India,most probably,and it is all done with local action. It couldn’t happen in UP because the village would be divided on caste,by big landowners… the distinctions are too many. Tribal societies make sure those don’t matter.

Toki: This is social capital that we have. It needs to be built on. But at the same time,we belong to an ever-shrinking world… Within that we need to open up and we have to realise where our strengths and weaknesses are.


Mebanda,when you talk to young people,what do you think disturbs them most of all? Why this latent anger,distrust as if,if I may put it a bit crudely,India will come and take our assets away?

Mebanda: Well,again it is not so much India…


…Or evil Delhi?      

Mebanda: No,it is not that actually. We don’t have any animosity against the country as such but,like my father said,the lack of governance. These people,the representatives,are representing mainland India. They have run short of their promises…


That is,your local politicians? Are they the ones who are increasing the alienation?

Mebanda: In many ways,I would say so.  


Because you people will see them as an extension of the Delhi establishment?

Mebanda: Exactly.


Not as an extension of your society into the Delhi establishment but the other way round.

Toki: Let me put it this way. Once a guy gets elected,comes into politics,he forgets that he should be speaking in the interest of the community. He starts speaking about financial interests,monetary interests,about the interests of someone else. I mean,this is ridiculous.


Tell me,you both have spent time outside of the Northeast. What are the most interesting things people have said to you,that show ignorance and at the same time that might show affection or large heartedness?

Toki: Once I was in Chennai and I was in a shop. So this guy was talking to me. We were speaking in English and then when I started purchasing something,he said,“Do you have dollars?” I said “No,I have Indian money”. He said,“Where are you from?” I said I am from Meghalaya. He said,“Oh Malaysia”. He just couldn’t place me as being an Indian.


Mebanda,do you have a story?

Mebanda: Something similar. You know,every time you say Shillong,everyone thinks it is Ceylon. For some reason we don’t really gel or we don’t really look …


But it is also true that you are a very small minority. Khasis and Jantias are just about a million people? Like 7-8 per cent of Delhi,that is all. So it takes time for the rest of the country to figure out…

Toki: Yes. So,that is why,I think,we have not been able to make much of an impression.


Don’t say that,because one of your own tribesmen J.M. Lyngdoh became a national star. He was an Indian all of us are proud of.

Toki: But that was from the political angle. What I am talking about is…we come back to the cultural angle. Here we are standing in the midst of a culture,which I think can contribute a lot not only to India but to the world.      

Mebanda: Just as he was saying this should be,you know,the solution to things like climate change,a global problem. Our ancestors have had these forests for centuries and it is only now that the world has woken up to the fact that forests are important,so our stewardship roles are our answers.


Tell us a few more really valuable traditions of your tribes that are worth emulating,preserving,remembering?

Toki: The issue of governance,again…governance has now been put into the context of divisive politics. In our traditional way,governance was consensous. I think this is a thing we need to show and teach the world. The tribe got together,and there was never a split over a majority or a minority,or you belong to the Congress,you belong to the BJP. The other thing that we can give the world is the wisdom we have in our healthcare system. We have this herbal healthcare system,especially in paralysis,broken bones,in so many other ailments.


This forest is also laden with some of the rarest of trees. Isn’t it?

Toki: Yes,yes. Repository of lot of extinct herbs.


And one of the trees vandalised all over India’s forests for its anti-cancer properties.    

Toki: Taxus baccata . One of the trees you can find here.  


And what about family values? Tell us about a few that are worth preserving,that should not get lost and also about changes that have taken place.

Mebanda: Well,one of the things about our traditional Khasi family is the kind of respect we have for elders. For instance,unless you address a question to me,I can’t really answer because I have an elder before me,things like these. So in many ways the word of the elder would be the highest authority. We look at nature as part of the family,but the kind of respect we had for nature is slowly dying out now.


And what is happening to the village as a unit because the Khasi village is not just any other village. A Khasi village is a universe in itself. Is that under threat?

Toki: It is. It is under threat especially because of the media. A lot of new influences have come into the village. Like she said,the word of the elder is now slowly being marginalised and the wisdom of our elders and forefathers is slowly being substituted by other elements.


So,I know that you are now a full-time activist,she is an activist. You (Mebanda) also teach English literature. You are among a very small but a very important group of activists now,and that you are trying to preserve not only the environment but also tradition,and to highlight some of that for the rest of the country. So what are you focussing on in the immediate future?

Toki: The issue of governance is a very important issue that needs to be brought in. So that participatory concept of governance which is our main strength needs to be reflected in modern governance. The second issue: do we start identifying and bonding ourselves with modern culture.


So Mebanda,you are not trying to hide away from modernity?  

Mebanda: No,not really. We embrace it and yet at the same time we want to be rooted. Just because I embrace being like any other person anywhere else in the world doesn’t mean that I lose out on my culture,my roots.   


Because,you know,you read about the problems that tribals in central India are having where we now have Naxalism,Maoism and a lot of exploitation. There is poverty here too,but to a much greater degree there. Do you have a view on how the tribal problem can be handled differently? Are there lessons from here that can be applied there or lessons from there that can be applied here?

Toki: I think that the social bonding that we have as tribals is one of the main factors that has prevented these sorts of divisive issues to come in. And religion also plays a major part in preventing such forces as these extreme views to come into our society.


Christianity in the case of Meghalaya?

Toki: Yeah.


So,Christianity is a moderating force?

Toki: Yeah. But for how long can we resist unless there is an improvement in governance?


Mebanda,do you see a lot of impatience in young people with the quality of governance?

Mebanda: Yes,there is. Each time before the election,everyone tells us that they will be the one bringing the change and we are still waiting. So…


If it doesn’t happen for too long,people will get angry?

Mebanda: Definitely,because,you know,we are not stupid,we know what we have. You can’t sell everything to us in the name of development.


In the name of fake development.

Mebanda: Fake development. Yes.


Because if there is development,you will welcome it.

Mebanda: Definitely. But not at the cost of our traditions,our culture.


And the responsibility for that lies here with your leadership or would you expect that to come from Delhi?

Toki: No,it lies with us,within us.


So,Mebanda,you said half -jokingly that we are not stupid people. In fact,you bring so much wisdom and also such a remarkable ability to maintain tradition and also to absorb modernity. We stand next to this sacred grove and we stand next to these monoliths,which have been there for,God knows,hundreds of years. Tell us about them.

Toki: As my daughter said,it is through oral traditions that we handed wisdom down and these are some of the marks that our fathers put in to commemorate memorable occasions in their lives then. Usually we have three monoliths but here is a very unique formation,this might be a small grave… this is to mark a very important event in the history of our community.


Now,you know,you are a community of less than a million people but are you also conscious that now you are really asserting so much soft power all over India,because everybody knows that Meghalaya is the home of such wonderful music.

Toki: Yes,it is the music capital of India.


And you have a football club of your own that is doing very well,Lajong FC.

Toki: The youngsters are more into that.


Tell me Mebanda about music,football…Meghalayans are reaching out to the rest of the country now.

Mebanda: Yeah. The thing is it has always been there. It is only now that people have realised that we have a lot to offer.


That is why it is such a wonderful feeling to have chatted with you. Thank you very much.

Toki: Thank you for coming to Meghalaya.

Transcript prepared by Mehraj D Lone

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