Meghalaya Polls: Christians, beef and women in India’s Home of the Clouds

Meghalaya Polls: Christians, beef and women in India’s Home of the Clouds

Utpal Bordoloi,
Congress president Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday kickstarted the campaign for Meghalaya Assembly elections with a musical extravaganza called ‘celebration of peace’.

Its head in the clouds, India’s tiny, colorful, Christian-majoritytribal state of Meghalaya is preparing to elect a new 60-member legislative assembly onFebruary 27.

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is in power in Delhi and in 21 out of 29 states, wants to win Meghalaya, along with its sisters Tripura and Nagaland in the country’s remote north-eastern region. But it faces challenges in all three.

The election campaign here is cool, easy and laid back. There is none of the noise, heat and dust of elections in India’s mainland states.

Overlooking the plains of Bangladesh, Meghalaya – the Sanskrit name means “abode of the clouds” – is a 22,400 sq. km mountainous plateau of great scenic beauty. A popular tourist destination, it has pine forests, waterfalls, caves and two of the world’s wettest places in Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram.

It is home to several tribes, the Khasi, their kindred Pnar or Jaintia, Garo, Rabha, Hajong and Tiwa, some of them also found in Bangladesh. The Khasi-Pnars are related to the Mon-Khmers of Cambodia; the Garos are Tibeto-Burman and their origin was in the plateau of Tibet. They are hardy, cheerful and hospitable people.

The Khasi-Pnar and the Garos are matrilineal — inheritance and succession is through women; the youngest daughter inherits the family wealth and looks after the parents. They are also Uxorilocal — meaning that after marriage, the husband lives with the wife and her family. Women decide who they will marryor live with. Sometimes the men feel oppressed living under the wife and mother-in-law and run away; abandoned wives are not uncommon in Meghalaya.

Shillong, 1,500 metres high in the Khasi hills, is the state capital. It was called ‘Scotland of the East’ by the British, who liked its cool climate and made it administrative headquarters ofAssam Province in 1864. From here, when not playing Polo or seducing each other’s wives, they would send out punitive expeditions to subdue warring, head-hunting tribes. The Oscar winning actress Julie Christie (Darling, 1966) was schooled in Shillong’s Loretto Convent. Bengal’s Nobel laureatepoet Rabindranath Tagore (Gitanjali, 1913) set and composed many of his poems here.

Shillong is India’swestern music capital, where a Bob Dylan festival is held every year on May 24, the Nobel Prize winner’s birthday. Lou Majaw, 74, who started the festival in 1972 as an informal gathering of fans, performs cover versions of Dylan’s songs in pubs and cafes and has become a tourist attraction himself. Rudy Wallang and Tipriti Kharbangar — Lil Mama Tips — formed Soulmate, India’s bestknown Blues/Soul band, in 2003; The Shillong Chamber Choir has performed and won contestsallover the world. They sang for US President Barack Obama during his India visit in 2015.

Rahul Gandhi, President of India’s Congress Party, launched the election campaign in Meghalaya on January 30 with a music concert at Shillong’s Polo grounds with Soul mate and other bands. The BJP, finding nothing better to attack him with, mocked him on social media for wearing denims and a Londonfashion Burberry jacket allegedly costing Rs. 70,000 at the show, attended by thousands of young people.

It was a clever tactic to pull a crowd – the BJP has yet to attract a comparable turn-out at its election rallies – but may not necessarily get votes. Many came only to listen to the music, dance, and sighat thewesternized, good-looking bachelor heir of the dynasty founded by Indira Gandhi. Traditionally, women propose to men in Meghalaya. Western ways are big in Shillong.

Rahul Gandhi tried hard to woo women voters. At one rally, he displayed pictures of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagawat and Mahatma Gandhi. “If you see Mahatma Gandhi’s pictures you’ll find women. If you see pictures of Mohan Bahagawat, he’ll be alone or surrounded by men. Mohan Bhagawat, the RSS and BJP are anti-women,” the Congress Chief said. His grandmother Indira Gandhi was liked here because she was a woman and because it was during her time as Prime Minister that Meghalaya was split from Assam and made a separate state in 1972.

The BJP is the political arm of the extreme right-wing RSS which is dedicated to making India a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu Nation. Its leaders like Bhagawat are sworn to a life of celibacy; Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserted his wife Jashodaben when they both were still teenagers.

Meghalayahad apopulation of 2.9million in 2011, with a sex ratio of 986 females per 1,000 males, far higher than the national average of 940.Half of Meghalaya’s 1.83 million voters – 50.4 per cent — are women.

Rahul Gandhi stressed onempowerment of women in politics; the Congress has nominated six-woman candidates out of a total of 57. Only two of the BJP’s 45 candidates are female. Women tend to stay out of electoral politics because they control the real power, which lies in ownership of property, and business. Women run businesses ranging from pan shops to multi-billion trading companies.

He stressed that the Congress would protect the religion, culture and languages of Meghalaya, saying thatthe RSS and theBJP wanted to impose Hindu cultureand Hindi language across India. Meghalaya’s official language is English, and thepeople mainly Christian. It is one of India’s three Christian majority states, the others being Nagaland and Mizoram. Its people are 75 per cent Christian, the three major denominations being the Baptists, Catholics and Presbyterians. There are many fringe groups.

Supporters of the BJP, RSS and allied groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal are rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-Christian: they most famously destroyed the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh state in 1992 to build a temple to the Hindu God-King Ram in its place. A Bajrang Dal mob burnt alive Australian missionary doctor Graham Staines and his two small sons, aged 10 and six, in Odisha state in 1999. Indian Muslims and Christians have notforgotten these two incidents.

There has been a surge in attacks on Muslims and Christians since the BJP came to power in India in 2014. RSS, BJP, VHP, and Bajrang Dalsupporters have attacked Christians for singing Christmas Carolsor holding prayer meetings in their own houses. Muslims have been killedonsuspicion of killing cows for beef; for trying toraise the Indian National flag, or, simply because they were Muslims on a train. Couples were terrorized in several citiesby Bajrang Daland VHP members on Valentine’s Day.

Every incident of harassment or attacks on Christians anywhere in India is widely circulated onsocial media in Meghalaya, where the literacy rate is 76 per cent. Such posts on social media are highly damaging to the BJPs election prospects. The Congress has wooed the different Christian denominations in Meghalaya for more than five decades, and Pastors, Priests and Presbyters are damning the BJP from their pulpits in the run-up to the elections.

“The BJP’s ‘beef bandh’ is a key issue for the Congress” said Vincent HPala, Meghalaya’s Congress party chief, who represents Shillong in the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of Parliament.He was referring to the ban on slaughtering cows and eating beef in the states ruled by the BJP. Beef is a staple in the diet of the tribal Christians.

Christians in general and Baptists in particular are angry with the BJP government in Delhi for denying a visa to visit India to a top religious leader from South Africa, spoiling a historic anniversary celebrated last week.

The Garo Baptist Church celebrated its Sesquicentennial (150 years) with a huge festival at Rajasimla in East Garo Hills district from February 8 to 11. It invited Reverend Dr. Ngwedla Paul Msiza, a Zulu (tribe) fromSouth Africa who is the current President of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), to deliver the message and pray at the valedictory worship service last Sunday (February 11).[South Africa’s new President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa is also a Zulu Baptist and was a member of the Student Christian Movement, or SCM].

But the Indian Consulate in Johannesburg denied Dr. Msiza a visa on instructions from India’s ExternalAffairs Ministry in New Delhi. The BJP and RSS feared the occasion would be used by Christians to carry out conversions in India.

‘Conversions’ is the excuse used by the BJP, RSS, VHP and Bajrang Dal for attacks on Christians, despite the fact that the Christian population of India has actually declined between the census of 2001 and 2011.

“The government should have realized that it was just a celebration and had nothing to do with conversions. They should not have denied a visa for such an historic occasion,” said the Reverend Janang Sangma, General Secretary of the Garo Baptist Convention.

There are no more Garos left to convert. The first Garo to accept Jesus Christ was Omed Watre, a soldier of the Bengal Presidency Army of the British East India Company, who was guarding a house in Guwahati (Assam) when he picked up a discarded Christian tract – written in Bengali – and read the words of Jesus. He and his nephew Ramkhe Watre and a few others established the first Garo church at Rajasimla– then called Watrepara — on February 8, 1863.There are now 304,812 Baptised Garo Christians in 2,074 churches. There are more Garo Christians in the Catholic Church and a multitude of fringe denominations.

Baptist churches are each autonomous and do not come under central authorities like Bishops and Popes. They are organized in voluntary groupings like associations, conventions and councils. Dr. Paul Msiza is the head of an alliance of Baptist churches and organizations world-wide. “For us he is the Pastoral Head of the Baptists, and we regard him just like Catholics regard their Pope,” said Reverend Bijoy Sangma, Vice President of the Asia-Pacific Baptist Federation.

The visa denial has become a highly emotive issue. “150 years does not come again,” said Dr. Angela WatreIngty, a retired Professor of the Meghalaya-based North East Hill University.  It is a memory to cherish. But now they (BJP) have soiled it,” said Dr. Ingty. It was her grandfather in the fourth generation (four greats), Omed Watre, who founded the Garo Church.

“Hundreds of visas are denied every day. Why make a political issue out of one?” said Alphons Joseph Kannanthanam, India’s minister for Culture and Tourism, who is in charge of the BJP’s election campaign in Meghalaya. Twice an apostate, the Malayali Christian from Kerala state was once a seminarian aspiring to be a Catholic priest – he studied at Christ The King College in Shillong – but deserted in order to join the prestigious Indian Administrative Service. Later, he became a ‘leftist’ and was elected as an independent Left Front member of the Kerala Legislative Assembly. Then he abandoned his leftist professions, joined the Hindu Nationalist BJP and was made a minister in 2017 by Narendra Modi.

After becoming Tourism minister, Alphons Kannanthanam became a laughing stock for his advice to foreign tourists: “Don’t eat beef before coming to India.”