In 1978, a young, short and energetic Member of Parliament from the Congress grabbed the headlines with a blistering attack on a Janata Party lawmaker who was pushing legislation to ban conversions. Through the media and Parliament, the young man caught the attention of Indira Gandhi, then tossed out of office by a people’s revolt against the Congress for its abuse of power and authoritarian rule during the Emergency from 1975 to 1977.
I remember a small, lively and very vocal legislator springing up to answer a question during a press conference at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India centre, located behind Gole Post Office in Delhi. That was where, in my memory anyway, Purno Agitok Sangma, all of 30, made his presence felt and his voice heard.
At the time, he was from a place most Indians had never heard of – the Garo Hills districts (most Indians, I daresay, would still find hard to locate it on a map without resorting to the magic of Google and Wikipedia). The Garo Hills, lush and peaceful – still green but riven by bloodshed, hatred and suspicion courtesy of a brutal, armed anti-state group – is in Meghalaya, whose capital is Shillong, the former bastion of government in undivided Assam during the Raj and afterward.
Where it began
We are familiar with parts of Sangma’s political career – etched in detail on social media and elsewhere – about his growth out of wretched poverty in a back-scrabble part of the country with low development indices at the time. But the Tyagi bill (which was clearly aimed against conversions to Christianity) was important to his growth as a politician at an all-India level, for he took the right-wing Hindu groups head on, challenging the assertions against the right to convert. In the bill, the objects and reasons were put blandly: conversion by fraud, inducement, force or intimidation.
Well, asked Sangma in his trademark combination of sharpness and wit, how would you define fraud and inducement – would teaching people English or giving them access to health amount to that?
He would, I’m sure, have had a lot to say about the current “nationalism” debate or what passes as debate in the noise of abuse, slogans and counter-slogans. But early on, he made a few things very clear. He owed his life through education and understanding the world around us to an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Giovanni Battista Busolini, who managed to get him from cow-herding in a village to school. He studied in two towns, first Shillong and then Dibrugarh where he did his Masters degree. He learned to speak Assamese so fluently that he could deliver speeches at rallies and hold his own in conversations. It was a language we conversed in whenever we met and chatted.
Throughout his career, Sangma rarely lost his sense of equanimity and roots. He waged an untiring battle on forgotten, neglected issues of the region but he stood above those issues too – factors responsible for nine straight Lok Sabha wins starting in 1977.
Man of importance
There’s a story about how Indira Gandhi was concerned about newly-elected MPs. “She would call us first-time MPs to her home, show us how to sit formally at a table, which part of the cutlery to use first, because she wanted everyone to know that when they went abroad they should know what to do, not to be embarrassed but be confident. They were going as representatives of India, not a party and not even the Government,” recalled Sangma.
Sangma went on to become the longest-serving Union labour minister (Minister of state rank) and also held five other portfolios during his career. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao anointed him Information and Broadcasting minister with cabinet rank in the early 1990s.
Over the years, Sangma won many friends but few enemies with his bustling and cheerful style that enabled him to enjoy a laugh at his own expense. He used to joke later that he had held virtually every post in the cabinet barring one, which was of course the prime ministership.
His grace, wit, patience and negotiation skills were qualities that served him well when he was unanimously chosen as Speaker of the Lok Sabha in1996, perhaps his finest hour.
The other evening, over a drink with some friends, he was recalling an earlier time similar to now, when the Lower House was in uproar. He resolved one standoff in true Sangamesque style: having called for silence, the diminutive Speaker declared that there would be a joke session. The house erupted again, but this time in laughter.
When Rajiv Gandhi sent him to Shillong as chief minister in the late '80s, he tried to push through development projects, cracked the whip on non-state contractors who had amassed wealth without delivering on roads or work, and ran into stiff opposition from within the party. “I tell you, Sanjoy, being chief minister of this small state and leader of a party like the Congress here is tougher than anything in Delhi,” he laughed during a chat at his official bungalow above Polo Grounds in Shillong at the time.
Ultimately, he quit after a two-year term, bowing to the intricacies of internal power play in Meghalaya where there was always a chief minister-in-waiting.
A decade later, he jumped the Congress ship along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar when Sonia Gandhi became the party’s face and power. Citing her foreign origin and denouncing dynastic politics, the bitter trio formed their own Nationalist Congress Party in 1999. The party wielded clout in Maharashtra and Meghalaya but its influence waned over time.
Splitting with the NCP in 2012, Sangma was the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nominee for President against Pranab Mukherjee in a sure no-contest. The following year, he formed the National People's Party, won his ninth straight Lok Sabha election and aligned with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The key to his continued electoral success was perhaps that he did not take victory for granted. In 2004, he was locked in a tight battle with the Congress' Mukul Sangma (now Meghalaya chief minister), who had even wept in the Assembly while praising his senior. During a break in the campaign, I mentioned to PA Sangma that it would be an easy victory. Looking at me askance, he said: "It's not like that, it is a tough battle, the Congress is hurling everything against me and this election is not easy". He went on to win that election but it was clear that he understood that everything depended on the voters who showed up, not fate.
He also groomed his children – Conrad, James and Agatha – for politics. While his sons became ministers and legislators in the Meghalaya assembly, daughter Agatha filled her father’s Lok Sabha seat in 2008 after he quit Parliament. There was even a time when Sangma returned to state politics and sat in the Opposition benches with his two sons.
Although his influence waned in the region in later years and even in his home state, I would still say that of all the figures that the North East has produced in the past 40 years, there can be little doubt that Purno Sangma’s political stature and vision was far greater than many of the satraps leading states and parties.
As he makes his last journey home, we shall miss his laughter and his twinkling eyes as he cracked a joke or told a story at one of his dinners, nursing a single malt, solicitously asking after every guest. His political successors have large shoes to fill, the legacy of a small man with a great heart.
Sanjoy Hazarika is an author, film-maker and Director of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research at Jamia Millia Islamia. He is also a social innovator and founder of C-NES.