Election watch

In poll-bound Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, the BJP is struggling to shed its anti-Christian image

Viral WhatsApp messages in the run-up to Saraswati Puja add to the worries of party supporters in Tikrikilla town.

Last Monday, Tikrikilla, a tiny town in the plains of Meghalaya’s West Garo Hills district, wore a festive look. It was Saraswati Puja. In eastern parts of the country, the spring festival of Basant Panchami is an occasion to pay obeisance to the Hindu goddess of learning. Freshly bathed young men and women, decked up in traditional weaves, dotted the dusty roads, making their way to the many pandals spread across town.

Saraswati Puja has always been celebrated with enthusiasm in multicultural Tikrikilla – the town’s population includes Christian Garo tribals, people from the Koch, Hajong and Rabha tribes (most of who have embraced Hinduism), Bengali-speaking Muslims and Hindus, and a smattering of North Indian traders who have made the town their home. But the weeks leading up to the festival this year were marked by an uncharacteristic nervousness.

The trigger was a “viral WhatsApp video”. Said LA Sangma, the principal of a private school, “No one knew where it came from, but everyone in town seemed to have received it.”

Social media scare

The video begins with four young men identifying themselves as members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organisation that is part of the Sangh Parivar – a network of Hindu Right-wing groups loosely affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ideological parent. After the brief introduction, the men make a pledge of sorts. Their target over the next few years, they affirm, is to ensure that every Christian missionary school in the country has a basil sapling – considered a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Tulsi – in its courtyard and celebrates Saraswati Puja.

The significance of the video was not lost on Sangma, who is also the president of the Meghalaya unit of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad, a Hindu Right-wing student outfit.

As the BJP prepares to mount a challenge to the ruling Congress in the February 27 Assembly elections in Meghalaya, the Garo Hills are crucial to its fortunes – the five districts in the region will elect MLAs to 24 of the 60 seats in the state Assembly. Even a semblance of a gain in the region would be near impossible without the support of the Garos, almost all of whom are Christians.

However, it has not quite gone according to plan for the party in the Garo Hills in recent times. “There are so many of these WhatsApp messages these days,” said Sangma. “I have asked the party to clarify, tell people that all this is untrue. Saraswati Puja has always been celebrated here, but all this is creating unnecessary apprehension in people’s minds.”

Sangma is convinced there is a concerted campaign by the BJP’s opponents to discredit the party. “Our leaders are talking about change, but some people are bringing in religion to divert attention,” she insisted, pointing to another WhatsApp message that had gone viral recently. This message carries the image of a pamphlet bearing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s name and threatening to “erase Christianity by 2021”. It states, “Your Christianity is samasya, so our mission is ghar wapsi.

“It is not even the correct logo of the RSS,” said an exasperated Sangma. “But all this is making people believe that BJP is anti-Christian.”

‘BJP is anti-Christian party’

Indeed, as one travels through the Garo Hills, it is a refrain heard often enough: “BJP is anti-Christian party.” Incidentally, the most common evidence people provide in support of that thesis is an event that took place thousands of kilometres away from the misty hills of Meghalaya – the detention in December of Catholic carol singers by the Madhya Pradesh Police on the complaint of Hindu activists who accused them of carrying out forced conversions. “If our brothers and sisters are being targeted like that in a BJP-ruled state, how can we vote for the BJP?” asked a state government employee in Tura, the Garo Hills’ biggest town.

By most accounts, the almost vehement resistance to the BJP is a fairly recent phenomenon. The Garo Students’ Union’s Chief Executive Committee president, Tengsak G Momin, said the party had started making inroads in the Garo Hills, riding on its landslide victory in the Assam Assembly elections in 2016. “Like most other parts of the country, Garo Hills was also influenced by the BJP’s rise in the rest of the country,” said Momin.

But it was short-lived. On May 23 last year, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests passed a notification – which has since been withdrawn – banning the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets. While the ban evoked sharp reactions in all tribal states in the North East, which were convinced it was a ploy to ban beef, the BJP witnessed a churning in the Garo Hills that was marked by en masse resignations. One of the more high-profile resignations was that of Bernard N Marak, president of the party’s West Garo Hills unit, headquartered in Tura. “Before they came up with the notification, the BJP was growing in the Garo Hills,” claimed Marak. “The entire tribal belt in the area was also with the BJP, but because of their dictatorial attitude, it’s all over now. The party’s growth has stagnated now. They tried to trample over people’s religious and cultural beliefs. That had never happened before.”

Bernard N Marak says the BJP was making inroads in the Garo Hills before the ban on cattle sales in animal markets.
Bernard N Marak says the BJP was making inroads in the Garo Hills before the ban on cattle sales in animal markets.

People in the area tend to agree. Said Stubent G Marak, a resident of Rongjeng in East Garo Hills, “The BJP was on the rise, but after the beef issue, everyone is anti now.” Alex G Sangma, an anti-corruption and transparency activist in Mendipathar in neighbouring North Garo Hills, said that while it hurt him if anyone spoke ill of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was put off by the BJP’s religious agenda. “They bring dharm [religion] everywhere,” he complained. “That will lead to their downfall. I wish they didn’t do that as we have never had a prime minister like Modi before – so dynamic and capable. But what happened in Madhya Pradesh and the beef issue has made people very wary of the BJP.”

Anger against Congress

The BJP has been in damage-control mode ever since, training its guns on the Congress government’s alleged corruption. On January 6, BJP president Amit Shah flew into Tikrikilla from Guwahati in a helicopter and launched an offensive against claimed Congress misrule.

The choice of venue – a non-descript town in the plains – was strategic, BJP leaders say. It is the entry point to the Garo Hills’ plain belt, which has a sizable non-Christian population. Sizeable parts of at least seven of the 24 constituencies in the Garo Hills lie in the plains. Resentment against the Congress government runs high here. While the Christian population is decidedly suspicious of the BJP, people from all communities bemoan the “lack of development” under the Congress and claim they are looking forward to a change.

The state highway that runs through the area is little more than an uneven dirt track in most places and a major source of disaffection among residents. “The nearest half-decent medical facilities for most people in the plain belt are in Goalpara in Assam, but if you drive an ailing patient down this road, she will die before she reaches the hospital,” said Om Sharma, a businessman in Tikrikilla.

Sarat Saha, a restaurateur in adjoining Phulbari, echoed Sharma. “I had voted for Congress last time, but there is no road, no progress,” he said. “I would vote for anyone else but not the Congress.”

The BJP is looking to cash in on this antipathy, particularly palpable among the non-Christian residents of the Garo Hills’ plain belt. Rohinath Barchung, who is vying for a BJP ticket from Tikrikilla constituency, said people were disillusioned with the Congress, though he also admitted there was “an influence of what is happening in other BJP-ruled states”, referring to the alleged persecution of minorities in states like Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand.

“Very few Christians may want BJP, but we have got enough of a Hindu base here,” said Barchung. “And the Garo votes will get divided because there are too many Garo candidates.”

Rohinath Barchung, in the fray for a BJP ticket from Tikrikilla constituency,  says the people are disillusioned with the Congress.
Rohinath Barchung, in the fray for a BJP ticket from Tikrikilla constituency, says the people are disillusioned with the Congress.

Barchung said Amit Shah’s rally was proof of the BJP’s soaring popularity in the region. “It was the biggest rally ever in Meghalaya,” he claimed. “The same field where Amit Shah came, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao had also come, but then people had come to see the helicopter. This time people came to see Amit Shah.”

In addition, the BJP is also banking on party strongmen with a well-established support base in the region to offset its anti-Christian image. For instance, Abu Bahar Siddique, a farmer in Tikrikilla, said he would vote for KC Boro – who is in the fray for a BJP ticket – irrespective of the party he represents. “Good times, bad times, he has always been with us,” said Siddique. “BJP, Congress we don’t see all that, we vote for the person.” Boro, a former Congress legislator from Tikrikilla constituency, is now the Meghalaya president of the BJP’s Kisan Morcha.

Congress calculations

The Congress, for its part, is defensive about allegations of not doing enough to improve the Garo Hills’ failing infrastructure. “You are doing injustice to me if you are judging me on the basis of that one road,” said Abu Taher Mondal, the Congress legislator from Phulbari, referring to the state highway connecting his constituency with other parts of the Garo Hills. The highway has become a major talking point ahead of elections.

"There is a fear psychosis among Garos and Muslims about the BJP," said Congress MLA Abu Taher Mondal.
"There is a fear psychosis among Garos and Muslims about the BJP," said Congress MLA Abu Taher Mondal.

He claimed there was a “problem with the funding pattern” of the road. “It is under the NEC [North Eastern Council],” he said. “If you look at the Assam stretch of the road, it was worse till they undertook repair work recently.” When it was pointed out that the North East Council guidelines make it incumbent on the state to ensure the maintenance of roads, Mondal claimed the council’s refusal to release funds on time had withheld repair work.

Brushing aside suggestions that there was a perception among voters that Congress rule had not ushered in sufficient development in the Garo Hills except for specific pockets, Mondal claimed that “individuals matter, not party”.

He said, “Today, if I go to the BJP, my supporters will follow me there. But not all as there is a fear psychosis among the Garos and the Muslims about the BJP.”

Photographs courtesy Arunabh Saikia.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.