In the intensive care unit of the North-Eastern Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences in Shillong, one of Meghalaya’s most well-known activists, Agnes Kharshiing, is battling for her life. According to a carefully worded Meghalaya Police press statement issued on Friday morning, Kharshiing and one of her associates, Anita Sangma, “were assaulted by a group of criminals” on Thursday afternoon at Tuber Sohshrieh in East Jaintia Hills district, Meghalaya’s coal hub.

The police have arrested two persons so far but have been cautious about giving out more details on what led to the attack on Kharshiing and Sangma. “We are still interrogating them,” said Sylvester Nongtnger, the police chief of East Jaintia Hills.

Despite the reluctance of the police to share information, the person who was driving Kharshiing when the attack took place recounted the incident vividly to the press. He has said that Kharshiing was attacked minutes after she photographed vehicles ferrying coal. They were on their way to Shillong when their car was blocked by vehicles on the road, where 30 to 40 people had already assembled, he said. The mob reportedly fell upon the car with stones and sticks.

Coal mining, once the driver of Meghalaya’s economy, has been proscribed in the state by the National Green Tribunal since 2014. But activists have often alleged that coal continues to be mined in the Jaintia Hills – illegally, and often with the collusion of the authorities.

Coal mining, once the driver of Meghalaya’s economy, has been proscribed in the state by the National Green Tribunal since 2014. (Credit: Reuters)

A long crusade

Kharshiing has been particularly vocal about the alleged involvement of politicians in the now-illegal coal trade. The ban on coal mining was an important issue in the state’s Assembly elections, held in February. Blaming the Congress for not doing enough to lift the ban, the Bharatiya Janata Party had promised a solution to the impasse within eight months of being elected to power. The saffron party is now part of a coalition government in the state. On November 6, the regime completed eight months in office but the ban remains. On November 12, the Supreme Court is slated to take up a petition by the state government challenging the tribunal’s order.

Meanwhile, Kharshiing continued to speak up against what she called “rampant mining... with full knowledge of authorities” in a text message to reporters and other activists on November 2, attaching a set of images along with it. Angela Rangad of the Thma U Rangli-Juki, a “progressive people’s group” from the state, who has worked closely with Kharshiing, also pointed out she had been zealously “following up on NGT ban violations” . “She would constantly be photographing trucks carrying coal illegally,” Rangad recalled. “I remember once we had gone somewhere for another issue when she spotted some trucks. She immediately went to the police outpost to complain there and then.”

Rangad recalled that, on several occasions in the past, people with interests in the coal business had tried to talk Kharshiing out of raising her voice against illegal mining and transportation of coal – but to no avail. Kharshiing’s brother John Kharshiing added, “When she is determined to do something, she will do it. Even as a child she was like that.”

The police records show that a day before she was attacked, Kharshiing had tipped off the Shillong Police about five trucks allegedly transporting coal illegally. The trucks were seized.

On Thursday, according to activists and journalists, Kharshiing had gone to meet police officials in the coal town of Lad Rymbai, ostensibly to talk about coal-related matters.

From coal to women’s rights

Kharshiing’s range of activism, though, goes much beyond coal. Her Wikipedia page describes her as a “woman’s rights activists”, courtesy her position as president of the Civil Society Women’s Organisation, a Meghalaya-based non-profit collective. But people in Shillong, where she was born in 1958 and has lived ever since, insist that “Kong Agnes”, or “Sister Agnes”, is much more than that. “From uranium mining to RTI [right to information] to women’s and children’s issues, she always spoke up,” said Rangad.

Kharshiing is also a vocal anti-corruption advocate and played an active part in exposing a recruitment scam in the state’s education department that purportedly involved several ministers of the previous Congress regime.

But what really sets Kharshiing apart is her ability to devote time to people’s personal problems, according to Rangad. “None of us had her energy,” she said. “The way she followed up on personal issues – whether it was PDS denial [Public Distribution System for the disbursal of subsidised food and non-food items to the country’s poor] or child sexual abuse, it was exemplary. There are entire villages which depended on her for PDS.”

The Shillong Times’ editor Patricia Mukhim concurred, saying that Kharshiing is “really committed” to her activism and always “ensured that women never lost their rights and voices”. She said, “Every single day, she would file FIRs for people who don’t know how to approach a police station, then she would follow up in the court, travel so much.” Mukhim added, “It is not easy being Agnes Kharshiing.”