The people of Meghalaya have a rich cultural heritage which abound in folklore and mythology ,strong democratic traditions and pristine institutions which are unparallel to any part of the globe. The need of the hour is ‘ Re -awakening with Re-discovery of the land and people’.
By Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang
“Sometimes a short walk down memory lane is all it takes to appreciate where you are today…..” Susan Gale.
As a young school girl back in the 80’s, I was always fascinated by the pristine beauty of the rolling hills, lush green valleys, cascading waterfalls and the mystique aura of white clouds and fog covering the blue sky. We would often go for treks up the hill near where we lived and every weekend was a day out at the river side where we would collect pebbles and feel the tiny fishes underneath our feet. This of course is nothing new to anyone hailing from a hill state called Meghalaya nestled in the North Eastern corner of India. The very meaning of Meghalaya, a Sanskrit word which means ‘abode of clouds’evokes a unique feeling of serenity among artists who have drawn inspiration to paint many a dramatic canvas. Perhaps it was this unique blend of beauty amidst simplicity that inspired our hill leaders to fight for a separate state and thereby paved the way for a geo-political history that marked the emergence of Meghalaya as an Autonomous State on 2nd April ,1970 and as a full fledged State on 21st of January 1972.
Meghalaya is a hilly region bounded by Bangladesh on both the Southern and Western fringes and to the North by Goalpara, Kamrup and Nowgong Districts of the Assam valley and to the East by the Mikir Hills and North Cachar Hills. The great earthquake of 1897 which had its epicenter in the Khasi Hills was responsible for dislocation in certain physiographic features. Many old rivers dug out new channels as a result of the convulsions in the earth’s surface. Such changes in the natural course of rivers was also associated with beliefs and superstitions among the Garos who believed that serpents dwell in the river beds and that when they leave their abode, the river changes its channel and go by a new diversion. Interesting Khasi and Garo tales and legends have been woven around the origin of streams, pools, waterfalls, ravines, hills and mountains. The Balpakram hilltop in the Southeast is believed to be the abode of Natapa, the king of death. The Khasis and Jaintias have similar tales that tell about the mystical land of the fairies who are believed to reside inside the caves and come out to dance at midnight. These lively yet mystical tales have endured the test of time and have moulded the history of these hills.
Amidst such history is a history not lesser known but definitely more enduring and that is the history of the creation of Meghalaya as a full fledged State. It is indeed a historic event. In the presence of the then Prime Minister of India Mrs. Indira Gandhi, thousands of spectators thronged the ground on that eventful day to witness the historic occasion. Shillong looked bright and beautiful like a blushing bride, the whole town was echoing with songs, dances and fireworks and there was laughter in the air. Opening up the inauguration, Captain Sangma exhorted the building up of Meghalaya in which the people may enjoy a standard of living consistent with self-respect, to inculcate among the youth a sense of values and self-responsibility. As everyone waited with eager hearts and minds to listen to the inaugural address by the Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, she reiterated upon the paramount need to further integrated plans for the benefit of the North-Eastern region as a whole. The day ended with solemn ceremonies held in churches where people gathered to pray for their newly founded State so that its future would lay in the hands of able minded leaders.
Meghalaya has a uniqueness of its own. The only State with all 3 communities: Khasi, Garo and Jaintia following the matrilineal system. Matriliny has been the cradle of kinship system in the State with the prominent roles of ‘Ka Khadduh’ (youngest daughter) and ‘Nokna’ (Garo heiress) still holding an important place in their matrilineal structure. While agriculture is the mainstay of the people of this State especially in the rural areas, the role of women in natural resource management practices has played a major role in nurturing ‘mother earth’ as ‘Mei-Ramew’. However the plight of women in economic pursuits in the State let alone livelihood strategies by rural women is still a neglected area. Many women in the State bear the burden of single headed households with poor health care facilities. Maternal and child health care is also an area that needs attention. Sex ratio is an indicator of the health, nutrition and survival status of women. A low gender ratio means both a lower social status of women and discrimination at various levels especially inside the home. As per the provisional population results of the 2011 Census, the overall sex ratio (total population at all ages) at the national level is 940 females for 1,000 males. Among the North-East States Meghalaya stands 3rd in terms of maternal deaths and the figures have remained consistent through several years which is a matter of concern.
Among the many milestones that the State has touched, mention may be made of the formation of the North Eastern Hill University through the University Act of 1973 which made headway after receiving assent of the President of India on May 26th, 1973. The objectives of the University, as laid down in the Act are to disseminate and advance knowledge by providing instructional and research facilities in various branches of learning and to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people of the State and the North-East in general. The setting up of the University at the crucial juncture of Meghalaya being a newly constituted State must have been an uphill task for the University but it has certainly maneuvered the challenges and has been an asset to the young students and aspirants of the region. It is therefore very interesting that close on the heels of Meghalaya is this institution that will celebrate its 50 long years of serving the region and the State in moulding young minds next year that is 2023.
The road we as a State have travelled has seen its ups and downs but perhaps the most challenging task for the State in the last 50 years has been to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. While the first Covid case in the State was detected on April 13th 2020, the State took active steps and measures to combat the pandemic. The vaccination programme which began on January 16th 2021 saw a mixed response amongst hesitant citizens but the apprehensions did not dampen the spirit of the Government and the Health Department to encourage people to come forward to take the vaccine.
It is not an easy task to travel along history and record events through times long past. As citizens of a State that has had an alluring past we move ahead with a vision and mission to carry the torch of our Hill State leaders and strive to achieve the best for us. In a corner of the shelves at my home library, my eye caught the attention of one particular book titled “Meghalaya” published in 1974 by the famous Khasi writer Hamlet Bareh. In the foreward to the book, the then Chief Minister of Meghalaya Capt. Williamson A. Sangma, quoted the famous statement of the great Socrates who once said “Know thyself” and he appealed to the people of Meghalaya that “It is only when we know ourselves that we can advance and improve. Things done in ignorance, plans prepared without adequate and enlightened information are bound to go awry. In these days of planning for the development of the State, the welfare and progress of the people, it is most essential that we should have as correct data and full information as possible about the land and the people.” In the present generation, we find these words of wisdom to be most relevant and applicable. The people of Meghalaya have a rich cultural heritage which abound in folklore and mythology, strong democratic traditions and pristine institutions which are unparallel to any part of the globe. The need of the hour is ‘Re -awakening with Re-discovery of the land and people’. Our love for fellow Meghalayans should reflect both in deeds, not only in words with a vision to climb higher and higher.
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Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang is Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, NEHU, Shillong. Her specialization includes Sociology of Environment, Gender, Family and Kinship. She has 3 books to her credit and has a number of articles published in National and International journals. Some notable contributions are her work on Matriliny, Forest and Khasi, Gender and livelihood interventions etc.