Does Meghalaya Need the Dorbar Shnong in the 21st Century?

By Vanessa Kharbudon Ryngnga

I feel the need to set the tone for this commentary by citing a personal experience with a dorbar shnong not too long ago. My mother and her siblings had purchased a plot of land in the vicinity of Diengïong village around ten years ago but felt it necessary to divide the land among themselves only recently. Following community protocol, the Rangbah Shnong was consulted and on d-day, after the area was re-checked and re-calculated with their allocations and duly presented to the said authority figure, the general secretary declared that my family had to pay Rs. 4000 for each newly divided plot. My aunt raised a question to which he responded by ‘reducing’ the fee to Rs. 2000 for each plot. When my aunt demanded a receipt, he quickly stated that it was not needed. The other members of my family did not want to argue with him and get into his bad books, hence the lone protestor was hushed. She was informed by said authority figure that this was the norm and rule. If it is the rule, then how is it possible to trim down the fees and produce no receipt? A not so feisty dialogue arose in our homestead as an epilogue to this episode.
The recent upsurge in debates and discussions in the media, our homes and offices on the subject of the Rangbah and Dorbar Shnong has dominated our ‘after work’ activities and conversations for quite a while now. Subsequently, I did a little digging up here and there and am appalled by what I have uncovered. For instance, dorbar shnong in different localities charge varying amounts of percentages, i.e. 1%, 5% or 10% from the total amount, depending on the locality you purchase property in. Some localities have a fixed amount of Rs. 1000. After seemingly endless rounds of questioning and probing, I gleefully assert that this “percentage taking” is a recent phenomenon and was never part of ancient Khasi tradition. In fact, as of February 2015, in many rural areas no percentage is charged by the dorbar shnong. I inquired about this rule called ‘bai rung shnong’ (fee for moving into a locality) and discovered that this was never part of Khasi tradition, i.e. to stipulate money from ‘new neighbours’ when they move into their newly purchased chattels. Where is this found in ancient Khasi tradition? I do not see any of these norms listed in the Sixth Schedule.
Another instance is the case of the three women who were ostracized by the dorbar shnong in Jongksha village when these ladies raised legitimate questions with regards to public funds (http://www.neinews.com/jongksha-rangbah-shnong-agrees-to-lift-ban-on-women.htm  and  http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/ostracised-for-demanding-information ). They were never even given a chance for a fair trial. When only those with tmaiñ (beard/moustache) served as judge and jury, these women were already placed in an intimidating environment. Was there ever a chance for justice?
It is a sad reality especially in ‘illiterate areas’ where the Rangbah Shnong only has to entice or intimidate people to vote for candidate A, B or C. Let’s not pretend that the Rangbah Shnong and politicians do not scratch each other’s backs when it comes to community funds and schemes in exchange for money and power.
It is just plain double standards and sheer hypocrisy to maintain that the ancient customs of the dorbar shnong should not be tampered with at all when it comes to gender equality but absolutely all right to bend, twist, fold and manipulate when it pertains to matters of charging people money. Now that is downright robbery on the institution’s part. This establishment has in many ways ceased to be a voice of justice and democracy. It is pathetic and traitorous on the dorbar’s part to (a) intentionally mislead people on the many schemes and public funding available; (b) influence or sway the electorate (especially in villages) to vote for a particular candidate in any election.
I ask the Dorbar Shnong, since when is it ‘sacred’ to introduce fees and percentages inclusive of playing dirty politics but sacrilegious to include women? Apparently, it is perfectly fine to introduce change as per the need when it comes to extortion economics but blasphemous to give the other half of the population a voice in the dorbar. The dorbar should cease its obsession with barring women from active involvement in community administration as this level of governance is equally relative to the welfare of women. It is chauvinistic arrogance to presume that only male members can ‘effectively’ deliberate on the needs and interests of the entire population even that of women’s. Please stop telling womankind what we can or cannot do – yes even in subject matters related to our autonomy and governance; since the dorbar shnong are part and parcel of the system of governance. Can’t men, women and children work together for societal good? When the Rangbah Shnong and his coterie run the dorbar like their own personal little fiefdoms, then this institution has ceased to be relevant to the needs of the people and the welfare of the jaidbynriew.
How conducive to democratic government has the dorbar shnong been? In practise, is this institution for or against the tenets of democracy? Are parallel forms of government healthy to the nation and her people? Isn’t it time for us to cease twisting and bending the Sixth Schedule to suit our personal agendas? To those burning the midnight oil and scratching their heads in preparation of bills vis-à-vis village administration, for humane considerations, set aside motivations of avarice and greed keeping in mind the welfare of the people in the 21st century. The dorbar needs to keep pace with the modern era and its pertinent needs and not rewind the clock to take Meghalaya back to the ‘Stone Age’. The majority of us have no desire to revert to ‘Dark Age’ mentality. The dorbar has to stop working towards its own demise. If it does not change with the times, then the axe of change will bear down on it, fifty years hence, if not today. Any establishment that stubbornly remains pegged in the past eventually withers away and becomes a footnote in history textbooks. Isn’t it better for our society to STUDY and INCORPORATE the changes taking place in our world today versus brushing them aside and continuing with this pretentious patriotism of ‘our Khasi culture is so unique, the best, “ym don shuh kum ma ngi” (there is none like us)’ thereby clinging vehemently to our past? It is beyond annoying, albeit predictable, at how quick our reflexes are in whipping out the ‘ieit ri’ (love of motherland) flag when it suits our individualistic memos. It is wisdom to know when to bid adieu to superstition cum tradition that holds us back and when to embrace and fine tune our roots in order for us to keep pace with the rest of India and even the world. Cobwebs of tradition blind our sight and dull our understanding. Cowards fear change, the brave deftly navigate its tides. Haven’t you heard, the world is becoming a global village?
To the ‘naysayers’ of the dorbar shnong, is it because you are fed up of its dictatorial tendencies and see no way out except its extinction? To the ‘sayers’ of the Dorbar Shnong, please examine your motives. Are you in favour because you worry about the inevitable dent in your wallet if this institution is scrapped? Do those who do not have an opinion as you have decided to retire your thinking caps, please take them out and put them on as society needs your involvement as well.
Does this institution still have relevance in today’s day and age? Honestly, I cannot make up my mind. I keep asking myself what is the use of convention and tradition when these are misused to serve vested interests and to promote corruption and injustice? It seems that the dorbar has degraded to being just another officialdom to glean money.
At this juncture, I will insert a more upbeat tempo into my piece with the hope that it brings a smile or two to those whose ire I might have stirred up. I believe that the dorbar shnong can still be salvaged and revamped to be a force for good in our communities. ‘Change’ does not have to be a bad word.
The dorbar shnong can become a tool for the propagation of education in eradicating illiteracy and in promoting grassroots democracy. A healthy, vibrant democracy necessitates the existence of non-governmental agencies to act as voices of reason and to see that justice is not deprived or violated in the sphere of human rights; the dorbar shnong can play a pivotal role in this regard. It can be a force that monitors the shenanigans of the government at the community level. It can conduct gender sensitization workshops, science fairs and symposiums of art and culture. It can endorse the causes of vocational centres, support quality sports facilities, as well as address cleanliness and environmental concerns.
In rural areas, some, if not all the members can be trained and then delegated to hold workshops and discussions in their villages to instruct their people in essential subjects as health, nutrition and hygiene to elementary financial education like expenditure, saving and investing along with some amount of agricultural lessons and farming instruction as per local needs. What we don’t want is to condescendingly ramp our nongsor (urban) education down the poor nongkyndong’s throat, that would be counterproductive as no one likes to be talked down to. The dorbar can empathetically and sensitively teach the three R’s as illiteracy is the main cause of our people’s backwardness. With mobile technology and all, the sky’s the limit these days. Any amount of literacy is preferable to rampant illiteracy.
The dorbar can spearhead sanitation programmes as we all know the condition of toilets in our state or the abysmal lack of them in many areas. In the area of healthcare, is it not possible for the dorbar to participate in the running and maintenance of healthcare centres especially in villages? Is it too much to hope for some – male and female members – of the dorbar to be trained in administering efficient first aid, midwifery and paramedical services?
Consider that it is extremely inconvenient (read unnecessary expenditure) for those in the village to drive up to Shillong township for every single legal matter. The dorbar can therefore serve as a branch of the court by hearing and settling minor petty disputes fairly and justly. It can serve as a sort of watchdog to check the illegal immigration of “those that shall not be named”. It can grow to be an extended arm of the law and intelligence system to help counter anti-democratic forces that set up shop in our localities. The dorbar can be trained to check any organisation that is involved in all kinds of terrorist propaganda and even empowered to ensure that establishments including educational, charity, business and political, toe the line of the Indian Constitution wherever anti-national, militant religious instruction is propagated (I hope you’re all following what I am alluding to!)
The dorbar should be free to operate with zero political intrusion and high handedness; they should be free to function without any fear of repercussions when they refuse to kowtow to political arm-twisting such as campaigning for a particular candidate/party during elections, distributing ‘free stuff’ such as money – black or white, liquor, rice bags, blankets and such items that will not even last the full election season! We all know such monkey business is happening, let’s not play coy. When the environment is menacing, let us admit that it is indeed difficult to perform optimally. The playing field has to be levelled in order for the members of the dorbar to feel secure enough to stand up to and fight political bullying.
The dorbar shnong have a responsibility to work with the people; to engage the community and to operate within the realm of public consent on all relevant matters. Citizens have a constitutional right to raise questions and file RTI’s. The dorbar exist FOR the people and not the other way around; if they do, then that’s just twisted in a democracy where our rights are ensured by the Constitution. Large scale public grumbling and unrest are direct consequences in such cases. A feasible system of mutual engagement can be worked out whereby people have the option to anonymously write down their grievances, constructive ideas and the like. These notes should be given due diligence and consideration at dorbar meetings – not discarded to some shelf to gather dust.
It is for the overall good of the community that those who wield any amount of power in the dorbar to consider the people you serve. The people do not exist for you. Don’t the Rangbah Shnong desire for people in their respective localities to be content and happy with their services? It feels better – inside – when you righteously uphold the law of the land and fairly render your service to the citizens of this country. You’ll also sleep better at night and when your time here is up, cross the threshold of eternal sleep with a clear conscience!

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