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UNDAUNTED

She is only 44 and a mother of seven. If you think that is enough to make a woman vulnerable and break down under responsibility, then consider the fact that she is Amita Sangma, the woman who was crucial in exposing the attacking mob in East Jaintia Hills and saving the life of CSWO president Agnes Kharshiing.
Dressed in traditional Garo dakmanda and a yellow top and a gamosa wrapped around her head to hide the marks of brutality, Sangma looks much older than her age. But the eyes set on the plump cheerful face burns every time she talks about the dreadful experience on November 8.
After coming out of the hospital, Sangma has been extremely busy looking after her children and talking to the media. She met Sunday Shillong in a small dim-lit Khasi eatery in Mawblei despite her busy schedule. “I know this shop and the kong who runs it. I know all the people here,” she said as she entered the shop followed by a bodyguard from police.
As she settled down for the interview she exchanged a few niceties with the lady in the shop and ordered milk tea and jingbam. “Puchhiye, hum sab batayega (Ask me what you want to know and I will tell you everything),” she said.
Sangma speaks broken English but she is fluent in Hindi, Garo, Khasi and Assamese. She also understands Bengali and speaks too, albeit not fluently.
Sangma is originally from Tripura’s Dalai district. Her father had a temporary job as home guard there. Coming from a financially backward family, Sangma never had the privilege to complete school education. Later, she came to Shillong in 1991 and got married to NB Sangma, who worked in civil defence and home guard. But her life changed after her husband died in 2008. “It was a struggle to run the family of eight. On top of that the pension that I was entitled to was also being delayed. I was at the end of my wits when I came to know about Agnes Kharshiing and knocked on her door for help,” she narrated.
Kharshiing helped her get the pension and Sangma pledged her allegiance to her as a sign of gratitude. “I do not remember in which year I started accompanying her. Maybe 2009. But since then I have been with her and accompanied her in every case,” Sangma smiled and asked the lady in the shop for kwai.
It was a beginning of a journey for Sangma who, along with Kharshiing, saw the deception in the system and the despondency of those in need of help.
The two gritty women not only dealt with rape cases but regularly followed up illegal coal mining that continued even after the National Green Tribunal’s ban order.
It was one such case that the duo went to follow up on November 8. But during their investigation, a mob of around 40 people attacked them and beat them up brutally. The attackers left the two inside a forest to bleed to death. However, it was Sangma’s presence of mind that saved the duo and uncovered a bitter truth that was hitherto being denied by the government.
A grievously injured Sangma pretended that she was unconscious while the attackers were still hitting Kharshiing with logs. As soon as the mob found the two women unconscious they left them. When everyone left, Sangma, still writhing in pain, crawled out of the forest and cried for help. She managed to draw the attention of a police van and they were taken to a nearby hospital.
The story after this is known thanks to the numerous reports in the media, including at the national level. But how had Sangma felt at that moment when death seemed imminent?
“The driver of our vehicle pleaded with the attackers saying it was only a tourist car and he had no inclination of what was happening. I was inside the car when Agnes was speaking to Chullet (Nidamon Chullet, the prime accused in the assault case). Chullet wanted to speak to her but she refused and then came the blows. They kicked her. I came out and asked them not to hit her but I was attacked too. I could have fled. I could have requested them to leave me. But tell me why would I do that? Why would I leave her and run away,” Sangma said, her voice now hardened.
Sangma sipped the remaining tea and showed the wounds on her hands. The scars were still fresh and two of her fingers have stiches and wrapped with pieces of cloth. “The pain was excruciating. The hand still pains. Kong Agnes is recuperating but it will take time,” she said and added that they had asked for security on the fateful day but police had refused saying there were only a few personnel on duty.
Though the attackers managed to cripple the activists temporarily, they could not dent their resilience, especially that of Sangma, who has been through many troughs in life. Despite the responsibility of the seven children, Sangma said she is not afraid anymore.
“God saved us and I thank Him every day for that. There is a purpose for which He saved us and that is to fight the wrong, to defeat the demons and to expose all those politicians who are ruining lives for money and vote,” she said. “I am ready to die but not before getting justice. My daughters would cry when they visited me in the hospital but I told them that I am still alive and stronger than before,” she added.
The words of conviction flowed out of her mouth and for a moment one would think she was possessed by a supernatural power. But that is how she is. Loyalty comes as naturally to her as courage in the face of adversity.
Her expression changed when asked about her children and what do they feel about the incident. “They are proud of their mother. They know I am fighting for the right cause. You know what my sons say? When they watch a Hindi movie, they say mother would have fought the villains and killed them. I would have indeed fought had there been one or two on that day but there were so many people,” she said and smiled again. By now, her lips were red from the betel leaf juice and her cheeks blushing from the cold. Her youngest daughter Anisha, who is in Class III, is also proud of her brave mother. “Her teacher told her that she would come and visit me. Her friends say they saw my photo in newspapers,” the embarrassed mother now bursts out laughing.
Sangma’s eldest son is 21 but he could not complete college due to financial problems and works as a mason. All her children are supportive.While the sons help her financially and guard her as much as possible, the three daughters help her with household chores. The penury does not make them weak but like their mother, they have learned to fight for their rights in society.
It was getting dark outside the shop and Sangma asked the bodyguard to leave but the young man insisted on staying, probably apprehensive about leaving his responsibility in the company of a stranger.
Sangma reluctantly started talking about her rented house in Mawblei. It is a tin-roofed old structure with four small rooms and surrounded by forests. “I would have taken you to my house but you have to walk uphill for quite some time.”
The conversation again shifted to illegal coal mining, the tragedy at the mine, the surrender of Chullet and the slow police investigation. Sangma said she and Kharshiing had visited almost all the coal mines, mostly inside forests, in different places in Jaintia Hills like Lumthari, Saipung and Ladrymbai.
The small-time contract workers start work early, around 5am, and come out of the rat holes by noon. “We can show every illegal mine there. How can the police and district authorities say they do not know anything when it is going on right under their nose,” she said.
When asked about people struggling to earn their livelihood in absence of coal mining, Sangma said it was only a political gimmick and a lie that politicians were trying to sell.
“We have got complaints from poor locals who do not want illegal mining because it is ruining water quality and the environment. The entire Jaintia Hills will cave in if this continues. Who will die? Not the rich politicians and mine owners but poor villagers. The locals know the truth but are too scared to speak out. Rich miners threaten the poor and mine in their land,” she informed.
She wondered why the police have not yet arrested the tea shop owner from whose shop the attackers took slices of wood to beat the women up. She also suspects that a particular NGO is conniving with the perpetrators. Though no threat calls have come so far, but Sangma gets unknown calls. “Chullet was leading the mob. He was there and he knows everything. Police should get all details from him and arrest the remaining people, even those who are absconding,” she beat the table to prove her point.
The bellicose woman is determined to fight for the rights of the poor because “law cannot be only for the rich”. “I might be illiterate but I can think and judge and differentiate between the right and the wrong. Working with Kong Agnes has opened my eyes and made me even more determined. If those in power think the poor do not have brains then they are wrong. Test our endurance and our capability and you will see what is there inside the skull and deep inside the heart,” she said.
The fight has only begun and with a new year beckoning, both Sangma and Kharshiing are resolute to resume the long battle. “I don’t know how long it will take but we cannot trust a government whose leaders blatantly lie to people. If I die fighting, the government should take responsibility of my children because it is the one who failed its constituents,” said Sangma.
It was the end of conversation as she had to rush home after buying groceries. It was time to be a caring mother of the seven lucky angels.
~ NM

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