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The Hills Are Alive

A local lad on national TV unites a state

The Hills Are Alive
M. Das
The Hills Are Alive
When Meghalaya's history is written, it could well be divided into two distinct phases—one before the third Indian Idol contest and another after it. A deep tribal-non-tribal divide, punctuated by killings, riots, and attempts at ethnic cleansing, would mark the first phase. A return to harmony and to the cosmopolitan ethos of the past would signify the second. The agent of change: Amit Paul, the finalist of the musical talent hunt on a TV channel.

A Bengali lad from a middle-class family in the state capital, Shillong, Amit has not only become a local hero but also a vital connect between the tribals and non-tribals of the state. Weary after over two decades of ethnic conflict and social strife, the people were perhaps ready to call a truce. They found the catalyst in Amit Paul. He has forged an unprecedented solidarity among the people of Meghalaya who have rallied behind him, cutting across age, community, religion, politics and class. What's more, they've vowed to leverage this newfound camaraderie to build a new social order.

The bruising conflict between Khasis, the predominant tribe in Meghalaya, and the various non-tribal communities started way back in 1979 over an alleged desecration of an idol of goddess Durga. Since then, the divide between the Khasis and the non-tribals, derisively referred to as 'Dkhars' or outsiders, has grown deeper. A fledgling insurgency was launched by groups of armed young men, who began an aggressive campaign to oust outsiders from the state. They regularly harassed Marwaris and Bengalis who had settled in Meghalaya for decades, threatening them to hand over their properties and businesses and leave the state. Even students from Bangladesh and Bhutan were not spared.

Till a couple of years ago, there was little social interaction between Khasis and the non-tribals, who had effectively ghettoised themselves. But by early '05, the situation began changing gradually. People were tired of violence, strikes and the pervasive atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust affecting their daily lives and livelihoods. Now, Amit, with his mellifluous voice, stage presence, modest charm and boy-next-door looks, has shown them a way to take forward the process of restoring peace and harmony. Moreover, his success at a national-level competition has catapulted a peripheral state into national consciousness.

Amit returns to his state amid rapturous crowds

And the state has responded with unbridled support and enthusiasm. Chief Minister D.D. Lapang has declared Amit as Meghalaya's 'brand ambassador for peace, communal harmony & excellence'. According to the state planning minister Mukul Sangma, "Amit personifies the aspirations of all residents of the state to achieve national fame." Sangma told Outlook that the "Amit phenomenon" would definitely take Meghalaya towards a future marked by "complete understanding, trust and brotherhood" between all Meghalayans. Dr H. Srikanth, a professor of political science at the North Eastern Hill University, says that the "support-Amit" movement that has unified the state "heralds the emergence of a more self-confident, multi-cultural and progressive Meghalaya."

Mawlai, a Khasi-inhabited locality in Shillong, illustrates the remarkable shift in tribal-non-tribal relations that is taking place. "Mawlai has been the cradle of Khasi sub-nationalism, spawning many young men who have been at the forefront of the sustained anti-non-tribal campaign. Non-tribals wouldn't ever dare to venture into Mawlai," observes social activist Patricia Mukhim. "But the frenzied reception Amit received when he visited Mawlai on September 3 (on his first visit to Shillong after appearing on the show) was fascinating. The first milestone in improving tribal-non-tribal ties has been achieved and we now have to carry this process forward and cement it," said Mukhim.

Manas Chaudhuri, editor, The Shillong Times, says a number of factors are responsible for this unexpected development in Meghalaya. "In a place where there's nothing much to celebrate, Amit came as a godsend. He's talented, and has won all our hearts by singing Khasi, Nepali, Hindi and English songs on the show. It reminded people of the cosmopolitan culture that once prevailed in the state, and they have been overcome by the desire to restore the happy multi-ethnic character of this state," he told Outlook.

Chaudhuri, who's also an MLA, is confident that the process of reconciliation triggered by Amit is now on a firm track—a view echoed by many in Shillong. "Amit's voice has broken all barriers. No one is a dkhar anymore. From now on, we're all Meghalayans," asserts Ajoy M. Lanong, a young Khasi. Adds Toki Blah, an ex-IAS officer, "There's no going back to the dark days." Kausar Jamil Hilaly, a 'Shillongite' who's now a bureaucrat in Assam, offers this analysis: "Tribals love music. Amit has brought Meghalaya—a place virtually unknown to the Indian mainlander—national renown and recognition through his great performance in a national-level competition. He's touched our souls."

Adrian Tham, a Khasi businessman, says Amit came along at a time when tensions between the tribals and non-tribals were ebbing and the communities were beginning to tentatively reach out to each other. "The ground for reconciliation was fertile and, in Amit, Khasis found the perfect medium to mend the conflicts of the past and build a new future for Meghalaya. And it helped that many Khasi youth could easily identify with Amit—a high school dropout who struggled hard to emerge successful in a highly competitive world," said Tham.

The celebratory scenes in Shillong, meanwhile, defy description. A cavalcade of over 1,000 vehicles escorted Amit to his hometown earlier this month. The streets he passed were lined by rapturous crowds and his two public performances drew record crowds. Posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and satchels bearing Amit's smiling visage are the hottest items in town. Exhortations to vote for Amit are on everyone's lips—from the CM to a vegetable vendor.

Music has truly broken all barriers in battle-weary Meghalaya.

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