The imaginative eye sees the Raj Bhavan, in the heart of Shillong, subdued and wary, shod off its cloak of dignified power by the recent revelations of alleged shenanigans of the now stripped incumbent, V. Shanmangunathan.
Had it not been for a young intrepid reporter, Ri Kynti Marwein, who landed there as one of the candidates for the now infamous post of Public Relations Officer (PRO) –to-the-Governor, the sordid affairs of sexual predation would still have been under wraps.
The silence of Raj Bhavan staff and officials kept the public in awe of the highest office of the state until they confessed to being fully aware of everything since “he came”, as represented in their statement written to the Prime Minister, with copies to the State Chief minister among others. The letter was signed by 98 staffers.
Sometime in October last year, the Secretary to the Governor, Himalaya Shangpliang (IAS), officially sought an old list of candidates shortlisted through a written test for the job of Public Relations Officer to the chief minister’s secretariat in December 2015. They needed a PRO at the Raj Bhavan.
Being a senior official attached to the Governor as well as the state director of the Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), he was duty-bound to tell his boss that he already had 2 PROs attached to him. One was Chinmoyee Deka, from Assam who was brought in as a personal assistant and later graded to PRO on August 18, 2016. Another was a person called Riya Barua. The only clue of her existence as a PRO to the Governor surfaced when a letter arrived addressed to her in the Shillong Raj Bhavan from the Itanagar Raj Bhavan. There is no further information about her which makes this the biggest mystery in all the surreptitious happenings in the entire Raj Bhavan episode.
Of this old list, 10 candidates were shortlisted for the Governor’s PRO – all women candidates. They were called for an interview on November 7, 2016.
Five men were also shortlisted later and asked to come for interview on November 8, 2016. It was alleged in the subsequent letter to the Prime Minister on January 25 2017 by the Raj Bhavan staff that the list of five men was a hurried afterthought after the candidates raised suspicions about the all-female list.
Another round of interviews were held on November 28, 2016 in which 7 candidates -- five women and two men -- were shortlisted by a panel of Secretary to Governor Shangpliang, Undersecretary A Lakiang and Deputy Director of the Information and Public Relations Department Caeser Passah. The statement of the Raj Bhavan staff to the PM points out that “out of five, 2 male candidates were selected for the next interview just as an eyewash”.
Then there was a final round of interview for the 7, which was taken personally by the Governor on December 7, 2016. They were told that they would get a call from the Raj Bhavan secretariat by the evening. They waited.
The call from the secretariat came to candidate E. Thangkhiew who was informed that she had been chosen for the job.
That would have been the end of the story.
Ri Kynti Marwein
But next day, on December 8, another candidate received a phone call to appear for interview that evening. This other candidate was J. Passah who got a high profile call from Governor Shanmuganathan personally asking her to appear before the Governor at 7pm that evening for a further interview.
Despite misgivings (as told to her friend), she went for the interview with two relatives in tow who waited outside in a vehicle.
Arriving at the gates of the Raj Bhavan at near about 6 pm, where all guests have to enter their name and purpose of visit in the security register, she noted that another candidate, Thangkhiew , had made an entry at 5.55 pm to meet the Governor.
It’s not clear how long the interview lasted but when she came out she immediately phoned reporter Marwein, whom she had befriended during the course of the interview for the job for which Marwein had also applied. There was no reply. So she texted. In volumes of text, she described the behavior of Shangmunganathan, the Governor. “We sat as if in a date,” she texted. He asked her if she had a boyfriend, told her she looks like bollywood star, she texted. “He hugged and kissed me, and even offered me the job part time or full time as I wanted”, was another text. No staff was present, she said in the texts.
“It was a dirty hug and I feel so violated,” she texted. Further she said she had “gone there in good faith thinking that it is a proper working atmosphere but…” another text said.
To add to the misery, she come to know that Thangkhiew had already been chosen for the job a day earlier and she was there as an employee already.
So why was she called at all? She told Marwein that she called up Thangkhiew and shared her experience and asked if he had behaved the same way with her. She reportedly replied, “yes, he acted weird.”
When Marwein read the texts, recognizing the gravity of the incident, she begged them to complain somewhere or to someone against the abuse of power and the need to expose the Governor.
Agitated she tried to get the women to come out of the silence. “No one wants that job now, candidates all know something is wrong, it’s a trap for vulnerable girls,” was a text from Marwein to one of them.
The talks went on for days as the two women tried to come to terms with the horrifying experience, highly disturbed but not knowing what to do about it. One of them wanted to forget it while the other was restless with the need to expose the horror. Marwein tried to persuade Passah by calling on the journalistic creed to expose the wrong doing. The latter also worked part time at a local news-house. Going to the State Women’s Commission was not even considered.
Marwein decided that unless she did something herself it would get buried. She said she decided to go ahead with the story but first she had to persuade her management and editor and get further evidence. The Highland Post management agreed as they realized such a behavior of a high official should be exposed. But they stipulated that she talk to other editors about it as it was too explosive to handle it alone. She talked to some and held several meetings in which they told her to get more proof of the molestation as they fear being nailed by defamation cases and even arrest. After all, the man they are about to expose represents the highest institution in the state and the Government of India. She has the volumes of texted messages, but the editors felt that were not enough and had to talk to Passah.
Two editors are detailed to do that. They try for two days with no success as she refused outright, they tell Marwein. But they decided to go ahead with the story anyway on January 21 to bring it out on 22, but they developed cold feet. They resolve to carry it all together with other newspapers in the January 23 issue of the papers. Again it’s a damp squib as the co-ordination fizzles out. On January 23 they get their act together. Marwein, reluctantly, gives details to all the other newspapers. But by late night, the elation turns to despair as one by one they back out leaving the Highland Post holding the baby.
But once the story of molestation titled “M’Laya Gov accused of molesting job candidate” was published in its January 24 2017 issue all hell broke loose in the capital. The woman in the first report comes down heavily on her and threatens to sue her for ‘using private messages and making it into news”. The other woman also takes the same tone.
But the next day’s paper carries an even more incriminating report of the Raj Bhavan already having appointed 2 PROs, bringing to the fore that all is not right even in the secretariat of the Raj Bhavan.
More stories of sexual harassment of women staff in the Raj Bhavan Secretariat were ready and waiting to be filed in the Press as follow up. These stories included dug up information that the Governor had allegedly harassed some women staff on earlier occasions and that they had tried to complain to the higher authorities. The Raj Bhavan grapevine had alleged that, these women had complained among others to the Principle Secretary to Governor, M.S Rao (IAS).
When contacted to get this confirmed, Rao said “Not during my tenure, there was no such harassment to women during my tenure, you better ask the staff about that.”
The women had also met Shangpliang, the secretary, with the same complaints but they alleged that he had asked them to give a complaint in writing and cautioned to go in a group if called for any work.
But before any further reports in the Press could be published with details about the above, on January 25 in the evening the Raj Bhavan staff (about 98 of them) released its letter to the PM which unveiled the alleged murky affairs inside laying all the blame on the Governor, Shanmuganathan.
The letter is a dire indictment of the Governor’s actions, but it leaves many questions unanswered about whether he could do all this alone, such as hiring so many different people at different times as alleged without assistance. Who assisted him in bringing so many virtually unvetted persons into the Raj Bhavan and even into his bedroom as alleged by this letter?
Meanwhile, as a spin-off from this uproarious case, the understanding of ‘sexual molestation’ has taken a toss into confusion as the victims and retractors of the Press reports gave out that there was as such no “molestation.”
The main person who was affected was neither willing to come forward and make a complaint nor willing to speak to reporters, had however reportedly sent a hand written note to a Delhi-based TV channel as well as another Delhi-based Channel. Here she affirms everything written in the first newspaper report. She however denies being ‘molested’ by the Governor, though at the same time she confirms that he asked her personal questions and made advances such as hugging and kissing her. She refers to them as “inappropriate’ and ‘unprofessional” behavior.
That’s probably the reason why no complaint has been filed anywhere. So far no complaint has been made anywhere. To add salt to the injury, a local woman editor of the oldest English daily in the capital made a controversial Facebook post in which she warned ‘friendly men’ about the dangers of being misunderstood for even a friendly pat on the back.
Raj Bhavan transparency, past and present
The Raj Bhavan, Shillong, has never evoked universal adoration from the people of the state. It has always been a center of colonial power hovering on the hillock out of sync with the common people and its aspirations. It is popularly known as the “stable where horses are marched”, a name it earned for being the place where squabbling politicians would run to prove their numbers and exhibit their MLAs.
Rumors and whispers alone emanated from the Raj Bhavan over the years as it remained a dense bed of power even in an age of democracy. There have been rumors of a Governor having a girlfriend, but though everyone claimed to know the truth of it, the Press could never get down to writing it as there was no ‘proof’ just as in this present case, the rumors of molestation would have remained just that had it not been for the mobile phones and internet where messages can be captured and re-run.
Activists have been assailing the official walls demanding answers for many highly irregular appointments over the years including that of a high official of the rank of deputy secretary and many other alleged scams. But so far RTI activists have drawn a blank on that front.
There have been intense attempts to pry open accounts of the expenditures made by the incumbents of the Raj Bhavan at different points of time, but were told that the Raj Bhavan is constitutionally protected under the charged account clause.
The only Governor who could be called a people’s governor was the 8th Governor of Meghalaya, Madhukar Dighe, a Lohiaite. He was a humble man who called the Raj Bhavan, a golden cage and wanted to open it up to the common people. He started the tradition of opening the gates of the RB every holiday to the public, while welcoming the high and low to meet him. He welcomed dialogue with all His expenditures were at a minimum according to the RB grapevine then.