International award and accolades for Meghalaya activists but no justice at home

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Nabamita Mitra
is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

Shillong: On November 8, 2018, two women firebrand activists, Agnes Kharshiing and Amita Sangma, were brutally attacked by the henchmen of the coal mafia operating at  Tuber Shohshrieh in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district, when the duo were trying to investigate illegal coal transportation.

The National Green Tribunal had banned rat-hole mining in the area but allowed transportation of the already mined stock. However, local miners were continuing mining.

The horrendous attack on the female activists by a strong mob of 40 men, allegedly led by local coal mafia Nidamon Chullet, then working president of the ruling National People’s Party (NPP)’s East Jaintia Hills unit, will complete a year next month. But the two activists, who the mafia had desperately tried to silence, are yet to get justice.

Speaking to eNewsroom, Sangma recounted the incident, where both the activists after being attacked with wooden planks and bamboo poles were left in the jungle to die. She narrated, “I had pretended to be unconscious and once the mob left, I crawled out of the forest, towards the main road. I stopped a vehicle, which happened to be a police van, and informed them that Agnes was lying unconscious with a severe head injury.” Sangma is a single mother of seven children.

Meghalaya coal activist illegal mining Pollution mine NPP
Amita Sangma with her children at her Shillong home

Sitting in her small rented house in Madanrting in Shillong, Sangma rues the apathy of the government to ensure justice to them.

With reports of illegal mining coming in and the proposal for mining near the Lukha river (which was severely polluted due to mining and was restored by locals) in the district, the state government seems too lackadaisical in “handling a sensitive case such as coal and limestone extraction by local miners who have no wherewithal or expertise to practise scientific method.”

Immediately after the attack last year, Home Minister James Sangma had announced that an independent inquiry committee would be set up to probe the case. The announcement had come when the activists were demanding for a CBI investigation and the minister had assured an unbiased inquiry by state authorities.

It is a known fact that Conrad Sangma and his party came to power in Meghalaya in 2018 through his rhetoric on starting coal mining that was banned in the state in 2014 after reports of rat-hole mining and the serious damage it had caused to the environment surfaced. During his election campaign, Conrad, who is also the NPP national head, had vehemently blamed the ban for the state’s financial crisis.

At least three elected members in the current ruling coalition in Meghalaya are mine owners. One of them, Kyrmen Shylla, is from Jaintia Hills.

Immediately after the attack last year, Home Minister James Sangma had announced that an independent inquiry committee would be set up to probe the case. The announcement came when the activists were demanding a CBI investigation and the minister had assured an unbiased inquiry by state authorities.

It has been 11 months now and the government seems to have forgotten about its promise. When asked about the independent body, James said, “I don’t remember… I will check and get back to you.” The call made to him at the given time next day remained unanswered.

The minister’s selective amnesia is proof enough that the government never took the incident seriously or was confident of handling the matter in its own way.

Meghalaya coal activist illegal mining Pollution mines NPP Agnes Kharshiing Amita Sangma
Conrad Sangma with Nidamon Chullet (left)

The police arrested 11 persons, including Chullet, in connection with the case early this year but all of them managed to wriggle out on a bail.

“The police have filed the charge-sheet in this case. But not a single accused is behind the bars and no inquiry committee has been set up,” said Kharshiing, who is recuperating fast.

The attack has changed many things for the activists. Kharshiing, for instance, has lost her fiery persona and the conviction with which she spoke before the incident. Now, she talks softly and sometimes as she said, “a word or two slips out of her mind”.

Many of her friends and well-wishers believe she is a fighter. The president of Shillong-based CSWO is still fighting for the cause of helpless women despite the physical weakness. But when asked about how strongly she is pursuing her case, she sounded reluctant. “There is a procedure and it (my case) has to follow that too.”

“I still want CBI to take over the case. The independent probe has not started. It was a miracle that Agnes and I survived. But the government is not taking our case seriously. Instead, it is trying to protect the perpetrators,” said Sangma

“Moreover, there are other pending cases which I have to take care of. Others need my help. How can I just focus on my case,” said Kharshiing, who recently won an international award– 11th International Hrant Dink Award for her social works.

Sangma, however, feels that the current state of the things is nothing but injustice and the government is shielding the culprits.

“I still want CBI to take over the case. The independent probe has not started. It was a miracle that Agnes and I survived. But the government is not taking our case seriously. Instead, it is trying to protect the perpetrators,” claimed Sangma.

The injuries have made Sangma’s hands permanently weak. She said, “I am unable to get work now”. Her only source of income is the widow pension that helps her run the family and support her children’s education. Help has trickled from a few well-wishers but that is not enough for the family to survive in the long run.

Sangma mentioned that the government is yet to reimburse the medical expenses and provide full compensation for the attack. “It is not possible to survive like this. There must be some reason why God saved the two of us. He wants us to fight for justice. I still have the energy to fight and I want to see till the end,” she said.

The case is pending in the Khliehriat district sessions court and there are talks to shift it to the Shillong court.

The state recently had its Assembly session and none of the opposition members questioned the government about the reasons for dithering. It goes without mention that many on the opposition bench are also proud and opulent owners of coal mines.

“There is a nexus between the coal mafia and political leaders and precisely that is the reason why no one is acting on our case,” alleged Sangma, the crusader.

Such allegations had earlier come from the opposition. It is now to be seen whether the government does enough to counter the allegations.

Avatar
Nabamita Mitra
is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

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