Is it so wrong to want to be a freedom fighter? I met one 3 weeks ago. Well, maybe not a freedom fighter exactly, but he represented the Federation of 25 Khasi States. Where are the Khasi states, you ask? Welcome to Meghalaya and India’s northeast.
India’s northeast is at once an expanse and also the smallest of communities. If you’re used to straight lines, you won’t do well there. All the lines, whether you call them borders, or roads, or ethnic identities are twisted like the rivers that course through the region and like the trees whose roots grip rocky cliffs, looking like strange wooden jellyfish on granite. Situated at about 2000 meters in the “Land of Clouds,” Shillong’s location makes flying there a momentary proposition. We received word that our flight had been canceled due to fog as we were on our way to the airport, so we re-routed to Guwahati in neighboring Assam. And so began a trip marked by 3 hour car rides in a place where there are no straight lines.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the visit was driving down to the town of Dawki, one of the border crossing points with Bangladesh. Although there’s a fence being built on the India-Bangladesh border, it’s a hopeless task trying to control the flows of people, goods, and god knows what else. Borders don’t have much meaning in a place like this. We saw trucks loaded with coal and truckers covered in coal dust. We saw border guards who dictated order and who probably skimmed off the top each time a truck crossed.
There are reasons to return to Shillong itself– including a sparkling lake and lovely golf course (who can resist the chance to tee off at altitude and gain an extra 30 yards?). And although the mining of coal and the pounding out of rock from the hills that give Meghalaya its character grates on the eyes, ears, and nose as you drive by the quarries, sleeping next to a coal-fired fireplace at night was something I looked forward to during my stay.
And the freedom fighter? What can I say, it’s about what you’re fighting for, isn’t it? He and the Khasis don’t accept the borders that were drawn for them. And they don’t accept the way resources never quite trickle down from the care of the elected officials responsible for fair disbursement. The Khasis want to control directly the assets and the land they’ve lived on for years. I’d like to discuss self-determination, but somehow it seems like such a futile exercise. India is heading towards increased regional, ethnic, and caste based political struggle. This freedom fighter says they are just biding their time. Meanwhile, Bangladeshis cross the border and what must have seemed like a never ending land of hills to the Khasis and other native tribes is in fact getting smaller.