James K. Sangma at Democracy Wall, Shillong
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Meghalaya home minister James Sangma apologises for “bulldozing his way” through city traffic, tells audience how to curb VIP culture.

Shillong: The sixth edition of Democracy Wall in Shillong saw an unexpected but welcome high point when James Sangma, Meghalaya’s home minister, apologised to the people for “bulldozing his way” through the city’s traffic and condemned the VIP culture prevalent in India.

“If there is a case where public servants/politicians are breaking traffic rules, please click a picture and send a video across. We shall take action. I apologise for bulldozing our way through ghastly traffic in the city,” Sangma said, responding to an audience question.

The audience member’s uninhibited question to Sangma — who holds six more portfolios, including the law — and his unassuming reply sum up perfectly the essence of Democracy Wall: Free speech.

The setting for ThePrint’s interactive campus initiative this time was the North Eastern Hill University (NEHU). On a beautiful day in their sprawling campus, the students made for a lively, spirited and very engaged audience.

And indeed, all the guest speakers at the event were representatives of free expression and democratic engagement, in their own distinctive ways — from actor Nimrat Kaur with her views on equality of sexes and veteran journalist Patricia Mukhim, who is known for her fearless journalism, to Youth Ki Awaaz founder Anshul Tewari with his views on citizen journalism and “Constitutor” Meghnad, who has a uniquely hilarious way of explaining different elements of our Constitution. Also on the guest list were stand-up comedian Abhineet Mishra and Arunachal Pradesh-based rap artist Kekho Thiamkho — both of whom use their art to convey the crucial message of discrimination faced by people from the Northeast in other parts of the country.

The free-wheeling chat at NEHU covered a range of issues – from national and state politics, to racial discrimination, feminism, the current state of journalism, cinema and more.

Talking to, and about, Garo militants

Sangma termed talks with armed militant outfits as “morally wrong”, and said there would be negotiations but the outfits would need to lay down arms.

“Our stand is very simple, there will be negotiations. What we want from them is to lay down their arms and show that they want to shun the path of violence. But if they carry on, it’s morally wrong on our part to talk with them,” said the minister, who was in conversation with associate editor Ruhi Tewari.

“We will never talk with any outfit that engages in violent acts. When they come forward and say we have chosen to be a productive part of society once again, then it is our duty as the government to ensure whatever is promised to them as rehabilitation is provided to them timely,” Sangma added.

On whether a separate Garo state should be carved out of Meghalaya, Sangma said this would then become a never-ending process of breaking up states.

“The smaller the state, the easier it is to administer. But where does that end? Large states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra need to broken up further to make administration easier, but once we start this process there will really be no end to it,” he said.

No gender-based favours, please

Actor Nimrat Kaur underscored the need for gender equality and not garnering favours because of one’s gender.

“What is necessary to recognise is that no woman or man should be privileged by birth but rather their individual potentials should be recognised that paves their path,” Kaur said, in a session moderated by ThePrint’s Sankalita Dey.

“I don’t stand here promoting favours based on gender, but stand for an equality of opportunities for all,” said Kaur.

A lesson for journalists

Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times, talked about the need to keep ideology away from journalism.

“Ideology is very toxic. It makes people become irrational. I don’t have any inclinations left, right or centre, so I am free to speak my mind,” she said.

When asked about media houses being funded by politicians, Mukhim said, “People know what they are reading and seeing, they are the judges.”

Extending the conversation on journalism, founder of Youth Ki Awaaz’s Tewari underlined the importance of citizen journalism.

“I am not asking to do an investigation. I am just asking, if you see something, say something. There is a reason people tell their stories, the traditional media has failed terribly to do the core job I do,” he said.

Fighting racial bias

Conveying an important message — of racial discrimination faced by those from the Northeast in other parts of the country — in an innovative and entertaining manner, rap artist Kekho had the audience hooked as he performed two numbers and boldly sang I’m an Indian, not Chinese.

Meghnad and stand-up comedian Abhineet Mishra had the audience in splits with their performances, and the renditions by the Research Scholars choir was just the perfect end to this brilliant edition of Democracy Wall.

With inputs from Sankalita Dey

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