New Delhi: Set up in 1952, the North Cachar Hills Autonomous District Council (NHADC) in Assam’s Dima Hasao is the country’s first district council. The remote region received previously unseen media attention in May this year when a special court of the National Investigating Agency (NIA) in Guwahati convicted 14 persons, including two powerful members of the BJP-led council for diverting government’s development funds to procure weapons and “wage war against the state” between 2003 and 2006.
Both Niranjan Hojai and Jewel Garlosa were leaders of the militant group Dima Haam Daogah (DHD), also known as Black Widow, before getting elected to the council, first as independent members, then as Congress members and now of the BJP.
Both are in jail now, along with the others.
The taint that the NHADC had smeared on itself over the Rs 1,000 crore scam did not cleanse with these sensational arrests. In July this year, the employees of the council went on a strike to demand their salaries which were due for nine months. The strike turned violent after the protesters tried to bar the council members from meeting the state governor who was visiting the council headquarters in Haflong.
The intervention of the governor, who is also the head of the council, helped them get two months’ salary in August.
The situation has since gone back to where it was. It has been 11 months that over 3000 employees of the council have not received their salaries. The state government, which sets aside funds for the council in the annual budget, is conspicuously quiet about the looming public distress.
“With no salary in sight for nearly a year now, many people, particularly those who are in the lower rung, have been forced to remove their children from school. Those whose families don’t have a second earning member are working as daily wage earners, some as carpenters, vegetable sellers, hawkers etc. People also grow vegetables in their backyard, rear chicken and pigs by habit in the northeast, which has now come in handy. The rich lot among the employees, including some even from the employees union, are not affected much as they have been corrupt. The excuse that the council members have been giving is that we are not able to generate enough revenue to disburse salaries and sustain our employees. What kind of an excuse is that?,” asked musician Daniel Langthasa.
Apart from residing in Haflong, Langthasa does not have much to do with the council. Yet, it is him who has become the voice of hundreds of families through music – a medium he knows best.
Strumming his guitar, singing songs – rather parodies – that he has put together on the issue, Langthasa, a part of a local band named Digital Suicide, known in the state for raising local issues through his ‘Mr India’ musical acts, has been hitting public places in Haflong and in the studios of Guwahati-based news channels to sing about the woes of the employees.
“Though as Mr India, I have been raising various issues including that of pending salaries through my music, the present BetonDeu campaign began recently. I began by singing the songs I wrote in Haflong Bazaar on November 15. Young people soon joined in with their guitars, people stopped by, watched it, laughed at the sarcasm of the words, sang along, shared the videos they made of it on social media,” he recalled.
In a place which does not have many employment avenues apart from government jobs, Langthasa said the inability to spend money for day to day needs is starting to affect the local economy.
“We saw very little business during this Diwali and Durga Puja – two occasions in which people spend in Haflong. Apart from the effects of demonetisation and GST on local business, it is the financial inability of most of the customers that is affecting local trade. The traders are dependent on these employees and have been giving them ration on three to four months credit but I wonder how long will it go on before they say no,” he added.
On November 18, Langthasa went to New Delhi’s India Gate to protest using his music about the state of affairs in his hometown. Surrounded by curious onlookers, he sang about government employees in a faraway land, suffering because salaries have stopped coming.
Langthasa said, “I may not be directly affected by it but I have seen people around me suffer. I decided to start this campaign only after seeing the financial crisis that my ailing uncle is going through. He is employed with the council as an inspector of schools. When he asked me for money for his treatment recently, I thought that he is the one who has a full-time job and not me. I am just a musician trying to make ends meet through my art and yet it is him who is going through such a crisis only because the government has failed to deliver. I strongly felt that that I should raise my voice against it and take this issue outside of Dima Hasao district and if possible, to New Delhi.” He chose India Gate as the venue because it has symbolic value for the people of Haflong.
In the 1990s, Assam’s Dima Hasao district, along with the other hill district Karbi Anglong, saw the rise of a regional party named Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC). It grabbed power both in the NCHADC and the autonomous district council of Karbi Anglong with the promise of forming a separate state carved out of the two hill districts of Assam. Though the district is often termed “a state in miniature” as the council possesses administrative control over almost all departments except law and order and the treasury department, the demand of a full-fledged state has popular support.
That promise, however, has remained a promise. Instead, what took place was rampant corruption, nepotism, gun power and misgovernance, mainly stemming from the ASDC leaders’ lack of experience in politics and administration.
“The salary problem in the council began during their time. Even though it was led by a team which had the support of the people, they were new to politics, lacked the experience of running the council properly. Till then, the Congress was in power. The salary backlog of one to two months began. After five years, people rejected ASDC for misgovernance and Congress returned to power. Even during the Congress regime, the problem kept coming back, but during the last three-four years, the one to two months of gap began to widen to five to six months and is now nearly a year. The employees kept going on strike in 2015 and in 2016 too,” related Langthasa.
He pointed out another problem, “The Assam government tends to look at both the hill districts as one, even though the autonomous district councils are different. While finalising the annual budget, it sets aside a lump sum amount, 70% of which goes to Karbi Anglong as it is geographically bigger than Dima Hasao. Though I am not saying that the amount that Dima Hasao gets is not enough to pay the salaries.”
Langthasa has a personal story that connects him – rather painfully – to the volatile political developments that Dima Hasao has seen since the rise of the ASDC and thereby to the council. His father, Nindu Langthasa, was a member of the council for two consecutive five-year terms (1997 and 2001), before he was shot dead by Garlosa-led Black Widow.
“Somehow, he didn’t have much faith in ASDC and contested the elections as an independent from the Haflong seat and won in 1997, but chose to remain out of power. He won in the 2001 elections too and thereafter joined the Congress. He was shot dead four days before the 2007 elections (The elections due in 2006 were postponed by a year) by Black Widow,” he recalled.
“It was too much for us then. We were very young. I was studying engineering; my younger brother was in school. My mother was a housewife, devastated at losing her husband. We soon left Haflong to live in a rented house in Guwahati. I found an outlet through music.” His story is certainly the harbinger of the troubled times that this district of Assam has been through.
“Time is a healer”, he replied when asked about his decision to move back to Haflong in 2015.
The young musician said he is now dabbling with the idea of walking the path his father did, even though it met a violent end.
“Though as a kid I hated politics but now I am increasingly getting the urge to take forward what my father believed in. I feel people who are really concerned about public good, like my father was, should come forward now. Our people have seen enough of bad days. I have great belief in our young people. I believe that the older generation led us down but the young people can make a change,” he said.
“But this campaign for salary has not been done keeping joining politics in mind. It is only for the public good,” he added.