By Ferdinand Rani
January 21, 2022 marked the 50th year of Meghalaya’s statehood celebration. Ahead of the main programme by the state at Polo ground, an event was organised in the Mawkhar community hall, Shillong, to mark the occasion.
Away from the programme, a few young lads – artists from the Mixed Media Art Crew (MMAC) – were busy finishing the wall paintings outside the venue, which included portraits of prominent personalities like U Soso Tham and Thomas Jones, among others.
Among them was a black and white portrait of Mavis Dunn Mawlong.
The artists had been on the job for several days to complete the paintings around the hall as part of the localities’ beautification project in the state.
Mavis was being painted by a young artist named Wenester K Marak, along the 700-metre ‘Mavis Dunn Road’ – one of the important roads in the area named after her, connecting the residential areas of Jaiaw and Mawkhar to the busy commercial hub of Iewduh.
Marak and the team had been painting graffiti and murals across the state, known as public art displays or street art, which included portraits of eminent people from Meghalaya. He said that the locality leaders provided him with a picture of hers, along with the others, in addition to setting the deadline for completion of the project.
On enquiring whether he knew her, Marak said, “I had no idea who she was. After I had finished painting, somebody told me that she was the first minister or something.”
His not knowing about her is not an exception. Like him, she is a new name for many today.
During her time, however, Mavis was a well-known name. Her role and accomplishments did not only inspire the people of the then Assam province in pre-independent India, but also spoke about the tribal Khasi – Jaintia people who she represented from 1937 to 1946, when she won the election as an independent candidate from the Shillong constituency.
Mavis Patricia Dunn Mawlong was born on June 4, 1906. Speaking to The Meghalayan, the general secretary of the Mawlong clan, A S Mawlong, said, “Kong Mavis hailed from Mairang, the third daughter of Kong Helibon Mawlong, who was a very successful business woman during those days. She saw the intelligence and ability of her children, especially Mavis. She moved to Shillong to educate her children properly and settled in Mawkhar. It was here that she was exposed to a good education.
Mavis received her early education at the Welsh Mission Girls’ High School of Shillong. Later, she attended the Calcutta Girls’ Free School in 1917, followed by St. Thomas School, Calcutta. She passed her matriculation in first division in 1922 as a private student under Calcutta University.
Academically meritorious, she completed her Intermediate Course of Arts in 1924 from Diocesan College in first division, and later obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts with distinction in 1927. She continued her post-graduate study and obtained the degree of Bachelor of Teaching from Calcutta University in 1930 and qualified for the Degree of Bachelor of Law in 1932-33.
Mawlong informed that Mavis entered politics in 1937 and contested as an independent candidate from Shillong Constituency in January of that year at the age of 30 and won. He said, “She was elevated as minister in the Assam Province in 1939. So, we can say that in the whole of North East, she was the first woman minister, and second to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit in the country who became the first lady minister in pre-independent India in 1937.
According to Hamlet Bareh, President of the Khasi Cultural Society (KCS), Mavis Dunn was most academically suited to serve as public leader. In fact, she was one of the most qualified persons in the Council of Ministers from 1939 to 1946.
Mavis was the first Khasi lady to become an MLA in the first undivided Assam Legislative Assembly in 1937, becoming a cabinet minister in 1939 when she was invited to join the Sir Saadulla ministry after the Congress Party resigned from the coalition. She held portfolios of Registration, Industries and Cooperative departments.
When she was minister, the province consisted of the districts of Sylhet, Cachar, Khasi Jaintia Hills, Naga Hills, Lakhimpur, Sibsagar, Nowgong, Darrang, Kamrup, Goalpara and Garo Hills.
A memorandum submitted by the people of Goalpara when she was minister of Registration, Industries and Cooperative Departments read:
Your unique position as the only Lady Minister at present in the whole of India makes us feel proud, indicating, as it does, that Assam, though a small province in the march of progress towards a better and higher National existence… Madam you have been fortunately placed in charge of an important portfolio in which by dint of your intelligence and sagacity and no less by your innate sympathy you will, we are confident, do much for the industrial regeneration of Assam.
Following a cabinet reshuffle, she remained as the minister for health till the early part of 1945. It was during this period that the province was in a state of turmoil because of the Second World War that had impacted the region.
It was then that Mavis came in contact with the wounded soldiers and was moved at the sight of the helpless patients and donated blood for the blood bank, at a time when blood donation was scarce. It was during this time that medical facilities in the province improved, and the Assam Red Cross Society (ARCS) was instituted. As health minister, she made it possible for the nurses trained in private institutions to get jobs in government hospitals.
As an educationist, she took keen interest in the education sector as well, and was very sympathetic towards lower primary teachers. She wanted a proportionate division of grants for boys and girls’ colleges, as she felt that school and college education should serve a high utilitarian purpose and be capable of producing good individuals.
Her political career ended in 1946 after she lost the election yet continued to be active in other affairs.
After independence, she was on a mission to Bombay where she met the deputy prime minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and explained to him about the functioning of the Khasi chiefdom, which would have been demolished with the rest of the Indian Princes, followed by the annexation of their territories with the union of India.
The state government invited her to sit in the Advisory Council for the functioning of the District Councils as a distinguished member. In her later years, she stayed in England for a short while and came back in 1961. She died a spinster at the age of 56 in 1962.
Speaking about her accomplishments, A S Mawlong said, “We are so elated to have Kong Mavis as an accomplished woman from our Mawlong Clan both in education and politics.Very few women have attained her stature till today. She was even invited to England and America in 1960 to deliver lectures in universities there.
Mawlong also expressed that as a community and the state, there is very less attention given to her.
“The media was not as rich as it is today. They cannot assess the high-ranking position of hers. They failed to realise the qualities that Kong Mavis had, reason she was not exposed in media, except for once when Hamlet Bareh wrote a book on her, published in 1989. The government even now is not aware that we have such a personality in our community who shone much before independence, not to mention the Meghalaya state.
He further added that during those days they did not have proper transport even to reach Guwahati yet this woman travelled to faraway places because she knew who she was and what she was capable of.
“She knew that there was no accomplished woman before her time in the community, which made her ambitious enough to achieve and shine so much,” he said.
Mawlong also stated that it is high time that the life story of Mavis Patricia Dunn Mawlong be printed in textbooks so that the people of this generation know that a place like Mairang could produce a wonderful woman leader from the community.
After being enlightened about Mavis Dunn’s life, artist Wenester K Marak said, “It is sad that no one remembers her well. Nor do we remember what she has done for us. I do feel proud after knowing this. Now, I only want to do a better portrait of her with more time and space. And this time, it won’t be black and white but a colour portrait. I really would love to paint her again someday.”
(The author is Reporter with The Meghalayan)