By Adity Choudhury

Who knew a cup of tea would alter the course of activism, specifically indigenous and gender-based activism, in Meghalaya?

Speaking to Mayfereen Ryntathiang, founder of Grassroot Shillong, allowed for tracing the origins of the city-based NGO.

Travelling around the world and representing the country at UN conferences arms her with global perspectives, yet she remains proudly rooted in her own indigenous identity.

She said, “We started with a concept. There are so many NGOs in the state and the country, but very few working towards indigenous peoples’ rights. We link human rights with indigenous rights. Our approach reflects the importance of rights-based approach as a path towards empowerment.”

World NGO Day is celebrated annually on February 27. Perhaps, it’s time we reflect about activism beyond fashion statement.

Navigating Terms!

In the ongoing discussion (even hushed whispers) around the terms, ‘tribal’ and ‘indigenous’, where does the NGO situate itself, given a section of the intelligentsia within the community use the word, ‘tribal’, linking it with the Khasi origin myth?

“As an organisation, we prefer the word, ‘indigenous’ from the perspective of customary laws around land ownership. Rules and regulations are formulated within that community to safeguard a plot of land(s) or forest for future indigenous generations,” she said.

“As per the ILO Convention, anyone living in India is considered to be indigenous. But there are nuances around this term, loaded as it is, therefore, should not be thrown around loosely. For us, ‘indigenous’ means our blood runs through the land and we are of this land, including the heritage we inherited from our many forefathers,” she added.

Elaborating further on customary laws, Ryntathiang said, “These laws are sovereign to particular areas here in the state. Each village, community and jurisdiction under a syiemship have their own set of laws. The customary laws of Mawphlang, for instance, are different from Ri Bhoi.”

Meaning evolves!

Grassroot Shillong was formed on July 27, 2007. Over time, their understanding of ‘rights’ has transformed. Back in the day, it centered around the ‘right to food’ and ‘right to information’.

Ryntathiang emphasised, “The more we penetrated into different areas in Meghalaya and Manipur, the more we realised how it was not so simple. Rights extend to the natural elements – air, water and forests – including a simple one square feet space.”

This self-awareness nurtures their young team to keep exploring and learning about the different kinds of rights, both at home and internationally.

Through capacity building, skills development activities, youth and women empowerment, sustainable livelihood programmes, they streamline pressing issues of the moment, always present in the urgency of the ‘now’, facilitating change through marketing and promoting indigenous commodities, sustainable agriculture using traditional knowledge systems for sustainable markets.

“Rights-based capacity building, however, is the most interesting. When we venture inside a space, we take the approaches of the community there. What is rightfully mine in one place may not be the same elsewhere. National and international perspectives alone aren’t enough, it is a cross-pollination of ideas where local voices are at the forefront of change,” Ryntathiang shared.

At each step, Grassroot Shillong ask themselves the most important question – what is local rights – and translate that into indigenous peoples’ rights, which can be right to drinking water, for example.

One perspective looks at water rights as villages having drinking water taps in every household while another looks at water as community-owned or a common resource, in the form of ponds, rivers, and streams.

Interactive learning, therefore, is at the root of the empathy-based philosophy of this NGO.

Grassroot challenges

Usual dinner table conversations often revolve around timely deliverables, conveniently forgetting that Rome wasn’t built in a day.

With a grin, she said, “Changing the mind takes time. A road can be made right now, but can we change mindsets to maintain that road?”

So far, building rights-based concepts, where social change is possible through the intellect, continues to be a time-consuming process of unlearning and re-learning.

Ryntathiang said, “Their faces say it all. They want us to give them what they need. Resistance to new ideas is also a right, but sometimes, it can hinder positive change.”

That said, she calls their journey beautiful, where she reminisced about communities who have been resilient to them, welcoming them with open arms.

Tea continues to be a recurring motif. Using storytelling as a weapon, they have penetrated spaces they feared would chase them out. “We would sit together over a cup of chai and narrate tales. Change can happen in a simple, casual yet potent manner. We discussed ploughing and harvesting and this approach has become a way to collect case studies, transforming how we communicate with each other.”

Reproductive health (rights) is another sector where they worked towards breaking a taboo subject in Pynursla block. People resisted them from the beginning.

Grassroot Shillong approached it from an economic-poverty perspective.

Menstrual health, consent, protected sex and marital rape became part of the conversations as women shared their experiences. Because there is no economic empowerment, women cannot say ‘no’ – a crucial learning for the people in the block.

“We didn’t want to be just another NGO and this became a lesson in staying grounded… on what we promised and whether we delivered them,” Ryntathiang mused.

Branching Out!

Advocacy is central to their approach. Overlapping sectors is intentional to bring about social change.

One of them, Speak Out, revolves around domestic abuse. Here too, perceptions changed with time.

“When the men spoke, it opened our eyes. We realised that we don’t just cater to one gender. The percentage is less compared to women, but they asked us if there were laws for them. There is no answer to this, yet! The Domestic Violence Act of 2005 is so important, but the gender spectrum is wide and should be taken into consideration now,” Ryntathiang shared.

On being opinionated, she spoke out against the tendency of “brushing necessary conversations under the rug”, clearly referring to the culture of silence in the state, especially about matrilineal society, vis-à-vis, political representation, including in dorbar snongs.

In her words, women are involved but not within the system in a larger way.

“I’m proud of our matrilineal culture but it also comes with the baggage of responsibilities. A single mother, for instance, has to raise her child alone with no social or economic empowerment. Because we’re viewed primarily as nurturers, lineage comes from us, Men can come and go, as they please. Doesn’t this add to the difficulty?”

“Economic domain is dominated by men. We’re trying to facilitate change in this domain. It feels good to see empowered, self-assured women,” she pointed out with her razor-sharp gaze.

Taking it a notch higher, Grassroot Shillong collaborated with the New Delhi-based, Association of Democratic Reforms, for the Meghalaya Election Watch in 2008 – their first big project – and initiated the analysis of affidavits of the candidates contesting for elections that year.

“We realised this was a good venture because it was about the right of the people to know about the candidates seeking their votes,” she said.

Their efforts to launch the radical, ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) voting option paid off, which was finally introduced in 2013, issued by the Supreme Court.

Among other sectors they’ve worked in, mention must be made of “Indigenous Language Day”, and “Iewduh: For the ones who seek refuge”, apart from eco-sustainable tourism in Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong, where they partnered with the community.

The founder of the NGO has also initiated documentation of Khasi folklore and herbal medicine via cinema.

Indigenous Wisdom!

Ryntathiang is a member of World Mountain People Association (WMPA) and has represented the state in world mountain conferences, which aims to bring together mountain people from all over the globe, on issues of economic deprivation, colonisation and political misrepresentation.

“The world needs to look up at indigenous cultures. We talk climate change but where are indigenous communities in these international dialogues? They live with nature and share a spiritual connect with the latter. Can we combat climate change without flying to Paris? We should ask ourselves this.”

Focusing on language, she said, “I’m unlearning to learn how to think in my mother tongue. We’re raised as judgemental beings, equating education with how well we can speak in English. It’s okay to not be well-versed in a language that was imposed on us, courtesy British rule.”

As dusk tiptoed, a moment shared by Ryntathiang, sums up the conversation on being indigenous.

“When I was in Equador, Bolivian communities marched with their cocoa leaves that they chew in winter to keep them warm. North Americans wanted to ban it because they perceived it to be a drug. Their leader held the leaf in the conference, and spoke about their rights in Spanish. You should have seen my face. Oh, the resilience! Cocoa leaves haven’t been banned.”