Shri. Frederick RoyKharkongor,
Chief Electoral Officer,
The village of Kongthongin Meghalayas East Khasi hills perched on an adjoining ridge is known far and wide, as the village where its residents, are identified not with their names, but through various musical whistles and sounds. It is strikingly ironical that just across the hill,and in stark contrast,lays the village of Massar, known as a ‘silent village’, with its 87 households, being either,partially or completely deaf.In the year of Accessible Elections, 2018, this was what drew us to visit the village,in an effort to better understand their lives. We wanted to make Elections truly accessible to each and every voter,and perhaps make an “unheard” election “heard”.
Massar nestles in a mountain crevice en-route to Pynursla Sub Division, about 35 kilometres from the State Capital Shillong. The village is accessed by a steep winding road that twists and turns, through deep mountains, and is not too far away from the country’s southward borders with Bangladesh atDawki. To reach Massar, one has to fork off the road that leads tothe rain soaked mountains of Cherrapunjee. Soon we foundourselves at the village Headman’s house. The young Headman and his Secretary shared with us at length a detailed account of how over 87 households belonging to the Nongsteng clan have remained silent for generations together for the past 100 years.
Interestingly, he revealed that there are two groups of people amongst the Nongsteng Clan – The “hearing group” – Nongstengsngewand the “deaf group” Nongstengkyllut, living on two different hills. He mentioned that 87 households from amongst the village residents are dominated by the Nongsteng “deaf group”. It is pointed out thatmost of the children in the age bracket 0-6years are at various stages of hearing impairment. Records of some NGOs working in the village reveal that this community of hearing impaired numbersabout 90 persons, including 42 children. The village elders also pointed out that with deafness often comes the inability to speak. When prodded on the reasons, the village elders, in the absence of any logical explanations,accounted the genetic handicap to a legend that deafness descended on the clan due to a curse of having eaten the ‘DohkhaSyiem – the queen of fishes’. This perhaps, is but a small subset amongst the many reasons,
behind this all pervasive and continued affliction.
Mist woven hills overlooking the Headman’s House
We next moved to the Dorbar Hall where we were scheduled to interact with the challenged community,and soon enough,come face to face with them to understand how we could make tangible efforts at making‘Accessible Elections’ not only truly accessible but also truly inclusive. We soon realised, that not even the village elders could communicate directly or intelligibly with them, and it required an intrepid young lady Batimon Nongsteng a member of the Nongstengkyllut clan, to act as the bridge and a vital link between us and them.
It was through Batimon, that the Nongsteng voters about 35 of them, some of them profoundly deaf, some partially, could vocalise their thoughts through signs and shrill syllables, perhaps residual remnants in the mind of what they had managed to learn, when they were little. Batimon shared with us, that to survive, some have learnt to lip-read, whereas a large many have floundered. We asked them whether they knew about elections or whether elections remained unheard.
BatimonNongsteng –our bridge to the deaf using sign language and lip reading
As Batimon motioned her fingers and lips in their direction through a unique combination of sign language and lip-reading, many of them raised their hands to indicate in the affirmative. The ERO of the assembly constituency however remarked that perhaps many of the women here continued to grapple with silence, at a time when elsewhere, the poll campaign would have reached a crescendo through loud jingles, bands, songs and speeches. Asked about how they responded to political campaigns, we were informed that they diligently followed messages received on their mobile phones, which even in their respective day to day lives is an indispensable tool for enabling them to communicate and negotiate their existence. We were told that as the aurally impaired amongst this community are mainly women, often it is a male member who would guide his female relatives through sign language on the voting process.
Interactions with about 35 genetically deaf voters of the Nongsteng clan in the Dorbar Hall Massar
Batimon expressed that across the village, silence hangs like a heavy curtain, and interpersonal communication is relegated to lip-reading and basic sign language. She confessed that when the village votes, even the beep of the electronic machine is often lost onmost ofthese women. When we explained, that the Election Commission has designated 2018 as the year of Accessible Elections,with a special focus on Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) like themselves, and that the purpose of our visit is to better understand their difficulties and challenges and to communicate to them personally that we will be creating special facilities for their enrolment and voting, it took only a moment’s gap for comprehension and soon,all present collectively break into a smile which drifted across like a hopeful haze.
The mood of the room further transformed, as we announce that one of theirs,BatimonNongsteng will be appointed as a Special Booth Level Officer for PwDs of Massar Polling Station under 27-Pynursla (ST) AC, with the specific role to assist the PwDs in enrolment in the electoral rolls, to facilitate them during polling, and to also act as facilitator of the PwDs in all election matters, including issues concerning their welfare in connection with their participation in the electoral process. Sign languages, embodying applause, quickly follows when we announce that as part of Assured Minimum Facility (AMF), priority voting,and continued endeavours to ensure the presence of specially trained volunteers, would be made available for them in all future elections. To end this unique interaction, a vote of thanks was proposed by a young hearing impaired girl who recently passed her matriculation from St. Fernando, a leading speech and hearing impaired institution of the state.
As we exited, the community appeared delighted to shake hands with the election team and to have their photographs takenbefore we made our way back to the State capital. We hope that withthese multiple efforts,to expand inclusive elections to the previously excluded, Massar village, withBatimonNongsteng as special BLO, will act as a new harbinger of change so that Massar will no longer be impervious to the festival of democracy. The hope and the challenge is to transform the ‘unheard that is not only heard loud and wide but is also experienced in manner that resonates in its entirety the Election Commission’s motto – ‘No voter to be left behind’.
The CEO, Addl. CEO, ERO, AERO and Election Team pose with the Nonsteng hearing impaired voters at Massar Village