The Silent Ballot – Massar
The village of Kongthong in 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, lies the village of Massar, known as a “silent village’’, with its 87 households, being either, partially or completely tone deaf and hearing impaired. In the year of Accessible Elections, this feature drew the election officials towards the village, in an effort to better understand and to make Elections truly accessible to each and every voter, and to perhaps make an “unheard” election “heard”.
With a view to penetrate these impervious circles, the officials soon found themselves at the village Headman’s house. The young Headman and his Secretary shared a detailed account of how over 87 households belonging to the Nongsteng clan have remained silent for generations together for the past 100 years.
He revealed that there are two groups of people amongst the Nongsteng Clan – The “hearing group” – Nongsteng Sngew and the “deaf group” Nongsteng Kyllut, living on two different hills. He mentioned that 87 households from amongst the village residents are dominated by the Nongsteng “deaf group”. It was pointed out that, most 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 numbers about 90 persons, including 42 children.
The officials personally interacted with the community members to understand ways to make tangible efforts at making Accessible Elections not only truly accessible, but also inclusive, for each and every eligible voter from amongst them. A young lady Batimon Nongsteng a member of the Nongsteng kyllut clan, acted as a vital link on communication between the two parties. 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. Batimon shared that to survive, some learnt to lip-read, whereas a large many floundered. On enquiring about elections 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 how they responded to political campaigns, the members revealed that they diligently followed messages, received on their mobile phones, which even in their respective day to day lives is an indispensible tool for enabling them to communicate and negotiate their challenged existences. The officials were told that as the hearing 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.
Across the village, silence hangs like a heavy curtain, and interpersonal communication is relegated to lip-reading and basic sign language. When the village votes, even the beep of the electronic machine is often lost on most of these women. Painstakingly, it was communicated that the Election Commission has designated 2018 as the year of Accessible Elections, with a special focus on People With Disabilities (PWDs) like themselves, and that the purpose of the visit was to better understand their difficulties and challenges, and that the Commission will be creating special facilities for them, for their enrolment and voting, to help them. No sooner were these messages comprehended that the community collectively broke into a smile which drifted across like a hopeful haze.
The affirmative message of Accessible Elections, cut a steady and hope filled path through the silence, and the collective handicaps experienced by this community soon transformed into hope, as it was announced that one of theirs, Batimon Nongsteng has been 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 facilitators of the PWDs in all election matters, including all other issues concerning their welfare in connection with their participation in the Electoral Process. Sign languages, embodying applause, quickly followed when it was announced 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.