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By Ramesh Jaura
MANILA (IDN) – She can easily pass off as a university student. Not only because she is rather young-looking and unpretentious but also because she is dressed so simple that you would not associate her with the keynote speaker at the opening of the Asia-Pacific Regional Seminar on ‘Indigenous Peoples, Climate Change and Rural Poverty’.
But she is indeed Agatha Sangma, minister of state for rural development in the Government of India, headed by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.
While you feel embarrassed for not recognizing her, she is unruffled and says: “I am used to it.” Indeed she is – since she entered the lower house of parliament (Lok Sabha) in May 2008 at the age of 27 in a bye-election from her father’s constituency of Tura in the West Garo hills in the small northeastern state of Meghalaya, literally meaning the ‘Abode of Clouds’.
Her father, Purno Agitok Sangma – a veteran political leader – remained a member of the Lok Sabha for eight terms spanning some 40 years. He held several important ministerial posts in the Government of India, and was Lok Sabha Speaker – president of the lower house of parliament – before deciding to quit national politics.
Agatha Sangma was re-elected to the Lok Sabha in the April-May 2009 countrywide polls.
Her brothers James and Conrad are also in state politics; her sister Christie is the only one who has not entered politics.
The Asian Forum of Parliamentarians for Population and Development (AFPPD) invited her as a keynote speaker because she belongs to the scheduled tribes as recognized in India’s Constitution, and holds the portfolio of rural development in India’s union cabinet – both qualifying her to speak about indigenous peoples and alleviating poverty in rural areas.
Agatha Sangma grew up in an intensely political atmosphere – like Indira Gandhi, the daughter of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, though in post-Independence India.
Indira Gandhi served as prime minister for a total of 15 years – three consecutive terms from 1966 to 1977 and for a fourth term from 1980 until her assassination in 1984. She was India’s first, and to date only, female prime minister.
Agatha Sangma does not see any parallels between herself and Indira Gandhi.
Though, a gentle pride creeps in, when in her keynote address she refers a couple of times to “my government”, a phrase that one would not expect to hear from a minister of state, elaborating the government’s policy and actions for the benefit of the indigenous peoples or scheduled tribes.
Agatha Sangma holds M.A. degree in Environmental Management from Nottingham University in the UK, Diploma in Cyber Laws; Diploma in Corporate Laws, Diploma in Human Rights Laws, and Diploma in Securities and Investment Laws.
She is a keen student of Machiavelli – a sixteenth century Italian philosopher and writer, who is considered one of the main founders of modern political science. Like the versatile Leonardo da Vinci, renowned as painter and sculptor, Machiavelli is on the one hand considered a good example of the ‘Renaissance Man’ whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.
On the other, however, one would tend to link Machiavelli with his political treatise ‘The Prince’ which – rightly or wrongly – has come to symbolize the methodical exercise of punishment-and-reward tactics in politics to preserve power and status quo.
Time will tell where and how Agatha Sangma will deploy the tactics of ‘The Prince’. But the fact is that she knows how to bring to bear her point of view from behind the scene.
When the Asia-Pacific parliamentarians discussed the ‘draft statement of commitment’ on March 26, the second day of the AFPPD regional seminar in the Philippine capital, she saw to it that the “Adivasi, scheduled tribes, hill tribes, national minorities, among others” were not referred to as “other names” by which the indigenous peoples around the world are known.
Agatha Sangma has a point there. Though the UN has not adopted an official definition of “indigenous”, the widely accepted view is that indigenous peoples are those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement or other means.
This, she says, is not the case in India. But there are about 82 million people in India “who are among the most vulnerable and are known as Scheduled Tribes” of which she is a part. She belongs to the Garo tribe.
Most of the scheduled tribes reside in forested areas and about half of them live below poverty line. They are grouped into about 700 tribes. Among these tribes there are some still at pre-agricultural stage, and are known as ‘Primitive Tribe Groups’ (PTGs). Now they have been identified ‘Most Vulnerable Tribal Groups’ (MVTGs). Like in other parts of the world, these tribes are dependent on forest based natural resources for their survival.
“In India, we respect their culture, traditions and ethos,” she tells Asia-Pacific parliamentarians and media. She points out – in a tender rhetorical style – that since the days of India’s first Prime Minister Nehru, “we have adopted the ‘Panchsheel principle’ which basically means development of these tribes as per their own wisdom and ethics, without imposition of outside culture and influence”.
That Agatha Sangma should evoke Nehru who died sixteen years before she was born, is far from self-evident. In fact, there is a growing tendency among those in her age-group to ignore at best a critical phase of post-Independence India through which Nehru skillfully steered the country.
Others, however, criticize Nehru for representing, to some extent, the moral conscience of thinking humanity, and aspirations of the newly independent countries without being in a position to back these up with the necessary strength that neither India nor other Asian countries possessed in a world caught in the fever of the cold war. (IDN-InDepthNews/29.03.2010)
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