Between faith and economy: Why politicise Cherry Blossom Festival?

As the date for the 2023 Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival draws near, another group has emerged from the woodwork criticising the festival. The Ri Bhoi Mihngi Presbytery, part of the Ri Bhoi Presbyterian Church Synod, has expressed that the festival is going to take place on a Sunday, which, according to them, amounts to disregarding the sentiments of churchgoers in the district and the broader state. Not long ago, the Khasi Jaintia Church Leaders Forum (KJCLF) also raised apprehensions about the festival concluding on a Sunday, which according to them is a sacred or holy day for Christians. However, it is not only the religious groups that have voiced their concerns regarding the Festival. Pressure groups from Ri Bhoi district, which include Meghalaya People United Front (MPUF), Ri-Bhoi Youth Organisation (RBYO), United Hynniewtrep Movement (UHM), Saindur Tipkur Tipkha Ehrngiew Hynniewtrep (STIEH), and Meghalaya People’s Social Organisation (MPSO), have also voiced their opposition against the Festival. And they are not the only ones. 

In general, the criticism against the Festival can be divided into two groups, viz., religious groups unhappy that the festival is taking place on a Sunday, and groups and individuals who believe that the festival is a waste of precious financial resources that could have been used productively elsewhere. In response to the criticisms, Paul Lyngdoh, the Tourism Minister, has hinted at a political motive behind the move to oppose the Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival. This seems to be a farfetched allegation, but it is nevertheless important to evaluate the concerns raised by the different groups. Is the 2023 Shillong Cherry Blossom an affront to the devout Christians of the state and a waste of financial resources?

First of all, let’s assume that organising the festival on a Sunday is indeed a violation of the sacred nature of the day for Christians. The response to it, put very bluntly, is “So, what?” Meghalaya is not a Christian state, and as such, Christians don’t have the privilege to define what should or should not happen in the state. If something were to be organised in the state, it should be based on convenience or feasibility and not on the whims and fancies of a religious group. At the moment, the Constitution of the country has defined India as being a secular state and not a theocracy. By extension, Meghalaya is also a secular state where religion should be kept away from interfering in matters of state. By criticising the organisation of the festival on a Sunday, the Christian bodies are trying to hijack the state apparatus, which, as long as the Constitution is in operation, should not be allowed. In fact, going down that route could be very harmful for Christians in the long run.

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The Christian population in Meghalaya is around 75%. This is lower than the proportion of Hindus in India, which is around 80%. Ever since the election of the BJP, there have been overt and covert attempts to steer the country away from the ideal of secularism to one where Hindutva is the overriding principle. In a representative democracy where Christians are less than 5%, if ever India were to deviate from the idea of a secular country, it would be Hinduism that would capture the state apparatus, not Christianity. Once the idea of a Hindu Rashtra has been achieved, steps will be taken to implement MS Golwalkar’s (RSS ideologue) observation from his book ‘Bunch of Thoughts’ (freely available online), where he labelled Christians as “bloodsuckers” and one of the three internal threats that India faces. If ever the idea of a Hindu Rashtra were to come true, what kind of policy is going to be instituted against Christians? That is something I will leave to the imagination of the readers (just imagine Palestine).

However, it does not mean that the scenario I have described will come to pass. There are still forces in the country that are against the destruction of the secular fabric of the Constitution. There is a need to build solidarity with such forces. But that cannot be done by practising favouritism in Meghalaya, where the rights of other religious groups are being ignored by giving preference to the Christians. It is guaranteed that when the rights of religious minorities start being violated, the same Christian groups who are complaining about a festival on a Sunday will cry hoarse and appeal to the secular principle on which the country was founded. At that moment, that will be a very hypocritical appeal. Let’s not go down a path that will not just be hypocritical but also detrimental to the prospects of secularism in the country.

The other complaint against the Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival is that it is a waste of financial resources, considering the state is one of the poorest in the country and one of the least developed. Instead, it is argued that the amount should be spent on improving the facilities and amenities in the state while enhancing the delivery of services to the public. The argument is actually quite sound; money not spent on the Festival is actually money saved for the public. However, the amount of money that might be saved is not going to be enough to do all that is required to raise the standard of living in the state. According to media reports, the government of Meghalaya is investing Rs 1.99 crore out of the total investment of Rs 9 crore. Two crore is a big amount, but not enough to solve the problems of the state. We need more money.

According to the 2023–24 state budget presented in the Assembly, the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) of Meghalaya for 2023–24 (at current prices) is projected to be Rs 46,600 crore, amounting to a growth of 11.5% over 2022–23. This, however, will still be one of the lowest GDP figures in the country. The argument that Meghalaya is a small state does not hold water since Goa, which has just 16% of Meghalaya’s area, already had a GDP of more than 80,000 crore in 2019–2020. Low GDP also translates to low Per Capita Net State Domestic Product or per capita income. According to the Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, the Per Capita Net State Domestic Product of Meghalaya was only Rs. 98,572 during 2022–2023, which was the lowest of all the states for which data was available. Curbing corruption, plugging leakages, and stopping extortion will help, but unless there is more money in the economy, it will be very difficult to increase the living standards of the citizens in the state. One thing that might seem counter-intuitive but is essential to remember is that “in order to make money, one has to spend money”. The question, therefore, is not about saving the 2 crore but about investing in such a way that it can generate more revenue from the state. Can the Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival be one such avenue?

The logic of the Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival is very simple: attract tourists from different parts of the country and abroad to attend the festival, and the money they will spend on tickets and availing services in the state helps generate revenue for the state. In 2017, the festival was able to attract around 30,000 tourists to Shillong. If we assume that one tourist would have spent at least Rs. 5,000 during the four-day period of the festival, the total business generated by this footfall would have been to the tune of Rs. 15 crore. The Tourism Minister, Paul Lyngdoh, has claimed that this year the festival will have around one lakh visitors, which, if true, will create a total business of Rs. 50 crore for the local businesses. 

It is therefore not a surprise, as shown in the documentary ‘Ha Lyndet Ki Tamasa’ by the Youtube channel 4front Media, that many artists and business owners are looking forward to the Festival. In fact, one of the artists who is going to take part in the festival has appealed to the pressure groups not to take away his livelihood. There was a little sadness and frustration in the voice, which is understandable given that artists cannot form an NGO and ask for ‘donations’. The only thing they have is their talent, and what they want is an opportunity to showcase that. In the process, the economy of the state is also benefited, which in turn will mean more revenue to spend on development initiatives.

There was concern raised in the documentary about the misappropriation of funds, which is a genuine concern. That’s where pressure groups can play a very important role by filing for RTIs after the Festival to reveal the flow of funds and the people who got undue benefits. Then they can file a case in court where they can expose the losses that the state incurred because of the corruption. But until then, it is premature to say that the Festival is going to be a waste of financial resources. In fact, we need more of such festivals.

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The 2023 Shillong Cherry Blossom Festival has gotten into a lot of controversy even before it has begun. Some concerns are genuine, though misguided, while others are just plain ridiculous. However, in a democracy, everyone has the right to voice their concerns. Now that the festival is taking place, let’s hope those against it can also respect the right of others to enjoy and earn their livelihood. That, in fact, will be a Christian thing to do.

(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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