P.A. Sangma

Man of the masses

Print edition : April 01, 2016

Former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma being honoured at a function in Patna in 2012. Photo: PTI

February 14, 2008: P.A. Sangma filing his nomination to contest from Tura constituency in Meghalaya. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

Purno Agitok Sangma was a towering political personality of Meghalaya whose term as Speaker of the Lok Sabha was unforgettable.

PURNO AGITOK SANGMA, who died on March 4, rose from modest beginnings in a far-flung village in Meghalaya to become one of the State’s top leaders and achieve national renown as Lok Sabha Speaker. “No leader from this part has achieved such an extraordinary innings in political life as he,” said Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma, while declaring a seven-day state mourning.

Born on September 1, 1947, at Chapahati village near Mahendraganj, about 355 kilometres from Shillong, Sangma grew up in abject poverty. At the age of 11, he dropped out of school and tended cattle in exchange for food.

Giovanni Battista Busolin, an Italian Salesian priest in the Garo hills, helped Sangma join the Dalu Government High School in Tura. Later, he graduated from St. Anthony’s College in Shillong.

Sangma then joined Dibrugarh University in Assam to pursue an M.A. in International Politics while simultaneously teaching at the local Don Bosco School. He began his political career in 1973 when the Congress appointed him vice president of the Youth Congress in Meghalaya and general secretary the following year.

In 1977, he was elected to the sixth Lok Sabha from Tura constituency, which he continuously represented until the 14th Lok Sabha except for the ninth Lok Sabha, which lasted for about 13 months. Along with serving various portfolios in the Union government, Sangma was also the Chief Minister of Meghalaya in 1988-1990.

His role in Indian politics took a sharp turn at the age of 49, when he was unanimously elected as the 11th Lok Sabha Speaker on May 23, 1996. He was the first Christian, the first from the northeastern States, and the first Speaker from the opposition to achieve that feat.

His uncompromising stand on what he believed led Sangma to lock horns with many leaders of his time. On May 20, 1999, Sangma, along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar, quit the Congress over the issue of party president Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. They later went on to form the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Sangma’s continuous political rift with Sharad Pawar’s ideology led him to quit the NCP and join the Trinamool Congress in 2004. This was in view of Sangma’s lost battle for the NCP’s symbol, which later forced him to join hands with Mamata Banerjee to form the Nationalist Trinamool Congress.

Two years later, he rejoined the NCP, but again resigned from it on June 20, 2012, after Sharad Pawar opposed Sangma’s candidature for the post of President of India. Sangma lost the battle to Pranab Mukherjee, who assumed office as the 13th President in July 2012.

After marking his return to State politics, Sangma launched the National People’s Party at the national level on January 5, 2013 and returned to the Lok Sabha in 2014.

Sangma attended and delivered his last lecture at an inter-college debate organised by Sonapur College on the outskirts of Guwahati on January 28. He died on March 4 following a cardiac arrest, casting a spell of gloom in the Garo hills.

Referring to his term as Lok Sabha Speaker as “unforgettable”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet that “he was a self-made leader whose contribution to the development of the northeast is monumental”.

Sangma worked in various capacities under the Union government from his first appointment as the Minister of State for Industries by Indira Gandhi in 1980.

In 1991, he was inducted into the Union Cabinet by the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and given independent charge of the Ministry of Coal. In 1992, he was given the additional charge of assisting the Prime Minister in the Ministry of Labour. Later, in 1993, Sangma assumed independent charge of the Ministry of Labour.

In 1995, Sangma assumed charge at the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, where he was instrumental in liberalising the use of airwaves.

During his tenure as Speaker, he guided the formation of a Standing Joint Parliamentary Committee on Empowerment of Women and also the constitution of a Joint Parliamentary Committee for considering the Constitution (Eighty-first Amendment) Bill, 1996, which sought to provide for 33.3 per cent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha and the State Legislative Assemblies.

One of the high points of Sangma’s career as Speaker was when an eight-member Study Group of the Committee of Privileges was constituted to report on Ethics and Standards in Public Life. The report was considered by the Committee of Privileges and adopted with some amendments. It was later presented to the 12th Lok Sabha.

Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, while referring to Sangma as the “man of the masses”, said he knew how to run the House with a smile. “I learnt this from him.”

Sangma penned his last letter to Home Minister Rajnath Singh recommending an Arjuna Award to India’s iconic woman football player Oinam Bembem Devi, according to A. Rehman, who was a close aide of Sangma.

Bembem Devi led India on many occasions and won major international events before retiring from international football after the final match between India and Nepal at the 12th South Asian Games in Shillong in February 2016.

Sangma is survived by his wife Sorodini, two sons and a daughter. His son Conrad Sangma is the Leader of the Opposition in the Meghalaya Assembly. The other son, James Sangma, is also a member of the Assembly. His daughter, Agatha Sangma, was the youngest Union Minister of State under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Sangma leaves behind a legacy of perseverance and an ideology that worked towards the betterment of marginalised sections of society.

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