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Perched on top of one of Shillong's hills, lined with quaint wooden cottages and meat markets, lies Mawlai constituency. Commonly known as the gateway to Shillong, it is steeped in history and significance. It is the capital's main meat district, was the seat of the statehood movement that began in the 1950s and culminated in the formation of Meghalaya in 1972, and runs what is virtually a parallel government from its own secretariat and with its own municipal administration.
It is also home exclusively to Meghalaya's tribal elite, who have ensured that no community other than Khasis lives here. The Khasis, the state's most populous tribe, are also its most powerful, with Shillong falling in the Khasi Hills. And within the capital, Mawlai is the seat of the Khasis, birthplace of the powerful Khasi Students' Union that often dictates governance and state policies.
"Even the national parties here have a regional outlook and usually pit Khasis against Garos," says a political analyst. The Khasis and the Garos, along with the Jaintias, are Meghalaya's major tribes. "Despite there being a Garo chief minister (Mukul Sangma), the bureaucracy including the police is dominated by the Khasis."
Incumbent Congress MLA Founder Strong Cajee decided in 2008 that Mawlai should have its own secretariat; when he had his way, both the chief minister and the chief secretary turned up for the inauguration. After his maiden victory in the 2008 polls, recalls Cajee, "I proudly announced I will form a separate Mawlai government. My statement created an uproar and was discussed even in Parliament."
He explains how Mawlai governs itself. "The Mawlai Town Durbar is a conglomeration of 26 Khasi village chieftains," he says. "The constituency is the only one in Meghalaya which falls outside the purview of the (parent town's) municipality. We carry out all our municipal services ourselves."