Running a business in a region where militants run parallel governments — overt or tacit — is tough. Trying to change the rules is much more taxing, unless you are made of steel — like Khegoli Aomi and Dolly Khonglah.
Aomi knew dealing with militants would be part of her life after a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) killed her minister-husband L. Hekiye 15 years ago. She, however, had no idea it would involve talking extremists out of kidnapping or killing non-tribal traders for failing to pay “taxes” imposed by the militants.
Dimapur, where Aomi is based, is Nagaland’s commercial capital. It is also a haven for criminals of all shades, the law too tied up with extortionist — fratricidal too — militants to notice them. It makes the life of businesspersons all the more difficult, and perhaps the only one they can turn to is Aomi, president of the Dimapur Business Organization.
The 40-something Aomi spent more time mediating with militants than running her restaurants when the NSCN (Unification) faction went on an abduction-and-killing spree in November 2007. She helped secure the release of many.
“Everyone has the right to pursue a trade or profession without fear, and this is what I have been trying to tell those who talk through the gun,” said Aomi, who balances business and running a large family after marrying a teacher a few years back. “It takes a lot of time to improve things here, but I will carry on for the sake of Nagaland’s image.”
At Tamabil in Meghalaya, 400 km south of Dimapur, Dolly Khonglah is fighting another battle. This trading point on the Indo-Bangladesh border was notorious for exporters offloading sub-standard coal on overloaded trucks, robbing the government of at least Rs 200 crore in revenue.
When Khonglah (53) joined the mafia-controlled trade a decade ago, she decided to play by the book. “I always believed in giving importers value for their money,” she said. This entails visiting the mines 70 km inside Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills district frequently to select quality coal and adhering to truck-weight regulations.
Khonglah’s no-nonsense attitude has paid off in the heavy-duty, male-dominated and often brawny trade — her consignments are rarely held up, whatever the circumstances along the volatile border. And as secretary of the Meghalaya International Exporters’ Chamber of Commerce, she pulls a lot of weight.
“There’s a lot of transparency in the coal and limestone export business these days, and people are finding out there’s a limit to making money unscrupulously,” said the polyglot Khonglah, who is changing the way the border business is run.
This, though, has come at an expense. Her children still call her ‘auntie’ — the outcome of having to spend long days away from home after her husband’s death in a car crash 28 years ago to support her extended family.