The situation in Shillong is returning to normal after the recurring incidents of communal violence that broke out on 31 May 2018. As it was one of the most peaceful and conflict-free cities in Northeastern India and remained so for the last two decades with cultural assimilation and tolerance towards various communities, this sudden outburst of violence has bewildered citizens and raised questions on the underlying intents and objectives.
The trigger for this was supposedly the harassment of a Punjabi woman by a Khasi bus driver. Fuelled by fake news and rumour spread through irresponsible social media, this led to violence between the two communities on a scale not seen in many years. As Khasi mobs kept on demanding the eviction of the Punjabi community from their settlement areas, it became a law and order issue. Armed forces had to be deployed eventually and a curfew was imposed in various sensitive locations bringing the city to a standstill.
This unanticipated violence reminds one of the earlier dark periods in Shillong during the 1980s and 1990s, when it was the site of many horrendous incidents of communal violence. As ethnicity was the basis of the creation of the state of Meghalaya in 1972 under the North Eastern Area Reorganisation Act, 1971, the seed was sown for ethnic conflicts between the tribes and settler non-tribal communities. This culminated in a full-fledged riot in 1979 with insane intolerance and xenophobia against various non-tribal communities that created the narrative of ‘tribal’ and ‘non-tribal’.
With two more major ethnic riots till 1992 between indigenous tribals and settler non-tribal communities, sharp discrimination, marginalisation and othering became visible in all walks of life and led to the mass exodus of Bengalis, Biharis, Nepalis and Marwaris. They left behind not only their occupations, livelihood and land but also deep-rooted socio-cultural connections built over decades.
Political Scientist Thongkholal Haokip in 2013 debated that the presence of business establishments, labour force and other employment opportunities by settlers who were mainly economic migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, Nepal and other parts of India triggered ‘anxiousness among the native locals’ and resulted in riots. He further mentioned that ‘by the turn of the twentieth century the state witnessed a relative change in the nature of relations between the ethnic communities. While relations between the indigenous tribals and settler communities have relatively improved’, the city started to change gradually and credibly with efforts of both civil society and State towards an idea of inclusion and plurality.
With such gradual transformation, Shillong became a beautiful hill tourist destination. The number of tourists rose, and during the decade from 2006 to 2016, their numbers increased from 4.04 lakh to 8.39 lakh, a real tourist boom. Among them were many evicted ‘non-tribals’ who returned as ‘tourists’ to revive memories. With tourism emerging as one of the key drivers of the economy in Meghalaya, one can see an evolving idea of Outer Shillong.
As tourists are keen to explore untouched areas, tourism has extended beyond Shillong to various parts of Khasi and Jaintia Hills like Jowai, Dawki, Cherrapunji, Mawlynnong, and even up to Garo Hills. Thus, the places which used to be extremely ‘unsafe’ in the earlier days of conflict are now becoming adventure-packed destinations with many new discoveries like root-bridge and natural caves. This has attracted both national and international policy attention for a sustainable tourism model.
Along with tourism, Shillong has also become an important place for India to balance its new strategy and economy with neighbouring nations and is a hub for various important negotiations at both global and national levels. This is transforming the city space towards a new urban capitalism and market economy with thrust on connectivity, commerce and capital. This new economic landscape has also created a nouveau riche class and culture in the state.
On the other hand, such new realities are becoming causes of concern for local communities. ‘Unguarded urbanisation’ are suspected to have serious implications and consequences on land, people and ecology. The violence against the Punjabi community, settled in Shillong for more than a century, may be a reflection of such new anxieties of the local tribes. This community, according to scholars like Himadri Banerjee in 2010 and Birinder Pal Singh in 2017, is originally the Mazhabi Sikhs with their socio-economic profile as ‘safai karamcharis’ or manual scavengers. They kept the city clean but lived in the worst slums with ‘their own social networks as survival strategies’.
These ‘low-caste Mazhabi Sikhs have neither changed their occupation nor caste identity over the last one century. They have created space for themselves and stuck their neck out by reasserting their ethnic and religious identity in a socio-political milieu manifestly hostile to them as ‘outsiders’. One Punjabi Colony is in the heart of the city near Police Bazar and Centre Point 2 with the largest settlement of about 252 houses and more than double the number of families residing there on both sides of the market road. The other Punjabi colonies are at Gora Line with about 160 households on the lower side of the hill road and at Happy Valley and Cantonment area with few scattered families.
With emerging urbanisation, these Punjabi colonies are increasingly seen as prime areas of Shillong and can be the new enclaves of urban capitalism through various agglomerations like shopping complexes, tourist lodges or real estate developments. In this context, the recent violence against such a marginalised community cannot probably be seen in isolation or justified as the outbreak of new anxiety of local tribes but may have much a larger context in the changing economic aspirations of local tribal oligarchs.
The writer is on the faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.