The state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972. Six years later, an outfit called Khasi Students Union (KSU) emerged in 1978 with the motto Mait Shaphrang Khlur Ka Ri -‘Strive Forward Children of the Soil’.
Children of the Soil, however, excluded all non-Khasis, regardless of how many generations one has been living there for. KSU coined a term for such people, Dkhar – outsiders, who are inferior humans, and hence deserving to be scorned, knocked and thrashed at every opportunity, to be driven out of Meghalaya or even killed. This neoNazi sub-nationalism militates against the character of the Khasis who are peaceful, music-loving and friendly. These outsiders have a history dating back to the 19th century. In 1874, Assam was created as a separate province out of the Bengal Presidency, with the beautiful hill town Shillong as its capital.
Assam was ultimately fragmented into seven states between 1969 and 1987, but then was a vast territory inhabited by various ethnic and linguistic groups. Being the capital and a beautiful hill town, Shillong attracted lots of them along with the middle class educated people from the adjoining areas -especially the Sylhet district which would ultimately go to East Pakistan. They found employment in government and private offices, schools and colleges in Shillong and made it their home. Christian missionaries set up some of the best schools and colleges in Shillong which grew as a culturally vibrant, intellectually stimulating, cosmopolitan town. The non-tribals who had made Shillong their home contributed richly to its educational, cultural and intellectual climate; many institutions established or pioneered by them still exist and continue to enrich people’s lives.
Once the Partition happened and Sylhet ceded to Pakistan, its large Hindu Bengali population was forced to migrate as refugees. They settled mostly in Shillong because of the educational opportunities it offered, and in the Barak Valley of Assam. Shillong still continued to function as the capital of Assam. When during the 1960s, the Bongal kheda or ‘Bengali Chasing’ movement convulsed Assam with widespread violence and riots directed against the Bengalis, Shillong remained as peaceful as ever, as if nothing could blemish its green hills and blue skies. But it was an illusion too good to be true. The Bengalis and the Khasis, being economically dependent on each other, had developed a symbiotic and harmonious relationship.
However, once Meghalaya was formed and included in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, non-tribals were barred from acquiring property in Meghalaya. The new State also promptly implemented near total reservation of jobs for its tribal population. Feeling marginalised and denied all opportunities in Meghalaya, the nontribal population started migrating slowly. But the slow exodus did not satisfy the KSU whose objective was to drive them away en masse to secure the state only for the tribals, and then capture political power. In fact, one leader of KSU later became a minister. To achieve their nefarious goal, KSU then designed a devious but effective strategy -to target one non-tribal community at a time by provoking them – and then unleashing all their goons against them.
They knew that being small in number, these communities were in no position to unite and offer resistance; they would, therefore, be forced to leave. The strategy was a masterstroke. It was no coincidence that the very next year after KSU’s formation, in October 1979, orchestrated by the KSU, Shillong was engulfed for the first time in gruesome riots and ethnic cleansing directed against the Bengalis. On the Diwali night, two KSU miscreants desecrated the idol of goddess Kali – by some accounts, they walked over the idol of the goddess – and were thrashed by the devotees. What followed was one of the most shameful chapters in the history of Shillong. Bengali houses were set on fire, Bengalis were dragged out of their homes and killed with extraordinary brutality that would shame the Nazis, and Bengali women were raped. While the murderers and marauders indulged in murder and mayhem with absolute impunity, police and administration remained mute spectators, turning a blind eye to the unspeakable atrocities.
Most Bengalis left Shillong after 1979. Such KSU-organised pogroms then became the routine in Meghalaya. In 1987, it erupted first against the Nepalis, and then other communities – resulting in a year-long curfew in Shillong and taking a heavy toll on its economy and education. Hundreds of refugees – their houses and possessions burnt – had to live a miserable life in schools turned into refugee camps for months. The academic sessions went haywire and students including Khasis started migrating outside, never ever to return.
Inspired by the chaos and violence, a separatist militant outfit – Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) – came up, though it was largely neutralised by the security forces. Violence continued to resurface with astonishing regularity before culminating in severe riots in 1992 against the Biharis who were mostly dairy farmers – even their cows were burnt alive. No non-tribal community – Marwaris, Sindhis, Punjabis – has been spared the KSU’s wrath. Most recently, in 2018, the Punjabi Dalits who have been living in Shillong for decades were the targets of its violence. Killing innocent people is terrorism, and KSU eminently qualifies to be branded a terrorist organisation and be proscribed. The repeated waves of violence unleashed by them seriously affected development and flow of capital into this poor state entirely dependent of Central grants for survival; but to the KSU, this was never a concern. They had accumulated so much power for perpetrating violence that even the Khasi civil society which believes in peace, stability and harmony like any other fell silent out of fear. It was a complete lumpenisation of politics and politicisation of lumpens. A rogue organisation thus holds society at ransom at its will, calls for protracted bandhs and imposes all kinds of restrictions which no one dares disobey. Their power to enforce dictates being total, they thrive on the huge sums of money easily extorted from every non-tribal trader, businessman and professionals like doctors or lawyers. They have no concern for the thousands of Khasi boys and girls pursuing studies and jobs elsewhere in India who often face difficulty due to their actions.
The last two decades were relatively peaceful in Shillong which attracted tourists from all over. Between 2006 and 2017, their numbers increased from 4 lakh to more than a million. Tourism brought prosperity while tourism infrastructure developed and outside capital also started flowing in. With economic development upstaging xenophobia, KSU found its influence waning and followers dwindling, before the Centre provided them with the much-needed impetus to resurrect the trademark violence which constitutes their DNA, in the form of Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
As a matter of fact, CAA does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura as included in the Sixth Schedule, and the area covered under the inner line notified under the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873. But under pressure from KSU, the Meghalaya Assembly passed a resolution demanding an Inner Line Permit for the state – but has refrained from implementing it, in view of the huge losses it would cause to the tourism industry and local employment. But development is anathema to KSU – for years they have been staunchly opposing the introduction of railways in Meghalaya. Not being able to muster enough support from within Shillong, they fanned out in the villages inciting villagers against the non-tribals, playing their same tested script of provoking and retaliating. In one such village, Ichamati, bordering Bangladesh, one Khasi activist was thrashed by the non-tribals who later died. The village is inhabited mostly by Bengali Hindus – not Muslim migrants from Bangladesh. It is inconceivable that a handful of them will kill a KSU activist without any serious provocation, possibly arson and loss of property, and eight were immediately arrested. But what followed were vicious attacks against non-tribals in Shillong – 85 kilometers from Ichamati – in which two small-time traders were killed brutally and scores stabbed and injured by rampaging KSU goons, forcing the administration to clamp curfew which is still continuing.
The HNLC, meanwhile, has discovered some connection of the Ichamati incident to Hindutva and issued an ultimatum “to all the Hindu Bengalis to leave Ichamati and Majai areas within one month” failing which, “we shall not be made responsible in case of any eventuality. This time it shall be mass bloodshed.” Perhaps the State and the Centre will continue to watch silently. Refugee lives are always cheap.