People who visit Shillong and have friends there love to sing paeans to the city. That’s because they connect the place to the friends they hold dear. But every city has its underbelly, more so one that is growing at a frenetic pace and where urban migration has turned pockets into ghettos populated by people of one community. People in these ghettos mix among themselves and after the first ethnic conflict erupted in 1979, followed by others in 1984, 1987 and 1992, the minority communities have lived with a sense of deep insecurity. This inability to create social capital across communities has made Shillong a powder keg for communal conflagrations.
Meghalaya is back in the news for the aftermath of a relatively minor incident on the morning of 31 May involving a scuffle between people of two communities. The incident need not have erupted into a communal conflict. Unfortunately, it did because of the inherent prejudices embedded in the tribal mind. There was an altercation between some girls from the Mazhabi Sikh community and a young Khasi tribal man at the wheels of a Shillong Public Transport Service bus. The buses are parked near Punjabi Lane — the area where the Sikh community resides.
The girls were fetching water and were agitated that the bus was obstructing their path. They asked the young man to move the bus and make way for them. He must have said something that offended the girls. The CCTV camera records the action although the words were inaudible. The girls pelted stones at the bus and went and complained to their male relatives. The men came out and assaulted the driver and two other young boys.
The injured were taken to hospital and their father proceeded to the Cantonment Police Beat House to file an FIR. The Sikhs followed to file a counter FIR. Later they arrived at a compromise. That should have ended the squabble but it wasn’t to be. It became a case of “a non-tribal beating up a tribal in his homeland,” a misdemeanour that cannot be tolerated. And that started the melee.
By the afternoon of 31 May, a large group of women hawkers (tribals) went to Punjabi Lane to confront the assaulters. By then the issue had been communally polarised. Police posted at Punjabi Lane prevented the hawkers from entering the troubled zone and chased them towards Motphran — a commercial area, some 500 metres away.
Soon a WhatsApp message circulated saying that the three boys who were assaulted had died. That triggered the outrage. Hundreds of people assembled at Motphran and police had to fire tear gas shells through the night of 31 May and early morning on 1 June. The tear gas shelling continued until 3 June.
One wonders why, despite the outward facade of plurality and the growth of an intellectual class among Meghalaya’s tribals, the ethnic devil continues to lurk in the dark crevices of their minds. So much so it takes a tiny spark to flame the fires of a communal outrage. When will that insecurity about the “other” ever transform into a calm acceptance that the “other” has contributed to the growth, development and prosperity of the state and of Shillong in particular? Actually it is the non-tribal minority, which should feel insecure considering they have survived the 1979 ethnic clashes.
Ironically, Meghalaya was created without bloodshed in 1972. That was a singular achievement. The non-tribals stood firm with the tribes in their demand for a separate state to be carved out of Assam. And a new tribal political leadership took over the reins of governance.
There were aspirations galore when the state was born but five years later, the excitement that fuelled the hill state movement had subsided and reality set in. The next elections were approaching and politicians were hard put to show that they have transformed the state into something better than the one they inherited from Assam. But there was nothing to show. Meanwhile the aspirational youth became agitated about not finding economic opportunities. So politicians had to resort to subterfuge, which is the trade they know. They blamed the “outsider” for the ills in the state and for the lack of economic opportunities.
It’s a fact that a good number of government employees then were non-tribals inherited from the erstwhile Assam government and banks and other public sector undertakings too were populated by non-tribals because the tribes had not come into their own educationally.
But a students’ union, which actually became a tool for politicians, went berserk and led the violent “anti-foreigner” movement. Bengalis were termed Bangladeshis and the ethnic cleansing began in right earnest. Bengali people who had lived there for decades were assaulted, killed and forced to leave Shillong. They sought shelter in nearby Assam and West Bengal.
Things subsided for a while and then another bout of ethnic conflicts ensued in 1984, 1987 and so on. This time the victims were Nepalese who came as fourth grade workers after the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950. But although the main targets were Nepalese, Bihari people too were not spared. A family was burnt alive at a particular locality of Shillong. This scary affair shocked even the Khasi tribals themselves. They never imagined that so much hatred and anger resided in their youth. More so, since Khasis are known to be a genteel race.
Ethnic tension continued through 1992. A bout of militancy followed, which petered out by 2002 in the Khasi Hills, but continued to rage in the Garo Hills until early this year.
Now what is the angst of the tribal youth? What is their biggest fear? Why does this fear persist? It sounds irrational that the tribal majority would fear the usurpation of their land and resources when they enjoy special protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The tribes enjoy 80 per cent job reservation in Meghalaya. The Meghalaya Transfer of Land Regulation Act (1971) prohibits non-tribes from buying land or property except in a designated space — the European Ward — within a 10×10 sq km radius in the heart of Shillong. But that place is shrinking even while the non-tribal population has grown. With shrinking opportunities as well, many non-tribals have moved away to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Left behind are the elders who continue with their small and medium commercial
Political observers feel that those who came in hordes from the villages were mercenaries who carried out someone’s political agenda. The locality elders who tried to contain the incident said most of the youth were inebriated. They violated the curfew and pelted stones at the police. To their credit the police were very restrained despite provocation. At least 30 cops are injured and in hospital.
At such times the truth is a casualty. Even educated, otherwise rational people from the tribal community sided with their own people because of past prejudices. The Mazhabi Sikh community was brought in by the British to clean the dry latrines. They were, at the time, a small number.
Over seven decades their numbers have grown and the residents in that ghetto include new arrivals and rentees. What was once a residential area had morphed into a congested, chaotic ghetto. Sale of liquor and gambling only added to the constant brawls that emanated from the place.
Attempts to relocate the community started since the 1980s but successive governments have failed in their attempts. The need to relocate this community is imperative. Their present residence next to Meghalaya’s biggest market — Iewduh and Iew Mawlong — is not the place for their young ones to live and grow in. Needless to say the Mazhabi Sikhs are a formidable vote bank, so politicians of all hues pamper them. But to survive, they also pay regular hafta to a host of vested interests including the police.
Interestingly the hawkers who battled it out on the streets of Shillong have a vested interest in the removal of the Sikh colony from Iew Mawlong. They believe that the empty space will allow creation of a flea market by putting pressure on the government. They succeeded in getting that commitment from the two-month-old Meghalaya Democratic Alliance Government led by Conrad Sangma on Monday afternoon after they stormed the State Secretariat.
Things have now returned to “normalcy” — a word carelessly used to define a situation where a problem is temporarily buried. But we all know that this is yet another lull before the storm.
The writer is Editor of the Shillong Times and can be contacted at [email protected]