A deceptive calm now

A deceptive calm now


Meghalaya is back in the news, but for the wrong reasons. The incident of May 31, which was merely a scuffle between people of two communities need not have turned ugly. But it did, because of the prejudices embedded in the tribal mind.

The incident started with an altercation between some girls from the Mazhabi Sikh community and a young Khasi tribal man at the wheel of a Shillong Public Transport Service bus. The buses are usually parked near the Punjabi Lane, as the area where the Sikh community resides is called.

The girls were fetching water and were irritated 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. They pelted stones at the bus and complained to their male relatives. The men came out and assaulted the driver and two other young boys. Later, there was a compromise.

By afternoon that same day, a large group of women hawkers (tribals) decided to confront the assaulters. By then, the issue had turned communal. Police posted at Punjabi Lane prevented them from entering the troubled zone and chased them towards Motphran, a commercial area some 500 metres away.

Soon, a WhatsApp message began circulating 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 teargas shells that whole night of May 31 and the early morning of June 1. The teargas shelling continued until June 3.

In Meghalaya’s proud capital of Shillong, it takes a tiny spark to flame the embers of an embedded sense of insecurity about the “other.” The other here is the non-tribal minority, which should actually feel insecure considering they have been to hell and back since 1979, when the ethnic cauldron brimmed over.

The state of 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.

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 aspirations and excitement that fuelled the hill state movement had subsided and reality set in. The next elections were approaching and politicians had nothing to show by way of achievements. They blamed the “outsider” for the ills in the state and for the lack of economic opportunities.

It is a fact that most government employees then were non-tribals inherited from the erstwhile Assam government. Banks and other public sector undertakings, too, were populated by non-tribals because the tribes had not come into their own educationally.

A young aspirational group of students then led the “anti-foreigner” movement where Bengalis were termed Bangladeshis and the ethnic cleansing began. Bengali people who had lived here for decades were assaulted, many killed and others forced to leave Shillong.

For a while there was a lull, and then another bout of ethnic conflict ensued in 1987. This time, the victims were Nepalese people who came here following the Indo-Nepal Treaty of 1950. Although the main targets were Nepalese, even Bihari people were targeted.

A family was burnt alive in one 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. Then followed a bout of militancy, which tapered by about 2002 in the Khasi Hills but continued to rage in the Garo Hills until early this year.   

Shrinking space

So, what is it that the tribal youth feared then and why does this fear persist? It sounds irrational that the tribal majority would fear that their lands and resources would be usurped when they enjoy special protection under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution.

The tribes enjoy 80% job reservation in Meghalaya. The Meghalaya Transfer of Land Regulation Act (1971) prohibits non-tribes from buying land or property here, except in a designated space — the European Ward — within a 10x10 sq km radius in the heart of the city. But this place is shrinking, even as 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 activities.  

The Mazhabi Sikh community were brought in by the British to clean the dry latrines. They were, at that time, in a small number. Over seven decades, their numbers have grown and the residents in that ghetto included new arrivals and tenants. What was once a residential area had morphed into a congested, chaotic ghetto.

Sale of liquor and gambling has only added to the constant brawls in the place. Attempts to relocate the community started in the 1980s, but successive governments have failed. Relocating 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.

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 once the Sikhs are moved out, they can have the place to themselves and establish a flea market there. 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 “normal”, a word carelessly used to describe a situation in which a problem has been temporarily buried. We haven’t seen the last of this yet.

(The writer is Editor, Shillong Times)