Shillong Violence Exposes Ethnic Fault Lines & Underdevelopment

Shillong may be unpredictable but its people have adopted a ‘never say die’ spirit.

4 min read
Shillong Violence Exposes Ethnic Fault Lines & Underdevelopment

It took a minor scuffle between people of two communities – where one community was unfortunately non-tribal – to send Shillong into a tailspin. The genesis is an altercation between young girls from the Mazhabi Sikh community and a young man at the wheels of the Shillong Public Transport Service (SPTS) bus — a trademark of Shillong.

The girls were going to fetch water and found the bus obstructing their way. They asked the young man at the wheel to move the bus. He must have uttered something offensive, which agitated the girls.

The girls threw stones at the bus, went into their homes and complained to their male relatives. These men then came out and assaulted the man at the wheel and two other young boys, injuring them.


Ethnocentric Phobia Rears Its Ugly Head

The injured parties went to the Cantonment Police Beat House, one to file an FIR, the other to file a counter. After discussion with the Officer-in-Charge (OC) of the police station, the two parties decided to compromise. That should have ended the day’s mishap, except that some women hawkers later decided to take matters into their own hands. The ethnocentric phobia had by then gripped one group. These women went in full force to the Punjabi Lane.

The police posted there tried to prevent them from entering the troubled zone and they were chased away towards Motphran, which is about 500 metres away from the Punjabi Lane. Later, others joined the melee and in no time, things reached a flashpoint where police had to fire tear gas shells all through the night on 31 May and early 1 June morning.

Interestingly, newspapers which reported that the altercation started because the man at the wheel ‘eve-teased’ the girls, have been put through the wringer and their copies burnt. Although none of those taking positions today were actually at the scene of the altercation, they preferred to listen to the driver who said that he said nothing to anger or irritate the Sikh girls.

Does this mean their anger was misplaced and is that what the tribal community wants everyone to believe? Reports are normally what are stated by affected parties and that is the basis of journalism. But then, rationale and communal passions are immiscible.

Shillong – a Communal Ghetto

But like it or not, Shillong is a communal ghetto. After the flare-up in 1979 and later in 1984, 1987, and 1992, which amounted to an ethnic cleansing, the non-tribal minorities that remained behind have tended to live in safer spaces where there is safety in numbers.

The ubiquitous red buses funded by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNRUM) some years ago take a lot of space for parking – space that Shillong does not have. The Punjabi Lane – or Them Iew Mawlong, as it is called by the Khasis – is a congested ghetto originally allocated for a few families that used to service the dry latrines of families in Shillong. That was at least 50 years ago. Since then, the families have multiplied and new residents have come in to find work and shelter.

While Indians have the right to work and settle anywhere, the idea of allowing single-community ghettos to come up in extremely congested areas and a marketing hub at that was sure to become a veritable trouble spot.

Since people are reluctant to move out of these safe spaces and population growth is a natural process, what was once a neat residential area turns into a ghetto after a decade or two. Non-tribals are not allowed to buy land in Meghalaya except in a 10x10 sq km radius in the heart of Shillong called the European Ward.

But even this designated space is now totally occupied by offices, banks and sundry institutions. So where do the younger generation of non-tribals set up residence after marriage? No one will answer that question. No wonder we have houses that are dismantled to make way for four-storey concrete monsters to accommodate the younger brood.


Shillong’s Youth & Their Angst

And what about jobs? The answer to that would be, which jobs? Aren’t all jobs reserved for tribals? Yes, 80 percent of jobs in Meghalaya are reserved for the indigenous Khasi, Jaintia, Garo, Hajong, Koch people. The rest are open to all. But even this is not enough to soothe the tribal angst and the perception that non-tribals are usurping all jobs and especially businesses. Well, all non-tribal business persons have to obtain a trading license from the Autonomous District Councils. These councils are created vide the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to protect the tribals from economic exploitation by non-tribals.

The logic is that tribals are a small minority in this country and their rights over land and resources need to be protected from the larger non-tribal population. Fair enough. But the job market is a fluid one.

Beyond the government, there are a range of jobs requiring skills and there is a vacuum in the construction business, the IT sector, the cloth wholesale and retail business, et al. The non-tribal only fill this vacuum.

With the tourism boom in Meghalaya, most of us were led to believe that the ugly, painful past was behind us, nicely buried in the sands of time. But evidently this city has not moved on. Rapid urbanisation has seen rural youth crowd certain parts of Shillong. They are easily excited and indoctrinated.

This and more of such radicalised groups imported from West Khasi Hills are the ones that are violating the curfew night after night and pelting stones at security forces.

At last count, 30 policemen are injured but they are still a restrained force, for who knows what the situation could morph into if a real bullet hits someone in the mob. For now, Shillong is unpredictable, but Shillong-ites have adopted a “never say die” attitude and believe that “this too shall pass.”

We are all hanging on a wing and a prayer.

(The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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