The Shillong lesson

The Shillong lesson

Such small incidents can snowball into big crisis

Meghalaya is the most beautiful region of Northeast India, if not in entire India. The natural beauty here is mesmerizing. A small incident took place in the capital of Meghalaya, Shillong, recently. A bus conductor from Khasi community and a Punjabi woman had an altercation over the parking of a bus. The verbal exchange soon became a large scale quarrel. Then the police intervened and tried to calm them down. Soon however, the rumour mill got going over social media and it went viral. As a result a large group of people pelted stones on the local police station. A small matter eventually took the form of a serious incident between the natives and the outsiders. Northeast is plagued by the ongoing feuds among the small communities and tribes as it is and the said incident only added to the extant tension in the region. The situation became so bad, the authorities had to shut down internet and SMS services to curb the spread of rumours. A minor incident caused such a large scale tension that it had repercussions as far and wide as Punjab, Delhi and even Canada. Rumours of a gurudwara being attacked somewhere and some Khasi community people being beaten in Guwahati started floating.    

When this incident happened, I was in Kashmir. Sarhad is running a program called AAASH under which we are trying to find market for articles made by the women artisans from J&K. Noted social activist from Northeast, Sharmila Erome is the brand ambassador of this project. We feel the feeling of alienation among the people of border regions can be alleviated through such positive initiatives. When we learned about the incident at Shillong, we were quite disturbed. The fact that failure to handle a small incident effectively had led to a widespread tension, was very frustrating. The feeling of alienation among the Kashmiris is resonant with that among the Meghalayan people to some extent. Here majority people are Christians, followed by Hindus and Muslims. About 200 years ago, during the British Raj some Sikhs came down here and settled. The Punjabis being inherently hard working, they have established themselves well here in various businesses and have made their presence felt. Naturally, there is a nascent feeling of them being ‘outsiders’ among the local Khasi community. So the altercation between a Sikh woman and the Khasi youth turning into a major and violent incident at Shillong and elsewhere has this angle to it as well.   

When the British brought some Punjabis as cleaning staff to Meghalaya, they also granted them some land. Today this land has acquired prime status. Some local leaders have been demanding repossession of the land by the government and building of commercial complex there by resettling the Punjabi families elsewhere. However, the Punjabis are saying that they are now as local as anyone else and opposing the move. 

Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, Seven Sisters, as they are called make up the Northeast India and they share boundaries with Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and China. These states are mainly inhabited by the tribal communities, many of whom including the Khasis, are Christians. The natural inaccessibility of the regions has always maintained a distance between the local Indians and those from the mainland. To bridge this distance on one hand and to preserve the strong regional identity of the locals on the other, are the two biggest challenges before the incumbent BJP government at the centre. When the need to handle them very carefully was realized, the government had embarked on the task of building the bridges of trust in the region. However, these efforts have been sketchy and that’s one of the reasons of the current situation. The Shillong incident should be taken as a reminder of that.  

Meghalaya is a matriarchic society. The immovable properties here are in the name of girls and it is the girls again who inherit them from their mothers. When people from outside settle here, some of them marry local Khasi girls. Therefore, there is a resentment among the 80% Christian Khasis about losing on the local properties through such liaisons.

The local conflicts among the various communities have been exploited politically on various occasions, so the tension between the local Sikhs and Khasis are partly natural and partly politically incited. As for the nation, any tension in this part of it getting out of hand is fraught with danger. 

Though Congress is the largest party here, the BJP has allied with two other local parties and has managed to come to power. Its political strategy has worked to this extent. However, at the same time, incidents fracturing the communal and social peace have also started taking place since then. Given the long standing issues of the region including the peculiarly border related issues like intrusions and incursions by the Bangladeshis and the Chinese we need to exercise immense care in handling the local conflicts here, lest our not-so-friendly neighbours take advantage of the discontent. Opposition to the locals because they are majority Christians and tolerating the language of driving out Punjabis are both against the national unity and interests. 

Playing with the sentiments of the people and playing with their lives is something we need to beware of. For this reason, even the small incidents in places like Meghalaya need to be taken as a signal. The question is when (and whether) we are going to understand the seriousness of it.