Pandemonium in the Hills — Meghalaya


Tensions escalated in the capital of Meghalaya, as mobs turned violent during the seven-hour long cease of curfew on Sunday, 3rd of June. Wreaking havoc in the state, the protesters resorted to violent means of pelting stones at the security forces. The show of brute force compelled the government to re-impose curfew from 4 pm on Monday to 5 am on Tuesday. Caught in the mire of communal violence, Shillong has been a witness to brutal clashes between the two communities of Khasis and Punjabis. Stemming from a simple altercation between a Khasi boy and some Punjabi women in the Them Iew Mawlong area of Shillong, the clashes soon spread to other areas of the city. With the additional deployment of paramilitary forces to the curfew-hit state, the centre has tried to mitigate the violence.

But the state should soon bridge the gap between the clashing communities, lest the situation might go haywire.

At each other’s throats

The ethnic communities of Khasis and Punjabis have been at loggerheads since the 1980’s. Alleging the Punjabis to have illegally settled in the state, the Khasi community has been vociferously demanding their eviction. But the Punjabis claim to have settled in the city way back in the 1850’s. Having shifted to the city way before the revolt of 1857, the Punjabis now have a separate residential colony for themselves. Also known as the Sweepers colony, the Punjabi Lane accommodates dwellings of Dalit Sikhs. The Dalit Sikhs in Shillong have a unique history. Brought to the state by the British army during their expansionary phase, the Dalit Sikhs were employed for the purpose of manual scavenging in military bases. Having been allotted a piece of land by the local Syiem (head) of Mylliem (village) in 1863, the Dalit Sikhs decided to permanently settle in the city.

The tussle began when the Meghalaya government decided to curb the practise of manual scavenging in the state. Devoid of employment, the Dalit Sikh community struggled to survive in the state. Some were even alleged to have had resorted to illegal means of earning livelihood. The Khasi groups of `The Federation of Khasi Garo Jaintia People’ and `The Khasi Students’ Union’ led a vociferous campaign in demand of the eviction of the Punjabi settlers. The demonstration was led in the backdrop of the 1970 eviction order by the Shillong District Administration, which was later stayed by the Meghalaya High Court in 1986. The Punjabis have always been ostracized by the dominant Khasi communities. Denied of social acceptance, the Sikh community has been subjected to alienation. Viewed as ‘outsiders’, the Sikhs have been perceived as a threat to the ethnicity of the land.

The all-pervasive sense of paranoia in the North-east

The issue just doesn’t confine itself to the area of Shillong. Plaguing the entire north-eastern region of India, is the xenophobic attitude towards North Indian migrants. This aversion towards the heartland settlers gradually translated into acts of violence being inflicted upon them. The itinerant Sikhs who migrated in the 1960’s, sought jobs in urban centres of Shillong, Kohima, Aizwal and Guwahati. Even some Sikhs who were initially settled in Bihar shifted to the North East. The locals saw this influx as a threat to their own survival. Succumbing under the obligation to accommodate these new settlers, the locals feared a heightened pressure on lands. Facing competition in all realms of life, the locals soon developed a sense of hatred towards them. With no proper representation of the community in the local governing bodies, the Punjabi Sikhs soon began to face the ire of the ethnic communities.

The clashes in Shillong hold a mirror to the communal hatred that is rife among the common masses in the state. The Sikh Community also has accused the government of perpetrating the violence in order to facilitate the alleged shift of the Sikhs to the outskirts of the city. The Sikhs have alleged that the local administration has had harboured malafide intentions of utilising their lands for commercial purposes.

Even though Meghalaya CM Conrad Sangma has assured the people of their safety, there is a sense of fear that grips the state. In talks with the Punjab CM, Mr Sangma is currently looking at the Sikh’s demand for relocation. A Committee headed by the Deputy CM is currently negotiating terms with the Punjabi community. It’s high time for the government to provide relief to the marginalized sections. But whether relocation would prove to be a feasible long-term solution, only time can tell.

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