As a semblance of normalcy finally returns to Meghalaya’s Shillong after days of intermittent mob violence directed largely at the city’s non-tribal residents, several questions have surfaced about the government’s handling of the situation.

Many allege that the state government went soft on the rampaging mobs because the ruling coalition feared cracking down would hurt its prospects in the Assembly election scheduled to take place early next year.

The violence followed the death of five civilians from Meghalaya in firing by the Assam Police during an altercation at Mukroh, a border village claimed by both states. The incident led to widespread protests across Meghalaya, led by five powerful tribal groups in state: the Federation of Khasi Jaintia and Garo People, the Khasi Students’ Union, the Hynniewtrep National Youth Front, the Ri Bhoi Youth Federation and the Jaintia Students’ Union.

In Shillong, the protests turned violent with members of these groups resorting to arson and attacks on non-tribals even as the police allegedly turned a blind eye.

An election looms large

The police’s inaction, observers say, was a result of cynical political calculations. Like most other states in the North East, ethnolinguistic groups, whose politics largely revolve around anti-outsider sentiments, hold considerable sway over the state’s politics.

“Meghalaya has always been a soft state unable to deal with pressure groups that hold the state to ransom by taking a moral high ground that they are actually taking up issues that matter to the public,” said Patricia Mukhim, the editor of Shillong’s most-read daily, The Shillong Times. “Now that elections are round the corner no political party, whether in government or outside it, will dare to challenge the might of these pressure groups, no matter how much law and order problems they create.”

The state is ruled by Meghalaya Democratic Alliance – helmed by the National Peoples’ Party. The coalition comprises a bunch of smaller tribal-centric parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Many in Meghalaya agree with Mukhim. Said Shillong resident and political observer Damien Marwein, “With the elections approaching, people in control will do whatever it takes to hold on to their seat and those attempting to shake that rule will go to any lengths to snatch it, even if it costs lives of the innocent people.”

If it hadn’t been for the impending election, Marwein speculated, more force would have been deployed by the administration to subdue the mob.

Angela Rangad, part of a local civil society organisation called Thma U Rangli Juki, also had a similar thesis. “What is glaring is that none of the legislators or political parties is taking a clear stand on condemning the violence because they are doing their electoral calculations,” said Rangad, who is likely to contest the upcoming polls as an independent candidate.

‘Playing politics’

The National Peoples’ Party, for its part, pushed back against the allegations of inaction. The party’s state president WR Kharlukhi said that police didn’t use excessive force to avoid escalating the situation. “We are trying to maintain law and order and at the same time, we value human life,” he said. “We don’t use excessive force because we know it is our own people.”

Instead, Kharlukhi accused the Opposition parties of “playing politics” and inciting people.

In recent years, the BJP and Trinamool Congress have been competing with the NPP for the over 86% tribal vote in the state. Kharlukhi’s colleague, party spokesperson Nicky Nongkhlaw, blamed them for “pushing this unrest”. “[They] will definitely try to take mileage and advantage out of the violence,” he said. “So, it doesn’t come as a surprise that these things [violence] happened.”

While the BJP and the National Peoples’ Party are coalition partners, the relationship between the two parties has strained in recent times. Both parties have said they would fight the 2021 Assembly election separately.

Roy Kupar Synrem of the Hynniewtrep Youth Council, an outfit that was part of the protests, said it was unfair to blame the tribal pressure groups for the “stray” incidents of violence, suggesting it was the handiwork of some other groups with vested interests. “There may be some people who take advantage of the situation,” he said. “It also may be a political move to create a law and order situation.”

Hynniewtrep Youth Council general secretary Roy Kupar Synrem blamed the violence on "vested interests". Photo: Rokibuz Zaman

More neutral observers were also loath to let the Opposition off the hook completely. “Of course there is also the possibility of a party like TMC [playing a role in the violence] that wants to make an entry into Meghalaya and they stand to win if people lose their trust in the NPP,” said Marwein. “So there is always a political aspect to these events no matter how you look at them.”

Government ‘too weak’

The Opposition parties, though, rubbished accusations of adding fuel to fire. The violence that the city saw was a spontaneous reaction to the killings, said Trinamool Congress’ vice president George B Lyngdoh. “Whenever we lose a near and dear one, there is always agony,” he said. “So they have vented anger, even though this anger has been vented in the wrong direction, targeting some innocent people in the state.”

The killings at the border, the violent reaction to it, and the government’s failure to control the mob, Lyngdoh claimed, proved that it “has been too weak and not been responding at all to the need of the hour”.

“The NPP-BJP government has never been responsive because they are only working to please the masters in Delhi and Guwahati,” Lyngdoh said.

The BJP also hit out at the government, although it is a part of the ruling coalition. “We don’t understand who runs the home ministry – the government or the pressure groups,” said its state vice president Dipayan Chakraborty. “The state government should have been more cautious. It is a very sad affair that the police are also helpless. We don’t know what is happening behind [closed doors].”

A constant threat

Even as the political parties blame each other, the city’s non-tribal residents have been left anguished by yet another spate of targeted attacks on them going largely unpunished. “All of a sudden some miscreants create mayhem in the city and indiscriminately beat up people by looking at their faces,” said Sushit Kanti Choudhury, president of Meghalaya Linguistic Minority Development Forum, which represents nine non-tribal communities in the state, adding that such incidents took place every few months.

Sushit Kanti Choudhury, president of Meghalaya Linguistic Minority Development Forum, at his residence. Photo: Rokibuz Zaman

Violence against non-tribals or “outsiders” in Meghalaya is not new. Such tensions have animated the state’s politics for decades. There have, over the years, been several intermittent episodes of varying intensity and scale. Most recently, in October, a rally in Shillong by a tribal group protesting unemployment spiraled into violence with the agitators thrashing non-tribal passerby without any seeming provocation.

“It is not safe for anyone who belongs to other communities,” said D Bhusal who ran a courier business in the city. Bhusal, who is of Nepali origin, accused the police of being “mute spectators” as the targeted violence that broke out ever so often.

A senior Meghayala police official told that the police had used tear gas to disperse the mob. “Some stray incidents happened,” said the official, adding that they were working towards arresting the miscreants who wrecked trouble on the streets of Shillong last week. “We are not the police who randomly pick up anybody just for the sack of arrest for public consumption,” said the police official who asked not to be named. “We do evidence-based policing.”

Rangad, the activist-turned-politician, however, said episodes such as what happened last week could not be brushed aside as “stray”. “There has to be swift police action otherwise people will think that they can get away and the culture of impunity will continue,” Rangad said.