Over the weekend, even as the National People’s Party staked claim to form a new government in Meghalaya, the capital Shillong descended into a familiar turmoil. An act of arson in the dead of the night on Friday evening was followed by a public meeting the next afternoon where Khasi nativist groups burnt effigies and threatened more violence.

Their object of derision: two legislators from the Hill State People’s Democratic Party, who had extended support to the National People’s Party after the Assembly elections had thrown up a fractured mandate.

On March 2, Thursday, the Conrad Sangma-led National People’s Party had emerged as the single largest party with 26 legislators in the 60-seater Assembly. While the Bharatiya Janata Party and an independent MLA immediately pledged their support to the National People’s Party, the names of Methodius Dkhar and Shakliar Warjri of the Hill State People’s Democratic Party also featured in the letter submitted by Sangma to the governor on Friday, staking claim to form the government.

This incensed Khasi ethnonationalist groups who believe the duo’s support had foiled the chance of the state being led by a chief minister from the community.

A state divided

Sangma is a Garo and the National People’s Party is a more influential entity in the Garo Hills, one of the three distinct geographical regions that make up Meghalaya, the other two being the Khasi Hills and the Jaintia Hills.

All the regions are named after the eponymous tribes who reside there. While the Khasi and the Jaintia people share close ethnic ties, courtesy of their similar culture and language, the Garo community is considered ethnically distinct. This has led to intermittent tensions with a section of Khasi-Jaintia nationalists demanding more rights for the “Jaitbynriew” – the indigenous Khasi-Jaintia people – and the Garos demanding a separate state for the community.

Political scientist H Srikanth, who teaches at the North-Eastern Hill University, said this stemmed from a mentality of people “identifying along the lines of ethnicity”.

“In spite of the fact that Meghalaya came into existence in 1972 as a state, people still don’t identify themselves as Meghalayan,” he said.

However, in a state where several other ethnic faultlines run deeper, these tensions do not always come out in the open. However, the divide often rears its head during elections – as it has yet again.

‘A Khasi CM’

The Khasi nativist group leading the protest, Hynñiewtrep Youth Council, has been remarkably frank about what it wants. “Our priority now is to have a Khasi CM leading a regional front government,” its general secretary Roy Kupar Synrem told reporters in Shillong.

Apart from the Hynñiewtrep Youth Council, the agitation has the backing of several other nativist groups such as the Ka Sur U Paidbah ka Bri U Hynñiewtrep, Hynñiewtrep National Youth Movement, and Saiñdur Tipkur-tipkha Ïeng Ehrngiew Hynñiewtrep.

On Saturday, supporters of the group burnt effigies of Dkhar and Warjri even as the leaders threatened more “drastic” action.

A contested mandate?

The protesters have argued that the “the mandate is clearly for the regional forces”, by which they mean a slew of small parties that had won the bulk of the seats from Khasi-Jaintia Hills region.

Apart from the Hill State People’s Democratic Party, this includes the United Democratic Party that won 11 seats, the Voice of People’s Party (four seats), and People’s Democratic Front (two seats). All of them won their seats in the Khasi-Jaintia Hills area.

While all of these parties’ combined tally adds up to only 19, former chief minister Mukul Sangma told reporters on Saturday that he was trying to knit together a rainbow coalition. Apart from these regional parties, it was supposed to have included Mukul Sangma’s Trinamool Congress which won five seats, and the Congress which emerged on top in five constituencies.

However, even as discussions were underway, Dkhar and Warjri are learnt to have pledged their support to Conrad Sangma, reportedly defying their party line.

‘Not showing respect to the mandate’

The National People’s Party, for its part, has accused the Opposition and the pressure groups of “hijacking the democratic process by intimidation and by not showing respect to the mandate”.

Its spokesperson and East Shillong legislator Ampareen Lyngdoh said that people in the Khasi region where the mandate was “fragmented” were trying to “dictate” the government formation process.

“People with the correct numbers, the support inside the legislative assembly, will decide who will be part of the government,” she said. “You want a Khasi CM, but your numbers are not adding up. We are not going to be guided by a handful of people who want to deviate from the democratic process.”

Game over?

In any case, the protestors seem to be fighting a losing battle with the United Democratic Front and the People’s Democratic Front also extending their support to the NPP on Sunday evening, thereby putting to end all speculation.

Conrad Sangma is all set to be sworn in on March 6 and lead a government with comfortable majority.

The protesters, though, have not yet budged, insisting that they would not allow the Dkhar and Warjri to take oath. If need be, they said, they would “not hesitate to forcibly pull the duo out of their vehicles to prevent them from entering the Raj Bhavan”.