Shillong was once defined as a pluralistic society. The state of Meghalaya was created without bloodshed in 1972. That was quite an achievement. So the gentry were correct in conjuring images of the Shillong they knew, lived and worked in before 1979 happened. That was the fatal blow when the Bengali people who had lived here for decades were sent packing. Others were beaten up just because they looked Bengali. Many sold their homes and left. There was an uneasy calm for a few years and then came 1987. This time the Nepalese were the target, but the poor Bihari people who reared cows and sold milk were also massacred. You wonder where all this hatred comes from when the Khasi people are known to be genteel and generous to a fault.

The incident of May 31, which was literally a scuffle between people of two communities, need not have turned so ugly. It started with an altercation between young girls from the Mazhabi Sikh community and a young Khasi tribal man at the wheels of a Shillong Public Transport Service bus – a trademark of the city. The girls were on their way to fetch water and were irritated that the bus was obstructing their path. They asked the man to move the bus and make way for them. He might have said something offensive, which agitated the girls. They pelted stones at the bus and went and complained to their male relatives. The men came out and assaulted the driver and two other boys. The three went to the Cantonment Police Beat House to file a first information report. The Sikhs followed to file a counter FIR. Later, the two groups came to a compromise. That should have been the end of the squabble. But it was not.

In the afternoon of that same day, some women hawkers (tribals) decided to confront the assaulters. By then, the matter had taken a communal turn. The police prevented the women from entering the troubled area and chased them towards Motphran, about 500 metres away. Later, a WhatsApp message went round saying that the three who had been assaulted had died. That was the flashpoint. As hundreds of people assembled in Motphran, the police fired teargas shells through the night and till the early hours of the morning of June 1. Indeed, Motphran is now a battleground where people gather every evening after curfew hours and pelt stones at the police.

As is the case with communal conflicts, newspapers that reported all sides of the story were pilloried and accused of taking sides. The tribal viewpoint is that all newspapers must concur with their perception of the skirmish even though none of them were eyewitnesses to the incident. It is intuitive too that even educated, otherwise rational people are ready to listen to one side of the story because of past prejudices and because the Mazhabi Sikh community is stereotyped as being potential trouble-makers who refused to leave their homes and be relocated in a more spacious environment. These communal flare-ups teach us that reason and communal passions are immiscible.

1979 and after

Shillong was forced to become a communal ghetto after the first flare-up in 1979, followed by more communal violence in 1984, 1987 and 1992. The word ethnic cleansing was not yet part of our vocabulary but an ethnic cleansing it was. The year 1979 was a harrowing time for the Bengali community, who had come to what was then Assam’s capital Shillong (Meghalaya was not yet born) at the behest of the British in the latter half of the 19th century. They were the clerical cadre the British needed. The flare-up sent the city into a tailspin. The hatred against the Bengalis then was politically triggered. The bhadralok who taught here or served as doctors and professionals preferred to leave with their dignity intact. Many of them are now settled in Silchar and Guwahati in Assam or Kolkata in West Bengal.

Then came 1987 when the Nepalese became the targets of tribal ire. Once again there was a bloodbath and many left their homes, although they returned after the violence had subsided.

These bitter lessons have left the minority non-tribal community with no option but to live in spaces where there is safety in numbers. But this too is problematic. Populations do not remain static; they grow. Yet, the communities are reluctant to move out. Naturally, neighbourhoods like Jail Road, Pynthor, Nongmynsong and Rynjah – once nice little residential areas – have turned into ghettos. Non-tribals cannot purchase land in Meghalaya by virtue of the Land Transfer Act. They can only buy land or a house in a 10x10 square km radius area called the European Ward in the heart of Shillong. Today, this space is bursting at the seams with government offices, banks and sundry institutions crowding over each other. So where does the younger generation of non-tribals go then? There are no answers to that question.

In a narrow economic space with little revenue generation, the absence of jobs in Meghalaya leads to the quick conclusion that non-tribals are usurping all employment and economic opportunities. (Photo credit: AFP)

Tribal versus non-tribal

A good chunk of non-tribals in Meghalaya have been here since the time of their great-grandfathers. The Sindhis and Marwaris conduct their businesses quietly. They do not aspire to hold political positions. Some Bengalis and Nepalese have been elected MLAs through the open (non-reserved) seats and have also been part of the Meghalaya ministry. But even this concession is grudged. You wonder what the tribals fear from their non-tribal competitors. In the areas of employment and professional studies, tribals enjoy reservation. In Meghalaya, 80% of jobs are reserved for indigenous tribals (Khasi, Jaintia, Garo, Hajong, Koch). The remaining 20% is open to all. But the tribal angst refuses to subside. In a narrow economic space with little revenue generation, the absence of jobs leads to the quick conclusion that non-tribals are usurping all employment and economic opportunities. This despite the fact that non-tribal business persons must obtain a trading licence from the Autonomous District Councils. The councils are a creation of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, whose intent is to protect 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 must be protected from the larger non-tribal population.

Today, tourism is the industry that is creating job opportunities for both rural and urban Meghalayans. In the last 10 years, more people have visited Meghalaya than ever before. They enjoy the sights and sounds and are enamoured by the friendliness of their hosts in the homestays. It is hard to believe that these friendly hosts/hostesses could suddenly turn violent and nasty. And then we come out of our reverie where we have lulled ourselves into believing that the hurtful past is behind us. Alas! Each time we are reminded that Shillong has not moved on. It is still stuck in the time warp of 1979-1992 where the non-tribal is invariably seen as the interloper.

Many who have grown up going to school with non-tribal mates and built lifelong friendships with them wonder why they are now asked to be politically correct and stand by the tribal narrative, right or wrong. To dissent is to be a traitor. Social capital, which means a group of citizens across communities who are stakeholders of the city and are willing to take a stand when duty calls, is uncannily missing here. There is complete silence when faced with aggression. People recede into their safe zones and the mob takes over. This has happened repeatedly and we have learnt no lessons. When “normalcy” returns, we are back to our little preoccupations. No one has the time to volunteer to insulate this city from the regular contortions it suffers.

Social capital is what can rescue Shillong from being a tinderbox of communal frenzy. We must own this city and give it our blood, sweat and tears. Silence at this juncture is self-destruction.

Patricia Mukhim is editor, The Shillong Times.