Patricia Mukhim is what all of us need to be. Sadly she is a rarity. Because there is a cost you have to pay for being a person of conscience like she is. More than others, it is your own you have to stand up against.

Patricia Mukhim is being hounded by her own people for having called out the violence that they have in their hearts for “others”. One of our finest editors and journalists, she has been consistent in her critique of all kinds of communal, ethnic or sectarian violence and she is especially unsparing when her own people are involved in it.

Living in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya and editing The Shillong Times, she keeps warning her people, especially the Khasi tribal groups, that there are xenophobic tendencies in them, there is a dangerous feeling of cultural superiority and a sense of entitlement and they need to cure themselves of this disease.

Police complaint

In the most recent case, she has police complaint for having condemned the attack on five non-tribal youth by a gang of masked men, allegedly tribals. These young men were playing basketball when the attackers assaulted them with iron rods.

Mukhim wrote a Facebook post calling upon the chief minister and the traditional Dorbar Shnong local body to take action against the culprits. It would have been an innocuous demand had she not located the act of crime in the history of the violence and persecution of non-tribals in Meghalaya.

Calling for quick and decisive action against the attackers she wrote, “This continued attack on non-tribals in Meghalaya, whose ancestors have lived here for decades, some having come here since the British period is reprehensible to say the least. The fact that such attackers and trouble mongers since 1979 have never been arrested and if arrested never penalised according to law, suggests that Meghalaya has been a failed state for a long time now.”

What has irked the “locals” is that she has dared to name the violence as communal and not treat it as an isolated crime.

A tweet criticising Patricia Mukhim.

She ends her post by asking, “Why should our non-tribal brethren continue to live in perpetual fear in their own state? Those born and brought up here have as much right to call Meghalaya their state as the indigenous tribal does. Period.” It is this plain talk that has offended the Dorbar Shnong of Lawsohtun, the locality where the non-tribals boys were attacked.

The head person of the Dorbar Shnong of Lawsohtun has lodged a complaint with the police accusing Mukhim of stoking communal hatred and putting the lives of Khasis outside the state in danger. The head person feels that she had defamed the village and communalised the issue. It sounds so familiar. When you call out communalism , you yourself get blamed for speeding communalism. People ask you why do you always see things through this lens.

The majority of the comments on Mukhim’s claim that she is unnecessarily giving a communal colour to an isolated brawl between two groups of boys. There are comments that seem to be indirectly blaming the victims by asking why they were playing basketball during the pandemic.

“How is she so sure that they were attacked for being non-tribals?” some of the commentators ask. They criticise her for invoking the history of violence against the non-tribals: 1979 is the year when the first major episode of ethnic violence took place in the state. Led by the Khasi Students’Union, the Khasis attacked the Bengalis. Many of them had to leave Meghalaya. Then came the turn of Nepalis and Biharis.

The angry response that Mukhim’s post has generated is not surprising. It has forced the community to look at themselves and undertake the painful task of introspecting. They say that they are essentially a peace-loving community and it is unfair to paint them as violent at heart. There are also those who say that people live in harmony in Meghalaya and it is the outsiders who tend to live in ghettos. Mukhim does not accept this self-deception of the “indigenous” people and asks them to look within and confront the hatred that they have for the others.

This is not the first time Mukhim is writing about Khasi communalism. In 2018, when an altercation between a local driver and some Mazahabi Sikh girls led to an attack on the Sikh community, she came out openly against the communal nature of the violence. At that time, the Sikhs were blamed for having created a ghetto in the heart of Shillong and living in a sectarian way.

Commenting on this charge, Mukhim wrote, “… like it or not, Shillong is a communal ghetto. After the flare-up in 1979 and later in 1984, 1987, and 1992, which amounted to an ethnic cleansing, the non-tribal minorities that remained behind have tended to live in safer spaces where there is safety in numbers.”

In an article in just after the 2018 violence, she wrote and we need to read the angst of “local people” carefully and with patience because it tells us about a social pathology from which all communities suffer.

  “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.”   

Riot police in Shillong in 2018. Credit: PTI

Mukhim questions the “sons of the soil” theory. She asks her Khasi people how, when they seek privilege in all areas of life in Meghalaya and refuse to give equal rights to others, they can expect equal treatment outside their state. She also rejects the demand to remain neutral while discussing such incidents of violence and abide by the majoritarian viewpoint.

  “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.”  

It sounds so familiar. That is why Mukhim’s voice is a universal voice, not confined to her state alone. An editorial of her paper questions the “the first right” to the “first comers”: “A citizen of every country is entitled to certain fundamental rights even while discharging his citizenship duties. Both are synchronous. One cannot exist without the other. In some states of India, however, there is the concept of ‘son of the soil’ which conveys the underlying meaning that the first settlers or indigenous people have first right over every natural resource, such as land, forests and water and other economic resources.”

Patricia Mukhim criticises the majority Khasi tribe for nursing a sense of victimhood and an ambition of dominance. “This often borders on ethnocentrism or an inflated sense of cultural superiority,” she notes.

We must also heed Patricia Mukhim’s call for cultural synthesis.

  “The absence of this synthesis makes one group feel constantly threatened when it is the minority in a particular state. This is also because the sense of nationhood is not all-encompassing. The tribal feels the territory bequeathed by his ancestors is nation to him. The non-tribal with his more advanced ideas of nationhood, democracy et al feels he has equal rights to live with dignity and to access all resources available to the tribal within his own nation. Herein lie the flashpoint. Unless this is resolved the differences will simmer and the flashpoints take on new and dangerous contours.”  

The tendency “in groups” to pitch their interests against “out groups” is not unique to a particular religious or ethnic group. The idea of preserving cultural rights is very tempting. But it can lead to rigid formation of circles that never intersect. Mukhim talks about a very simple thing: all of us are a majority at one place and a minority in other situations. What Mukhim asks us is to be eternally vigilant against majoritarian hegemonism and speak up for the minorities.

Standing up against your own people can have serious consequences. Gandhi’s end reminds us of that. In neighbouring Pakistan, Punjab governor Salman Taseer paid with his life for standing with the minorities. In our own land, in our times, Gauri Lankesh, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi took the risk for speaking against their own people. There are also people like Aung San Suu Kyi who do not want to take the risk of being unpopular with their people.

Patricia Mukhim must not be punished for her outspokenness against sectarianism. She has suffered before. Her house was attacked with a petrol bomb in 2018 when she wrote against the violence against the Mazhabi Sikhs. She refused to be intimidated. She does not ignore even a small sign of chauvinism. She warns us that the seemingly loving and caring people can also turn nasty and violent. We have to guard against the violence within us . That is the real test.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.