More than 80 members of the Bengali community in Meghalaya have written to Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, saying they were “shocked and pained” at the recent claim that all Bengali residents in the state are illegal migrants, and urged him to take urgent steps to secure the “fundamental, constitutional and legal rights” of all citizens, North East Now reported on Tuesday.

Tensions between tribal groups and Bengali Hindus in Meghalaya rose to the surface on October 21, when banners went up in Shillong, calling Bengali Hindus “Bangladeshis”.

“Bangladeshis stop your atrocities in Meghalaya, Tripura, Assam and Mizoram,” said one banner. “All Meghalaya Bengalis are Bangladeshis,” said another. They were signed by the Khasi Students’ Union, a powerful tribal body in Meghalaya.

The citizens said they were “deeply hurt by the provocative narrative” and the “misplaced vilification campaign”, despite a long history of “our mutual co-existence between the tribal groups in Meghalaya and Bengalis”. “This is an insult to our long and historical relationships with the Hill brethren and our pride as Citizens of India,” they wrote. “To us it appears that there is an open threat to our very existence in the state.”

The letter added that “for centuries the Bengalis have had nurtured an umbilical relationship” with the Khasis, the Garos and the Jaintias, who are the natives of the state. Long before the British arrived here, the tribes had developed trade and cultural ties with the Bengalis of Sylhet, Mymensing and the adjoining areas, the citizens wrote.

But today, the Bengalis of Meghalaya have been “reduced to a pale shadow of their past”, they added, noting that the number of Bengali residents has rapidly declined in the state over the past four decades.

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The Bengali citizens urged the Meghalaya government to “ensure the absolute rule of law to bring about an end to the untold harassment and discrimination of the citizens”. They requested Conrad Sangma to draft a “clear-cut policy” that is commensurate with the letter and spirit of Constitution in respect to the rights and privileges of all ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities residing in Meghalaya.

For this, they suggested the creation of an official body that looks into the protection of the rights of minority groups, as has been done in Assam and other states in the country. Besides, the citizens said the government should enact a law, or “enforce the existing ones, to curb any form of hate speech or incitement of communal antagonism spread through the media, electronic and print”.

The letter also spoke of the need to create reservation in jobs and referred to Meghalaya’s first chief minister WA Sangma’s commitment on the floor of the State Assembly in March 1973 to allot 15% state jobs for the non-tribals.

“We request you to lay down a specific reserved quota for the ethno-linguistic minorities settled in Meghalaya for government jobs, particularly under MPSC [Meghalaya Public Service Commission] in respect of State Civil Service and State Police Service,” the letter added.

The citizens urged the chief minister to “prevail upon the Autonomous District Councils to strictly adhere to the laws in force mandated under the Sixth Schedule when it comes to dealing with the non-tribals in respect of trading license”.

The letter said these suggestions have been made for a long-term solution to the “unfortunate divide being created between the local tribes and the Bengalis in particular and the non-tribals in general”, that would also contribute towards making Meghalaya “a truly progressive state”.

The signatories to the letter include, ex-Vice Chancellor of Assam University Jayanta Bhushan Bhattacharjee, ex-Rajya Sabha MP, BB Dutta and ex-minister Manas Chaudhuri, along with former bureaucrats, student leaders, advocates, bankers, former professors and teachers.