After a week of violence, calm has returned to Shillong. But for how long? The root cause of the communal flare-up is yet to be addressed.
New Delhi: The city of Shillong is inching towards normalcy after a week of violence triggered by communal clashes between the Sikhs and the Khasis over a minor scuffle.
On 31 May, a fight between a Sikh woman and a Khasi bus driver in the city’s Punjabi Line area over a parking spot took a communal turn after fake messages on WhatsApp claimed that a Khasi man injured in the skirmish succumbed to injuries inflicted by the Sikhs. As clashes erupted, police was immediately deployed.
After a turbulent week, with many areas in the Meghalaya’s capital city under curfew, the last couple of days have been relatively peaceful. However, the issue is far from over.
Alien in one’s own land
The normal in Shillong may present a bright picture from the outside, but look closely and you’ll see the problems plaguing the society. The question of who’s native and who’s not has been debilitating for the region.
The ‘outsiders’ are mainly the Bengalis, Nepalis, Biharis, Sikhs and Marwaris who have lived in the city for decades. And it’s home for them as it is for the Khasis. Many are landowners who have lived there for generations. However, a sense of fear and suspicion has always been around.
As recently as 2013, Shillong saw repeated instances of violence over the demand for an Inner Line Permit (ILP), coupled with an underlying fear of the ‘outsiders’. An ILP is a document of special permission from the state government granted to any non-indigenous person to visit to a protected area.
“I would never want my daughter to come back and settle in Shillong,” said a third generation Bengali, whose grandfather came to Shillong during British rule, on the condition of anonymity. The local, who was a victim of violence against the Bengali community in 1979, feels that a little altercation in the city can take a communal turn. “Even though my ancestors have lived here for more than 670 years, I’m termed a Dokhar (term used by the Khasis for non-Khasis residing in Shillong),” he added.
For Prakash Bachhawat, a Marwari businessman whose family has been living in the city for over 30 years, the problem lies in the regional politics. “The recent clashes are just communally tainted political violence played out by miscreants. Personally, I don’t find a sense of hostility amongst the different communities here,” said Bacchawat.
However, David M. Lyngdoh, who grew up in Shillong said that a lot of his non-Khasi friends often complain of sensing hostility from the Khasis. “It saddens me to see that the friends I grew up with feel this way. Though I don’t see them as outsider, if they feel resentment in their own city, it is not good. The problem is that it is very difficult to identify the people who create such troubles, because there are only a handful of them,” he added.
An all-round failure
The recent incident, among other issues, can be seen more as a civic and political failure.
The Punjabi Line area near Bara Bazaar is a conflicted, cramped space filled with houses, shops, a school and a Gurudwara.
Half the land under the Punjabi Line area belongs to the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB) and the other half belong to the Syeim of Mylliem (the local chieftain of the area). The Sikhs claim that the land was donated to them by the Syeim for residential purpose. But over the years, expansion has led the locality to spread to the land that comes under the SMB. The kin of the Syeim say that the no formal land donation was ever made and it was only a courteous act by the chief.
The Sikhs were first brought by the British to Shillong to work as manual scavengers. More than a hundred years later, many have moved to different professions, but the Punjabi Line area has remained a part of their identity. Over the years, a new Sikh population has settled in the same spot and only a handful of the original families brought for manual scavenging remain. A small space that was meant for only a few, now houses close to 360 families.
“This clearly shows that someone is not thinking the situation through,” said Patricia Mukhim, editor, The Shillong Times.
The plan of the state government to relocate the people seems to be a problematic solution. Relocation will mean bringing the same people from one area to another, only with broader streets and better houses. The identity of the community will remain the same and this homogeneity means easy targets in case of communal flare-ups.
The area of Mothpran where Punjabi Line is situated has always been a hub of communal violence. And that’s why local politicians seek opportunities to make themselves relevant in the area. They assure the Khasis relocation of the Sikhs, and the Sikhs, a better locality — empty promises which are forgotten after every election.
The Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council Friday decided to hold talks about the relocation of the Punjabi Line area residents. A high-level committee will take a call on the rehabilitation after a land survey of the area which is scheduled to begin next week.
An interaction between the state administration and the local governing bodies such as the Dorbar Shnong, a traditional local organisation governing different localities, along with other representatives from different localities can help arrive at a point of understanding and accommodation.
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