Since June 1, Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya has been under constant curfews due to protests and violence by people belonging to the indigenous Khasi population in the state. Since Friday, mobs have been indulging in stone pelting and clashing with security forces. In between, text messaging services and internet were suspended to prevent the spreading of rumours. So tense is the situation that the army had to conduct flag marches in the city on Monday.
On May 31, an altercation allegedly took place between a Khasi bus driver and a Punjabi Sikh woman in Shillong, Meghalaya related to parking space. How that escalated isn’t very clear.
According to an article in Scroll, there are two versions of events which are being narrated at the grassroots level:
1. According to the people belonging to the Khasi community, it took place because Sikh men allegedly beat up the driver after the altercation.
2. According to the Sikhs who reside there, Khasi men were beaten up by Sikh women after one of them was harassed by them.
Following this, there was a fake WhatsApp forward of two Khasi men being beheaded by two Sikhs, which resulted in the violence on Friday, June 1.
Whatever may be the immediate trigger, there is way more going on in the politics of the state which has resulted in such a grave situation.
To understand the relationship between the indigenous population and the Sikhs in Shillong, it is important to understand the circumstances under which the Sikh population came to settle in the city, the conditions under which they live today and how the local population in Meghalaya has always been hostile to ‘outsiders’.
Currently, close to 500 Sikhs live in the slums in Punjabi Line. Their ancestors first came to Shillong even before the 1857 Indian rebellion took place. Dalit Sikhs were first brought to Meghalaya by the British for the purpose of sweeping and manual scavenging. This practice continued till the 1980s. After independence, they were employed by different government bodies such as the Cantonment Board, police, state government offices and the Shillong Municipal Board.
Then, in the 1980s, manual scavenging was stopped in the state. According to the Dalit Sikhs, this was when problems began to surface when the locals started alleging that they had settled on illegal land. The stigma attached to the people living in Punjab Line becomes evident when one looks at the informal name given to it – Sweepers’ Colony.
Many people belonging to the indigenous population are also of the view that the people residing in the Punjabi Line have a role to play in criminal activities.
There isn’t total clarity on this. According to the residents of Punjabi Line, they were given the land by the syiem of a former village. In the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council, a syiem has administrative and judicial authority.
However, the current Khasi royalty has denied providing any land to the ancestors of the Dalit Sikhs who are currently residing there. According to an official document issued by the royalty, “The Syiem and Darbar Hima Mylliem never issued any land document to the Harijan community, but recognised and respected them since the plot of land was allotted to Dalits long time back by the predecessors Syiem of Hima Mylliem.”
But it does point out that the land document was provided by a syiem of another region.
One thing which must be noted that only around 500 people are living in the slums. Why would the local population have so much problem with them? Can they be that much of a threat that they are willing to pelt stones and clash with security forces for that purpose?
In 2013, there were fierce protests in Meghalaya to demand an Inner Line Permit to be introduced in the state. There were reports of violence against migrant workers in the state as well. The Inner Line Permit currently is applicable in the states of Nagaland, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh.
What it does in essence:
1. A person can travel to particular areas of a state only if a travel certificate has been issued.
2. It is also not possible for a non-resident to buy property in the state.
3. Becoming a long-term resident also becomes difficult.
The idea behind the Inner Line Permit is to prevent illegal immigration which may be taking place from bordering countries such as Bangladesh, ensure job security for the locals and to ‘protect’ tribal culture.
So the current violence in the state needs to be seen within the larger political violence within Meghalaya in general and the fear of non-locals that many have in the state.
Earlier, the Bengali community has been at the receiving end of violence in Shillong and was forced to flee the state throughout the 1980s. Many of them were descendants of people who had been brought by the British in the 19th century for clerical government jobs.
According to the 2011 census, a large portion of the population in Meghalaya is non-local.
While there was an immediate trigger for the unrest that is being witnessed in Shillong, the eruption of such large-scale violence needs to be seen in the context of the history of the state and how many locals are not comfortable with people from outside settling in the state.