Shillong clashes expose a 'reverse racism' often camouflaged by treatment some northeasterners face in mainland India

Khar, Madishe, dkhar. These are some of the names given to the people of the ‘mainland’ that live in the various states of the North East.

In light of the recent Shillong clashes, the riots underline an often overlooked but equally important element of racism when it comes to the northeastern states in the country. Even though the racism faced by the northeastern communities from the 'mainland' is a fact that needs to be addressed as it has been in movies like 'Chak de India', and awareness about the political incorrectness of the term 'Chinki' has increased over the past decade or so — the phenomenon of ‘reverse racism’ is also present.

"I belong to a family whose last three generations have lived in Sikkim and I would not deny that I had to face some sort of discrimination. It is actually the mindset of the people which has regressed and although discrimination does not take place openly, it happens in very subtle ways. There have been minor incidents where I was looked down upon,” said Anshu Singh (22), as she handled the cash register in her shop in MG Marg in Gangtok, Sikkim.

Adding to this, Pooja Priya (22), whose family migrated from Bihar to Arunachal Pradesh said, “There is a subtle difference in the way the people are treated. For example, the vegetable prices are higher for the non-tribals.”

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint.

Ritu Konsam (23), a Meitei woman from Manipur said, “What we face in Delhi is racism, built entirely on a prejudice against the way we look, dress, speak and eat. There’s a lack of tolerance in the "alien-ness" the locals feel towards the North East, it would be very misleading to state this as reverse racism.”

Although dormant in nature usually, these views have come to the forefront following the violent clashes in Shillong in the past five days. The state government is trying hard not to portray the clashes as a communal one.

Shillong: Securitymen stand guard a street during curfew in Shillong on Saturday, Jun02,2018. (PTI Photo) (PTI6_2_2018_000159B)

Securitymen stand guard a street during curfew in Shillong. PTI

“No, it is not a communal clash. It initially started because of an altercation which eventually led to these clashes,” Meghalaya home minister James Sangma told FirstPost. The clash erupted after a bus conductor was allegedly assaulted on Thursday by a group of people residing at Them Iew Mawlong, a Punjabi settlement in Shillong, according to agency reports.

The violence was allegedly linked to discontent over the delay in shifting the Sikh community to the houses built for them in Nongmynsong as the land is originally meant to be inhabited by the Khasi tribals.

“As the years have passed, there have been demands to relocate them. There are many criminal elements present there, no doubt,” David Laitphlang, a senior journalist from Shillong. “I feel that this happens to preserve their sense of identity. In the sense, the Khasis want to preserve their land and culture,” said Saiaphi Lyndem (22), a Khasi from Shillong.

A fourth-generation Sikh living in Shillong, who did not want to be named, says otherwise. "A small dispute between people has become communal, it has become extremely politicised. Just because of one person, how can they make the whole community relocate for no proper reason,” he said. As of 5 June, the Meghalaya government formed a special panel to find a ‘permanent solution’ to the issue of relocation of the sweeper colony. “One would expect security after 200 years of living in a place, not an evacuation. Meghalaya is my motherland too. This is happening to our Sikh community. Soon it may happen to the other communities living here," the Sikh individual said.

Another member of the Sikh community in Shillong, Sangam Singh, expressed concern over the lack of security.

“We don’t feel safe to go out. Now, the issue has become political and communal,” he said.

Sunit Phukan, the general secretary of the Assam club in Shillong sought to play down the seriousness of the tension when asked if there is any communal tension between different communities in the Meghalaya capital.

“We are living very peacefully in Shillong. The situation itself is nothing serious I feel. People have been going about their business normally,” said Phukan.

Three days after the unrest in Shillong broke out, a delegation of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC) visited the trouble-torn Punjabi Lane area on Sunday and dismissed reports of Sikhs being under threat from the Khasi community.

Many northeastern states barring Assam and Tripura often press for Inner Line Permit (ILP). ILP is a permission which even Indian citizens except for residents of the state have to apply for describing for what purpose they are visiting the state. This is a way to regulate the inflow of outside population and guard the interests of the local people living in the state. So far ILP is functional in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Manipur and Meghalaya are long fighting for it.

“Manipur has been extremely tolerant or accepting of outsiders. If you come to Manipur you will see 90 percent of shops are owned by Marwaris, Punjabis and mainlanders. Manipuris will be working for them. So ILP is a reaction to this sudden realisation that we are being driven out of our workforce and lands by outsiders and soon it might become another Tripura where the natives depend on the outsiders,” said Konsam.

Rupa Chinai, a journalist and an author who has done extensive work in the North East said, “One has to realise that there is a clash of cultures, we have to understand it in the context of history. The ILP is a constitutional commitment that was made to the minorities to preserve their land and culture."

Elaborating on the clashes in Shillong, Chinai said, "I would say ‘reverse racism’ is a reaction based on history and past experiences. The average northeasterner I feel is a gentle soul. One needs to stand in their shoes to understand the whole context. To me, it seems like the politicians are working together to create communal tensions, as is so often the case in a riot situation.”

The Shillong clashes, whatever nomenclature one might want to give, are not new in nature. Instances of similar clashes are in abundance in the region and Meghalaya is no exception.

The non-tribal “outsiders”, or dkhar as the Khasis would call them people are drawn from the Bengali, Nepali, Bihari, Marwari, and other communities. The Bengalis were the first victims of the Khasi Students Union (KSU)-led anti-foreigner movement in1979. The strategy of the movement was to combine isolated violence with organised programmes for its larger goal was total ethnic cleansing.

The BN Sharma Commission Report on the 1992 riots stated that the communal carnage that began in 1979 resulted, during the course of the next one-and-a-half decade, in the displacement of more than a thousand, and killing of hundreds of non-tribals in Shillong.

Nagaland was forced to deal with this communal-cum-outsiders fire in 2015 when a Muslim man Syed Farid Khan was lynched by a mob after he was accused of rape. The state had also witnessed one of the longest-running insurgencies in India after the demand for a separate nation started in 1950 through an armed movement. Although there has been relative peace in the state after the signing of the mysterious Nagaland peace accord in 2015 and the ceasefire agreements with the Centre government which get renewed after expiry, the problems at large are far from over.

With the Meghalaya government now seeking Centre's help to contain the violence and restore normalcy, things would slowly calm down but the problems won't cease to exist. The tension between the locals and 'outsiders' is palpable if not obvious as each community would like to exercise their own rights to exist.

“Discrimination is not only in Shillong. It is everywhere, it is normal. After a point in time, one tends to ignore it. It is a part and parcel of living in the society, you can’t escape it," said the Sikh individual on condition of anonymity.

For now, his "you can’t escape it" is the hard truth in Shillong as the Scotland of the East struggles to limp back to a state where nature's beauty is reflected in people's hearts.

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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2018 18:45:50 IST

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