Shillong unrest: Fresh clashes reflect Meghalaya's past characterised by conflicts between tribals and 'outsiders'

Curfew continued to be imposed in Shillong for the third day on Sunday after it was briefly lifted for seven hours in areas under Lumdiengjri Police Station and Cantonment Beat House areas.

Chandrani Sinha June 03, 2018 17:08:04 IST
Shillong unrest: Fresh clashes reflect Meghalaya's past characterised by conflicts between tribals and 'outsiders'

Fifty-nine-year-old Babita Joshi (named changed) from Guwahati was horrified to switch on the television after knowing about the recent clashes in Motphran. Earlier on Thursday, she received few horrifying videos of stone-pelting and mob violence in Shillong through social media. A burning Shillong is the last thing she could ever think of even in the wildest dreams. Her childhood reminiscences started rushing down her mind; the cool hill station where she grew up and did her schooling, a place where she loved to be any time of the year, is no more the same. She remembered the old days when her friends used to call her “parlok" which means friend in Khasi language.

The episode

On Thursday morning, a clash broke out between Shillong Public Transport Service (STPS) bus drivers/conductors and the residents of Them Iew Mawlong or Sweeper’s lane.

"The brawl took place in the morning around 9.30 to 10 am on Thursday when some ladies who were fetching water had some arguments with SPTS bus conductors as the bus was blocking their way. The ladies alleged that the driver and conductor made some lewd comments to them when they asked them to remove the bus. In the spar, three persons, among which two were minors, were allegedly assaulted by the residents of the Them Mawlong area, also known as Punjabi Line," said Davis Marak, Superintendent of Police, East Khasi Hills, in a press meet.

"In the scuffle, three persons of SPTS buses were (also) injured. But they were not admitted to the hospital. They were provided first aid and released the same day from the hospital. After police intervention the entire case was compromised between them,” he added.

The situation, however, began worsening by the evening after rumours spread of the death of a Khasi youth, who was beaten by residents of Punjabi Line, on social media. This fake news went viral and created panic and anger among the Khasi locals who later assembled and started marching towards the Punjabi Line area.

Soon, an unruly mob of approximately 200 people started marching towards Punjabi Line area and started pelting stones. On the other side, people in Punjabi Line area armed themselves with deadly weapons like dagger and lathis, in order to take on the mob.

The police stopped the crowd by immediately launching a lathi charge on stone-pelters in the area. At 4 am a curfew was levied by the deputy commissioner. In the entire episode, one person was arrested and few suspects were picked up for further inquiry.

Tribal and non-tribal accounts of the clashes, and urge for Inner Line Permit

At 12 midnight in Nongpoh, 50 kilometres away from Shillong, a truck driver named Satpal Singh like any of his routine nights, was taking rest after a daylong travel. He had to leave his helper due to some emergency at his home.

As usual, 50 year-old-Satpal Singh slept inside his truck. He woke up with a jolt after one of the tyres of his truck punctured. In no time, he saw fire engulfing the back of his truck. Singh had no clue how did the truck catch fire. He had no foe in this area and he was regular on this route.

Singh immediately started throwing sand to extinguish the fire, but a petrol bomb hit his truck and his truck set ablaze in front of his eyes. He with the help of some local dhaba owners called the fire brigade and police for further action.

"I have no enemy here; I was on my routine duty. Why was my truck targeted, I have no clue," said Satpal with tears in his eyes.

The ethnic clash of Meghalaya is not a tale of today, the crisis began way back in July 1986, when the tribal Khasi Students' Union (KSU) launched an anti-foreigners agitation movement. The entire agitation affected, 75,000 Nepalis, who have been living in the state for generations.

The only motive behind the agitation was political pragmatism. It was during that time that Shillong witnessed its first Janata curfew". Roads were deserted, government offices closed, bureaucrats and ministers refrained from going to work.

The non-tribal agitation continued till November-end the same year, but violence continues to emerge every now and then.

On 9 October, 2013, Vikash Nandwal, owner of Meghalaya Machineries at Motphran, was attacked and killed.

“In several occasions specially during Diwali and Kali Puja, petrol bombs are hurled at a Durga Puja pandals. Non-tribals and their businesses are regularly targeted,” says Ashim Das (named changed), a non-tribal resident of Shillong.

He added that “not only Nepali but everyone including Bihari, Marwari, Bengali are targeted as dokhar which means outsiders in Khasi".

Shillong unrest Fresh clashes reflect Meghalayas past characterised by conflicts between tribals and outsiders

Security personnel stand guard a street during curfew in Shillong on Saturday. PTI

Curfew continues for the third day in Shillong

Curfew continued to be imposed in Shillong for the third day on Sunday evening after it was briefly lifted from 8 am to 3 pm in areas under Lumdiengjri Police Station and Cantonment Beat House areas. Suspension of internet on mobile services also continued, besides prohibiting the sale of petrol, diesel, etc, in loose jerricans, bottles and any other containers to the public by all petrol pumps within the district.

"The Indian Army is on standby and will be deployed if the situation warrants. The district administration and the state police are making all efforts to restore peace and normalcy," PS Dkhar, Deputy Commissioner, East Khasi Hills, had said earlier, adding that the situation remains tense in Shillong.

An indefinite curfew was imposed in at least 14 localities of Shillong on Thursday at 4 am, and internet services were suspended. However, despite the restrictions, incidents of clashes have reportedly taken place between locals and security forces in Motphran area of the city. Night curfew has been imposed in the rest of the town as well.

Marak told Firstpost that the police has already picked up several people involved in the clashes, and more arrests are likely to take place soon.

State govt, civil society groups monitoring the situation

On Friday, Meghalaya chief minister Conrad K Sangma, home minister James K Sangma and other senior ministers reviewed the law and order situation in Shillong in a high-level meeting in the presence of senior police and civic officials.

“We had a meeting on Friday, he chalked out a strategy and we had a word with local communities to calm the situation. One person is arrested for triggering the initial altercation. Most of the demands of the agitators are addressed. And after the internet was suspended, rumours in the social media has also stopped. We hope the situation will calm down soon,” the state home minister said.

"We need proper action on this, this situation should come under control. The government should take a bold decision. This type of incidents have happened earlier also. We saw the very same kind of incident approx 15 years ago,” said Wellbirth Rani, president, Federation of Khasi-Jaintia and Garo People (FKJGP).

Civil society groups are also trying to calm down the situation, and have urged political leaders not to politicise the incident. "As a civil society organisation, we demand the immediate restoration of peace as the common man is suffering. Many are complaining it is a political plan. This incident shouldn’t be politicised, that’s what we demand to the people,” said Agnes Kharshiing, president, Civil Society Women's Organisation (CSWO).

The way forward

"Shillong was the capital of undivided Assam. Before 1972, we saw a lively Shillong. We were part of this entire Khasi culture. From wedding to funerals, we were an integral part of their society. It hurts when we see Shillong burning on non-tribal and tribal issues,” says 62-year-old Shivaji Das, a retired army man and a former resident of Shillong.

Currently, about 500 non-tribal residents of the Them Iew Mawlong area have taken shelter at an adjoining army cantonment.

“I am born and brought up in Shillong. I have many Khasi friends but now they want us to go from here. A small scuffle is again boiling up into an anti-non-tribal movement, but Meghalaya is as much as mine as it is of my Khasi friends,” says Roop Kumari, one of the many people who took refuge at the army cantonment.

The silver lining perhaps lies in the fact that in Shillong’s landmark Police Bazaar many non-tribals from the same affected area are opening their roadside shops for the tourists whose numbers are only a few.

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