Shillong's identity as city of rock and roll and tranquility conceals polarisation kept alive by political rhetoric

I’m not quite sure what attracted me to Meghalaya’s capital city Shillong, but the attraction was instantaneous. Maybe it was the warm, wonderful people I met or the rolling hills that held up blue skies littered with wafting clouds. Possibly it was the slow pace of life that allowed me to escape or maybe, just maybe, it was the alcohol and the unadulterated fun I had there. I still clearly remember the moment my infatuation started and, like many love stories, this too started at a party. Still in my third year of undergraduation, I stood by the bar flanked by three strangers, who would go on to become my guides to the city. With the warmth of the crackling bonfire just out of reach, we huddled together and shouted the words of “Oh what a night” as the impromptu jam session transformed into a concert. Though at 6’2 I quite literally stood out of the crowd, in the moment, I truly felt like I belonged.

After that, every trip to Shillong was a blitz on my liver and over the years, waking up with a hangover followed by a jug of water, some bacon and disprin, had well, become normal and the city had become my escape. That's the Shillong I fell in love with and the people that I began to identify myself with. However, unknown to most, beneath the veneer of normalcy and rock and roll simmers communal tension that has been kept alive for decades by polarising political rhetoric.

A van overturned during protests in Shillong. 101Reporters

A van overturned during protests in Shillong. 101Reporters

This fermenting angst regularly escalates into violence. So, the fact that a small altercation over parking on 31 May, rapidly escalated into a clash between two communities, the Khasi tribals and Mazhabi Sikhs, and the ensuing violence resulted in the army being called in and a curfew in Shillong, shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Now, any real dilliwalla knows that parking is worth fighting over, but the clashes in Shillong have very little to do with parking. They are just the latest flare-up in a cyclical historical narrative of insiders versus outsider or tribals versus non tribals or locals versus non-locals. It doesn’t really matter how you frame it; it is about racism and discrimination, the seeds of which date back to the British Raj.

In the early 1800s, an eastward expanding British administration needed to build a road linking Sylhet to the Assam valley and that brought them to the Khasi Hills. After initial clashes with the Khasi chiefs and the Jaintia rajas over taxation, they brought the area that is today Meghalaya under their formal control. Originally, the British had selected Cherrapunji, the world's second wettest place after neighboring Mawsynram, as the headquarter for the new Kashi-Jaintia Hills administration. However, the endless rain forced them to shift to Shillong and when the British arrived, the city we know today was little more than a swamp. With them, the British brought Bengali administrators, Nepalese soldiers, Marwari traders and the church, and as the city grew around their cantonment, Shillong went on to become the capital of a territory extending over most of what is today India’s North East and Bangladesh. It became a hub for administration, trade and education. At the time, a diverse mix of people from undivided India traveled to Shillong and made their homes there. It was yet to become the ethnic tinder box I described earlier.

Fast forward to 1972 when Meghalaya is carved out of Greater Assam. The indigenous tribes of Meghalaya — Khasi, Jaintia and Garo — found that having just been released from the political control of Assam, their state’s middle class and administration was dominated by people of Bengali descent, the economy was largely controlled by people of Marwari and Sindhi descent. ‘Outsiders’ still controlled their land. Just to be clear, I use the term ‘outsider’ as representative of tribal sentiment, many of these ‘outsider’ families had been living in the state for over a century. But unemployment and the inability to compete with the established non-tribal businesses gave rise to discontentment and anger amongst the indigenous tribes of the hill state. This was an angst that transformed into an anti-outsider movement that fought to ‘safeguard’ the indigenous people. Soon, slogans of ‘Khasi by blood, Indian by accident’ gave way to violence and rioting that changed the social fabric of Shillong forever.

The author is a Delhi-based journalist who has reported from India’s northeastern states, and eastern neighbourhood — China, Nepal, Myanmar. His recent book, In Pursuit of Conflict, chronicles the history and politics of and conflict in the North East.

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Updated Date: Jun 08, 2018 15:15:26 IST

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