What is the conflict?
The landscape of Shillong reminded the primarily Scottish officers of East India Company of the glens back home. The hill station, established in 1874 as the headquarters of Assam Province, thus earned the sobriquet, Scotland of the East. A major base for Allied forces on the Burma front during the Second World War, Shillong, after Meghalaya’s statehood in 1972, has been a theatre of communal conflicts between the dominant Khasi tribe and ‘dkhars,’ a derogatory term for non-tribal outsiders.
Why did the city burn?
The ‘Mazhabi’ or Dalit Sikhs are one of the earliest non-tribal settlers in Shillong. The British, who had set up a base in the city — then a village around the Hima (kingdom or traditional state) of Mylliem — in the 1950s, had brought them for manual scavenging, a job the locals would not do. The place they settled down came to be known as Punjabi or Sweepers’ Lane or Harijan Colony. On May 31, a scuffle between girls of this colony and a Khasi driver of a bus that blocked their way to a water source snowballed into a communal conflict. Though the two parties came to a compromise and the Sikhs paid Rs.4,000 for the treatment of three injured Khasi boys, a WhatsApp message that the three had died turned the area into a battleground with mobs throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and the police firing tear-gas shells. The stand-off continued for five days.
Was there a design?
Locals have for long considered Punjabi Lane an eyesore, whose residents are stereotyped as trouble-makers. The violence was seen as an excuse for political parties and pressure groups such as the Khasi Students’ Union to revive the old demand for shifting the colony to the outskirts of the city. The Sikhs refuse to budge, claiming that the Syiem (king) of Mylliem had given the land for permanent settlement through a December 10, 1863, agreement with the British. They allege that the colony is being eyed by developers for a shopping complex. The coalition government, headed by Conrad K. Sangma, assuaged the tempers by forming a high-level committee to consider an acceptable relocation plan. But members of Sikh organisations and the National Commission for Minorities, who visited Shillong during the violence, said relocating people living in a place for more than 150 years would not be possible. Shillong is quieter now, but parts of the city remain under curfew, and Punjabi Lane is being guarded by paramilitary forces.
Was it an aberration?
Unlike other urban spaces in the northeastern India that began as homogenised habitations, Shillong was born as a cosmopolitan town because the British needed occupation-specific communities to run the administration. As the capital of much of the present-day northeastern India, Shillong remained pluralistic after 1947. Meghalaya’s statehood reduced Shillong’s administrative reach, but it gained popularity as India’s western music hub that celebrates birthdays of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley with annual gigs.
But several waves of ethnic cleansing between 1979 and 1992 — first against the Bengalis, who formed the clerical cadre of the British, followed by Nepalis and Biharis — dented Shillong’s image as a quiet hill town that Rabindranath Tagore eulogised in some of his poems and plays. Scores of non-tribal people were killed and thousands left. The numerically weaker Sikhs are perhaps the last ‘dkhar’ group to be targeted.
Shillong has its eyes on becoming a major tourist destination. The names of many places in the city and elsewhere in the Khasi landscape begin either with Um, meaning water, or Maw, meaning stone or rock. The local name of Punjabi Lane is Them Iew Mawlong, the politics of mistrust around whose residents has rocked Shillong, often called India’s rock ‘n roll capital. The ‘maws’ could be flying again, depending upon what the committee, facing criticism for not including a Sikh representative, prescribes.
(Adapted from the Hindu)