Shillong on edge as latest episode of Dalit Sikhs-Khasi tribes anger plays out

Last Updated: Mon, Jun 04, 2018 12:01 hrs
Shillong violence

Shillong is on edge. Last Thursday, violence broke out in Meghalaya’s capital after which a curfew was imposed in several localities. Clashes took place between residents of Punjabi Line and employees of state-run buses which belong to the Khasi community. The curfew was lifted on Sunday, though internet services which were suspended in the wake of the violence to curb the spread of fake messages would continue.

There were false rumors of a Gurudhwara being damaged as a result of the violence. The incident involved an altercation between a boy on a local bus and other locals. This led to violent clashes where property was damaged and 10 people were injured. The Chief Minister Conrad Sangma stated that some of the protests were sponsored saying in part saying that money and alcohol were being given for inciting violence.

The background here is tension between two communities. A bus conductor who was a tribal was assaulted by some residents of the Punjabi Line area. Tension among the two groups had been brewing for some time. The tribal have long been against the Punjabi settlements who were housed on government land, demanding they be relocated. The General Secretary of the KSU (Khasi Students Union), Donald Thabah expressed anger against the Punjabi lane residents accusing them of harassing Khasi residents saying in part, “We demand that the illegal settlers in that area are immediately evicted”.

As a result of the violence, tourism in the region has taken a hit. The violence that has taken place and the consequent curfews that were put in place have raised questions for influx of tourists who wish to visit the city. The Shillong Times editorial points this out –

Tourism in rural Meghalaya is booming with home-stays doing brisk business but since Thursday there have been cancellations galore. A city will always have its share of problems but that needs to be contained through effective policing and administrative insights based on experience”.

Shillong is a city that has undergone urbanization. This has left some parts of the city and the people who reside there to be isolated from other communities. This has the makings of turning some these densely populated but concentrated areas prone to crime.

In Shillong, whenever a communal outrage breaks out the elders retreat into safe spaces and mobs take over. Meghalaya does not seem to have learnt lessons from the past – a dark past that has crippled its development for decades and nearly destroyed its educational status”.

This episode of violence has prompted some to revisit the calls to shift residents of Harijan Colony, one of 12 localities the city administration identified as slums. In 2008, The Meghalaya State Development Report stated that these localities were in low lying areas with poor living conditions and sanitation. The tribal heads of 12 localities met with the Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma on the issue of relocation wanting immediate action and relocation. The Chief Minister however was waiting for a report from the Urban Affairs and Revenue departments.

Politics came into the picture when the People’s Democratic Party, a part of the BJP alliance stated that the government should begin relocation efforts. A leader of the United Democratic Party, another BJP ally, blamed the previous Congress alliance of failing to act due to vote bank politics. Meghalaya as a state has a chequered history of political instability.

The residents of the Punjabi Lane, Dalit Sikhs, however are not keen to relocate. There have been efforts to evict Dalit Sikhs from the locality for many years. Local Sikh leaders want the centre to intervene. Ancestors of the Dalit Sikh community were already settled in Shillong, who were brought by the British army to work as manual scavengers.

A document issued in 2008 from Khasi royalty stated that Khasi royalty never issued any land document to the Harijan community. They recognized them since the plot of land was already allotted to Dalits. Many of the dalits in the area do not have scheduled caste certificates. The Syiem of Mylliem village donated the land to dalits from Punjab.

After independence, many members of the community were continuing their employment of manual laborers by the Shillong Municipal Board, state government offices, hospitals and police. They were tasked with doing menial jobs such as cleaning, sweeping and manual scavenging; jobs that no one else would take up. Many Khasi residents feel that Punjabi Line is illegal and their settlement should not continue. However, they have faced discrimination for years.

In 2009, the residents finally received basic amenities after appealing to the state governor after local MLA schemes failed to do so. The original owner of the land is the village of Mylliem. Many of the residents of the colony could not get electricity without a no-objection certificate from the municipal board. This, in spite of the fact that the Mylliem have no objections.

The Khasi community believes the protests against the residents of Punjabi Line are due to the pent-up anger among the local tribal residents. Shillong witnessed protests in 2013 where residents turned violent demanding the introduction in Meghalaya of an inner line permit system to restrict the entry of outsiders in the state.

With the latest round of elections in the state, the Congress is, today, the single largest party in Meghalaya. There has been infighting in the past within the Congress which has lead to change of chief ministers midstream. The demands of the Khasi community coupled with the reluctance of the dalit Sikhs to relocate presents a problem for the government.

More columns by Varun Sukumar