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Newsletter from Northeast: Curfew withdrawn in Shillong, tension lingers

Shillong: Communal clashes are not unknown to Shillong, the state capital of Meghalaya and the political hub of the north-east India  during the Raj. Recent clashes and sporadic violence is another chapter in otherwise elegant history of the Queen of the eastern hills.  For old timers here, it is reliving the horror and tension again and again.

A clash between the members of the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) and non-tribals at Ichamati (under Shella community and rural development block in East Khasi Hills) on the Bangladesh border on February 28 this year killed a 35-year-old taxi driver, Lurshai Hynniewta. KSU was quick to claim that the deceased was a member of the organisation’s Sohra circle. Its leaders declared that they would drive away non-tribals from Ichamati if the government failed to act. It took less than 24 hours for the tension to spread to the urban pockets. The knee-jerk reaction of the government was to shut down mobile internet and impose curfew, first in the sensitive areas and subsequently extending it to other parts of Shillong. Ichamati and Sohra were also under curfew.

The first attack in the city was reported from Motphran, which is the epicentre of all unrest, on February 29. Between March 2-7, three attacks, including a fatal one, were reported in Shillong. Tight security cloaked Motphran. Bara Bazar, the wholesale market and a vital economic point, remained deserted. Fear was palpable in non-tribal localities. The law and order crisis in the city was meant to happen anytime. The embers were burning since the violence in Sikh-dominated Harijan Colony in May 2018 that had brought Shillong to a complete standstill. The city, a favorite destination of Bengalis in Kolkata and adventurers from far and wide, remained on the blacklist of tourists for months.

Different dynamic of anti-CAA protest in Northeast

The protests against Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) since last December and the revival of the demand for inner line permit (ILP) for non-tribals helped in assembling the embers. Unlike the rest of India, anti-CAA protests have been spearheaded by the ‘son-of-the soil’ Hindus and Christian tribal communities in Assam and some other north-eastern states.  The Central government led by Hindu right BJP and most of the NE regional parties were on the same page on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Assam that was aimed at detection, disenfranchisement and detention of purported illegal immigrants-settlers from Bangladesh.

However, the exclusion of more than 12 lakhs of Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslim residents of the state as in addition to some local tribals as well as Nepali and Bihari  migrants from the mainland among the 19 lakhs people has opened another lid of the Pandora’s Box. A party of pan-Indian Hindu majoritarianism, BJP cannot afford to loose Bengali Hindu votes in Assam, particularly while trying to win neighboring Bengal in 2021. So, BJP has passed the CAA in parliament offering amnesty and citizenship to illegal immigrants of six faiths except Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan to consolidate its Hindu base before launching the nationwide NRC to expand the Assam scenario to weed out  foreign ‘infiltrators’ read Muslims across the land. In contrast

But the party’s religious nationalism has inadvertently clashed with the Assamese linguistic nationalism which is aimed at mainly Bengalis irrespective of religions and other NE varieties of nativist concerns over loss tribal land and culture to outsiders. BJP has tried to assuage its NE allies by curbing the rights of would-be non-Muslim and regularized illegal immigrants to settle in notified tribal  autonomous areas in Assam and rest of the NE . Further, they won’t be allowed in tribal states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram which are  close to China and Myanmar borders where inner-line permits are needed both for foreigners and mainland Indians.

However, the social-political alliance between the Hindu right and Christian tribals are still suffering a huge trouble in post-CAA days as NE parties and larger public opinion have refused to buy the Centre’s concessions. In Meghalaya which borders Bangladesh and was a strategic base for Bangladesh liberation war, tribal student bodies and parties now fear demographic deluge from across the border.They Assam-like NRC and extension of the ILP regime in the state. However, ethnic clashes have not been confined to Bengali Vs tribal groups.

The role of Conrad Samgma regime

The Ichamati incident, especially the retaliation by non-tribals, stoked the fire. In all this, the one who should be blamed is the state government. The initial dithering of the Conrad Sangma government in May 2018, less than three months after his NPP toppled the Congress coalition government in Meghalaya, allowed the Harijan Colony skirmishes to flare up. The new government was late to react. For the first time since the advent of smartphones, the citizens experienced mobile data shut down. Curfews, which had become history, once again reminded the city of the past trauma.

Between the government’s indecisiveness and action, the pressure groups in Khasi Hills gained enough audacity to flex their muscles after years of lull. Their voices got louder over the months to come. The tabling of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and its enactment gave them enough reason to scream to a crescendo. The anti-CAA slogans suddenly turned into full-fledged pro-ILP slogans as the year came to an end.

The government faltered again. It yielded to the pressure too fast and decided to pass a resolution in the state Assembly supporting implementation of ILP. Only months before the CAA episode, the state had amended the Meghalaya Residents’ Safety and Security Act, making it more stringent and smart. There were elaborate plans to digitise the screening of visitors and it could have been as efficient as, if not more than, ILP. But the government, a coalition of four parties and independents, could not convince the protesting groups and instead decided on the resolution.

Opposition silent

The Opposition was the silent devil. It went with the popular sentiments and supported the resolution. Not once did it demand an all-party meet with pressure groups for a rational discussion. It must be mentioned that the preceding government, led by Mukul Sangma, had kept the pressure groups at bay and muted their demand for ILP. Then what made the now opposition leader to change his mind?

While the ILP resolution is “under the Centre’s consideration”, there are no clear indications from the coalition government on the plan to introduce the user-friendly digitized scanning system. With Assam ruling out ILP, chances that Meghalaya will get it are bleak. Moreover, the subject remains debatable in this time of economic growth. But the government did not consider debates as a measure to pacify the anxiety of the locals. It only left the embers to burn instead of dousing the fire completely.

Both the ruling and the opposition in the state knew ILP would be a tough bargain for the state and yet they went ahead with the resolution. Did Conrad Sangma want to prove that his government was truly a friend of the tribals? Did he think that by passing a piece if paper would ensure peace in the long run? Did he not explain to the pressure groups about the cumbersome procedure before ILP got Centre’s nod? Or was he buying time that he did not utilise to take a concrete decision? The case is not as curious as it is complex and there is no effort to untie the knots.

Vigilante rule spreading

In the past, the government had shown laxity in taming the pressure group members who were playing the authority and checking trade licences of non-tribals. The government’s lack of confidence, piecemeal efforts, half- hearted talks after every clash and absence of a time frame are only pushing the state towards a prolonged crisis. There are other crises too, like the Assam border tension, which the government has to sort out but instead it is indulging in festivals.

Meanwhile, the curfew is has been withdrawn completely and mobile net restored. The dizzying crowd is back in Bara Bazar. Also, the board examinations have come as a relief. But fear lingers. A sense of insecurity prevails among non-tribals. A sense of anger still burns among a section of the locals. Uncertainty looms on the near and remote future of the state. And the government remains unfazed.

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