Violence in Shillong

Kashmir Times. Dated: 6/11/2018 9:06:38 AM

Meghalaya government should not succumb to nativist demands and ensure social harmony through equitable and inclusive development

The week-long incidents of violence sparked by a ‘fake news’ on social networking platform, WhatsApp, in Shillong, are unfortunate and highly condemnable. Though there was no loss of precious lives in the incidents of violence that continued till curfew was imposed and army was kept on standby, yet loss of property of common masses is tragic. It is also unfortunate that the digitaly platform which has been aggressively used by the right wing parties for coming to power has become an unfiltered medium for hate and rumour mongering by the same elements. The state government acts of omission and commission were sadly influenced by the right wing leanings of the NDA-government and BJP activists in tackling the situation in Meghalaya. In the background, the survey and enactment of a new law declaring settlers there as nonnative citizens has also become a cause of tension between the Tribals and communities settled in North Eastern Region during the past over a century or so. The sequence of events shows that a scuffle between members of a sect of Sikh community, long-time settlers in the Punjabi Lane area of the city, and a Khasi youth and his associates over a local matter was amicably settled between representatives of the communities. But a ‘fake story’ that the youth had succumbed to injuries sustained in the scuffle led to large numbers of Khasi protesters laying siege to Punjabi Lane, demanding that the Sikh residents be moved out from the area. It is unfortunate that the ‘settlers’ have been in Shillong for more than a century and a half, having been originally brought there by the British colonials to work as manual scavengers, and have since integrated themselves within Shillong, has not insulated them from being described as outsiders. The local authorities moved swiftly to protect the residents of Punjabi Lane from physical harm, but mob violence persisted until curfew restrictions were imposed. Spokespersons of the Khasi Students’ Union, whose members were part of the agitation, continue to insist that the Punjabi Lane residents be moved from Shillong’s commercial heart to its outskirts. Blessed by nature, the picturesque Shillong is no longer just an idyllic hill station; it is a bustling city that has grown in an unplanned manner and requires reforms such as zoning regulation. But the agitators’ demand to shift the Sikh residents is not only unreasonable but also unjustified and must be resisted. In fact, the Meghalaya High Court had stayed an order by the District Commissioner to evict the residents from Punjabi Lane (also known as Sweepers’ Colony) in 1986. Since then, anger among the native Tribals has been brewing for various reasons including the fact that Punjabi Lane has become a posh and prime area for all sorts of tourist activities.
The state government has to go beyond the slogan of development of the hilly town and its adjoining areas and put in place a long-term economic model that leads to inclusive development. The anger of Tribals over economic issues leading to the scapegoating of non-tribal long-time residents reflects the continued failure to forge a more inclusive politics in Meghalaya. At present, there are enough provisions of affirmative action for the Tribal people – 80 percent reservation for the Khasi, Jaintia, Garo and other tribes in jobs and professional studies. Yet, discontent persists over the lack of adequate jobs in the state, especially in urban areas, where development models have been found lagging in integrating the people. A Labour Bureau report on employment in 2015-16 found Meghalaya to have among the highest urban unemployment rates (13.4%). Discontent over lack of opportunities in the past had led to incidents such as the violent targeting of the Bengali community in 1979 and Nepalis in 1987, many of whom then fled Meghalaya. To prevent a repeat of those incidents, the state government must stand by and protect the Sikh residents, and not give in to the nativist arguments of the protestors. After peace is restored, Meghalaya’s politicians and civil society leaders must forge a more inclusive vision of the state’s besides change in policies to provide more job opportunities not only for the Tribals but all other communities to ensure long term social and communal harmony.

 

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