OPINION | Different shades of Shillong Mayhem; When objectivity becomes subjective
TNT News | Shillong, June 12, 2018:
OPINION | By Dr. Batskhem Myrboh
The recent protest possibly started by the hawkers mostly women, who depend their livelihood in and around Iewduh, which is the most important market place in the State against the assault meted out on some Khasi boys allegedly by some residents of the adjoining sweepers' colony, turned violent to the extent that curfew was being promulgated in the city of Shillong.
Appallingly, the incident was declared by one of the leading English dailies from Shillong to have turned communal and blamed it on the Khasi protesters. A number of articles and 'letters to the Editor' authored by certain social activists, educationists and other concerned citizens published in the same daily seem to propagate that the protest was a communal one threatening the peace and security of the lives of the minority non-tribal population in the state of Meghalaya.
A picture is rather painted of those who took part in the protest as always being anti-nontribal, lacking any sense of the need and possibility of peaceful co-existence between the minority non-tribal communities and the majority tribal population.
For such authors siding with minority rather than objectivity is always right and considered a liberal stand. But this particular stand-point needs to be countered as it is not only based on lack of objective understanding of the problem but also dangerous because it has the potential to rekindle the communal passion which the state witnessed on several occasions in the previous century and possibly creating a threat to the personal life and liberty of the people not only of Meghalaya but entire Northeast, living in other parts of India.
The purpose of this article is not to give a judgement on who is right and who is wrong on the skirmish that turned violent as that is the task of the police. But I would like to state that the incident was not a communal one but rather a problem arising out of the possibly inept handling of the police department in maintaining law and order in the area.
In the last two decades, Meghalaya has been able to attain a fairly and appreciable degree of civility and this has been due to efforts of various stakeholders from both the tribal communities and non-tribal communities.
Coming out from the shadow of communalism in the twentieth century, both the majority and minority communities have, by and large, come to the realisation that for the development of the state peaceful, coexistence of different communities is central.
Leaders of the local ethnic-based pressure groups and political parties including the regional political parties which publicly proclaim that they are tribal parties have admitted, accepted and taken a position that those non-tribals who migrated to the state before the creation of the State should be identified and considered as the "genuine and permanent non-tribal residents of the State".
The non-tribal communities, on the other hand, have more or less acknowledged the fact the local tribal population have the right to protect their interests. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the recent past, the regional political parties were able to attract support from members of non-tribal communities during elections and there has been a tribal candidate winning election against non-tribal candidate from constituencies having substantial non-tribal population as ethnic pattern of voting does not always take place. However, more efforts should be done to accommodate the genuine concerns of such category of non-tribal residents after proper identification.
There is no doubt that even today there is an on-going realisation and demand from the tribal communities particularly the Khasis as represented by a number of pressure groups, political parties and local bodies with regards to the need to check illegal migration to the State which not only Meghalaya is facing but more importantly Assam.
But this concern is not unfounded and that even the members of the non-tribal communities, who have been settling in the state for a long time, do share the same concern. It may be recalled that during the 2013 agitation led by the 13 pressure groups in the State for the implementation of the Inner Line Permit (ILP), the target was against the unwillingness of the state government to accommodate the issue raised by them. It was very unfortunate that during the agitation, one precious life from a particular non-tribal community was lost, yet there was no display of support or sympathy when the alleged culprit was arrested.
Had the Khasis been communal as being projected by the above mentioned daily, such public display of support would have been visible and witnessed then.
The people of Meghalaya have now been able to live in peaceful co-existence due to which celebration of all kinds of religious festivals in the state has been possible. The other parts of the country that have not been able to come out from the shadow of communalism should learn.
The efforts of the government, religious and local bodies deserve appreciation for bringing back to the state communal harmony. But this hard earned communal harmony restored in the state could be jeopardised when it is now being repeatedly proclaimed and identified those who struggle for the protection of the interests of the Khasi community as morons, communal, troublemakers and hooligans (it may be reminded that in 2013 during the ILP movement such proclamation and identification also happened).
Furthermore, they even have the audacity to say that the poor section in the community tend to have the mob mentality and are easily available to be bought by vested interests in the society. In other words, the poor and the downtrodden of the society who are otherwise the victims of deprivation in the lopsided developmental approach of the Government have to face yet another humiliating treatment at the hands of those self-proclaimed critical and liberal thinkers who criminalize them.
This process of criminalization of the poor needs to be condemned strongly and nipped in the bud before it becomes a cancer in the society. One wonders whether these so called liberal and critical thinkers have ever faced the problems that the poor do.
The Khasi community has emerged to be one of the most tolerant communities where spaces for dissenting voices and criticisms are well maintained. Many critical writings both in the media and academic world against the ethnic-based pressure groups have been published time and again both by the members of the community as well as the outsiders.
One particular professor not belonging to Khasi community, teaching in a leading University in Shillong, during an interaction I had with him, expressed his dismay that he did not receive any threat from the Khasi Students' Union (KSU), the local pressure groups always accused as being militants, for publishing a critical commentary against it.
Recently, participating in the panel discussion in the Doordarshan Kendra, Shillong in its weekly programme, "The Inside Story", where I was flanked on both sides by the former and the present KSU leaders, I made critical comments against the Union but no threat was ever issued against me. Recently, the General Secretary of the Union made it categorically clear that they believed in contestation of ideas and not in physical force. I am fortunate for being a member of a community where freedom of speech and expression is given utmost importance and respect. Tolerance of others' opinions and viewpoints has been part of the Khasi social and political culture.
Coming back to the incident in the evening of the 31st May, 2018, it was more of a protest against the alleged highhandedness of the particular residents of sweepers' colony accused of being involved in beating and injuring the local boys.
One may criticise the protestors even when a compromise was made during the day but it would of great interest to know who facilitated the compromise and for whose benefits. It is claimed by many that the local tribals generally avoid passing through the sweepers' colony any time of the day but more specifically towards the evening as far as possible.
Considering this claim, it seems the hawkers, the poor farmers and other rural based business people who have to depend on Iewduh in one way or the other for their livelihood are the ones who face the brunt for the insecurity feeling posed to their lives and personal security allegedly by the sweepers' colony. Had the police department taken serious note, stay vigilant and handled all criminal activities occurring in the area with utmost sense of carefulness and responsibility towards maintaining law and order, this incident could have been avoided.
The demand for relocation of the residents of the sweepers' colony in order to establish confidence in the security of the area has been made from time to time and the state government has failed to take concrete action on the matter.
By any logic the residents of the sweepers' colony should cooperate with the State Government in its efforts to relocate them as their present habitation is too congested by any standard posing risks to their health and lives. The state government while undertaking an exercise of relocation should avoid as far as possible ghettoization of population as it leaves scope for parochial and bigotry tendency.
It is imperative to clear the doubt that may have existed in the minds of the critics that this fear of the sweepers' colony has its roots in the communal mentality on the part of the tribal population.
It may be mentioned that at present, there are many localities in Shillong where non-tribals are either the exclusive or the majority residents which do not strike any fear on the minds of the local people.
This kind of atmosphere should be encouraged and allowed to prevail and this is the responsibility of each and every one in the state. I personally request the media not to fall trap into the minority-majority trap for the sake of gaining unnecessary popularity but capable of harming the image of the state and its people.
(The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Synod College, Shillong)
(The views and opinions expressed in this article belongs solely to the writer and TNT-The Northeast Today may not subscribe to the same views)