As the country was witnessing riots and protests in the capital city, over the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, (CAA) 2019, a furore also raised in the peaceful state of Meghalaya. On February 28, ethnic violence triggered in the state that has left three dead and several injured. To control the situation curfew was imposed and internet was suspended. However, with tensions coming to the fore, the violence highlights the ethnic complexities of Meghalaya. Moreover, the persisting fear of dominance by the ‘outsiders’ in the state have alerted the tribals who have been vouching for the Inner Line Permit (ILP). Mumeninaz Zaman writes
The recent violence
A meeting was organized in view of the anti-CAA protest at Ichamati a small town in Shella, near the Indo-Bangladesh border by the influential Khasi Students Union (KSU), where a clash broke out with the non-tribals residing in the area. This led to the death of one KSU member who was allegedly killed in a retaliatory attack by some non- tribals. The incident further turned violent when non-tribals were attacked in other parts of the state including Shillong. To control the situation curfew was imposed in various parts of the state and internet services were suspended.
The incident heightened the fear among the non-tribals who were engaged in different works in the state. Reports further suggest that following the violence at Ichamati, many of the migrant workers has first hid themselves in nearby jungles and later sought refuge in a Border Security Force camp. Later they were asked to report to the local police station and were advised to leave the state.
The recent incident have also garnered a lot of criticism, even as from the Governor of the state, Tathagata Roy, who have equated the conditions of the non-tribals to that of the Kashmiri Pandits in the Kashmir Valley in 1991. He was further quoted as saying that ‘he will not let any citizen of India residing in this country – be it Khasi, Garo, Bengali, Christian or a Muslim – suffer from any indignity or any fear’.
As published in local dailies the statement by the Governor was widely condemned by various organizations in the state who termed it as ‘immature and provocative’.
A look back at the ethnic complexities
Meghalaya an otherwise peace loving state is one of the most multicultural states in the Northeast. From music to literature and food to fashion it is considered to be one of the happening places in the country.
However, the state inherits a history of violence and has borne the brunt of it, since it was carved out of Assam in 1972. The non-tribals, who are pejoratively referred to as ‘dkhars’ have been the victim of violence since 1979.
The state which mostly comprises of the tribals, including the Garos, Jaintias, Khasis and other minority tribes have also seen the settlements of non tribals- Bengalis, Punjabis, Marwaris and Nepalis. On the southern side it shares borders with Bangladesh and on the northern side it borders Assam. Hence, Meghalaya has seen decades of migration from areas that are now in Bangladesh, as well as from various Indian states via Assam.
Moreover, the dominance over business establishments, labour force and other employment opportunities by the settlers who are mainly economic migrants has left the native locals on pins and needles. This further escalated to three ethnic riots between the indigenous tribes and the non- tribals. In 1979 almost 20,000 Bengalis were displaced from Meghalaya following attacks by Khasis. In 1987, almost 2,700 Nepalis and Biharis were displaced from Meghalaya following land disputes with tribals. Again in 1992, around 3000 Nepalis quit Meghalaya following clashes between Khasis and non-tribals during Dusherra.
While the relations between the indigenous tribals and settler communities have relatively improved over the years, ethnic tensions shifted to the indigenous tribes. Later in 2018 another round of violence occurred as a result of a minor tiff between the Sikh community whose ancestors had settled there for decades and the Khasis. This was followed by the recent episode at Ichamati.
The CAA context
The Centre decided that CAA will not apply in the Sixth Schedule areas. This means that the act does not apply to the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur which comes under the ILP regime as well as to some of the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, as specified in the Sixth Schedule.
To visit the ILP regime states, outsiders, including people from other states of the country, need to take permission. There is also protection for the locals with regard to lands, jobs and other facilities. Hence preventing the settlement of other Indian nationals in the designated states in order to protect the indigenous population.
Following the passing of the Act, Meghalaya has been vouching for the implementation of the ILP. Despite Meghalaya being under the Sixth Schedule area the persisting fear of dominance by the outsiders in the state have alerted the tribals about their businesses, jobs, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, and tribal identity. The fear of an influx has triggered the demands for an ILP, which had been raised for several decades now by the KSU and a number of other tribal bodies.
Moreover, the implementation of CAA without an ILP will mean an open access to the state for the refugees who with the hope of acquiring citizenship through Bangladesh and Assam will usher into the state.
Northeast, including Meghalaya has witnessed the influx of immigrants from Bangladesh for a long time now that has threatened the indigenity of the tribal people. The last four decades have seen numerous incidents of violence in Meghalaya targeting the non- tribals. Meanwhile, the CAA and ILP episode have reintroduced the fear of outsiders among the natives of the state, thereby opening up the bloody history of ethnic violence.