By Ananya S Guha
Shillong is fighting another bout of what can turn out to be a fractious long-drawn conflict after almost two decades. I am referring to the embattled conflict in the very late nineties between the police and a militant outfit. Prior to that, there were ethnic riots in the late seventies, the mid-eighties and the early nineties. About six years back, there was a horrific case of people burnt alive. The 1979 ethnic riots in Shillong is often taken as a measurable yardstick to indicate the downslide of law and order, and what is known as communal riots. But the fact is that since 1987, Shillong more than limped back to normalcy. Of course, there have also been bouts of bandhs intermittently. People however see in them potential for violence.
The very recent trouble involving the Punjabi Harijan community living in the Sweeper Colony in Shillong is a reminder of the past. There has been for some time a conflict of interest between the local people and them because their colony in Iewduh is in the middle of business settlement and there have been skirmishes between them and the local community in the past.
On 31 May, a government bus almost hit a young lady in that area. This is one version. There are two more! In fact, no clear version of what exactly happened has emerged; a lot of rumor-mongering took place and local news reporting was shoddy. The ostensible cause of the trouble was that some minors were beaten and there was a retaliation late in the evening. This led to police retaliation and clashes between the public and the police.
The question is: can we call this a communal incident? Was it not a localized situation?
Unlike many incidents in the past, this was not a result of simmering tension generated over a period of time. The incident was trivial and the matter was apparently settled between the two groups. That it was recycled was of course unfortunate. As it happens in a small city, curfew was clamped but unlike in the past, where after any incident which had the potential of triggering trouble invited curfew, this time it was declared in only parts of the city. Earlier normally curfew would be declared in at least the municipal area of the city, as it had the potential to spread throughout the city. Although night curfew has been declared in the city this time as a preventive measure, the tension as of the time of writing this piece is not palpable throughout the city. This means perhaps that trouble can be localized and administration can attempt to douse flames in specific localities only. Earlier it would grip the entire city.
However, the current political situation and its relation with quasi-political groups cannot be ruled out to determine the future course of events. Also, tribal and non-tribal relations are very fragile, as this recent flare up has once again evidenced. Only amicable settlement and time can heal and restore relationships. Should we view this problem in the larger context of past happenings in Shillong or see it as an isolated happening? Even if it is the latter, one should be able to perceive the conflict of interest that exists between the Punjabi community and the local community over a prime area in Shillong. The Punjabis were donated that piece of land way back in the mid-nineteenth century by the Syiem of Hima Mylliem. After independence, the land came under the government rights. The people who are settled there are scheduled castes and many of them are from families who do the scavenging work of Shillong, having lived here for generations. According to some reports, not all the families living there now are working in the Municipal Corporation; some of them are involved in small businesses and other petty work. A study conducted by Professor Himadri Banerjee of Jadavpur University on these Punjabis settled in Shillong and Guwahati suggest that these Sikhs are from the lower castes and their merger with the other Sikhs, belonging to the business communities, is not complete. They are marginalized to some extent. This has further ghettoized them.
The penchant of the media to rake this up as a Dalit issue is to politicize it and fit it into the overall politics of the country, where Dalits are attacked in various parts the country. It is not the case in Shillong. It is a local issue over a conflict of interest. It is also not an ethnic clash, because of the same reason. Any conflict in Shillong where non-locals are involved tend to get designated as a tribal/non-tribal conflict. It is true that there have been violence in the past over such clashes, but in this present incident, it is over land and infrastructure in one of the prime localities of Shillong, the main market place Iewduh. What experts and analysts miss is the emerging class dynamics and the economic reasons behind such conflict. Both the communities are engaged in a conflict for survival.
Ananya S Guha is Regional Director, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), Shillong.
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