Mainstream, VOL LIII No 27 New Delhi June 27, 2015
Shillong: A Tale of Blue Love
Monday 29 June 2015
by Nabanipa Bhattacharjee
Thousands of people forced their way into the Dimapur Central Jail—Dimapur is a fairly large, commercial town in Nagaland—on March 5, 2015 to get hold of one Syed Sarifuddin Khan, a Bangla-speaking Muslim man in his mid-thirties, in order to punish him for the alleged rape of a Naga woman. In complete disregard of the jail authority, the mob then dragged the man through the streets of the town and beat him to death. The dead Khan, then, was hung on a tower for public viewing. Manic photo-graphing of the bodyfollowed, quite naturally. The mob, indeed, had its total revenge (plus free fun). This ghastly incident is yet another example of the violent intercommunity relations in the States that comprise the administrative entity labelled as the North-East since the 1970s. The racist/xenophobic climate of the region is no different from the one in “mainland” India. Actually, it is worse. The reasons behind the current state of affairs in the North-East range from the colonial misad-ventures including the (unsettled) business of the partition of Assam in 1947—which led to the separation of Sylhet, and, as a consequence, geographically “cut off” the North-East from the rest of India—to the politics (and policies, including the institution and perpetuation of, inter alia, the ”unsound” ”North-East Studies”/DoNERframe) of the postcolonial Indian state.
While it is true that Assam and Manipur top the chart in ethnic violence, the other States, as the Nagaland case shows, are not far behind. In fact, notwithstanding the difference in the scale and degree of violence, no North-Eastern State has been, or is, free from it. At the receiving end of the violence, in most cases, are the “outsiders”/”foreigners”. They do not “belong”, and are available for “free”. Also, they are most “willing” to be threatened, hounded, and yes, even lynched. After all, the “insiders”/”locals” need to feel powerful, boost their “collective conscience”, and, surely, be entertained — by violence — from time to time. I say this from my own experience of being born and raised in Shillong, the capital of the predominantly tribal (Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo) State of Meghalaya.
Not many are aware that Shillong (and its neighbouring areas) was the site of gruesome violence for close to two decades. To call that time difficult is an understatement. Anyhow, it all began in 1979, the year the anti-foreigner Assam movement was launched. The violence of the movement reached Shillong, the beautiful, misty hill city, and spread like wildfire. The city had its fair share of targets: the non-tribal “foreigners” drawn from the Bengali, Nepali, Bihari, Marwari, and other communities. The Bengalis were the first victims of the Khasi Students Union (KSU)-led anti-foreigner move-ment. The strategy of the movement was to combine isolated violence with organised pogroms, for its larger goal was total ethnic cleansing.
The former led to the stabbing and death of Partha Adhyapak, a family friend; Ratish Ghosh, a sweet-vendor, was tossed into a cauldron of hot syrup and burnt alive; Bimal Shyam Purkayastha, my mother’s former student, lost his eyesight forever after being hit by an arrow during a “violent” peace procession. The incidents of beating and mugging were too numerous to be counted and mentioned. (See, for example, Laskar 2015) The carefully planned pogroms, in line with the Nazi policy of lebensraum, targeted residential localities of mixed population. Following that, localities like Mawprem, Jaiaw, Wahingdoh, Raitsamthiah, Lamavilla, and so forth were violently cleansed of, as Zygmunt Bauman (2003) in another context said, the (Bengali) ‘outcasts’, the ‘human waste’. As the number of refugees grew schools, for instance, were turned into temporary camps. The State administration acted, not quite unexpectedly, in an extremely limited (indifferent) way. Actually, it hardly acted, for the killers went about killing with impunity.
With the refugees languishing in the camps, the fearful non-tribals (including my father and his friends) resorted to the prayer and petition mode—the only (civil) weapon of the weak. I remember regular meetings at home, and numerous files and memoranda seeking protection, relief and rehabilitation of the non-tribals. Nothing much came out of those. In 1987 the Nepalis were targeted, and in 1992 the Biharis, who were mainly in the dairy business; cows were burnt alive as they too were branded as ”foreigners”. The B.N. Sharma Commission Report on the 1992 riots stated that the communal carnage that began in 1979 resulted, during the course of the next one-and-a-half decade, in the displacement of more than a thousand, and killing of hundreds of non-tribals in Shillong. (See Dutta 2013; Mukhim 2014, Nag 2005) Needless to say, the perpetrators were never punished, and the victims were, consequently, denied justice.
Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s I witnessed, as a school- (and later) college-going Bengali girl, the non-tribals of Shillong being persecuted, and brutally murdered. I recall the disruption of puja processions, the Laitlyngkot incident, days and nights of curfew, Army flag marches, the rush for essential supplies, night vigils, shuttered shops, deserted streets, the plight of refugees, looting, arson, and much more. In all, I breathed and lived in an atmos-phere of immense vulnerability, torment and fear. However, as a middle-class, relatively affluent non-tribal I had many more options compared to the others. Leaving Shillong and its oppressive air, for instance, was one. I, therefore, joined the great “Dkhar” (meaning foreigner in the Khasi language) exodus, and left Shillong in 1994 to join the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I have stayed on since to work and settle in the city.
With passing time I have learnt to handle the “Dkhar” stigma. The fear (and anger) of my childhood and teenage years have ebbed. I visit and spend time in Shillong, without fail, every year. The situation is not as bad as it used to be, thanks to the efforts of the civil society, and other similar groups. But the fear and insecurity of the non-tribals have hardly lessened. From time to time they are reminded, through the Inner Line, the NRC/D (doubtful)-voter or other such issues, of their “alien-without-rights”/”pariah”status — of the “fact” that they do not “belong”. Instead of mixed residential localities, Shillong is dotted with heavily fortified ghettoes now. On my visits I am advised by well-meaning friends to return home before dusk; indeed, there is no panic-free evening (or generally time) for the non-tribals of Shillong. I am also discouraged from writing about what I, and many like me, witnessed during those turbulent years. In other words, I am encouraged to not exactly abandon, but certainly maintain a safe distance, in every sense, from Shillong.
Shillong is a prose of melancholy, and yet, I cannot let it go. Not only that, unlike Janice Pariat (2014) who cannot call the racist Delhi her home, I believe I want to, and still can call Shillong my home. I must confess that there are moments when everything appears to be futile and lost, and I am on the verge of giving up. But the disengagement, I remind myself, would mean failing Shillong — its history, culture, and people. It would also mean the forced and tragic forgetting of the city’s vibrant, cosmopolitan past — which was shaped by the unconditional recognition of difference — and its struggling present. (See, for example, Bhattacharjee 2014; Sengupta and Dhar 2004) Finally, it would mean me disowning myself. So, how should I go about with Shillong, and more generally, the North-East? Of course, I must, in my small ways, engage with it, and engage poignantly, seriously and patiently from the beginning up until the end.
[A version of this essay was published in Hardnews, New Delhi (April 2015). My thanks to Sadiq Naqvi for the thoughtful inputs.—N.B.]
Bauman, Zygmunt, 2003, Wasted lives: modernity and its outcasts, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bhattacharjee, Nabanipa, 2014, ‘Climate, Culture, Cosmopolitanism: The Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, Shillong’, Mainstream, LII (8), February 15.
Dutta, Binayak, 2013, “Shillong: the making and unmaking of a cosmopolity”, mltspaces.blogspot.in, October 4.
Laskar, R. Hasan, 2015, “My father was dragged out ...”, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, March 9.
Mukhim, Patricia, 2014, “Politics of identity and location”, The Hindu, New Delhi, April 26.
Nag, Sajal, 2005, “Turmoil in the abode of clouds” in Monirul Hussain (ed.), Coming out of violence: essays on ethnicity, conflict resolution and peace process in North-East India, New Delhi: Regency Publications.
Pariat, Janice, 2014, “The place I cannot call home”, www.janicepariat.com, February 2.
Sengupta, Sutapa and Bibhas Dhar (eds.), 2004, Shillong: a tribal town in transition, New Delhi: Reliance Publishing House.
Nabanipa Bhattacharjee teaches Sociology at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).