SHE WAS an outsider from the moment she walked in. A nervous smile crept across her face as she was greeted by my friend. As we attempted to escape the Delhi winter by a bonfire, my friend learnt that she was from Nagaland and worked as a producer with a television channel. In an attempt to probe further, he enquired with a deadpan stare, “So, how does it work, do you need a work visa to be here in Delhi?” Dumbfounded, she gave me a quizzical look. Realising his mistake, my friend tried to ‘correct’ himself: “I’m so sorry, I was confusing Nagaland with Arunachal.”
The Northeast exists outside the conscious mindspace of the average Indian and “chinki” is how people in the ‘mainland’ often greet visitors from this region. Ignorance, coupled with racial insensitivity, has created a vicious cycle of racial discrimination. Made to feel like outsiders in the mainland, many tribals opt to go back home and then target the non-tribals — ‘dkhars’ in Shillong, ‘mayangs’ in Manipur, ‘bangars’ in the Garo Hills, ‘bhais’ in Mizoram and ‘plain mannu’ in Nagaland.
Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is where the good times roll on. But there is a dark and scary side to India’s rock capital. The ethnic tension that led to the state’s creation out of Greater Assam in 1972 has been kept alive by vested interests. Tribal sentiment is periodically rallied around the idea of an outsider invasion.
“With the three riots (1979, ’87, ’92), the backbone of the non-tribals was broken and an exodus started,” explains Manas Chaudhuri, 61, the former editor of The Shillong Times and the only non-tribal MLA of the Khasi Hills. “Meghalaya is the only state where in the past 40 years, the population of the minority (non-tribals) has declined by 2 percent every 10 years. When the state was formed, non-tribals constituted 20 percent of the state’s population, but today it has fallen below 10 percent.”
A Khasi lawyer put this discrimination down to a cycle of power. “Post-independence, outsiders controlled the bureaucracy and power. They never learnt the local language or tried to fit in. They would look down on the locals and mistreat them. Now that the locals have captured power, they are returning the favour,” he says.
Shillong was a Khasi hamlet before the British established it as the capital of Greater Assam in 1864. Soon, it was inhabited by British officials, Bengali bureaucrats and Nepali soldiers. As time passed, a bustling town sprang to life around the British settlement. However, the Bengalis, Nepalis, Marwaris, Sindhis, among others who have inhabited Shillong for multiple generations, have now become the outsiders. Discriminated and made to feel like second-class citizens, they are moving out.
‘Whether it was oil, coal or uranium, the idea is to take whatever can be taken, without looking after the welfare of the people’
Wan Shan*, 37, Khasi Businessman
‘We welcome economic immigration but we don’t want that to happen at the cost of Khasis becoming a minority in our own state’
Daniel Khyriem, 31, President, KSU
‘The Centre has given you a state on a platter. Over the past 40 years, the Centre has allocated 1 lakh crore. Is there any parallel?’Manas Chaudhuri, 61, Mawprem MLA
“I was at my grandparents’ house when news filtered in that our locality would be attacked at night,” says Abhinav Bhattacharya*. “I must have been in Class III or IV, but the image of everyone in a state of panic is still vivid. Before going to bed, we hid chilli powder under our pillows, just in case our house was attacked.”
Abhinav, 27, is a fifth-generation Bengali born and brought up in the Northeast. His father Alok moved to Shillong for higher education before Meghalaya was created. In Shillong, Abhinav is considered a dkhar; in Assam, he is a Bengali; and in Bengal, he is a Northeastern. With no place to call home, New Delhi is where he lives and works as a freelance television producer.
“We were tagged dkhars and constantly reminded that we are outsiders,” says Abhinav. “There were unwritten rules for what we could or couldn’t do, rules that were enforced by violence. We could only live in marked ghettos. I went to a boys’ school and saw plenty of fights. But they weren’t fair ones. If a non-tribal boy managed to beat up a Khasi, it was just a matter of time before we faced a backlash.”
Though both his sons have moved out and have no desire to return, Alok, a retired professor, has remained in Shillong. He lives in a rented house because under law, non-tribals are not allowed to buy land in Shillong, except in a few wards where prices are exorbitant. “The Constitution allows me to settle anywhere,” says Alok. “As a good Meghalayan, as a good Indian, I do my duty to society. I came here when Shillong was part of Assam. But now, they are questioning my right to stay here.”
Alok says that the government and state institutions have ganged up to see that non-tribals are prevented from settling in Shillong. “A situation has been created where lawfully settled non-tribals are forced to leave,” says the professor. “If you check the pattern of municipality holdings, you will see that non-tribal holdings have come down from 80 percent to 20 percent. The issue in Shillong is not of an influx as the Khasi Students Union (KSU) is claiming, but of an exodus… forced exodus.”
However, Abhinav feels that he has a lot to thank Shillong for. “My education has made me who I am. My inclination towards music comes from there. But I will never go back, Delhi is my home now. In Delhi, I get work based on my ability, not my ethnicity,” he says. “The discrimination has reduced from what it used to be in the 1990s, but that is because the non-tribal population has been reduced to such a minority that there is no one left to fight back.”
Born to a Meghalaya-based Gurkha couple, the only home Vrinda has known is Shillong. “I have lived my whole life here,” says the 34-year-old, who makes ends meet as a domestic help. “When the times are good, we don’t worry. But when there is trouble, I feel that maybe things would has been better if I had moved to Nepal.”
On 14 May, Vrinda got a reality check of her status in the Shillong society when the KSU, Hynniewtrep National Youth Front and Federation of Khasi Jaintia and Garo People enforced a bandh, protesting against the sanctioning of electoral photo identity cards to “illegal Bangladeshi immigrants” in the Garo Hills. Two petrol bombs were thrown at her house. “My kids had just returned from school and were alone at home. I was scared when it happened. For the next few weeks, we stayed with our neighbours,” recalls Vrinda.
Though the protest targeted “illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh, most non-tribals became the victims. “We don’t condone violence, we always tell our cadres not to use violence because it takes away from the real issues. But sometimes, miscreants take advantage of the situation,” says KSU president Daniel Khyriem.
But the underlying fear that non-tribals will once again be targeted remains. “In the absence of an adequate mechanism to identify and differentiate permanent non-tribals from migrants, it is only natural for the issue of tribals vs non-tribals to remain alive,” says local MLA Paul Lyngdoh.
But Vrinda begs to differ. “We should have the right to live our lives the way they do — open and free, without fear or restrictions,” she says. “I have often thought of moving out, but I’m here for my kids’ education. I will have to wait for them to finish their schooling.” Incidentally, she has already bought land in Assam so that her children can have a place to call their own.
KHASI BY blood, Indian by accident” was the slogan of the KSU in the 1980s and ’90s. At that time, the bureaucracy was dominated by Bengalis, the business was controlled by Marwaris and Sindhis, and the politics was dominated by the Assamese. They filled the intellectual void that existed. In 1993, with the support of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the tribal students movement was organised into an insurgency and the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council was created. Their goal was to take back opportunities meant for tribals.
Today, Khyriem says KSU welcomes economic migration. “We want economic immigration but we don’t want that to happen at the cost of our community becoming a minority in our own state,” he says. “People who come here to work and send money home are more than welcome. But if they try to become owners or chase us out of our own state, where will we go?”
But what do the Khasis need protection from? Today, 55 of the 60 Assembly seats are reserved for tribals. Eighty-five percent of all government jobs and seats in educational institutions are reserved for them. Since 1972, there have been only two non-tribal officers recruited into the state service. Many non-tribal businessmen have shut shop and moved out.
Many point fingers at the Centre’s faulty policies for the resentment, but MLA Chaudhuri disagrees. “We have a population of about 3 million people and the Planning Commission allocation is Rs 4,000 crore? If you distribute the funds properly, the people will be better off. Over the past 40 years, the Centre has allocated Rs 1 lakh crore. Is there any parallel? I don’t think so. The Centre has given you a state on a platter. What you do with that statehood is up to you. If you have messed it up, the Centre has nothing to do with it.”
So, what is the KSU scared of? Though the influx of Bangladeshis seems to be a cause for concern, non-tribals aren’t to blame for the erosion of Khasi culture. Over the years, there has been so much intermixing among the tribals that it has become hard to find a pure Khasi in Shillong.
Wan Shan, a young Khasi businessman, explains, “We grew up at a time when there was so much resentment towards mainland India. There was a disconnect and the general populace here began to stress on their ethnic identity. It was tough to go against the general sentiment. Even if you are more educated or have a broader outlook, you tend to blend in. At that time, we had to be aggressive and assert our identity, not with just non-tribals, but among tribals themselves, to show that we belonged.”
Cutting Wan off, his friend Bah Dieng says, “If we go for a public function in a metro, they play the national anthem. Being from the Northeast, I don’t want to stand up, not because I don’t feel Indian, but because we are educated enough to know that the anthem doesn’t include any part of the Northeast. Everyone talks of integration, but we don’t feel integrated. The discrimination you talk of is not because of race but due to resentment.”
According to Wan, the resentment also stems from history. “When China invaded India, we would have loved the country to stand by the Northeast and fight, but that didn’t happen. Jawaharlal Nehru bid us farewell, it created a feeling that the Northeast is not that important,” says Wan.
“Until recently, there was no development or infrastructure. There were a lot of educated youth, but no jobs. We have natural resources but the Centre treats us like a colony. Whether it is oil extracted from Assam and sent to refineries in Bengal, or our coal and soon, our uranium, the idea is to take whatever can be taken, without looking after the welfare of the people. Yes the Centre is pumping in money, but there is no check nor accountability. The creamy layer is using this opportunity to play on sentiments for political gains.”
Before the insurgency, business was dominated by outsiders. However, the armed movement created a false bubble that indirectly benefited many Khasi traders. Outsiders were pushed out allowing tribal businessmen to take up these opportunities. Of course, at a later stage they were taxed and a lot of small businesses were hit, but opportunities were created. Surprisingly, tribals continue to employ non-tribals as managers or in skilled positions. “I’m a businessman, non-tribals have better skills and work ethics. Our people haven’t reached that stage. I want to employ tribals, but if I do, I won’t be able to maximise my potential,” says Wan.
ACCORDING TO an expert who has been engaged in grassroots work in Meghalaya, this trend could lead to a revival of insurgency. “The next bout of insurgency will come from land alienation. Four percent of the land is owned by the government but people are becoming landless; richer tribals are buying up all the land. Those who sell their land shift to other towns. The tribals have to keep targeting outsiders so that the tribals who are getting alienated and marginalised don’t see what is happening. The reality is that they are actually getting exploited by their own people.”
Arjun Kriplani*, a Sindhi businessman living in Shillong, agrees, “When something goes wrong, you want to blame somebody. A tribal will not attack another tribal, so he will target the weaker section.”
Unlike other non-tribals, Kriplani feels Shillong is his home. “What you give is what you get. There is discrimination all over India. When I go to Mumbai, I’m discriminated against because I’m not Maharashtrian. It’s the same in Delhi. People from the Northeast travel outside and they face discrimination and ignorance. You say I’m from Shillong and people think you are from Ceylon. When you return to the Northeast, what do you do? You do exactly the same thing,” explains Kriplani.
For Kriplani, like other big, non-tribal businessmen, in Shillong if you have money you cannot be taken for granted, because you have the power to strike back. That sense of security is fundamental in creating a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, that is not the same for smaller businessmen, taxi drivers or labourers. “We have to be careful,” says Lucky Yadav*, a Bihari taxi driver. “I have been working here since 1986 but I have been targeted many times. I feel scared to venture out after dark. Bihar is improving, I’m just waiting for more jobs to crop up and I will head back home.”
Things are changing in Shillong too; the younger generation has more exposure and a broader perspective. But until the vested interests move away from perpetuating the idea of an “outsider problem”, this ethnic clash will continue.
Though Chaudhuri feels that tribals need protection, he says the Centre had not intended for them to protect their identity in isolation. “It was an unwritten understanding that the permanent non-tribal residents will be looked after. This was an assurance given by the hill leaders to Indira Gandhi before the creation of Meghalaya, but that is a forgotten chapter now. I fear the situation is without hope,” he says.
*Names Changed To Protect Identity
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka.