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Violence in the hills: on Shillong unrest (Relevant for GS Prelims, GS Mains Paper III; Internal Security)

Protests in Shillong

The spark for the week-long incidents of violence in downtown Shillong was a lie spread through WhatsApp, the ubiquitous messaging platform that has increasingly become an unfiltered medium for hate and rumour-mongering. A scuffle between members of the Mazhabi Sikh community, long-time settlers in the Punjabi Lane area of the city, and a Khasi youth and his associates over a local matter was amicably settled between representatives of the communities.

Fabricated story

But a fabricated story that the youth had succumbed to injuries sustained in the scuffle led to large numbers of Khasi protesters laying siege to Punjabi Lane, demanding that the Sikh residents move from the area. That the “settlers” have been in Shillong for more than a century and a half, having been originally brought there by the British colonials to work as manual scavengers, and have since integrated themselves within Shillong, has not insulated them from being described as outsiders. The administration did well to protect the dwellers of Punjabi Lane from physical harm, but mob violence persisted until curfew was imposed and the Army put on stand-by. Spokespersons of the Khasi Students’ Union, whose members were part of the agitation, continue to insist that the Punjabi Lane residents be moved from Shillong’s commercial heart to its outskirts.

Unreasonable demand

Picturesque Shillong is no longer just an idyllic hill station; it is a bustling city that has grown in an unplanned manner and requires reforms such as zoning regulation. But the agitators’ demand to shift the Sikh residents is unreasonable and must be resisted. In fact, the Meghalaya High Court had stayed an order by the District Commissioner to evict the residents from Punjabi Lane (also known as Sweepers’ Colony) in 1986.

What is the underlying reason?

Tribal angst over economic issues leading to the scapegoating of non-tribal long-time residents reflects the continued failure to forge a more inclusive politics in Meghalaya. Today, there are enough provisions of affirmative action for the tribal people — 80% reservation for the Khasi, Jaintia, Garo and other tribes in jobs and professional studies.

Yet, discontent persists over the lack of adequate jobs in the State, especially in urban areas. A Labour Bureau report on employment in 2015-16 found Meghalaya to have among the highest urban unemployment rates (13.4%). Discontent over lack of opportunities in the past had led to incidents such as the violent targeting of the Bengali community in 1979 and Nepalis in 1987, many of whom then fled the State. To prevent a repeat of those incidents, the government must stand by and protect the Sikh residents, and not give in to the nativist arguments of the protestors. And as calm is restored, Meghalaya’s politicians and civil society leaders must forge a more inclusive vision of the State’s demographics.

(Adapted from The Hindu)

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