Khasi-Sikh clash shows Shillong remains a communal tinderbox, driven by tribal angst

Khasi-Sikh clash shows Shillong remains a communal tinderbox, driven by tribal angst

Shillong was once defined as a pluralistic society. The state of Meghalaya was created without bloodshed in 1972. That was quite an achievement. So the gentry were correct in conjuring images of the Shillong they knew, lived and worked in before 1979 happened. That was the fatal blow when the Bengali people who had lived here for decades were sent packing. Others were beaten up just because they looked Bengali. Many sold their homes and left. There was an uneasy calm for a few years and then came 1987. This time the Nepalese were the target, but the poor Bihari people who reared cows and sold milk were also massacred. You wonder where all this hatred comes from when the Khasi people are known to be genteel and generous to a fault.The incident of May 31, which was literally a scuffle between people of two communities, need not have turned so ugly. It started with an altercation between young girls from the Mazhabi Sikh community and a young Khasi tribal man at the wheels of a Shillong Public Transport Service bus – a trademark of the city. The girls were on their way to fetch water and were irritated that the bus was obstructing their path. They asked the man to move the bus and make way for them. He might have said something offensive, which agitated the girls. They pelted stones at the bus and went and complained to their male relatives. The men came out and assaulted the driver and two other boys. The three went to the Cantonment Police Beat House to file a first information report. The Sikhs followed to file a counter FIR. Later, the two groups came to a compromise. That should have been the end of the squabble. But it was not.
In the afternoon of that same day, some women hawkers (tribals) decided to confront the assaulters. By then, the matter had taken a communal turn. The police prevented the women from entering the troubled area and chased them towards Motphran, about 500 metres away. Later, a WhatsApp message went round saying that the three who had been assaulted had died. That was the flashpoint. As hundreds of people assembled in Motphran, the police fired teargas shells through the night and till the early hours of the morning of June 1. Indeed, Motphran is now a battleground where people gather every evening after curfew hours and pelt stones at the police.
As is the case with communal conflicts, newspapers that reported all sides of the story were pilloried and accused of taking sides. The tribal viewpoint is that all newspapers must concur with their perception of the skirmish even though none of them were eyewitnesses to the incident. It is intuitive too that even educated, otherwise rational people are ready to listen to one side of the story because of past prejudices and because the Mazhabi Sikh community is stereotyped as being potential trouble-makers who refused to leave their homes and be relocated in a more spacious environment.