Human Rights

The other, invisible victims of CAA in Meghalaya

Despite all the claims of them too being “atoot ang” or unbreakable part of the country, news from the North Eastern states of India seldom make it to the national headlines, with The Telegraph, published from Kolkata being an exception, perhaps because of its proximity. So there were no surprises on national media hardly carrying any news of Meghalaya burning over opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) with three killed and scores injured forcing state-wide curfew including in Shillong.

Ironically, the most of the state falls under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution the provisions of the CAA and National Registry of Citizens (NRC) would not apply to the state barring a miniscule fraction of Shillong. Therefore, despite the increasing calls for Inner Line Permit (ILP) for all of Meghalaya compelling even mainland Indians coming to the state requiring a time bound permit every time they enter the state, there was not much need for violence.

Khasi Students Union stated that it is known that there are approximately 14 million Hindus in Bangladesh.

Why, then did the state burn? The violence started after the Khasi Students Union (KSU) organised protests against the CAA followed by attacks on non-locals (though living in the state for generations). What followed this time was much different though, most of the reports indicate that unlike in the past, non-tribals too retaliated. The clashes ended in at least three deaths including of a KSU member and two non-locals.

The answer to this question bring forth the mess of divisive politics, leaving communities after communities pitched against one another, often with violent clashes.

Meghalaya has had a long history of local tribal communities’ unease against the “outsiders” — mostly Bengali, Marwari and Nepali Hindus as well as against the Bengali-speaking Muslim. The unease has often ended in violent attacks on them for over four decades now. The first wave of violence came soon after anti-foreigner movement gained momentum in neighbouring Assam in the late 1970s.

Soon the influential KSU and now banned again Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) called for chasing the outsiders out of the state and changing the meaning of Dkhar- a Khasi word earlier used to denote non-Khasis into a racial slur and a war cry. They called the movement as they raised the slogan of Beh Dkhars- literally meaning 'chase the Dkhars away'. Though directed at all outsiders, the ethnic Bengali Hindus, many of them living there for generations bore the brunt of the larger share of the attacks.

The Beh Dkhar movement soon turned into a communal violence targeted at the Bengali Hindus with their temples getting desecrated, their businesses and homes attacked. Soon the Laitumkhrah Dorbar, a very strong traditional Khasi institution, too joined the movement and gave a call for total boycott of the Bengali Hindu businesses leading to their forced shutdowns. Local Khasis were asked not to rent their premises to Bengalis both for business and for rent.

The violence soon spiraled into killings of Bengali Hindus across the state with one of the most chilling incident including brutal lynching of eight Bengali Hindus who were dragged out of a Shillong bound bus and brutally stoned to death. The attacks had then resulted in exodus of many Bengalis with even the conservative estimates putting the number at a minimum of 20,000.

Anti-foreigner sentiment, essentially anti-Bengali (and also Nepali and the Marwari) sentiment grew stronger throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Meghalaya just like it was in Assam. Curfews became a part of the lives of ordinary Meghalaya people. Daylight attacks on outsiders too became a norm with cases of people getting burnt alive in their own cars! The state, as most of the states often do, merely fanned the violence at worst and quietly looked away at the best!

Nepalis were next to fall victim to anti-foreigner sentiment in the state with about 2,700 Nepali getting displaced in 1987 alone. The state saw violent clashes between tribals and Nepalis again in 1992 after a petty fight during Dussehara celebrations forcing another 3,000 into distress migration.

What did the state do during this time? Nothing. What did the civil society organisations in Meghalaya do? There is not much of a civil society with influence cutting across communities, specially the tribal groups - Khasis, Garos and Jaintias as well as the non-tribals.

This is what has brought the state to such a tipping point. Almost abandoned by the state for decades, the non-tribals have taken it upon themselves to protect their lives, homes, families and businesses. This is what must make us worry as violence can get only more violence and start a vicious cycle hard to handle, even for the state with a history of over four decades of violence.

The government of the state must spring into action taking all the stakeholders together to bring the state back to normalcy, ensure protection to non-tribals, and prosecute all those who indulged in violence. It must also engage with the non-tribals to assure that their sense of resignation does not translate into losing all belief in the state administration and result in fending for themselves.

Those not from Meghalaya must learn their own lessons too. The politics of division, of hate comes at a cost, a very high cost. (Asian Human Rights Commission)

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