The matter was resolved with both sides reaching a compromise, but later that night, a mob had gathered and started the stone-pelting and arson.
Nights are usually silent in Shillong, Meghalaya’s cloud-capped capital city. But the night of Thursday, May 31, was different. The city was rocked by sudden bouts of stone-pelting and arson, with mobs hurling petrol bombs at a locality popularly called the Punjabi Colony. The mob frenzy continued till the crack of dawn, with the police and paramilitary units forced to fire teargas shells.
The residents of this colony are dalit Sikhs, originally engaged in manual scavenging, who had settled there during the British era. The trigger for this upsurge was an incident that morning when a few residents of the locality were accused of assaulting a bus cleaner, a local tribal boy who was a minor, over a parking issue. The matter was resolved with both sides reaching a compromise, but later that night, a mob had gathered and started the stone-pelting and arson. What began as a brawl turned into a riot.
Shillong is actually a cosmopolitan city with a population of around 150,000 people, an estimated 65 per cent of whom are Khasis, the majority ethnic group. The rest of the people comprise of other ethnicities — besides Assamese, there are Bengalis, Nepalis and Sikhs, among others. The city had seen quite a few ethnic riots in the past directed against communities like Bengalis and Nepalis.
But why this current unrest, which had spiralled out of control? There has been a long-standing demand from local organisations and groups to resettle the residents of Punjabi Colony elsewhere on the ground that the place had become a den of anti-socials and that it has become necessary to ease traffic congestion in the area.
However, the residents of Punjabi Colony claim the Syiem of Mylliem (a powerful local chieftain) had granted them this piece of land in 1853, and that the then Syiem of Mylliem had reconfirmed this in a 2008 letter to the Meghalaya state authorities. The Sikhs in the area also say that a deal between the British and the Syiem of Mylliem about granting the land to dalit Sikhs was signed on December 10, 1863.
What Shillong had been witnessing for over a week now was actually a turf war. Realising it is an extremely sensitive issue, the newly-elected Nationalist People’s Party-led government of Conrad Sangma had adopted a lot of caution in the first few days. The police and the paramilitary forces were directed to exercise maximum restraint, and this forced them to resort to only lobbing teargas shells to disperse the stone-pelters. Several policemen, including a superintendent of police, suffered injuries.
After putting up a brave face for the first few days, chief minister Conrad Sangma suddenly told journalists that the unrest was “sponsored” and that it was funded by certain people. He said even “high quality alcohol” was being distributed to the agitators. This vague statement led to demands from various quarters, who asked the chief minister to identify and name the people who he claimed were funding the stir. As the beleaguered state government was discussing the issue with an all-party delegation, a noisy group of women stormed the chief minister’s secretariat by breaking open the gate and staged a demonstration. The Army had to be called in and flag marches staged.
The political acumen of Conrad Sangma, a graduate from Imperial College London and the Wharton School, is on test. In a bid to defuse the crisis, he set up a high-level inquiry committee headed by the state’s deputy chief minister Prestone Tynsong. The terms of reference of the probe committee clearly indicates that the state government has decided in principle to shift the residents of Punjabi Colony, also referred to as Sweeper Colony, elsewhere. The terms of reference says: (1) The committee shall examine all relevant records and documents relating to the relocation of the Sweeper Colony, Sweeper Lane... and (2) The committee shall recommend practical feasible solution(s) for relocation of the said Sweeper Colony.
The question now is — can the state government really execute its plan? There is no doubt that the issue will reach the courts sooner rather than later. Besides, there is bound to be immense political pressure mounted on the government. As one has already seen, within 48 hours of the unrest starting, Conrad Sangma was flooded with calls from concerned Sikh leaders like Punjab chief minister Capt. Amarinder Singh and leaders of the Akali Dal. In fact, delegations from the Akali Dal as well as the Punjab government had arrived in Shillong to ensure that their fellow Sikh brethren are safe, and to see that adequate security was provided to them.
But it is also true that the Conrad Sangma government will have to listen to popular opinion, which is for the resettlement of the dalit Sikh residents of Punjabi Colony elsewhere. But can the government find an alternative location that easily? What if local tribes people in the vicinity of the alternative earmarked locations oppose the settlement of these people? Can the government totally ignore the documents supposed to be in possession of the Sikhs in the locality, including letters from the influential Syiem of Mylliem?
The fledgling coalition government in Meghalaya has a situation in hand which can lead to major a flareup at any moment. Political parties many not be able to resist fishing in troubled waters. The United Democratic Party (UDP), a constituent of the NPP-led alliance, has held the Opposition Congress responsible for keeping the dalit Sikh resettlement issue alive for years. With chief minister Conrad Sangma claiming that the agitation was “funded”, it remains to be seen if he is pointing fingers at some political party or forces opposed to the alliance in the state. With the Congress winning a crucial Assembly byelection and emerging the single largest party with 21 seats in the 60-member Meghalaya Assembly, the NPP-led alliance will have to weigh in several factors before taking any major step. The latest flareup has only added to the immense challenges facing the Conrad Sangma government.