When the Punjabi Dalits of Shillong recently became the target of Khasi xenophobia, the city didn’t shut down. Like all cities, Shillong has its own collective memory. It inherits a history of violence far more brutal than the one that unravelled at Iew Mawlong, also known as Punjabi Line or Sweepers’ Colony. Non-tribals—or dkhars, in Khasi—have had to withstand much worse.

Today, the fear of ‘outsiders’ is more pervasive the world over than ever before. The idea that identity is a by-product of religion, tribe or nation has notorious currency now.

The North-East has resented the ‘outsider’ for long, and Shillong, which was the capital of undivided Assam after independence and until 1972, has borne the brunt of it.

That, however, doesn’t stop it from being the coolest city in the North-East, next only to Kolkata in the East. For the 1990s teenager growing up in the North-East, like myself, Shillong was where the musicians, writers, cafés, bakeries, and best street fashion were. We wanted to be there.

I visited Meghalaya last month for the eighth time, a few days before the Punjabi-Khasi strife erupted. The highways are newly smooth, and the landscape around them as breathtaking as before. The riverine border with Bangladesh at Dawki looks as fluid as before, although the Border Security Force jawans seem much busier now. Shillong now has traffic snarls, and its multiculturalism has the filter of concrete vertical constructions. The cafés at Laitumkhrah in the heart of town have the urban neo-hip signature that many cafés around the world have, although some, like Café Shillong, retain their character (the city’s grand old man of music, Lou Majaw, born in 1947 and as old as the nation, can often be spotted here). With an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) campus here, there are more students from across India than ever before.

A mother prepares her daughter ahead of an annual Khasi thanksgiving dance festival.
A mother prepares her daughter ahead of an annual Khasi thanksgiving dance festival.

Rock ‘n’ roll is alive. A post-millennial Khasi girl I got to know during this trip told me she and her friends love both the Bobs, Dylan and Marley, because their songs are not just about love and anger. Dylan is the more popular of the two among old-timers—Majaw himself is behind the best Dylan tributes and an annual commemorative concert. The newest music festival, Shine A Light: Voice of the Silent Hills, at the magically cloud-brushed Sa-I-Mika in Cherrapunji is set for its third year. The NH7 festival is bigger, attracting more music lovers every year. Neil Nongkynrih, director of the Shillong Chamber Choir, is supposedly at work producing yet another genre-bending reprisal. After the recent violence, a Shillong Times edit urged, “We badly need the Shillong Chamber Choir to sing us one of the multicultural songs they regale the world with." Chief minister Conrad Sangma is known to strum a note or two, and so do some members of the opposition. Writers are growing in number—adding to an already formidable list which includes the city’s most well-known poets Robin S. Ngangom, Desmond Leslie Kharmawphlang and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and authors who grew up there, like Anjum Hasan and Janice Pariat.

Asia’s cleanest village, Mawlynnong, is still pretty clean although plastic and paan packets scatter its periphery. Bridges built out of roots of trees are being nurtured, even lovingly augmented. The utensils and floors of Khasi food stalls by the highway are squeaky clean. And the quality of pork is top-notch.

Despite continuing tribal ire against ‘outsiders’, which now is reportedly being manipulated by the state’s political establishment, Meghalaya is one of the most multicultural states in the North-East. Journalist Anil Yadav, in his terrific book on the region, Woh Bhi Koi Des Hai Mahraj (translated into English by Anurag Basnet as Is That Even a Country, Sir! Journeys In Northeast India By Train, Bus And Tractor), wrote in the early 2000s: “If a stranger is frequently seen walking on the streets of Shillong, he is eventually asked if he plans to permanently settle in the state. …Despite the tribals’ steady, organized opposition over a century and a half, more than 45 per cent of the population is made up of dkhars: Central government employees, Bengalis, Assamese, Nepali, Marwaris and Biharis."

Foreigner, ‘bidexi’, ‘dkhar’—these were words of careless chatter in the Assam and Meghalaya of the 1980s and 1990s. Their weight was lost on us children growing up in the region at the time

It is an easy fire to fan. The Punjabi Dalits, around 500 in number, have lived in the same area, an entry point to beautiful Shillong, for 150 years without much ambition and economic or social mobility. They are among the least powerful minority groups in the state, although day-to-day bickering between them and locals is common. The state of Meghalaya, a Sanskrit name meaning the abode of the clouds, came into being in 1972. Anti-foreigner sentiment, which largely meant anti-Bengali sentiment through the 1980s and 1990s, caught on in both Assam and Meghalaya. Naomi Datta, social commentator and author of The 6pm Slot, who grew up in Shillong and stayed there until she completed her graduation, recalls the 1980s as “full of curfews". While in school, she was directly promoted from class V to class VII because schools were closed in the state for an entire year.

“Now when I go back to my home town, I see a city that’s going the same way as other hill stations—haphazard development, crowded roads," she says. “The recent Khasi-Punjabi violence is an aberration, not the rule any more. In the 1990s, when many people got killed, the agitation against ‘outsiders’ was at its peak. We had to be confined to home for days." She went to a Catholic convent school which had many Bengali teachers. The domestic help was Nepali. There were many students from neighbouring states. “Despite all that violence, it was a very cosmopolitan place, and it has stayed that way," Datta says.

Foreigner, bidexi, dkhar—these were words of careless chatter in the Assam and Meghalaya of the 1980s and 1990s. Their weight was lost on us children growing up in the region at the time. In Assam, the All Assam Students’ Union movement against illegal immigrants drilled the fear of the ‘outsider’ in us. Delhi had neglected the region for far too long, most markers of economic progress had bypassed it. What we had was violent brandishing of nativism and provincialism—not bad things as long as they didn’t blind anyone. Most of the time, they did.

The recent Khasi-Punjabi violence is an aberration, not the rule any more- Naomi Datta, social commentator and author of ‘The 6pm Slot’

The Bangladeshis weren’t our own, they weren’t supposed to be on our soil, they were forcibly taking what was ours, their song was not ours. We collectively chose to forget the Nellie massacre in which around 2,000 Bengali Muslims were killed by locals in Assam’s Nagaon district in 1983.

Ethnic conflicts in the North-East have far more complex origins than what my limited reading can reveal, but it is obvious to anyone who has lived there or has visited often that the new interest in the region—especially after the Assam Global Investors’ Summit in February and the new exotica-pumped films spearheaded by Assam Tourism brand ambassador Priyanka Chopra—can’t cover up the hostility and fear that ‘outsiders’ still provoke in the region.

For the moment, the routine bustle is back, and the Punjabi Dalit is back in his unsafe cocoon.

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