On February 29, mobs of Khasis, a tribal community, attacked non-tribals in Shillong. In the city’s busy Iewduh market area, eight people were stabbed. One of them, Rupchand Dewan, 29, a Muslim vegetable seller from Barpeta in Assam, subsequently died. In another attack, a young man named Akash Ali was seriously injured.
All attacks happened in broad daylight, in the first half of the day. They were in retaliation for an attack a day earlier at Ichamati in the Khasi Hills, barely 2 km from the Bangladesh border. There, a group of Khasi Students’ Union activists led by its president, Lambokstarwell Margnar, had organised a protest rally against the Citizenship Amendment Act and in favour of the implementation of the in Meghalaya.
Accounts vary about what sparked the violence but clashes broke out between the KSU activists and mobs of non-tribal residents, mainly Bengali and Manipuri Hindus. Lurshai Hynniewta, 35, a taxi driver and KSU volunteer, died of the injuries.
Eight men – Sushan Das, Ranjit Baidya, Bijit Baidya, Kanal Baidya, Sajol Das, Joy Sharma, Indromohan Sharma, Rajesh Sharma – were subsequently arrested from Ichamati for the assault. Mobile internet services in the Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya were suspended, and curfew was imposed from Friday night. The stabbings in Shillong happened when the curfew was lifted on Saturday morning, after which it had to be reimposed.
The tabling of the Citizenship Amendment Act in Parliament in December had sparked protests in Meghalaya, even though almost the entire state is covered by the Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution, and is therefore exempted from provisions of the law. A day before the law was passed by the parliament on December 11, a bandh had been called by the North East Students Organisation which saw a police vehicle being burnt and many vehicles parked by the road vandalised.
The protests escalated after the law was passed. Guwahati in Assam, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expected to hold an annual summit with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, was the first place in India to erupt in widespread protests. As a result, the 2019 India-Japan summit could not be held.
In Meghalaya next door, the ongoing protests against the CAA grew in strength. The Khasi Students Union was at the forefront of the protests, which saw sporadic incidents of violence against non-tribals and attacks on their property. The protests turned into a demand for the implementation of the Inner Line Permit. Manipur had been listed among areas covered by the Inner Line Permit when the CAA was passed to allay local apprehensions, and Meghalaya wanted the same protection.
The Inner Line Permit is a document that Indian citizens from other parts of the country – not foreigners – must obtain to visit Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, and now Manipur. In fact, foreigners from countries other than China, Pakistan and Afghanistan have been exempted by the central home ministry from the requirement to procure the Protected Area Permit to visit Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland.
Responding to pressure from the protesters, the government of Conrad Sangma of the National People’s Party, an ally of the BJP, convened a special session of the Assembly which adopted a unanimous resolution calling on the central government to implement the ILP in Meghalaya. BJP’s Meghalaya legislators supported this resolution. Since then, the chief minister has led multiple delegations to Delhi to meet with Home Minister Amit Shah and request implementation of the ILP in Meghalaya, but to no avail. Meanwhile, protests by groups such as KSU opposing CAA and demanding the ILP, which resulted in the current violence in Meghalaya, have continued.
There are innumerable differences between the indigenous tribes and communities of Northeast India but the CAA has produced a rare unanimity. The law is uniformly opposed by powerful sections of these communities in each and every state of the region. Thus, powerful organisations of Assamese speakers who consider themselves indigenous to Assam are opposed to it. So are Khasi and Garo organisations in Meghalaya as well as Naga, Manipuri, Mizo, Arunachali and Tripuri organisations.
The media’s focus has been on protests by mainly Muslim groups in mainland India, but it is likely that despite almost the entire Northeast outside parts of Assam and Tripura being exempted from provisions of the CAA, the proportion of the population opposed to the law is much higher than in the rest of the country.
The Northeast as a region came into existence in 1947 with the partition of India, which saw the creation of East Pakistan, the territory that became Bangladesh after the 1971 war. Fear of being overrun and/or dominated by outsiders, especially Bengalis, predates the partition in the region. There are reasons for this: the Bengali population is much larger than that of any Northeast community, and there’s a history of the educationally advanced Bengalis dominating jobs in the Northeast from the colonial period until the 1990s, with the Marwaris and the Sindhis dominating business.
The fears of local tribes were addressed through legal protective and positive discrimination mechanisms. In Meghalaya, for instance, 55 of the state’s 60 Assembly seats are reserved for members of the Scheduled Tribes, who constituted 85.9 percent of the population, according to the 2001 census. Altogether 85 percent of the jobs are reserved for SCs and STs. Of these, 80 percent are earmarked for the state’s three major tribes – the Khasi, Garos and Jaintias.
However, these steps have failed to end the insecurity about “outsiders” coming in and somehow taking over the place. As a result, despite economic incentives pushing in the opposite direction, the politics of resentment against outsiders has continued to flourish. This politics received a new lease of life with the passage of the CAA.
Shillong had become a peaceful tourist hub as peace returned after years of conflict and insurgency in the 2000s, and particularly in years since 2009, when a change of government in Bangladesh turned the tide against Northeast militant groups who had bases there. That situation is now turning in the opposite direction, despite the best efforts of the young chief minister.
Old fault lines are not easily redrawn. The Khasi attackers who stabbed random petty traders and passersby in the Iewduh market area on Saturday with butchers’ knives ended up killing Dewan. The man assaulted in a separate mob attack, Ali, also happens to be Muslim. It is highly unlikely that either of them would be potential beneficiaries or even supporters of the CAA, or in any way related to the assault on KSU activists in Ichamati. They were probably targeted simply because they were non-tribals in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is not the end of it. The death toll is rising, with one more man, Uphas Uddin, 37, being killed in Shella. Curfew in Shillong has been further extended, and stranded tourists escorted out. The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, a Khasi militant group which was once powerful but gradually lost significance, has now emerged out of the woodwork to issue an ultimatum to all Hindu Bengalis to leave Ichamati and areas surrounding Shella in the Khasi Hills within a month, failing which they have warned of “mass bloodshed”.
Every Indian state is a mini-India. The political Machiavellis behind CAA and NRC might have hoped to deepen divides between Muslims and Hindus. They have ended up also deepening divides between tribals and non-tribals, Bengalis and Assamese, Goriya Muslims and Miya Muslims, and so on – and this is just the beginning.
There were clashes in Delhi one day, in Ichamati the next, and Shillong the following day. India, despite increasingly brazen attempts to intimidate protesters into silence, is the land of a million mutinies now.