By Bhogtoram Mawroh

Since last year the State has been rocked by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and demand for implementation of the ILP (Inner Line Permit). Having been part of these protests I have no doubt that CAA has been introduced to bring about a change in the demographic profile of Assam and is especially harmful to the indigenous tribal communities. The 1.9 million excluded from the final list is much higher than the population of many tribal groups. A situation like Tripura and Sikkim-Darjeeling is a real possibility in Assam if such an Act is allowed to be implemented. Neighbouring states like Meghalaya will also then be in danger of a demographic change.

The state of Meghalaya has itself experienced many disturbances vis-a-vis the issue of immigration. At the same time, there are historical demographic trends in Meghalaya which makes the case a little complicated. The spectre of the threat of illegal immigrants displacing the indigenous tribal population has been played out since the formation of the State. Fear of being overwhelmed by non-indigenous population (non-tribal) is widespread throughout the State and any perceived threat to tribal sovereignty is vehemently opposed, ranging from uranium mining 1 to the introduction of the railways in the state 2. After attaining Statehood in 1972, Meghalaya witnessed many riots (1979, 1987, 1992 and 1997) targeting the non-indigenous population of the State – Bengali and Nepali. This resulted in thousands of non-tribals leaving the State3 with the Census reports recording a constant decline of non-tribal population in the State from 19.52% (1971) to 13.85% (2011).

Shillong City is the epicentre of many of the clashes and the location from which the sentiments against the non-indigenous (non-tribal) population are expressed and disseminated. Every year the Khasi Students Union (KSU) commemorates the birth anniversary of Tirot Singh (the Syiem of Nongkhlaw, a Khasi princely state, who led a guerrilla struggle against the British in the early 1830’s) on April 4 by observing it as the Khasi National Awakening Day. The day’s program begins with a public gathering and concludes with a procession through the city. The Khasi National Awakening Day celebration in 2017 was also aimed at expressing their anger at the attempt by Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) to start uranium mining in the State. The procession started from Umkaliar, Demseiniong and on reaching the premises of the Atomic Mineral Directorate at Nongmynsong, the KSU burnt the effigy of (UCIL) and Atomic Mineral Directorate to show their opposition to uranium mining in the state.4 While returning, the crowd pelted stones at a religious centre frequented by the non-tribal residents of the area. Acts of vandalism are regular features of these processions whose targets are the non-tribal people and their property.

The main theme during such rallies is the demand for the imposition of ILP which would regulate entry into the State. Introduced by the British in the 1870’s only Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram still have the system in place. Manipur was recently brought under the ambit of the ILP to assuage the post-CAA anger in the State.

There is demand for its introduction in other areas by tribal groups who fear that in its absence people from the plains will start settling down and purchasing land in their hills leading to alteration of the demographic composition. In 2013 the ILP agitation took the lives of two non-tribal persons in Shillong. Calls for implementation of measures to check influx is accompanied by anecdotal evidences of non-tribal presence in areas which previously were made up of only the indigenous tribal community. Such claims at first glance are not unfounded.

Table 1 Change in demographic composition of Tribal villages in Meghalaya and India

Year Category Meghalaya All India
No. of villages Change No. of villages Change
2001 100% 3944 -2054 31742 -10234
2011 1890 21508
2001 >90% 5257 610 59549 3507
2011 5867 63056
2001 >75% 5460 639 78508 3993
2011 6099 82501
2001 >50% 5575 630 105296 4822
2011 6205 110118
2001 >25% 5621 641 139302 6320
2011 6262 145622

Source: Ministry of Tribal Affairs, 2013

In 2001 almost 2/3rd of the villages in Meghalaya were exclusively tribal. However by the next decade, i.e., 2011, the number of such villages came down to less than 30%. In absolute terms more than 2000 villages had undergone a change in their demographic composition, i.e., villages that were exclusively tribal now had non-tribal settlers. It is such developments that feed into the fear of unabated influx and the call for stricter regulations in terms of land purchase and residency by the non-tribal population in the State. Such alarmist attitude is, however, not justified for two reasons.

Firstly, non-tribals or Dkhars (as they are known in local vernacular) have always been a part of the Khasi-Jaintia society since pre-colonial times. Trading relations between tribal traders and their non-tribal counterparts had great value for the local economy with items like limestone, iron tools, and horticultural products being very important. It is through such linkages that Khasi oranges were believed to have been introduced into Europe by the Arab traders.

The name Sylhet, one of the eight administrative divisions of Bangladesh, is claimed to be derived from ‘Shella Haat’ which translates to ‘the market around Shella’ (a village in present-day East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya). On other occasions, less than peaceful interactions took place in the form of raid to the plains (home of the Dkhars) by the Khasis for tribute and wives or concubines5. Among the Khasi-Jaintia the legacy of such matrimonial unions can be found in the surnames of the various clans. Families carrying the surname, Dkhar, viz., Dkhar, Kharkongor, Kharlukhi, Kharmalki, Kharmudai, etc., trace their descent from the union of a Khasi-Jaintia male with a non-tribal (Dkhar) female. The spouse retains her ethnic identity but the children adopt a new surname identifying the mixed lineage of the family through a process called ‘tangjait’. The progeny of non tribal men marrying tribal women however do not have to undertake such rituals and automatically adopt their mother’s surname following matrilineal traditions.

Apprehensive that such matrimonial alliances are being used by non-tribal men to buy land in the State and acquire ST status for their children, the Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act, 1997 has included, apart from biological proof, familiarity of socio-cultural norms as the criteria for being identified as a Khasi-Jaintia. And although, at present marriages (especially) between a Khasi woman and a Dkhar man can sometimes be ‘disapproved’6 the existence of the system of ‘tang jait’ (between a Dkhar woman and a Khasi man) proves that the Dkhars (non-tribals) have always been a part of the Khasi-Jaintia social system.

One of the most iconic Khasi-Jaintia folktales is that of ‘Manik Raitong’ in which the Queen of an ancient Khasi Kingdom is said to have committed suicide by jumping into the pyre of her lover. According to the folktale when the chaste wives of India heard of the incident they said one to another, “We must not allow the unholy passion of an unchaste woman to become more famous than the sacred love of holy matrimony. Henceforth, we will offer our bodies on the altar of death, on the pyre of our husbands, to prove our devotion and fidelity”.7

Apart from incorporating the Dkhars into their clans, the Khasi-Jaintia not only had intimate knowledge about the practices of their (Hindu) culture but had adopted some of those as well. The Jaintia king worshipped and offered sacrifice to goddess Kali (presumably a Hindu version of the local Goddess Kopili) while the followers of the indigenous ‘Niam-Tre’ religion still invoke Bisokarma (Vishwakarma), who in Hindu mythology is regarded as a divine engineer and a god for craftsmen, along with Ka Siem Synshar (local diety) during the house-entering ceremony. This close association with the Dkhars is not surprising since the erstwhile Khasi princely states and the Jaintia kingdom shared borders with the Brahmaputra valley in the North and the Bengal plains in the South. Along these boundaries entire settlements have always been exclusively or dominantly non-tribal. Non-tribal presence in the State of Meghalaya, thus, has a long history.

The new settlers could be a mixture of new migrants along with long settled non-tribals changing residence due to matrimony or work. Like it happened in the past they will ultimately be assimilated into the local society. Those who advocate for putting in measures to check influx also demand that genuine (long-settled) non-tribals should not be harassed (in actual practice, though, old and new settlers are clubbed together). They claim to focus on fresh immigrants whose number they allege is on the rise. The large scale transformation in the demographic composition of the villages indicates that, apart from relocation, immigration has taken place. Many of the new settlers in those 2000 odd villages are most probably fresh immigrants. Their numbers, though, are very small. Migrants from outside the State were found to be less than 2% of the total population (Census of India, 2011a). Many of them were, in fact, brought by local contractors to work, particularly, in the coal mines of the State. Some got married into the local community and have stayed back.8 Many, however, have left the place after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a ban on coal mining in the State. Even if mining is resumed in the future, strict land ownership and residency regulation makes it difficult for the immigrants to settle down for long period unless they are assimilated into the local society.

Apart from ‘tang-jait’ a non-Khasi group can become Khasi-Jaintia by simply changing allegiance. The Bhoi and Lynngam (sub-groups of the Khasi-Jaintia) are considered to be actually Karbis (a major tribe of Assam) and Garos who had chosen to identify themselves as Khasis in the past.9 Viewed in this manner, non-tribals do not pose a threat to the Khasi-Jaintia society because of the various mechanisms through which the former can (and have been) be absorbed into the latter. These mechanisms, though, have come under criticism by those advocating ethnic purity10 although it has never been the case. Another legislation ‘The KHAD (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second Amendment) Bill 2018’ was recently brought to regulate marriage between a tribal and non-tribal by an eccentric politician, HS Shylla. Prepared without consulting the traditional clans, rife with inconsistencies and patriarchal underpinnings the Bill was rejected by the Governor.

Secondly, it is not only the exclusively tribal villages that have undergone a change in their demographic composition. Villages having tribal population of 90% or more have experienced an increase over the last decade. In fact, less than 5% of the villages have a non-tribal population of 75% or more and the number is declining (See Table 1). There is a trend of increasing tribal dominance in villages that previously had a substantial non-tribal population pushing them to become a minority in these areas. The perception of threat to the indigenous population and influx being the main culprit is totally unfounded. Instead, because of threat of physical violence and discriminatory policies out-migration rather than influx has been the case. Groups raising the issue of influx are very selective of the facts they employ to make their case, i.e., mentioning only the decrease of exclusive tribal settlements. Such information is employed as anecdotal evidence in public gatherings where communal sentiments are whipped to demand for stricter laws and mechanisms to regulate entry like the ILP. The same selective use of data is employed to create a fear of influx of non-indigenous immigrants into the city of Shillong.

In 2013, there was a hotly-contested debate on the most prominent daily of the State, The Shillong Times, regarding the findings of the 2011 Census. In continuation to a similar letter he wrote two years ago, the former Principal Secretary and Chief Electoral Officer (Government of Meghalaya), P Naik wrote to the Daily on the 20th May 2013 arguing that the higher than national average population growth in Meghalaya was due to a high fertility rate (of around 4) rather than influx. His statements were countered a month later by LR Lyngdoh (a retired Census employee) who instead pointed out that many of areas in Shillong have a very low percentage of Schedule Tribe population, sometimes less than 10%. This, Lyngdoh pointed out, was because of increased immigration. The debate continued till the later part of the year when A Roy Choudhury (Retd. Asst. Director of Census Operation, Meghalaya) and US Bhattacharjee (Shillong based advocate) wrote another article on the 2011 Census findings for the daily. They reiterated high fertility rate as being the prime factor pushing population growth and tried to address the issue of high concentration of non-tribal population in certain parts of the city. Non-tribal population is indeed very high in certain parts of the City but it is not a recent phenomenon. The high concentration of non-tribal population in Shillong has antecedents with the City’s growth as the most important urban centre of North East India.


1Shimray, U.A., and Ramana, M. V., (2008). ‘Uranium Mining in Meghalaya: Simmering Problem’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 52, pp.13-17.Karlsson, Bengt G. (2009). ‘Nuclear Lives: Uranium Mining, Indigenous Peoples, and Development in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 34, pp. 43-49.

2Sirnate, Vasundhara (2009). ‘Students versus the State: The Politics of Uranium Mining in Meghalaya’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 47, pp. 18-23.

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