The Harijan issue in Shillong must be solved without violence

Edelbert Kharsyntiew

The threat of violence against the Harijans of Shillong is wrong. Far from being ‘aggressors’ the Harijans came in peace, to serve; to do the most menial of jobs in Shillong, which in those days, no one else was willing to do. It is not their fault for being there at the place they currently are and have been for the last 150 years. They did not choose to live there. It was the then rulers’ arrangement with the approval of the Syiem Mylliem who did not see the possibility that Iewduh would need to expand in the future.

They came as ‘servers’ and had served Shillong for a long time, till its local tribal population grew and many of them impoverished, to the point that they started clamoring for the same job they earlier despised. In this regard, the Shillong residents especially of the immediate vicinity of Mawkhar, Jaiaw etc would be more grateful to our Harijan friends (if only they speak up) than those who were never served by them.

Some vested interests are clearly fishing in troubled waters in pitting the Dalits against the Khasi tribals.  I read many articles by mainline reporters who either did not know the ground realities or who spun the story, obviously with an axe to grind, wanting to project the Khasis in bad light. They twisted facts and changed the name “Sweepers colony’ or Them Metor (or Metor valley from the Khasi term “Khar Metor” a reference to the ‘non-tribal sweepers’) to “Punjabi Lane” with dangerous implications.  None of these reports mention about “Iewduh” the main Khasi market in the whole Khasi Hills district under the Syiem of Mylliem and his myntris (mantries) which is located right across the road from the said colony. The Sweepers Colony is on this side of the road, and Iewduh on the other and much further from Police Bazaar. This proximity is what makes the issue a daily irritant, and brings the Harijan folks in constant touch with especially the rural tribal folks who come to Iewduh and the local taxi and bus drivers who ‘had to ply’ through the lane daily. Currently the road that runs from Iewduh towards Police Bazaar through the Harijan colony , a stretch of 200 to 300 meters is cordoned off which worsens the overall congestion. For argument’s sake, if cordoning helps, relocation would permanently solve the issue. For most of the rural Khasi folks who come to the market, with their small stature, the local Harijans, many of whom have moved on in life and acquired education and confidence, are street smart and with the understandable protective streak over their turf, they come across as menacing. Some of them did turn rowdies like Lal Singh, who the local market people feared, till he met his unfortunate end at the hands of the militants. The bus conductors’ episode that flared up tension last year, was also due to the same reason – proximity and daily interface between the two. No one knows for sure what exactly happened, except, it seems, from a few mainstream reporters from great distances, that it was due to the bus conductors’ eve teasing of the Harijan girls who were drawing water. The locals who understand and read Khasi heard differently. The driver of a local bus, on a weekend morning, with no passengers in the bus except his young sons, parked the bus and went for tea. The spot where he parked the bus was close to the water tap and it irked the Harijans, who beat up the boys. The rumour spread that the boy died, and that sparked the riot. The police were swift to act and the government provided full protection to the colony, and thankfully, not even a single life was lost.

The colony is in the market area and therefore, the economic war angle also has to be pointed out. Anyone who visits Shillong and sees Police Bazar will find it to be predominantly non-tribal. It is a general ward and hence exempted from the local indigenous administrative system of the District Council, mainly the land acquisition laws, where non-tribals are barred from land purchase or ownership. So Police Bazar is a melting pot of Marwaris, Bengalis, Punjabis, Parsis, Gujaratis, and others. After the NRC Assam data were released, many believed that the Bangladeshi population in Police Bazar which provides cheap labour is sizeable. Influx is another main concern for the locals. Apart from Police Bazar there are other similar areas in Shillong, whose population spurt brings endless nightmare to the locals. There are areas in Shillong where labourers sleep in shifts due to space problem, which created a deep seated resentment among locals because of job losses. This explains why the local NGOs’ independently check work permits of non-tribals’ and this becomes regular news. Under past Congress rule, District Councils were paralyzed. This created a vacuum which NGOs filled, stated Paul Lyngdoh, the present District Council EM, in charge of Trade.

If a visitor moves on from Police Bazar to Iewduh, he will see many shops taken over by non-tribals, which clearly reflects on the corruption on the part of the District Councils and Syiems in the past, through arbitrary issuance of trading licenses. A cold chill ran down the spine of the local Khasis who felt they were losing control even over Iewduh. The local hawkers’ proliferation all over Shillong and its streets today, supported by NGOs like TUR (Thma U Rangli translated as ‘Struggle of the Downtrodden’) can be interpreted as the shrinking of the Khasi market space in Shillong due to corruption, apathy and mindlessness of past administrations.

Now the Police Bazar is not even one kilometer from Iewduh, and the Sweepers Colony is exactly in between the two. It served as a buffer zone between them. From both economic and cultural standpoints, the Sweepers Colony is therefore used as a pawn. The Dalit card is being played up again. The sad truth is that from a non-tribal business stand-point  in Shillong,  an illegal migrant from Bangladesh or elsewhere, even if he differs in religion, is preferable to a ‘hate-filled’ Khasi.

To leave all this behind, and restore peace and trust between the locals and others, the Khasis have to be empowered economically. Iewduh has to expand, but the Harijan friends have to be compensated. The Government of Meghalaya had assured the Harijans of a better, more livable location. The Harijans have to trust and be on the right side of the current changing scenario. That area between two major markets is not meant to be a colony. Nowhere in the world would something like this be accepted. A friendly exchange is needed, and confidence-building measures are to be put in place. Many of those in  the Sweepers colony are Christians. Pastors and other Christians have to come closer to them at such times, and assure them of their prayers and support. We wish and pray that a peaceful agreement between the Government and the residents of the colony is arrived at soon and not based on fear or bitterness, but on goodwill and practical wisdom, considering the rapid changing scenario of Shillong, the Northeast and the country at large.

(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])

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