Communalizing the Ichamati issue


By Albert Thyrniang

In the last ten days or so a lot has happened in relation to Ichamati. A complaint to the governor of Meghalaya; FIRs against the three complainants, NCPCR’s directive to prove alleged harassment of non-tribal women and children, police enquiry, GHADC’s expert Committee to prove discrimination charges, accusation of benami business, an ex Silchar MP writing to the Prime Minister; Meghalaya’s Home Minister’s theory linking the re-emergence of Ichamati issue to 2021 polls in WB; the criticism of outside interference by a minority MLA; the demand to ban KSU by an ex-governor; the ‘provocative’ Bangladeshi posters by the students’ union; not excluding the war on social media on the sensitive subject.

We are not fully informed of the Ichamati unrest. Our comments are based on secondary sources. Knowledge of the ground realities is limited for many of us. In the press and in social media mostly, Ichamati is mentioned but there are other villages like Bholaganj, Majai and Tyllap where uneasy simmers have been brewing.

According to sources quoting Census 2011, Ichamati has a total population of 627 people out of whom 172 are of scheduled tribes. Bholaganj has a bigger total population with 1225 inhabitants of whom 168 belong to the schedule tribe. The October 17 editorial of this daily informs that a substantial non-tribal population have settled in the Bangladesh border of Ichamati-Bholaganj even before East Pakistan came into being. The exact composition may be unknown but for the record, the Indo-Bangladesh border under Shella-Bholaganj Block has a mixed population. History dates back to the British era. Although there may be illegal immigrants but unless they are identified no one can be targeted.

The tension is traced back to the murder of a member of the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) in February this year in Ichamati. The student body was in the village, 83 kms from Shillong and 21.7 KM from the tourist paradise, Sohra (Cherapunjee) for a public meeting to trump up support against CAA and for the Inner Line Permit (ILP).  During the meeting a clash erupted between the members of the Union and non-tribals resulting in the death of the activist. Following the ultimatum by a militant outfit, The Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) in March to Hindu-Bengalis to leave the area there was an alleged exodus of migrant workers. The proscribed organisation also alleged that the violence in Ichamati was part of a Hindutva agenda.  Vested interests comprising individuals and groups judged this ‘exodus’ and certain ‘actions’ by GHADC and NGOs as persecution of Bengali Hindus in Meghalaya. They went overboard on social media depicting that Hindu Bengalis are unsafe in the State.

What made matters worse was the memorandum submitted to Governor, Satya Pal Malik by Prantush Sarkar, Mridul Das and Binayak Roy, on October 15 last. The trio’s prayer before Raj Bhavan is blatantly communal besides levelling serious charges against the State Government, the Courts, District Council and the Police that there was misuse of official machinery to harass and suppress the residents of the area. The memorandum claimed that the 7000 families, most of whom are Hindus, would be ‘uprooted and de-established from Ichamati and Bholaganj.’ The two page submission is a chilling dare labelling the District Council and Legislative Assembly ‘Christianised’ institutions.  Disturbingly, an extract reads “…one of the major reasons for such step motherly attitude by the state, as the majority of the people in the state are Christian with 74.59% of the total population and majority of members in the District Council and Legislative Assembly belong to Christian Religion and without any help of the state machinery, such illegal activities in the state cannot be perpetuated.”

Continuing with the communal tone the memorandum alleged discrimination, stating that the Hindu residents were denied EPIC, domicile and birth certificates, ration cards and job cards because of their religion. In its outburst against local groups like KSU, FKJGP, HYC, they said that the groups in connivance with the District Council and Police have shut down shops and business establishments of Hindus under the pretext of not having valid trade licence and NOCs from various local headmen. No wonder the FIRs were filed against the trio for vitiating communal harmony.

Others who magnified the disquiet on religious line are some aggressive social media users. The individuals may have grudges but their intentional exaggeration with communal intent is highly objectionable. They came live on Facebook during rallies and protests from Kolkata (Meghalaya House) demanding justice for ‘persecuted’ Bengali Hindus. One active user uses terms like ‘over ground terrorism’ and ‘criminal actions by NGOs’. Another, with the intention of sensationalising the situation, sarcastically asked, “How long will it take from Ichamati from Shillong?” while vowing to visit the ‘troubled spot’ on a particular date to prove to the world the truth of the allegations.

The over enthusiastic folks also planted the narrative of Meghalaya being a part of India and hence everyone is free to settle here. This is only a partial truth. Except for the cantonment areas and the European Ward, Meghalaya is under the cover of the Sixth Schedule of the India Constitution where non-tribals cannot buy land and own property. Trade is also regulated by the ADCs. This aspect of the law is deliberately not told on Facebook posts, live streams, YouTube videos and tweets that denounce ‘religious harassment, discrimination and persecution’ in the state. They also harp on the decline of non-tribals in Meghalaya over the years for the above reasons. The ‘outside interferers’ link Christians and ‘Christian missionaries’ to the purported atrocities in Ichamati. Whether they are loose cannons or part of a larger sinister design, these are intentional and malicious attempts to sow seeds of communal disharmony.

The KSU’s vigil protest on the national highway in Nongpoh might have been a response to the ‘visit’ of the ‘unwanted guest’ but the provocative banners in Shillong, ”All Meghalaya Bengalis are Bangladeshis” is communal beyond limits. This condemnable incitement was all the more unacceptable as the postering campaign was done on the eve of Durga Puja. Equally confrontational was the tweet of erstwhile Meghalaya governor, Tathagata Roy who branded the KSU a ‘terrorist organization’ to be outlawed like the HNLC. The immature, controversial ex-Governor wrote, “I say this taking full responsibility… KSU needs to be banned just like HNLC. It is an anti-national terrorist organization, threatening Indian citizens, some of whom are residents of Meghalaya since British times…” While in office Roy had equated the status of non-tribals in Meghalaya with the Kashmiri Pandits in 1991. While the state was up in arms against CAA the ex-Governor and wannabe West Bengal CM also observed, much to the displeasure of the local populace, that the religion based law should have been passed much earlier.

If the students’ pronouncement is deemed ‘provocative’ so too the extreme views of the seasoned politician! If he calls an unarmed group a ‘terrorist organisation’ what about the Hindu nationalist organisation, to which he is associated with, that was accused of involvement in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, the Gujarat pogrom, the demolition of Babri Masjid, the Kandhamal violence and other riots? What about other Hindutva affiliate outfits who spread hate and intolerance in the entire country? There is a strong  possibility that an element of that ideology is also playing with fire in Meghalaya. If the ‘Bangladeshi banners’ are unacceptable what about the likes of Amit Shah vowing to banish all illegal migrants to Bangladesh multiple times?

The genesis of the strife in Ichamati is the CAB-turned-CAA. As quoted by the editorial the whole North East is apprehensive of the Citizenship Act as large scale influx of illegal immigrants from the neighbouring country might render the microscopic indigenous tribal communities in the region minorities in their native land. Before its passage in Rajya Sabha the central government exempted CAA to IPL status states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur ignoring Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura. Though protected by the Sixth Schedule the tribal communities in Meghalaya fear CAA will encourage illegal immigrants to flock to the state turning it into another Tripura where the tribal population has been reduced to about 30 percent and marginalising them politically and economically. The porous Ichamati-Bholaganj international border might be one of the leaky spots for Bangladeshis to cross over to Meghalaya hoping to take advantage of CAA thus worsening the already fragile demographic composition.

Unfortunately, during the public rally against CAA clashes took place leading to the communal rumbling, the re-surfacing of which has spilled over elsewhere in and outside the state.

Even at the cost of trivialising the vexed issue by dubbing it a simple matter, the State Government claims it is on the job to normalise the situation through talks with different groups. Seeking goodwill from all stakeholders to resolve the turbulence is appreciated but reining in the trouble makers is essential to prevent Ichamati from becoming a communal flash point.

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