Monday, April 22, 2024

Who are the people of Ichamati?


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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

The recent killing of Ishan Singh and Sujit Dutta (Phuruin Dutta) in Ichamati, Shella, has once again brought to light the fault lines that exist between the indigenous and non-indigenous communities in the state. The animosity predates the CAA, but the passing of the legislation and the formulation of the rules have only exacerbated the divide. Ichamati has, especially, been a volatile location, having seen the outbreak of violence in 2020 during the CAA agitation when 35-year-old Lurshai Hynniewta, a member of the Khasi Students’ Union, was killed in clashes with some members of the non-indigenous community. The violence reached Shillong as well, where one Rupchan Dewan was stabbed at Iewduh, leading to his death. After that, the government imposed a curfew and clamped down on interment services to prevent any rumor mongering that might inflame the situation further. Fortunately, this time around, the violence has not spread beyond Ichamati, which is understandable since the people killed belonged to the non-indigenous community, who are minorities in the state. Among the political parties, as of the writing of this article, only the VPP and BJP have condemned the killings and demanded action, while others have kept mum. The Chief Minister has especially been quiet, which has been the biggest disappointment. For me, the killings in Ichamati have been quite a traumatic moment since I had visited the area a few years ago and met and stayed with the local non-indigenous community, who were very gracious hosts. And it is the experience of that visit that I am going to share to help others understand the people who have been caught in the crosshairs of this violence.
I remember going to Shella for the first time in 2012. In 2020, a few months after the violence in which Lurshai Hynniewta was killed, I was visiting it again as part of a social audit team to assess the functioning of a couple of schools in Ichamati regarding the implementation of a government scheme meant for the SC community. Nothing much had changed since 2012. The road from Ichamati to the village where the school was located was almost non-existent. It was bad enough in winter, and I shuddered to imagine what the condition would be during the monsoon months as the area lays directly on the path of the south-west monsoon winds, which bring rainfall to the entire North East. Then there’s the excess runoff from the Sohra plateau, which drains to Shella, turning it into a massive wetland. People would, in fact, use boats to travel as the roads are submerged during this period. Has the situation improved since 2020? I don’t know as I have not been to the area since. But I doubt any substantial change has taken place.
We reached the village late in the afternoon, where we were greeted by the school officials. A preliminary inspection of the school infrastructure was conducted, which, on casual viewing, was already revealing the inadequacy of the facilities. The school had no water or play ground for the schoolchildren. In the next couple of days, there were focus group discussions with each individual class, followed by personal interviews with randomly selected students. I interviewed a dozen boys and a couple of girls. After the interviews were done, I took a walk around the village with another member of the social audit team.
I was curious to understand how the conflict in Ichamati started and its aftermath. We met a person who was quite comfortable talking about it. This person was a resident of the village and was present at the school when we first arrived. According to him, it was the passing of Donkupar Roy that changed the dynamics in the area. Acutely aware of the need to maintain peace in a multi-ethnic Shella, the (L) Donkupar Roy never allowed any meeting that had the potential to disrupt that harmony. After his demise, that arrangement no longer existed, and the local pressure groups were able to convene an anti-CAA and pro-ILP meeting in Ichamati. Trouble erupted after one of those meetings, which spiraled into an ethnic conflict whose configuration was not as simple as presumed. There were a lot of different groups involved in the incident (indigenous and non-indigenous), but according to our respondent, only a couple of non-indigenous groups were targeted by the administration. One has to always take any testimony with a grain of salt, especially when personal interests are embedded. But having lived through the heady 90’s, when ethnic animosity was pervasive, I knew there was an element of truth in his story.
The next day, we went to see the Indo-Bangla border, which was less than 30 minutes away from the village. There we met an upper caste person who was one of the few people who owned land in the village. Most of the people in the village were landless, renting land from the Khasi community on which they grew paddy (three varieties) and some vegetables. The biggest market was Ichamati, which, after the incident, had also undergone some changes. Many of the shops belonging to the non-indigenous community were closed down and had not reopened until the time of our visit. In response, the village organized its own market where people from surrounding villages would come with their produce. Some people from the village were engaged in export business to Bangladesh. However, the COVID-19 pandemic had brought about a disruption in it as well. The last couple of years had been particularly difficult for the people of the village. Even in normal conditions, schemes rarely reached the village, with more than 2/3 of the residents not having any voting rights despite having the paperwork, which proved that they were long-time residents of the area. Having been marginalized for a very long time, the ethnic conflict and COVID-19 only served to marginalize them further. In all of this, the presence of the school was one of the only few bright spots.
The last day of the visit consisted of a focus group discussion with the parents. Most of the parents were from the village itself. Some had come from a neighboring village, which during the monsoon season could only be accessed by boat. The findings were shared with the community, which knew that the situation was not perfect but also understood that it was an improvement from their own days. One of the parents became very emotional during the hearing. She recounted how she herself got no opportunity for education when she was young but wanted her children not to suffer the same fate. Neglected by those in power and belonging to lower strata within their own community (SC are the former untouchables of Hindu society), the plight of many of the parents was a particularly heartbreaking one.
The curious thing about the social audit exercise was that this particular social audit was being done for a scheme that had yet to be implemented, revealing the apathetic attitude of those in positions of power. One of the recommendations the social audit team made was to immediately release the funds so that the scheme could become operational. Those who had come from other villages also hoped that similar schemes would be available to them in the near future. Were the recommendations implemented, and were the other villages given the benefit of the scheme? I don’t know. My assignment ended after the exercise, and I have not kept in touch with those working on the scheme. But I hope they have the scheme and that the other villages have received the same benefits as well.
A very common concern of the students and the parents was also the lack of higher education institutions. After matriculation, students had two choices: either go to Sohra or Shillong for higher classes or stop their studies. For the lower-income families of the village, this was a particularly difficult choice. There was one particular case that encapsulated the problems of education faced by the people in the village. During the personal interview, my colleague encountered a bright student who is the topper in her class. Her family is among the poorest in the village, and they live in a house that has no electricity. Like many others in the village, they are landless. She wanted to study further but knew it would be impossible unless the current school gets higher secondary classes. Education could be the only way for her to escape the clutches of poverty and, in the process, uplift the condition of her family as well. What has happened to her? Will she be able to achieve her dreams? Or will she be forced to get married, have children, and spend her life regretting what could have been? This is not just her story but that of many of the young people in the village.
Border areas in Meghalaya have always faced the brunt of apathy and neglect. At the same time, in the past, these areas were in the zone of transition between different cultures and must have been particularly vibrant, a zone of not just cultural exchange but also of trade. Partition has now made these areas a forgotten zone, remembered only during times of crisis. The non-indigenous population of this particular area faced additional challenges because they are the ‘other’. Can we, as a community (i.e., the Khasi community), who are a minority in this vast subcontinent, justify perpetuating the same treatment that we accuse others of doing to us? And without overcoming the majoritarian prejudice that permeates this subcontinent, can we ever hope of building an egalitarian society for ourselves? I don’t think so.
For many of us who are not from Ichamati, we will have many opinions about what has happened. But in all of that, the human stories of the people who stay in the area should not be forgotten. In the end, that’s the only thing that will keep us human, and I hope we don’t forget that.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)


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