A series of developments over the past few weeks have resulted in the exposure of what most of India is barely aware of: the horrific persecution of non-tribals in Meghalaya over the past four decades.
With the veil coming off its xenophobia-driven shameful mistreatment of non-tribals, the government, NGOs and various organisations in the hill state that shares a long boundary with Bangladesh to its south are understandably rattled.
The trigger for the exposure was reports of continued persecution of Bengali Hindus at Ichamati, a small town in the East Khasi Hills district of the state.
Ichamati is close to the border with Bangladesh and has a large number of Bengali Hindus.
On 28 February this year, a member of a powerful students’ outfit — the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) — died in clashes that erupted in that town between KSU members and local residents.
The KSU had organised a programme there against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — despite Meghalaya being kept out of the purview of the Act — and demanding introduction of the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system to regulate entry of people from the rest of the country into the state.
The KSU, which former Meghalaya Governor Tathagata Roy has branded as an “anti-national terrorist organisation” while demanding that it be banned, has long been in the forefront of violent agitations against ‘outsiders’.
The KSU has often been accused of targeting non-tribals (who are pejoratively called ‘Dkhars’ by the Khasi tribals), extorting huge sums of money from non-tribal businessmen and traders and driving the xenophobia that leads to the mistreatment and persecution of non-tribals who are referred to as ‘outsiders’ in Meghalaya.
According to many accounts, some KSU members started targeting houses and properties belonging to non-tribals at Ichamati and assaulting them. Fed up with continuing persecution, the non-tribals got together and resisted the KSU, leading to fierce clashes that left one KSU member dead.
A huge number of non-tribal residents of Ichamati were arrested and since then, allege the locals, systematic persecution of the non-tribals started.
A terror outfit of the state — the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC) — issued a chilling ultimatum to the Hindus of Ichamati to leave the town within a month or be prepared to get killed.
The Hindu residents of the town say that they faced an economic boycott and various forms of persecution and discrimination — overt and covert —since then.
Three of them travelled to the state capital Shillong to meet Governor Satya Pal Malik in mid-October and apprised him of the persecution and harassment they had been facing.
The three accused the state administration of conniving with bodies like the KSU to stop Hindus from earning their livelihood, harassing them and persecuting them (read this).
This riled the state administration, many politicians and large sections of the Khasis. So much so that an FIR was lodged against the three for daring to meet the Governor and telling him about the sorry plight of Bengali Hindus at Ichamati.
An angry KSU then put up posters and banners (read this) in Shillong branding all Bengali Hindus as ‘Bangladeshis’ and asking them to return to Bangladesh.
Though the police promptly took down those posters and banners, no arrests were made or action taken against the KSU for putting up the hateful material in public.
But since then, a number of non-tribals who grew up in Shillong and have migrated to other parts of the country or the world have started speaking out about the systematic persecution of and discrimination against non-tribals in Meghalaya.
A number of bloggers and social media activists have started posting videos and accounts of the shameful treatment of non-tribals in Meghalaya over the last 40 years (watch this, this, this and this).
A few non-tribal organisations and individuals have held demonstrations in front of the Meghalaya House in Kolkata and submitted memoranda to the state government.
More such demonstrations are planned in front of the Meghalaya Houses at Delhi and Mumbai in the coming weeks.
Lawyers have sent notices to the Meghalaya government asking for the persecution of non-tribals to be stopped and all those who have committed crimes against non-tribals over the past four decades be brought to justice.
The countless horrific murders, rapes and assaults of non-tribals in Meghalaya, the persecution that they have faced over the decades, the tales of their discrimination and of the exodus of thousands of non-tribal families from Meghalaya is quite akin to what Kashmiri Pandits faced in the Kashmir Valley.
It Started In 1979
The ghastly persecution of non-tribals started in October 1979 when what was till then the idyllic city of Shillong was rocked by horrific attacks on Bengali Hindus.
A murti of Goddess Durga that was to be taken out for immersion was desecrated by some Khasi youngsters. A group of Bengali Hindu men thrashed them, and that triggered appalling retaliation by the Khasis.
The mayhem which followed and which the state administration did little to control resulted in many deaths and properties belonging to Bengali Hindus being torched and destroyed.
Hundreds of Bengali Hindus were driven out of their homes and had to spend months in refugee camps.
Since then, many other non-tribal communities — Biharis, Nepalis, Assamese, Marwaris and Sikhs — have been systematically attacked and driven out of Meghalaya.
Significantly, none of the perpetrators of the ghastly crimes against non-tribals — the murders, rapes, assaults etc — have ever been prosecuted.
This, say the displaced non-tribals, has only emboldened some xenophobic, racist and bigoted Khasis to carry out more attacks on non-tribals.
Many of these murders of non-tribals in Meghalaya have been particularly gruesome. Just a few would well illustrate this point:
A state transport bus en route from Dawki (a town on the Indo-Bangladesh border) to Shillong in end-1979 was stopped at Laitlyngkot (about 28 km short of the state capital) by some Khasi young men. Eight Bengali Hindus travelling on the bus were asked to disembark and taken to a deserted spot where they were stoned to death in a barbaric medieval fashion.
Another grisly murder was that of the owner of a sweet shop in Shillong in December 1979: he was thrown into a cauldron of boiling sugar syrup and died a very painful death of hideous burns.
A pregnant lady, Gauri Dey, who had gone out to buy some essentials during a relaxation in curfew that was clamped after days of racial attacks on non-tribals by Khasis was gangraped and brutally killed by inserting a bamboo stick into her vagina by Khasi youths in 1992.
A petrol bomb was hurled inside a car carrying young non-tribal women who were visiting Puja pandals during the Durga Puja of 1992. One of them died of burns and the others suffered grievous injuries.
Bireshwar Das, the owner of a tea stall owner at Bishnupur in Shillong was doused with petrol and set aflame by some Khasi young men in 2013.
In 1988, Nepalis became the target of Khasi xenophobia; many were attacked and maimed or injured, their houses and properties looted, and thousands displaced. Even the cattle belonging to Nepali families — many of the community ran small dairy farms — were killed or burnt alive by Khasi youths (read this, this and this).
These are just a few of the many gruesome murders of non-tribals by Khasis over the past 40 years. There have been countless cases of assaults, attacks on properties, intimidation and more.
In fact, getting assaulted, threatened and intimidated have long become a way of life for non-tribals who have become used to living as second-class citizens in Meghalaya.
“There is barely any non-tribal who grew up in Shillong without getting assaulted or at least pushed around and threatened. I started experiencing life as a normal citizen of India and realised what freedom and rights are all about only after leaving Shillong,” said Dipankar Roy, 43, a senior systems manager at a major public sector bank in Noida.
Retired Colonel Ranvir Singh, whose father was an officer in the Geological Survey of India posted in Shillong for many years, recalls: “I was a school student in those fearful years of the 1980s when attacks on non-tribals and long curfews were a way of life. We were branded ‘dkhars’ (outsiders) and were expected to live as second-class citizens at the mercy of the Khasis.
“Our parents used to warn us against going out alone, especially to the Khasi-dominated areas of the city. We would have to return home much before dusk. We had Khasi friends, especially ones we studied with in school, and they were from good families and different. But the Khasi on the street was most anti-’Dkhar’ and would make his intense dislike of us outsiders very clear,” said Singh, who has settled down in Pune.
Mridula Kakati, 45, a senior legal advisor at a non-banking finance company in Bangalore, experienced it all first-hand. “Our house was attacked in 1992 and one cousin of mine was killed by a mob of frenzied tribals (Khasis). We left Shillong and I have never gone back. It is a place full of hate and violence,” says Kakati, who now stays in Chennai.
Nitesh (his family name is not being divulged because he still has relatives in Shillong who can be easily targeted) recalls growing up in Shillong.
“There was this constant fear of getting assaulted whenever we would go out. Our parents used to prohibit us from venturing out alone. And we would be constantly looking over our shoulders while walking down the streets. Through many ways, subtle and overt, we used to be reminded that we were second-class citizens. The discrimination against non-tribals — in education, jobs and business — was very blatant.
“What was very scary was the knowledge that our persecutors and attacks would get away with their crimes. That’s what encouraged and emboldened them (the Khasis) to act with such shocking impunity,” said Nitesh, 51, who now runs a business in Kolkata.
Lakhs of non-tribals like Nitesh, Mridula, Ranvir and Dipankar were thus robbed of their childhood and never experienced the joys of a normal life while growing up in Shillong.
“Things have improved a lot, but the fear still remains and discrimination against non-tribals persist in all walks of life,” said a Marwari businessman who stays in Shillong. He refused to be named for fear of being attacked.
The miserable lives of non-tribals in Meghalaya was well brought out in a one-man inquiry commission headed by Justice (retired) B. N. Sarma of the Guwahati High Court after the 1992 largescale attacks on and killings of non-tribals in Shillong and other parts of the state.
The observations of Justice Sarma were a damning indictment of the institutionalised discrimination against and persecution on non-tribals in Megahalaya.
Justice Sarma noted the “religious bigotry and intolerance (of non-tribals) among a large section of the local (Khasi) youth”, “growing parochialism and regionalism amongst the younger generation” and the lack of prosecution in all cases of attacks on non-tribals.
It is appalling that not a single person has ever been prosecuted for the countless and gruesome murders, killings and assaults on non-tribals, and for the destruction of houses and properties belonging to non-tribals.
This lack of prosecution, and the denial of justice to victims of violence over the last 40 years, has only encouraged more attacks on non-tribals and emboldened bigoted, parochial, xenophobic and militant organisations like the KSU and the Federation of Khasi, Jaintia & Garo Peoples (FKJGP) to target the non-tribals.
Apart from being discriminated against in education and employment, non-tribals face hurdles in conducting businesses and even taking properties on rent.
The requirement of obtaining trade licences from the district councils for running businesses is an institutionalised form of harassment and corruption, and many non-tribal traders and businessmen have shifted out of Meghalaya because of this.
All these years, few in the rest of India and the world knew about the persecution of non-tribals in Meghalaya and the miserable lives they have led, and still lead, in that state.
But now that these shameful and blood-curdling accounts of killings, rapes, assaults etc are coming out in the open, Meghalaya’s politicians, who have been complicit in the persecution of ‘dhkars’ and the Khasi society at large, are rattled.
Because, this not only shames them, but can also coalesce into a clamour for justice for the countless non-tribals who have been killed, raped, maimed and assaulted over the years in that state.
And those guilty of all these acts include many prominent tribals in many walks of life in Meghalaya. The prospect of being brought to justice is, understandably, a scary one for them.
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