Monday, March 16, 2015

Patricia Mukhim: Old wounds reopened….Old hurts return to haunt

The public lynching of a man alleged to have raped a Naga girl in Dimapur followed by his being hanged from a pole in a public square after being labelled an ‘Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrant’ – a generic term for all Bengali speaking Muslims – has rekindled old memories of the communal carnage in Meghalaya, more specifically Shillong. Social media is rife with comparisons between the Dimapur incident and the horrors of 1979, 1981, 1992 etc.  

Those who grew up during that traumatic phase have now taken up jobs elsewhere but the memories remain. They cannot delete memories  of their homes being set ablaze; of being panic stricken when stones are pelted on their houses by other young people their age, who probably did not even know why they were doing what they did. That too was mob frenzy.  To the Khasi youth of the time the non-tribal (Bengali and subsequently Nepali) was the cause of all his predicaments. The political construct then (and this continues) was that the non-tribal is taking away the women, the wealth, the jobs and the business opportunities of the tribal.

About the women, one can only say that since Shillong had a substantial non-tribal population, the regular social interface was bound to turn into romance and marriage. If the union between a non-tribal man and tribal woman turned sour and the man left to marry one of his own ethnicity it was no different if the union was between a tribal man and woman. Abandonment is endemic, and equally, even among those who were properly married, divorce was and continues to be high. There is no point denying this or pretending that all is well since statistics prove the fact.  Meghalaya must have the highest number of female-headed households in the country.

About the job, the wealth and the business opportunities it is debatable if the non-tribals have it easy. Eighty per cent jobs in the State Government are reserved for tribals. Similarly for educational institutions of medicine, engineering and other professional courses! For the non-tribal it has been an opportunity squeeze. He may be a permanent resident of Meghalaya but he could only make the cut as a general candidate which meant that he would have to score very high marks to qualify for the 20% unreserved seats in the general category. 

Even in central universities, 60% of seats were reserved for tribal students. As far as the wealth is concerned the source of wealth in Meghalaya is nature. There is timber, coal, limestone that has been exploited over the years by human beings both tribals and non-tribals. The latter had to find ways and means to do business to survive economically and that was through the benami route – taking the name of a tribal to avoid the rigmarole of a trading license from the District Councils and also to avoid paying certain taxes. This is an equal game. If someone is willing to sell his name and sit at home and wait for the money to come in while someone does all the hard work, and if no one is objecting to this transaction then it’s a fair game I guess.

In the area of business, the non-tribal was already far ahead of the natives by the time Meghalaya was created. Most of the wholesale trade and stockists for food grains distributed through the fair price shops were run by non-tribals. When Meghalaya became a full- fledged state in 1972 and in the years following that, several tribals also got into this government sponsored trade and contract and supply work. It is not a state secret that many tribals only lent their names and the non-tribals were actually doing the trading. Most of the rice, wheat, sugar etc that came in for supplying to the ration card holders in Meghalaya were sold in the open markets of Assam and Meghalaya and the profits were shared through a system of mutual benefit. It was not possible for a tribal to have the reach in the markets outside their state. 

The modus-operandi was well-oiled. No one objected. Of course it was benami but unless the Government took suo-moto action no one was going to squeak. The passive tribal business partners became very wealthy and so too the non-tribal collaborators. But this trade/contract could only benefit a few people. Wealth begets wealth. From fair price shop owners, stockists and wholesalers the tribals diverted their interests to other wealth creation activities.

Those who did not have the wherewithal to join the bandwagon of trade and commerce, but who wanted to get rich quick, turned to politics. It was the surest way to wealth through the carpet-bagging route. The politician arm-twisted every contractor for a cut and a deal for every contract work issued by his department and made money just by using his pen. This rip-off continues. Meanwhile the number of poor people has increased because no opportunities were created for them. Governments only gave audience to mercenaries and collaborators in their wealth creation ventures.

The 1979 communal flare-up has nothing to do with the economics and the anguish of the poor who fell through the cracks in the system, although they were promised so much while fighting for a separate state. That was orchestrated by politicians who wanted to upstage the sitting MLAs and ministers and to usurp their spaces. The politicians cleverly used the infamous students’ body – the Khasi Students Union and ignited raw passion in several young men for whom logic did not matter and who knew only the lingo of violence. Like mercenaries gone berserk they launched systematic attacks on the Bengali population and created a fear psychosis never experienced before. 

Several Bengali teachers, government employees, lawyers, doctors who have served this society had to flee for their lives overnight and take refuge in school buildings which were used as make-shift camps. Their homes had gone up in flames. All their earthly belongings had turned into ashes. Many of them left to settle in Guwahati and Kolkata but I am not sure that they would ever be able to forget or forgive this gross act of inhumanity inflicted on them. There was no government to defend them or take up their cause. It was and still is a government of by and for tribals. The police force was compromised. There were people who were pulled out of buses and massacred or burnt alive. There was Gouri Dey, a pregnant woman from Malki who was lynched by a mob and yes, there were witnesses but the police could never convict a single person. 

This is a shameful track record for Meghalaya Police although it hardly matters to a force that seems to have taken a vow never to arrest a murderer or to do it so shabbily that the defence lawyers rip apart their charge sheets.

Year after year thereafter, but particularly when the state was heading for an election, tempers would rise and so would the fear psychosis among non-tribals still residing in Shillong. The next bout of violence was faced by the Nepali residents. They too fled into camps and many left the state altogether. What is ironic is that the churches and religious institutions failed miserably to reduce tensions and bring about a climate of mutual trust. Curfews were common and the farmers suffered but no one really bothered. The only people who reaped a rich harvest out of these communal conflicts were politicians.

After 36 years (from 1979-2015) the Dimapur lynching incident has reopened the wounds of those who suffered the humiliation, the hurt, pain and agony of that dark period of Meghalaya’s history. On social media there are people who relive those fearful moments; those curfew-bound hours of uncertainty; the fear of moving around even during the day time and the deep sense of alienation – that of being called an outsider in a place one has always called home – the only home one knows. If home is no longer home then where does one go?

There is as no closure to those terrible moments. Yet there is need for those who have suffered to be able to speak up and bare their hearts. That’s the only way they can move on. For them too forgiveness is important because revenge eats at the human soul and corrodes it. Some are of the view that we must let go off our past. That is easier said by those who have not suffered trauma. That is why we have something called Post-Traumatic-Stress- Disorder (PTSD) and a special branch of medicine to deal with it.

It is important for the tribal community of Meghalaya to provide this platform where those who have suffered can release their pain and move on. We owe them this much as fellow human beings. I know there are some who committed those crimes in 1979-80 who have since confessed publicly because the weight of their sin hung heavy on their souls. But if only they could make that confession in a non-threatening space, where those who suffered would find it in their hearts to forgive and let go of the past, it would be a new beginning for all.