Northeast: The poignancy of Engagement

An ‘outsider’ recalls the fear of the 1980s-’90s when non-tribals were brutally persecuted in Shillong but yet realises that to let it sever her ties to her hometown would be to disown herself

Nabanipa Bhattacharjee Delhi 

On March 5, thousands of people forced their way into the Dimapur Central Jai—Dimapur is a fairly large, commercial town in Nagaland—to get hold of one Syed Farid Khan, a Bangali-speaking Muslim man in his mid-thirties, in order to punish him for the alleged rape of a Naga woman. In complete disregard of the jail authority, the mob then dragged the man through the streets of the town and beat him to death. The body was then hung on a tower for public viewing and photographing. The mob, indeed, had its total revenge. This ghastly incident is yet another example of the violent inter-community relations in the states that comprise the administrative entity labelled as the Northeast since the 1970s. The racist/xenophobic climate of the region is no different from the one in “mainland” India. In fact, it is worse. The reasons behind the current state of affairs in the Northeast range from the unsettled business of the partition of Assam in 1947 —which led to the separation of Sylhet, and consequently geographically isolated the Northeast from the rest of India—to the politics (and policies) of the post-colonial Indian State.

While it is true that Assam and Manipur top the chart in ethnic violence, the other states, as the Nagaland case shows, are not far behind. In fact, notwithstanding the difference in the scale and degree of violence, no Northeastern state has been, or is, free from it. At the receiving end of the violence, in most cases, are the “outsiders”/“foreigners”. They do not “belong”, and are available for “free”.  Also, they are most “willing” to be threatened, hounded and, yes, even lynched. After all, the “insiders”/“locals” need to feel powerful, boost their “collective conscience” and, surely, be entertained—by violence—from time to time. I say this from my own experience of being born and raised in Shillong, the capital of the predominantly tribal (Khasi, Jaintia, and Garo) state of Meghalaya.    

Not many are aware that Shillong (and its neighbouring areas) was the site of gruesome violence for close to two decades. To call that time difficult is an understatement. Anyhow, it all began in 1979, the year the anti-foreigner Assam movement was launched. The violence of the movement reached Shillong, the beautiful, misty hill city, and spread like wildfire. The city had its fair share of targets: the non-tribal “foreigners” drawn from the Bengali, Nepali, Bihari, Marwari and other communities. The Bengalis were the first victims of the Khasi Students Union (KSU)-led anti-foreigner movement. The strategy of the movement was to combine isolated violence with organised pogroms, for its larger goal was total
ethnic cleansing.

The former led to the stabbing and death of Partha Adhyapak, a family friend; Ratish Ghosh, a sweet vendor, was tossed into a cauldron of hot syrup and burnt alive. The incidents of beating and mugging were too numerous to be mentioned (see, for example, Rezaul Hasan Laskar: “My father was dragged out…”, Hindustan Times, March 9, 2015). The carefully planned pogroms, in line with the Nazi policy of lebensraum, targetted residential localities of mixed population. Accordingly, localities like Mawprem, Jaiaw, Lamavilla, and so forth were violently cleansed of, as Zygmunt Bauman in another context said, the (Bengali) ‘outcasts’, the ‘human waste’ (Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts, Cambridge, 2003). As the number of refugees grew, schools, for example, were turned into temporary camps. The state administration acted, not quite unexpectedly, in an extremely limited (indifferent) way. Actually, it hardly acted, for the killers went about killing with impunity.

With the refugees languishing in the camps, the fearful non-tribals (including my father) resorted to the prayer and petition mode—the only (civil) weapon of the weak. I remember regular meetings at home, and numerous files and memoranda seeking protection, relief and rehabilitation of the non-tribals. Nothing much came of those. In 1987 the Nepalis were targetted, and in 1992 the Biharis, who were mainly in the milk business; cows were burnt alive as they too were branded “foreigners”. The BN Sharma Commission Report on the 1992 riots stated that the communal carnage that began in 1979 resulted, during the course of the next one-and-a-half decades, in the displacement of more than 1,000, and the killing of hundreds of non-tribals in Shillong (see Binayak Dutta, “Shillong: the making and unmaking of a cosmopolity”,, October 4, 2013; Patricia Mukhim, “Politics of identity and location”, The Hindu, April 26, 2014). Needless to say, the perpetrators were never punished, and the victims were, consequently,
denied justice.

Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s I witnessed, as a school- (and later) college-going Bengali girl, the non-tribals of Shillong being persecuted, and brutally murdered. I recall the disruption of Puja processions, the Laitlyngkot incident, days and nights of curfew, Army flag marches, the rush for essential supplies, night vigils, shuttered shops, deserted streets, the plight of refugees, looting, arson, and much more. In all, I breathed and lived in an atmosphere of immense vulnerability, torment and fear. However, as a relatively affluent, middle-class non-tribal, I had many more options, compared to the others. Leaving Shillong and its oppressive air, for instance, was one. I, therefore, joined the great “dkhar” (meaning ‘foreigner’ in Khasi) exodus, and left Shillong in 1994 to join Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. I have stayed on since to work and settle in the city.

With passing time I have learnt to handle the dkhar stigma. The fear (and anger) of my childhood and teenage years have ebbed. I visit and spend time in Shillong, without fail, every year. The situation is not as bad as it used to be, thanks to the efforts of civil society and other similar groups. But the fear and insecurity of the non-tribals have hardly lessened. From time to time they are reminded, through the Inner Line, the D (doubtful)-voter or other such issues, of their “alien-without-rights” status, of the “fact” that they do not “belong”. Instead of mixed residential localities, Shillong is dotted with ghettoes now. On my visits I am advised by well-meaning friends to return home before dusk; indeed, there is no panic-free evening for the non-tribals of Shillong. I am also discouraged from writing about what I, and many like me, witnessed during those turbulent years. In other words, I am encouraged to not exactly abandon, but certainly maintain a safe distance from Shillong.

Shillong is a prose of melancholy, and yet, I cannot let it go. Not only that, unlike Janice Pariat who cannot call racist Delhi her home, I believe I want, and still can call Shillong home (“The Place I Cannot Call Home”,, February 2, 2014). I must confess that there are moments when everything appears futile and lost, and I am on the verge of giving up. But the disengagement, I remind myself, would mean failing Shillong—its history, culture, and people.  It would also mean the forced forgetting of the city’s vibrant, cosmopolitan past which was shaped by the unconditional recognition of difference, and its struggling present. Finally, it would mean me disowning myself. So, how should I go about with Shillong and, more generally, the Northeast? Of course, I must engage with it, and engage seriously and patiently from the beginning up until the end.  


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2015