Existing mistrust between the Nepali-speaking population and the Khasis has widened after the recent ethnic clashes
By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
MEGHALAYA, INDIA- “Ethnicity-based enmity,” said a Nepali-speaking Assamese coal mine labourer in Meghalaya, “is the most frightening and unpredictable thing I have ever experienced.” “The man you were friend with in the morning”, Bhumi Raj Limbu continued, “becomes your killer in the evening.”
This is what is happening in Meghalaya today. Existing mistrusts and contempt between Nepalis and Khasis have widened as the latter recently killed and assaulted several Nepali migrant workers and Gorkhas (Nepali-speaking Indians).
At the heart of this conflict lies a beautiful village called Lampi (or Langpih), claimed by both Assam and Meghalaya. Both states are strongly backed by villagers sharply divided along ethnic lines. The Gorkhas want the present Assamese authority in the village unchallenged, while the Khasis feel the area belongs to Meghalaya.
The dispute is not a new one. It has existed since the time Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972. Occasional arson and crop-stealing belonging to members of the opposing community were common. The simmering tensions became international headlines on May 14 when the Assamese border police gunned down four Khasis, who were part of a mob that was attacking Gorkhas in the village and the police post. The Khasis, in turn, started venting their anger against Nepalis and Gorkhas throughout Meghalaya. A 70-year-old Gorkha, Loknath Bastola, was burnt alive in Badapani village, just below Shillong, the state’s capital.
Nepali workers here believe there may have been more killings in the Jaintia Hills district that borders Bangladesh, where thousands of Nepalis labour in coal mines. “We believe the authorities may have buried some bodies to save their face,” claimed a source in Ladrampai bazaar, the commercial hub of Jaintia Hills. The government denies this. “We shouldn’t go after rumours,” said Mukul Sangma, the chief minister of the state. “We are investigating the matter. The truth will come out.”
After the Lampi incident, the Meghalaya government set up a police post in Lampi ‘to protect Khasi people’ under pressure from agitating Khasi organisations. The new post is just a few hundred metres away from the border outpost of 4th Assam police battalion. The village resembles a warzone where armed villagers patrol during night time.
It was very challenging for 20-year-old Khem Chhetri to drive the bike on the under-construction 25 km road to and from Lampi to a paved road connecting to Guwahati. The road had become extra slippery because of the rains the previous night. But we did it.
Meghalaya thinks Assam is encouraging Gorkhas to bring more people to the village so that its claim strengthens. “Apart from the Khasi and Garo population,” Sangma said in an interview with me, “a certain number of families belonging to the Nepali community are residing in Lampi who speak fluent Khasi. But what has been recently an issue of concern for the local population are the new settlements. These settlements have come up with the help of Assam police. That has created a sense of mistrust and of insecurity among the population.”
The Gorkhas feel they need to bring in more of their own from other parts of Assam so that the Khasis cannot intimidate them. “We have been living here for more than two generations,” said Chakra Bahadur Chhetri, the village headman or gaunbuda. “Our grandfathers came from Nepal and settled here when no Khasi lived here. It was a jungle at that time and our grandfathers felt it was a good place for their cattle.”
Most old Gorkhas in Lampi name one district or the other in Nepal to indicate the place where their grandfathers came from but they don’t want to build on that connection for now. They have found an active and charismatic leader in Chhetri who takes their cause to the Assamese authorities. Chhetri, in turn, is thankful to the villagers that he has given a job that he likes the most. “I don’t like working in the filed,” the gaunbudha said. “I like talking and traveling. So our interests are compatible.” That doesn’t stop him from reflecting upon the situation when he is alone. “Sometimes I feel as though I have wronged my people,” Chettri said “I wonder if I made them foreigners in this land. Had I not been here, most might have returned back to Nepal and settled there. At the least they would have a country of their own. The other part of me debates do we ever get mato (soil) without struggle? Moreover, the government of Assam is helping us more than we need. With such pleasant weather, isn’t it a good place to live in? Once the rasta is paved won’t this place be better than Darjeeling?”
The rasta is not exemptfrom the rivalry between Assam and Meghalaya either. Once Assam started building the road to Lhampi, Meghalaya followed suit with an aim to link the village to a highway that goes to Shillong. Initially the Assamese border police, using local Gorkhas as pawns, created disturbance.Later they allowed the work to be continued considering it to be a development activity. That instance of agreement between the two states has done little to bridge the gap between the Khasi and Gorkha communities.
For instance, the Khasis of Lampi have no administrative relationship with Assam. The Khasis did not participate in the census administered by the Assamese side where as Gorkhas enthusiastically participated, with gaunbudha as the administrator of the procedure, ignoring the call by the Meghalayan government to halt census activity in the village. Khasis don’t send their children to the primary and middle school run by the Assamese government in the village. The Meghalayan government has opened a Khasi medium primary school barely a hundred meters away. Assamese authorities have recognized Chhetri with annual best gaunbudha award of Kamrup district twice in recent years.
The animosity between the two communities continues in the playground that sees players from the two communities play with different balls in different parts of the ground. No sooner Meghalaya was formed; Khasis stopped Gorkhas from playing on a football ground forcing the Gorkhas to find a new one nearby. In recent months, Khasis have laid their claim to that ground as well, the Gorkhas allege. Some time back when a Khasi member of the Meghalayan legislative assembly from the region flattened the Gorkhas’ playground bringing in a dozer Khasis asked Gorkhas to go back to their older playground. “Why should we go back and play in the old ground now?” asks the Gaunbuda. “Our boys (Gorkhas) play in one of the goalposts while Khasis play in the other. When we play a white ball they bring a black one, when we bring a black ball, they bring a green one.”
Due to this animosity and sheer mistrust Gorkhas have started patrolling their neighborhoods at night. They have deployed youths carrying khukuris, sticks and slings under the banner of Village Defense Person (VDP) which is a normal practice in the region. “Khukuri and sticks are our weapons,” said Shivaram Sharma, 26, a VDP. “The slingshots belong to Khasis. Now we learn their weapon and defeat them in their own game.”
If this village goes to Meghalaya, which falls under a special Indian constitutional provision called the Sixth Schedule, the non-tribal population will have no right to land. “We will be homeless, landless,” Chhetri said. “On the other hand, Assam is giving us every possible help. They are giving us roads, hospitals, drinking water.” The Gorkhas hope it will be easier for them to bring in more people once the road is paved—expected to happen in two years.
Apart from the sense of security that the Gorkhas feel in Assam, cultural, linguistic and other social differences exist between them and the Khasis. Meghalaya is a Khasi-majority state that was created exclusively to look after the community’s interest. Everybody else is an outsider here.
Khasis speak a language (belonging to Austro-Asiatic language group) which has no particular script like Devnagari on which Nepali, the language Gorkhas speak, is based. Almost all Khasis have converted to Christianity from their original religion of worshipping nature. Gorkhas are Hindus, and worship the cow, which Khasis eat. “Christian missionaries control the Meghalaya government,” said a Gorkha leader in Guwahati, the capital of Assam. “They try their best to convert Nepalis to Christianity. When they can’t, they target those who are unwilling to convert.” This sentiment was echoed by several Gorkha leaders who said that the Church in Shillong keeps mum about the atrocities committed against the Gorkhas whereas “they create a lot of noise if someone throws a pebble on a church.” Khasis live in a matriarchal society where as Gorkhas are patriarchal. Sometimes conflict arises because these communities differ on how the land should be used. Gorkhas like to rear animals in open lands while Khasi prefer agriculture. Though Gorkhas claim they are the ones who taught Khasis how to cultivate. However, as the land is becoming scarce because of rising population, number of Gorkhas rearing cattle has reduced. The cattle owned by a typical Gorkha family don’t number in dozens like in the earlier times.
Several factors, on the other hand, bring Gorkhas closer to the Assamese. Both communities speak languages that belonging to the Indo-Aryan group, practice the same religion and live in patriarchal societies. Assam faces the problem of land encroachment in other parts of the state from neighboring states Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunanchal as well. People residing in those controversial areas belong to ethnic community that is majority in the claimant states and are loyal to them, not to Assam. That has made it difficult for Assam to lay its claim over those disputed territories. In the border dispute with Meghalaya the Gorkhas of Lahmpi have become the citizen border police for Assam. “It isn’t only Lahmpi that Meghalaya claims,” Chettri said. “It wants Guwahati as well. The moment we leave this place Khasis will run down to Guwahati. So, we are securing the border of Assam as well.”
Lampi dispute is a perfect example of how ethnicity-based federalism pits citizens against one another. The Assamese government encourages Gorkhas from other parts of the state to go to the village, settle and retaliate against the Khasis. Anyone wanting to go to Lampi gets land for free, I was told by the villagers, and the government has increased the pace of development activities in the area. Until two years ago, before a road connected the village to a highway, it used to take four hours to walk from Lampi to reach Guwahiti. Gorkhas are working on to giving a finishing touch to the 30-kilometer link road on which their future plans rest. “Once this road is paved it will be easier to increase the number of our people (Gorkhas) here.” said Dambar Bhattarai, 47 whom I found working on the road 10 km below Lampi village. “Anyone willing to come will be provided with land,” he continued. “Our ancestors lived in this place. Why should we run away? We are ready for bloodshed but not to be chased away.”
These differences, however, hadn’t stopped the two communities from living side by side for more than two centuries. In Shillong and other parts of Meghalaya, Nepali men have married Khasi women and vice-versa. Gorkhas have mastered the Khasi language and many Khasis are fluent in Nepali. “These people are not that bad after all,” said a Gorkha activist in Shillong. “Some vested elements are politicising the issue.”
The activist was hinting at the recent change of guard in Shillong that saw Sangma, from the Garo community, replacing D.D. Lapang, a Khasi, as the chief minister (Both Sangma and Lapang were from the Congress as they are now. Government changes are frequent in Meghalaya. Only one chief minister out of 13 has completed a full five-year term in office since 1972). One influential former student leader Paul Lyngdoh wasn’t included in the new cabinet. Nobody has produced solid proof but many believe the Lampi incident was the handiwork of Lapang and Lyngdoh who wanted to pull the rug under the new chief minister. “Some people are telling me some vested interests could have created this situation to create instability,” said Sangma.
The name of powerful Assamese politician Himant Biswa Sarma also comes in the picture. Sarma is often considered a factor in the change of governments in Meghalaya especially the one which was formed one year ago that saw his party Congress takepower in Shillong. Some say he was also behind the recent change of leadership (from Lapang to Sangma). Sarma is also deeply involved in prodding Gorkhas in Lampi. He was the one who sent in money to build the road and inaugurated it despite the objections from the Meghalayan side. That the land area of Lampi has been identified as a source of uranium adds a new dimension to the power struggle. Some say the real cause of tension is the uranium that the politicians from both states want under their control.
If Sangma’s detractors in Meghalaya were behind the recent chaos, then they were defeated. The chief minister handled the situation in a way that has won him accolades. “Thank God, 1986 didn’t repeat itself this time,” said Diwakar Poudel, a Gorkha from Assam who lives in Ladrampai, referring to the year when thousands of Nepalis and Gorkhas were evicted from Meghalaya as part of the movement to flush out foreigners from north-eastern India. “The police acted promptly; though during the initial hours of the crisis, several Nepalis were beaten up, tortured and forced to flee.” He said many Nepali-speakers stayed indoors or inside coal mines during the strike called by Khasi organisations in Meghalaya after the Lampi incident.
One of those who stayed in a shack near the coal mines was Shyam Prasad Pokharel. The 60-year-old man from Sindhuli does an unenviable job of carrying coal on his back from a 200-feet deep pit. “I remembered my ista-deuta (clan deity) that day. I asked for strength. I remembered my wife and children,” he said.
There’s no exact data of how many Nepalis work in the coal mines in Meghalaya, but it’s generally accepted that more than 100,000 Nepalis work in the mines.
In timess of crisis, it is natural that rumours spread like wildfire, thereby creating panic. Some of them tried to flee overnight, while some hid inside pits and reportedly drowned to death as it rained particularly heavily that night. “It was terrible,” said Pokharel. “We kept hearing this person was beaten up, that person was killed all day long. How can one live in such a situation?” The next day, his family from Sindhuli called on the mobile phone owned by the lady who cooks for Pokharel and other labourers in a mess near the mine. They asked him to return home immediately. “I felt like going back,” he said. “But how can you travel at a time like this? Now the situation has become somewhat normal. I’ll go in Dashain [festival].”
Some versions of this reportage were published in Kantipur, in Nepali, and in The Kathmandu Post recently Here are some Nepali headlines: