Anatomy of an ethnic clash

IN Media Practice | 30/05/2005
Anatomy of an ethnic clash


Was it by design or sheer ignorance that the media whipped up an ethnic scare in Meghalaya last week?


Linda Chhakchhuak  in Shillong




On Friday morning (May 27) Abbe (not real name) and a friend walked as usual to college, enjoying the lovely spring air in the picturesque hill town of Shillong. The sports and youth affairs minister, Paul Lyngdoh, recently swore he’d labour to help reclaim its position as the "education capital of the North East," if not of the entire subcontinent.


It was just a chance skim through the morning papers at the friendly newsstand on the way to their college that jolted the two fancy-free students out of their pleasant somnolent traipse. Usually the newspapers never had anything personal for Abbe and friend. But today (Friday) the headlines of one of the top box news item in a Guwahati-based English daily had everything to do with their lives.


"KAAC quit notice to Khasi Pnars" screamed The Sentinel’s front page box item which ‘reported’ that  "the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council (KAAC) has served a quit notice to the Khasi-Pnar villagers in Block II area with May 31st as deadline."


The two students cast an anxious glance at the largest selling Khasi daily, Mawphor which had even more ominous news for them as they haltingly spelt out the words, "Byrngem kylla ka KSU, FKJGP bad HNYF ia ki Karbi lada beh shnong ia ki Khasi na Block II (English translation: Warning by KSU, FKJGP & HNYF to Karbi if the Khasis of Block II are thrown out."


Forgetting their classes they hurried off to the nearest PCO to call home. As were doing hundreds of other Karbi students studying away from home in the city.  What sort of backlash the Karbi’s who inhabit large parts of the Khasi Hills are facing is another story.


With these headlines instantly reviving memories of the ghastly incident of the burning of a Karbi youth studying at the Sacred Heart Theological College in November 2003 here in the aftermath of similar notices, albeit by the Karbi militant outfits at that time, it was only but natural that the telephone lines between Assam and Meghalaya was jammed with frantic children calling parents and vice versa.


Tension marked the two students as must have done the other frantic callers as they lived through the first events of yet another Khasi-Karbi clash in the making.


"My child who studies in St Anthony’s college phoned to tell me she was frightened after reading all this news," a Karbi elder residing at Guwahati told this reporter. He said he did not know whether to tell her to return or not yet.


On Saturday The Shillong Times carried an item under a headline "NGOs to serve quit notice to Karbis," as the other city dailies carried similar reports with the Khasi Hills NGOs protesting the alleged treatment meted out to their kins people by the KAAC.


As both Khasis and Karbis wondered why these clashes kept happening like a recurring nightmare, the administration of both states seemed dead to these inexorable events inching their way towards another ethnic conflagration.


Just a few months ago more than 4000 Khasi Pnars had fled their homes in Karbi Anglong after harassment by the Karbi militant outfits. It was with great difficulty and a lot of assurance from both the Assam and Meghalaya governments that they had agreed to return home then. More than a dozen Pnar villagers in the Block II area have been murdered by the reckless Karbi militants at various times in the past not to speak about the daily harassment they face from these elements.


How did it start this time?


The Shillong Times on Friday gave some clues to what was actually causing all the ferment but there was nothing in the report by which the effected people would understand what was actually causing all these fearful events primed to create the maximum fear. Under a headline which said "KAAC issues quit notice, administration orders probe" the daily carried a sketchy report which said that "a quit notice issued by the KAAC to Khasi villagers residing in Block II area of Ri Bhoi district evoked sharp criticism…" It informed that the quit notice was given to the villagers residing in four villagers as per the Supreme Court order WPO/202/95 of 12 December 1996.


On the other hand, scared Pnar villagers from the villages which received the quit notice rushed to their kinsmen across the border for support and succour. They responded with sympathy at their plight. But as a Jowai administrator who had lived through several bouts of these clashes said he wished "they could do more checking on the ground before taking such volatile statements."


Did the KAAC issue a quit notice to the Khasi Pnars?


A frantic phone hunt by this reporter for the Chief Executive Member of the KAAC, Khorsing Ingty did not bear fruit. While mobile phones are a modern blessing during these nail biting times when information can straighten things out, his mobile went on ringing with no return call.


However, George Millick, Executive member of KAAC, in charge of Forest was available and eager to talk "to clear the air of misunderstanding created by the Meghalaya media," as he put it.


When asked about the controversial quit notice he replied: "Yes, we did issue an eviction notice. But it was not to Khasi Pnars in particular. It was a general eviction notice to some people who freshly encroached into several reserve forest areas and set up villages. They include Khasi Pnar, Mizo, Kuki, Hmar people and others. In the Khanduli area we have issue notice to one village, and some others also along the Nowgong area and so on" he said.


He said that the KAAC has been on an eviction drive as per the SC order over the last 2 months wherever encroachments were reported.


"We welcome all people to settle in Karbi Anglong but not in the forest area. These people started settling in the forest areas only recently in the nineties," he said.


He said that many Karbi students had sent SOS to them, but "because of this four day bandh in Karbi Anglong by a local outfit we cannot freely move anywhere. I have asked our MLA former minister R Ronghang to clarify things through  a press conference," he said.


The KLNLF called a four day bandh which ends on May 31st. But didn’t Millick know that Chief minister Tarun Gogoi had assured that that particular SC eviction order was suspended following an outcry by evicted people in 2003? Is he or are the other members of the members of the KAAC so ignorant of the volatile situation in their own land that they didn’t realise that a quit notice however well motivated is like lighting a fire on the dry prairie grass?


In the backward region with its volatile ethnic composition, past experience tells us that all it needs is a spark to set off a chain reaction of events in ethnic minefield to start tribal killings and paralyze the region or state.


Some tribal elders see a conspiracy to foment trouble between closely linked tribal groups by vested interests in this instant case.


"I was a DM in Kokrajhar also and have seen this happening. These things are engineered by certain groups. Not Khasi, not Karbi, but some others, who would gain through our people killing each other," was an off the record comment of an Assam government official spoken to today.  If this is true, the media a la Rwanda, certainly seems a great partner in this dirty work as one can see. Whether it is by design or sheer ignorance is another matter.  One fervently hopes it is ignorance.
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