Reading Violence in the Garo Hills
This is a guest post by RAFIUL ALOM RAHMAN
The recent mob fury over the rumour of rape of a mentally challenged Garo girl and the consequent outburst of terror on migrant workers in Tura shouldn’t be read as a simple story of Garo men’s concern for women. If it was so, not so many labourers outside Tura would have been killed in cold blood by Garo miscreants. The claim that tribal society is free from the clutch of sexism, and that it is tribal women who face sexual abuse in the hands of non-tribals does not cut ice anymore.
Who has forgotten of the brutal gang-rape of an 18 year old girl in Williamnagar on December 13, 2012 – three days before the Delhi gang-rape incident?
Instances of non-tribal women being molested, raped by tribal men is not uncommon. However, most women keep silent due to the deep-rooted misogyny in the society.
The killing of more than eight migrant labourers by miscreants in the coal mines of Nangalbibra in South Garo Hills on June 23 reveals a more hideous design of Garo political leaders and student groups like the Garo Students’ Union (GSU). Following what happened in Kokrajhar in July 2012, a sinister campaign of driving away non-tribals from the Garo Hills of Meghalaya seems to have been started by groups with vested political interests.
This is not the first time that ethnic violence has rocked the region. It has witnessed terrorist killings, kidnappings, extortion by militant outfits like the ANVC (A’chik National Volunteer Council) and GNLA (Garo National Liberation Army) for a long time, without any action ever been taken by the government.
I still remember that afternoon in May, 2002. I was on the way home with my brother. Panic-stricken people caught our eyes as our boat arrived at the Phulbari ghat. Someone warned us against proceeding to the town as militants had attacked Phulbari bazaar. That evening, we heard horror tales of the incident that saw the market-place drenched in blood and filled with dead bodies of innocent non-tribal shopkeepers and civilians. We were school kids then. Stories of Garo militants harassing, hounding and killing non-tribals had made us paranoid. Our mother used to advise us against going out whenever we visited home. There was the looming fear of being kidnapped by militants.
11 years have passed since then. And things haven’t changed much.
In May this year, suspected Garo militants killed five migrant labourers at Darangdura, 10 kms away from Nangalbibra. A similar incident had taken place in 2011, where five coal labourers were shot down in the Goka coal dumping site in South Garo Hills. The mindless killing of people from a particular community (leading to mass exodus of migrant workers) also hints at what could be termed as ‘ethnic cleansing’.
The BTAD violence of July 2012 seems to have become a reference point for chauvinist groups in the Garo Hills (and the Northeast). It is not merely a co-incidence that exactly a year after the ghastly riots of Kokrajhar, it is Muslim migrants in Meghalaya who are facing the brunt of ethnic hatred. Until and unless culprits of the Assam riots (including those holding powerful positions in the Bodo Territorial Council) are brought to book, such incidents of migrant-bashing will continue and Muslims in the Northeast will be denied justice.
Despite the curfew and deployment of police in the Garo Hills, the situation is worsening day after day. The centre needs to take notice before Assam riots of July, 2012 is replicated in the Northeast. The government needs to ensure safety and security of native Muslims in Meghalaya and facilitate safe passage of Muslim labourers of Assam to their home. The victims and their families need to be provided with immediate relief and rehabilitation.
Meghalaya has a Muslim population of about 5 %. They mostly reside in the plain belt of Garo Hills and on the Assam-Meghalaya border areas. Earlier in March this year, non-tribals under the banner of the Plain Belt District Demand Committee (PBDDC) had demanded the creation of a separate district with its headquarters at Rajpur. However, the demand for a Plain Belt District met with vehement opposition from the Garo Students’ Union, as it felt non-tribals would benefit from the district. The GSU leaders threatened of consequences similar to BTAD if the government agreed to PBDDC demands. In the past, the GSU has also barred non-tribal candidates from applying for jobs in the Garo Hills Autonomous District Council.
What needs to be noted here is that out of the 24 constituencies in the Garo Hills, only two constituencies – Phulbari and Rajabala – are open for non-tribal candidates to contest elections.
The socio-economic condition of native Muslims in Meghalaya is depressing. Due to the discriminatory reservation policy for tribals, most Muslims do not have access to government jobs, institutional loans or skill development. They are engaged in cultivation, small trade and manual labour without any support from the government. Thousands of Muslim labourers from Assam work in the coal mines, quarries, constructions sites, etc. in Meghalaya. These labourers are mainly ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) from river erosion prone areas of Goalpara and Dhubri district of Assam.
The Assamese bourgeois media has maintained conspicuous silence on the killing of Muslim migrants, even though most victims belong to Assam. It was the same media that righteously tagged all Muslims as ‘Bangladeshis’ during the Kokrajhar riots. Post-Assam riots, the national media has consciously implicated Bengali-speaking Muslims with outsider/foreigner/Bangladeshi. Those in Delhi need to understand that the question of ethnic politics in the northeast is beyond simplistic notions of insider-outsider. The picture in the northeast is complex and so is the power equation among various tribes and communities. There is a world beyond stereotypes of the pristine, greenery-loving tribal and the fundamentalist outsider.
(Rafiul Alom Rahman is a student of English literature in the University of Delhi. He tweets @rafiulrahman.)