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Reading Violence in the Garo Hills : Rafiul Alom Rahman

July 3, 2013

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.)

11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2013 11:33 AM

    Good write up brother and thanks to Kafila for publishing the story! Some Assamese media even tried to justify the killing.

  2. Subhasish Ghosh permalink
    July 4, 2013 1:01 PM

    Correctly assessed situation. Thanks for publishing this report.

  3. Brishbhanu Baruah permalink
    July 4, 2013 4:25 PM

    When you say that “politics in the northeast is beyond simplistic notions of insider-outsider”, you are contradicting yourself, because all throughout the article you’ve been trying to present a picture of politics being practiced on insider-outsider paradigms! And, it seems that all non-tribals are Muslims (what about the rest of the Non-Muslim Non-tribals??) Also, condemning the entire Garo society because of the work of some Garo miscreants or insurgent groups is an unintelligent position! Should we then blame Assamese people for ULFA operations? What about the Muslims around the world; should we blame them too for all the terrorist outfits? No, Sir, I don’t see any sense in that as much as I don’t see sense in your arguments!

    • Guitar Monk permalink
      July 5, 2013 9:12 AM

      The word ‘Muslim’ has been used in many places, so any sensible person will understand that this piece of article talks about the plight of the Muslims in Meghalaya. No where in the article did the writer condemn the entire garo society. All I can see is that he condemned the garo miscreants and the socioeconomic policies of the government of Meghalaya. It’s quite natural that you (just like the biased assamese media) won’t find any sense in this article. Assam has always been intolerant towards the non assamese speaking people. Leave apart the ‘bangladeshis’ they have even had problem with the ‘indian’ Hindi speaking people. God bless….

      • Brishbhanu Baruah permalink
        July 5, 2013 4:39 PM

        If you haven’t taken care to notice the article starts by drawing a general picture of the ‘tribal’ society-“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.” This statement does not serve any greater purpose to the article other than portraying the society in a negative light; every society has it’s shares of pitfalls and displays misogyny in some fashion or the other-there’s no point stating the obvious! Besides the article is titled “Rereading violence in the Garo Hills”- with a title like that I’d prefer that the article deals with the subject comprehensively, not cursorily.

        “The situation in Garo Hills is worsening day after day. Every now and then there are reports of violence on members of either of the communities – Garo or non-tribals (Muslims). The worst victims of the ethnic clash have been the poor and hapless. As labourers from plain-belt of Meghalaya and Assam border areas have been forced to leave the hills, poor Garo tribals from the nearby hills have been barred from selling their produce in the plain belt. For those of us sitting in the comfort zones of our home, Facebook-ing, tweeting, it might be difficult to understand the value of a few jackfruits – those when sold buy you a day’s meal. What seems to be the evil design of a few Garo politicians and students union leaders to evict non-tribals from tribal areas has put innocent, working class Garos and non-Garos on the sacrificial altar. Unlike The Shillong Times, a mainstream newspaper in Meghalaya, Meghalaya Daily, Meghalaya Times, etc. have been quite sensitive in their reportage, focusing on stories of human interest that cut across class, caste and race. The fact that people have also been helping each other in an atmosphere of suspicion, hatred, mistrust gives me hope.”

        This statement made by the same writer, today, sums up the string of events more comprehensively than the article above. Period.

      • Brishbhanu Baruah permalink
        July 5, 2013 5:27 PM

        Besides you’ve summed up the article quite well- “The word ‘Muslim’ has been used in many places, so any sensible person will understand that this piece of article talks about the plight of the Muslims in Meghalaya.” That being said, the article is effectively not about “Rereading violence in the Garo Hills”!
        And, coming to the animosity between the Assamese and the ‘INDIAN’ Hindi speaking people- that’s an interesting point! So, what you are trying to say is that Assamese people are not ‘Indians’- very interesting indeed! Also, making sweeping generalisations about Assam being intolerant towards others without providing any concrete data or analysis, is very interesting indeed!

      • Nabarun permalink
        July 6, 2013 5:12 PM

        ‘indian’ hindi speaking people??!! Ok there have been instances of clash between communities.But your generalization is grossly inaccurate. In fact Assam is among the most tolerant of states going by your way of seeing things given that a there is a vast population in the state whose mother tongue is not of assamese origin. Is that true of other ‘Indian’ states from where ‘indian’ hindi speaking people come from? Think before you judge an entire society. Also, I would like to point out that bengali and hindi (also other languages) speaking indians who live in Assam as their home state have always formed an integral part of the assamese society and culture as a whole (remember Jyoti prasad agarwala. I don’t see any ‘indian’ hindi speaking people celebrating ‘jyoti divas’ .To Assam he is as Assamese as anyone can be).That you use phrases like “indian’ hindi speaking people” out of your narrow-mindedness and your consequent inability to blend in and integrate into a culture doesn’t mean that the Assam or Assamese society is intolerant.Enough said.

        P.S.- Illegal immigration (If existent) of people from another country is unlawful and opposition (within the law) to illegal immigration into the state (or country) is not same as intolerance towards people of different religions or speaking different languages. There seems to be an underlying tone some places in the article which fails to make this distinction. Also the author contradicts himself in the last (almost poetic) paragraph as pointed out in one of the comments before. However the author addresses certain points well for which I would like to congratulate him.

  4. ashraful hussain permalink
    July 4, 2013 5:22 PM

    Correct Presentation… Thanx a lot to kofila team…

  5. July 4, 2013 5:29 PM

    The problem is understanding among social groups in Northeast where ever Muslims are. The antagonistic feeling of hatred against Muslims with suspicious mindset among communities is deeply rooted. Muslims and tribals are more or less marginalized except those in the elites of social, political and economic field. The causality of exploitation and its agents remained unnoticed so the situation are easily aggravated given a inconclusive and unsubstantial reason whenever time comes. The sufferers are nothing but the poorest of the poor cutting across religious or ethnic lines.

    Media in Assam is highly biased, it is an agents for parochial nationalism adhering to particular language and religion rather than stabilizing the peace, tolerance and .understanding among communities. It takes every opportunity to paint events from political point of view.

  6. July 13, 2013 1:04 PM

    see, if you talk to people (non-tribals/outsiders) of Megahlaya, they will share horror tales of’s been there for decades now..Nothing to do with Kokrajhar violence of last year

  7. Deep permalink
    July 19, 2013 2:34 PM

    If there has been large scale migrations to the northeast from the neighboring Bangladesh, why not admit that there will be problems with the local populace. the clash of culture and fight for the very limited resources in the northeast is bound to create problems even in future. excessive flow of alien population creates suspicion to the tribes living in the region. there must be a system evolved whereby even flow of migration even within the country could be checked. however politically incorrect it may sound, given the inflation of crime rates in the region and the country at large, i believe at least tracking somebody will be more easier.

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