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Shillong Memories: Contending and Contentious

I recently sat down to rest at the side of the Shillong Centenary Monument, the one opposite the State Central Library. Next to me was an old Bengali man who was drunk. We started talking about the town and the incidents in the past, meaning he started talking and I tried to understand what he was saying. What little I could comprehend painted a picture of Shillong that I cannot truly imagine today. He spoke about how Police Bazaar looked back in the day, maybe similar to how parts of Laban or Mawkhar still look like today. How the Governor’s Residence looked like without the road and walls around it today, he talked about personalities long since departed. He described the geography and history of the place in a ‘warm’ manner and that is probably the greatest gift any narrator can have.

However, as I say that, there were also some things which I find hard to accept. The main one being his assertion that the communities of various localities never had any problems amongst themselves prior to the Anti (Assamese) Language protests in the 1950s. We know that many different communities once lived together in areas that are today considered strictly tribal or non-tribal neighbourhoods. Areas like Mawkhar, Mawprem, Mawlai once had fairly large non tribal populations. Today only few such families/individuals (who had already integrated fairly well) call these places home. I run the risk of categorisation but it is not my intent to delve deeply into the singular lives of individuals here. My personal reservation with the statement, that prior to the 1950s all was hunky-dory between the communities, is because it seems to be based on a heavily romanticised version of Shillong history. Everyone is suffering from this, regardless of race. This imagined harmony is at odds with the grim picture of a reality in which people who supposedly “lived together peacefully” picked up daos, brands, crowbars and decided to do away or expel their former neighbours forever.

We can always blame the Reorganisation of the states, we can always find an external bogeyman to hate but the truth that confronts us says something more: If we lived in “peace” why was it so seemingly easy to kill and cast out our erstwhile neighbours? If today, we can forgive what happened back then, we should also ask ourselves what were the reasons for them happening in the first place? It is quite clear that there were real human tensions back then. People had insecurities and fears back then, as they do today. The Language issue was the explosion, it was not the pressure that led up to it. For this, we would have to dredge through the (romantically) mired past. I would wager, even, that it was not only the British/Europeans who were at fault as many in the Right like to point out. The Divide and Rule policy was hardly anything new if we confront things from a non-nationalistic perspective, especially in this part of the world. We, also, cannot simply blame “dkhars” for all the problems of the world. They cannot carry all our sins on their crosses. We would see the collusion of a number of interests if we truly sought out facts.

Perhaps in our attempt to cover up the trauma of those years of strife and friction, we divide history into easily workable blocks: in this case, pre- and post Language agitation. Pre-agitation might very well have been a time of building and working together but it is erroneous to assume that there was always “peace”. In side houses or taverns, in the tea shops or offices were there no complaints or hate mongering against the other communities? The stereotypes and crude racial caricatures that we use today must have had origins in that past. These are the same insensitive images that make violence acceptable and casual. We can attack, more efficiently, that which we consider inhuman. We can justify causing them pain, because it is not our pain.

I was once privy to an odd event at a dinner. There were two young people at the table – an Assamese and a Bengali- along with the older Khasi host. I cannot remember the exact topic of conversation but suddenly our host became very emotional upon her vivid description of the burning down of some non-tribal houses at Garikhana. She turned to the Assamese and Bengali, asking them to forgive her community. I was amazed at the spectacle, as were the two non tribal friends. Isn’t that the way forward: reconciliation with the past? Confronting those memories head-on would take time and strength but they have to be revisited if we are to go forward. We should not be naive and think that since certain things occurred in the past, they must be buried deep down. They can happen again if we are not careful. The current atmosphere of taut nerves does not give me hope. Only a new politics can address the mistakes and prepare us for the future. We must make an attempt at histories without too much bias. We must revisit why Nongmali is called by that name, who taught many of the residents of Mawkhar breadmaking, who helped raise the foundations of many socio-cultural organisations/institutions we have today and so on. The shared histories are definitely there. Whether they were truly filled with peace is a different matter altogether but perhaps we can find it, for the future generations, by looking back (with a brave eye) and not grounding ourselves in the baseless and supposedly grand.

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