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Shillong, Our City

Sometime in the late 1800s the British rulers decided to shift their base at Sohra to a new one under the watch of Lum Shillong, a mountain to the north of the Sohra station. It was a faithful decision and today we enjoy (or bear) its consequences. The British were quick to initiate the installation of a number of civic bodies and institutions to ensure that their lives up in these hills were comfortable and “civilised”. They brought a good number of sepoys, sweepers, clerks etc to facilitate this. Traders from elsewhere also followed them in, seeking the good favours and good transactions that the British were able to foster. These people came from all over, from different races: from Nepal to Dhaka (Dacca), from Rajasthan to, even, China. Slowly but surely they started to build and mould this city into the face we see today. Whether that face is pleasant or hideous is a different matter entirely. But the main point is that the face of Shillong is multifarious, the origins of Shillong are as well. You’d be hard-pressed even in metros to observe this singular variety. However, like any diverse society, there are many who seek to propagate a polarising politics and more troubling, a single universal identity- in this case based on ethnicity.

The biggest threat today is amnesia. We have accepted without question and research, the stereotypical assertions about nationhood, identity and consequently, politics. Much of this has come down from the British or influential wannabe sahibs of the past decades. Our identity has become crystallised and that is why answers to questions relating to authenticity and purity (Khasi blood) remain elusive. It is best not to solidify but to resolve through fact finding and, indeed, soul searching. The ones who have concretised their identity have done so with much confusion and unanswered questions. This is perhaps one reasons why they lash outward, away from their selves.

As I write this I remember one of the murdered men who lost their lives during the ILP ‘game’: Brisheshwar Das. A tea seller who could have been any one of us; struggling, endeavouring to achieve, at times having to be an engine, at other times, maybe, a clown with his friends. He was killed in cold blood and it is our collective shame, a burden we cannot shrug off. I look at the hue and cry Khasi newspapers make over the terrorist Islamic State in the far-away lands and I feel bitter. They never gave Das’ story the space and gravitas which it deserved. They never went in to analyse the ‘how’ and ‘why’. They never showed condolence perhaps because they secretly knew what most of the people in this place feel like : that his life was mere collateral. I feel sick to my stomach when I think about the hypocrisy when we shout about Assamese or Delhiites or the Sangh associates or whatever, hurting or insulting “our” people. It seems that to murder and to injure is fine as long as we do not do it to “our” own!

We must realise one thing: this is OUR city. Let us shout it out! It does not belong to the KSU, the Church, the Congress ‘jhamela’ etc, it does not belong to a clan or family. We may refuse to accept it but the fact is – we built it, together, tribal and non tribal alike. It is not fair nor even historically correct to assert that this as a Khasi city, or that everyone who is not one should always feel a stranger in the very place they grew up in. All sides have been equally guilty of the impasse though and it is wrong only to blame Khasis. A lot of dialogue must be encouraged but very little is being done currently to counter this ethno-fascism. Political parties and their pressure groups are the worst. They come along and make a boundary dispute between two neighbours, a fight between Karbi and Khasi etc i.e. a fight between races. Perhaps (for all my dislike of the Congress) this is one important reason why people vote them in? Maybe people see it as the only party that can rule across cultures and communities? Forget the promises of development which are always tooted, in Meghalaya (and North East) they are possibly the only party that can govern, pan-state. Their roster maybe be filled with controversial people but it is a cross section of the state and this city. Regional parties today seem more like district parties, unable to spread or garner support beyond a few administrative blocks. Alternatives hopefully will emerge sooner rather than later.

Let us relook at Shillong as a British invention. The British never really intended for dkhars or Khasis to enjoy the fruits of the civilisation they brought in. We hear about “European Wards” but do we realise the intrinsic racism of this grouping, the discrimination in our own land? It was not in Laitumkhrah or Mawlai or Nongthymmai or Mawkhar that the supposedly “civilised” resided. The British had no intention of sharing, not if they had their way. But times changed and realities did as well. The empire weakened and our people were set upon the first steps towards the clerical life (that “lovely” mode of being that we all still wish to enjoy). Now, as a “tribal” people, we can boast much and there is very little we cannot achieve if we set our minds to. The point is that: we are here today, because of others aiding us along the way. I am not painting people in a flattering light, don’t get me wrong, I just want to acknowledge the little tasks, performed daily, that have led to this moment. Shillong city as we know it today emerged because everyone, from Bihari labourer to Nongstoin mason, Chinese restaurateurs to Tibetan businessmen, pitched in. We built it; an inch at a time over these hundred odd years. No one has the right to take that away from us.

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