A personal history of Shillong’s vigilante culture

I got a message from my brother that my aunt had been arrested along with 11 others for vigilante violence against two women. I’d been off Facebook and the internet and missed the news. As soon as I heard this I called my aunt to find out what was happening. She was unwell and didn’t seem to know what was happening. In fact at that point I knew more than she did, because I have internet and a smartphone, which she doesn’t . However she gave me the background to what happened. She and most of my family lives in Shillong, a city I was born in and where I spent my childhood and teens. The women of the community had organised a period of night vigils to have a say and some control of elements that they were afraid of – mostly drugs and sex work. This vigilante watch became a classic vigilante watch, a case of violent moral policing. Even though my aunt wasn’t present on the site where this happened, she is a member of the committee that organised the vigilante and this is her responsibility as well. But this violence erupted in a complex space of moral policing, women’s political participation and a sense of justice that runs as thin as identities and groups we like.

I grew up with night vigils held by women of the areas that I lived in and I am sure that most of us who grew up in Shillong in the 80s and 90s are very familiar with these vigil watches. As far as I remember, talks about them happened over teas and I always thought they sounded like fun, staying up all night on the streets in a group, having tea. The enemy in my time, were militants, members of the HNLC mostly. I’m sure the enemy changes as per the moods of the community and what grips everyone as a danger. As I was growing up, the enemy was what my parents agreed to be an enemy or felt to be an enemy . It also seemed like something that grown ups did and always did, giving a sense of control over the bad world. But the world keeps getting darker, always and the enemy of my parents or extended family and community is not necessarily mine anymore. Before that erupted in this event, I still thought of these vigils as acts that empowered the women in a society where most women have no political role, where the complex interaction between a very patriarchal traditional law, the Christian church, the Indian state and a fast growing consumerist society, with overwhelming insecurities plays out through a deceptive and simplified matrilineal narrative.

To choose between laws of the Indian state and laws of the Khasi system of governance is mentally destabilising. It is the sickness of a time where our general choice of political dreams is between a failure of democracy, a failure of socialist welfare states in the face of capitalism and action without a tangible vision.  Images of alternative systems do not blink into existence even for a millisecond. And yet one must engage, because not engaging is probably what led us here in the first place. Where was I? Yes…. so in the past years, there was a boom of marijuana sale and use in Shillong. The places where people bought and sold Marijuana also includes the Polo hills market, Demsieniong and these are areas around Pynthor, where this vigilante violence happened. Organised by the women of the community, they split into groups, to stay awake and scare off kids who walk at night mostly and some men and sex workers. I wish these groups just had dukansha- like night points instead and made the nights safe for the kids to walk around and sex workers to do their work. I wish these groups were there to frighten criminals, like street lights, as my friend said. Growing up, that’s what I thought they did, not in the superhero ways, but in the ways that there were people out at night. This of course is not what happens or happened. Some of these women, women I grew up looking up to, caught two young women who were out at night in a car. They beat them up and shaved their head in a traditional way of marking criminals, khi-lai-nuid. The accusations against them ranged from ‘they were out late at night’ to sex-work. My understanding of the law regarding sex-work is not good but i know that consensual, private sex work is not illegal, But that is besides the point. Even if the people caught in these vigils are criminals and murderers, the women on vigil have no right to touch them. Thankfully, the reaction to this from the state was swift and against the “good citizens”. The women were arrested. Societal response on facebook was worrying.

I spent an afternoon, trying to understand the mood of people in response to this.

While some condemned the violence, many condemned it not because it was wrong but because it was done against members of the Khasi community. Others condoned it, asking questions about the girls’ morality and so on. What worries me the most is the second kind. Because the sentiments are the same even within the progressive groups. In this case, it is obvious for me because I do not wholly subscribe to an identity for various reasons. But often, in cases of political affiliations in particular, it’s too easy to slip into condemning violence only when it is directed to people I like or identities I like, or I identify with. Extra judicial violence by the police in prisons become okay when it is directed towards my abuser in a jail. Members of the political groups that I don’t identify with deserve the violence they face and so on. My conscience is not that hard to placate either.

Anyway, this violence was a jolt. A jolt because the people who perpetrated it are my neighbours and people I grew up with. I wanted to ask all my family members what they thought of it, but I haven’t gotten there yet because I fear to find out. There might not be a difference between me and my family, but the neighbourhood that birthed me is obviously having to face its demons and it might not think of it as demons. I fear that the society I want to go back to is way worse than I allow myself to believe it is. I fear that we are people whose sense of justice is still too dependent on who we like or identify with. Sooner or later these conversations will have to happen. I’m thinking I’ll join the women’s committees and try to make them into street lamps instead, that’s a good thing to be in a place where the night is blamed for every bad thing that happens.


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Maranatha Wahlang Written by:

Member, Hyderabad for Feminism, PhD Student, Centre for Neural and Cognitive Sciences, University of Hyderabad.

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