Is There An Immigration Problem In Meghalaya Which ILP Can Solve?

Since the last year the State has been rocked by protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and demand for implementation of the ILP (Inner Line Permit). Having been part of these protests I have no doubt that CAA has been introduced to bring about a change in the demographic profile of Assam and is especially harmful to the indigenous tribal communities. The 1.9 million excluded from the final list is much higher than the population of many tribal groups. A situation like Tripura and Sikkim-Darjeeling is a real possibility in Assam if such an Act is allowed to be implemented. Neighbouring states like Meghalaya will also then be in danger of a demographic change.

The state of Meghalaya has itself experienced many disturbances in relation to the issue of immigration. At the same time, there are historical demographic trends in Meghalaya which makes the case a little complicated. The spectre of the threat of illegal immigrants displacing the indigenous tribal population has been played out since the formation of the Statehood. Fear of being overwhelmed by non-indigenous population (non-tribal) is widespread throughout the State and any perceived threat to tribal sovereignty is vehemently opposed, ranging from uranium mining 1 to the introduction of the railways in the state 2. After attaining Statehood in 1972, Meghalaya witnessed many riots (1979, 1987, 1992 and 1997) targeting the non-indigenous population of the State – Bengali and Nepali. This resulted in thousands of non-tribals leaving the State3 with the Census reports recording a constant decline of non-tribal population in the State from 19.52% (1971) to 13.85% (2011).

Shillong City is the epicenter of many of the clashes and it is the location from which the sentiments against the non-indigenous (non-tribal) population are expressed and disseminated. Every year the Khasi Students Union commemorates the birth anniversary of Tirot Singh (the Syiem of Nongkhlaw, a Khasi princely state, who led a guerilla struggle against the British in the early 1830’s) on 4th April by observing it as the Khasi National Awakening Day. The day’s program with a public gathering and concludes with a procession through the city. The Khasi National Awakening Day celebration in 2017 was also aimed at expressing their anger at the attempt by Uranium Corporation of India to start uranium mining in the State. The procession started from Umkaliar, Demseiniong and on reaching the entrance office of Atomic Mineral Directorate at Nongmynsong, the Khasi Students Union burnt the effigy of Uranium Corporation of India (UCIL) and Atomic Mineral Directorate to show opposition to uranium mining in the state.4 When returning, the crowd pelted stones at a religious centre frequented by the non-tribal residents of the area. Acts of vandalism is a regular feature of these processions whose targets are the non-tribal people and their property.

The main theme during such rallies is the demand for the imposition of ILP on the State which would allow regulation of entry into the State. Introduced by the British in the 1870’s only Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram still have the system in place. Manipur was recently brought under the ambit of the ILP to assuage the post-CAA anger in the State.

There is demand for its introduction in other areas by tribal groups who fear that in its absence people from the plains will start settling down and purchasing land in their hills leading to alteration of the demographic composition. In 2013 the ILP agitation took the lives of two non-tribal persons in Shillong. Calls for implementation of measures to check influx is accompanied by anecdotal evidences of non-tribal presence in areas which previously were made up of only the indigenous tribal community. Such claims at first glance are not unfounded.

Table 1 Change in demographic composition of Tribal villages in Meghalaya and India

YearCategoryMeghalayaAll India
No. of villagesChangeNo. of villagesChange

Source: Ministry of Tribal Affairs, 2013

In 2001 almost 2/3rd of the villages in Meghalaya were exclusively tribal. However by the next decade, i.e., 2011, the number of such villages came down to less than 30%. In absolute terms more than 2000 villages had undergone a change in their demographic composition, i.e., villages that were exclusively tribal now had non-tribal settlers. It is such developments that feed into the fear of unabated influx and the call for stricter regulations in terms of land purchase and residency by the Non-tribal population in the State. Such alarmist attitude is, however, not justified for two reasons.

Firstly, non-tribals or Dkhars (as they are known in local vernacular) have always been a part of the Khasi-Jaintia society since pre-colonial times. Trading relations between tribal traders and their non-tribal counterparts had great value for the local economy with items like limestone, iron tools, and horticultural products being very important. It is through such linkages that Khasi oranges were believed to have been introduced into Europe by the Arab traders.

The name Sylhet, one of the eight administrative divisions of Bangladesh, is claimed to be derived from ‘Shella Haat’ which translates to ‘the market around Shella’ (a village in present-day East Khasi Hills, Meghalaya). On other occasions, less than peaceful interactions took place in the form of raid to the plains (home of the Dkhars) by the Khasis for tribute and wives or concubines5. Among the Khasi-Jaintia the legacy of such matrimonial unions can be found in the surnames of the various clans. Families carrying the surname, Dkhar, viz., Dkhar, Kharkongor, Kharlukhi, Kharmalki, Kharmudai, etc., trace their descent from the union of a Khasi-Jaintia male with a non-tribal (Dkhar) female. The spouse retains her ethnic identity but the children adopt a new surname identifying the mixed lineage of the family through a process called ‘tangjait’. The progeny of non tribal men marrying tribal women however do not have to undetake such rituals and automatically adopt their mother’s surname following matrilineal traditions.

Apprehensive that such kind of matrimonial alliances are being used by non-tribal men to buy land in the State and acquire ST status for their children, the Khasi Social Custom of Lineage Act, 1997 has included, apart from biological proof, familiarity of socio-cultural norms as the criteria for being identified as a Khasi-Jaintia. And although, at present marriages (especially) between a Khasi woman and a Dkhar man can sometimes be ‘disapproved’6 the existence of the system of ‘tang jait’ (between a Dkhar woman and a Khasi man) proves that the Dkhars (non-tribals) have always been a part of the Khasi-Jaintia social system.

One of the most iconic Khasi-Jaintia folktales is that of ‘Manik Raitong’ in which the Queen of an ancient Khasi Kingdom is said to have committed suicide by jumping into the pyre of her lover. According to the folktale when the chaste wives of India heard of the incident they said one to another, “We must not allow the unholy passion of an unchaste woman to become more famous than the sacred love of holy matrimony. Henceforth, we will offer our bodies on the altar of death, on the pyre of our husbands, to prove our devotion and fidelity”.7

Apart from incorporating the Dkhars into their clans, the Khasi-Jaintia not only had intimate knowledge about the practices of their (Hindu) culture but had adopted some of those as well. The Jaintia king worshipped and offered sacrifice to goddess Kali (presumably a Hindu version of the local Goddess Kopili) while the followers of the indigenous ‘Niam-Tre’ religion still invoke Bisokarma (Vishwakarma), who in Hindu mythology is regarded as a divine engineer and a god for craftsmen, along with Ka Siem Synshar (local diety) during the house-entering ceremony. This close association with the Dkhars is not surprising since the erstwhile Khasi princely states and the Jaintia kingdom shared borders with the Brahmaputra valley in the North and the Bengal plains in the South. Along these boundaries entire settlements have always been exclusively or dominantly non-tribal. Non-tribal presence in the State of Meghalaya, thus, has a long history.

The new settlers could be a mixture of new migrants along with long settled non-tribals changing residence due to matrimony or work. Like it happened in the past they will ultimately be assimilated into the local society. Those who advocate for putting in measures to check influx also demand that genuine (long-settled) non-tribals should not be harassed (in actual practice, though, old and new settlers are clubbed together). They claim to focus on fresh immigrants whose number they allege is on the rise. The large scale transformation in the demographic composition of the villages indicates that, apart from relocation, immigration has taken place. Many of the new settlers in those 2000 odd villages are most probably fresh immigrants. Their numbers, though, are very small. Migrants from outside the State were found to be less than 2% of the total population (Census of India, 2011a). Many of them were, in fact, brought by local contractors to work, particularly, in the coal mines of the State. Some got married into the local community and have stayed back.8Many, however, have left the place after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a ban on coal mining in the State. Even if mining is resumed in the future, strict land ownership and residency regulation makes it difficult for the immigrants to settle down for long period unless they are assimilated into the local society. Apart from ‘tang-jait’ a non-Khasi group can become Khasi-Jaintia by simply changing allegiance. The Bhoi and Lynngam (sub-groups of the Khasi-Jaintia) are considered to be actually Karbis (a major tribe of Assam) and Garos who had chosen to identify themselves as Khasis in the past.9 Viewed in this manner, non-tribals do not pose a threat to the Khasi-Jaintia society because of the various mechanisms through which the former can (and have been) be absorbed into the latter. These mechanisms, though, have come under criticism by those advocating ethnic purity10although it has never been the case. Another legislation ‘The KHAD (Khasi Social Custom of Lineage) (Second Amendment) Bill 2018’ was recently brought to regulate marriage between a tribal and non-tribal by an eccentric politician, HS Shylla. Prepared without consulting the traditional clans, rife with inconsistencies and patriarchal underpinnings the Bill was rejected by the Governor.

Secondly, it is not only the exclusively tribal villages that have undergone a change in their demographic composition. Villages having tribal population of 90% or more have experienced an increase over the last decade. In fact, less than 5% of the villages have a non-tribal population of 75% or more and the number is declining (See Table 1). There is a trend of increasing tribal dominance in villages that previously had a substantial non-tribal population pushing them to become a minority in these areas. The perception of threat to the indigenous population and influx being the main culprit is totally unfounded. Instead, because of threat of physical violence and discriminatory policies out-migration rather than influx has been the case. Groups raising the issue of influx are very selective of the facts they employ to make their case, i.e., mentioning only the decrease of exclusive tribal settlements. Such information is employed as anecdotal evidence in public gatherings where communal sentiments are whipped to demand for stricter laws and mechanisms to regulate entry like the ILP. The same selective use of data is employed to create a fear of influx of non-indigenous immigrants into the city of Shillong.

In 2013, there was a hotly-contested debate on the most prominent daily of the State, The Shillong Times, regarding the findings of the 2011 Census. In continuation to a similar letter he wrote two years ago, the former Principal Secretary and Chief Electoral Officer (Government of Meghalaya), P Naik wrote to the Daily on the 20th May 2013 arguing that the higher than national average population growth in Meghalaya was due to a high fertility rate (of around 4) rather than influx. His statements were countered a month later by LR Lyngdoh (a retired Census employee) who instead pointed out that many of areas in Shillong have a very low percentage of Schedule Tribe population, sometimes less than 10%. This, Lyngdoh pointed out, was because of increased immigration. The debate continued till the later part of the year when A Roy Choudhury (Retd. Asst. Director of Census Operation, Meghalaya) and US Bhattacharjee (Shillong based advocate) wrote another article on the 2011 Census findings for the daily. They reiterated high fertility rate as being the prime factor pushing population growth and tried to address the issue of high concentration of non-tribal population in certain parts of the city. Non-tribal population is indeed very high in certain parts of the City but it is not a recent phenomenon. The high concentration of non-tribal population in Shillong has antecedents with the City’s growth as the most important urban centre of North East India.

Shillong came into prominence when the British made it headquarter of the newly formed province of Assam in 1872. This encouraged the migration of scores of Bengalis for jobs in clerical positions who gradually settled in different parts of the town. As the town grew other non-tribal communities like Nepali, Marwari, Punjabi, Sindhi and Bihari gradually started arriving in search for livelihood opportunities 11.While the Nepalis, initially came as soldiers and later settled down to work as graziers and herdsmen in the hill slopes, the Marwaris, Sindhis and Biharis came primarily for establishing business and soon began to control and occupy the important commercial areas in the State. By 1931, Shillong became the number one town of Assam in terms of population. Post-Independence, a small number of affluent Assamese families also started arriving in the town to take advantage of the job opportunities and educational facilities. Another round of migration occurred with the establishment of the Eastern Air Command after Indo-China War of 1962 leading to a heavy influx of armed forces into the area. Shillong continued to expand after Meghalaya achieved statehood in 1972 with the expansion of the bureaucracy and establishment of Central Government institutions like the North Eastern Hill University, North Eastern Council, North Eastern Electrical Power Corporation, etc.12The last instance of large scale migration took place when Bengali refugees from Sylhet were settled in different parts of the City after the outbreak of the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.13 All these resulted in the high concentration of non-tribal population in Shillong. However, the claim that migration from outside is still continuing at a rapid rate and many parts of the City have experienced a decline in tribal population is highly misleading.

Table 2 Change in population composition of Shillong Urban Agglomeration, 1971-2011

Shillong Cantontment3.9996.014.6995.313.5396.474.0495.963.5096.50

Source: Bhattacharjee (2005) and Census of Indiab (2011)

SUA – Shillong Urban Agglomeration

a Madanrting was included as part of Shillong Urban Agglomeration in 1981
b Nongmynsong was included as part of Shillong Urban Agglomeration in 2001
c Lawsohtun, Mawpat, Nongkesh, Umlyngka and Umpling were included as part of the Shillong Urban Agglomeration in 2011

Figure 1 Population of the Shillong Urban Agglomeration during 1971-2011

In 1971, apart from Shillong Cantonment and the areas under the Municipal, only Mawlai and Nongthymmai were a part of the Shillong Urban Agglomeration (SUA). Around this time the Schedule Tribe made up for just over 40% of the total population. Other areas were included in the subsequent decades. During the same period, 1971-2011 the proportion of Schedule Tribe population also increased from around 43% (1971) to more than 60% (2011) of the total population (See Figure 1). This was partly due the fact that many of the new towns that were brought under the SUA already had a very high ST population (>50% to more than >90%). The more important reason though is the decrease in the share of non-tribal population in areas in which they were previously a majority. So, if one closely looks at the demographic data reduction of non-tribal population (due to ethnic violence and discriminatory policies) rather than influx has been the case. But in everyday conversation and political rhetoric it is the opposite which is expounded and pushed forward as an agenda particularly during election times.

The threat that unabated immigration is leading to indigenous groups becoming marginalized is echoed by other ethnic groups in the region.14 This performs the function of legitimizing the (false) narrative of influx into the State. Another reason is that in everyday experience it is not proportional but absolute figures which influence public perceptions and decision-making. The share of the non-tribal population has indeed gone down over the years. But in absolute terms, the non-tribal population has increased from 1, 97,484 in 1971 to 4, 10,515 persons in 2011. The same is true in the case in Shillong where the decrease in proportion has not been accompanied by a decrease in the absolute numbers (See Figure 1). The latter is what the tribal people see as an evidence of rising influx and the existing high preponderance of non-tribal population in the City are taken as an evidence of it. The state of Meghalaya was founded on the need to fulfill tribal aspirations. Massive corruption and high level of underdevelopment15has meant that an increasing non-tribal population (in absolute terms) is seen as a threat to members of the tribal population competing for limited opportunities. In the formal sector (public sector employment), the State Reservation Policy ensures that non-tribal participation is strictly regulated (80% of the seats are reserved for Khasi-Jaintia and Garo). But the informal sector (like street trade) is not properly regulated and this, it is argued, has allowed outsiders (i.e., non-tribals) to infiltrate and settle down in the State.

On August, 2017 KHNAM (Khun Hynniewtrep National Awakening Movement), erstewhile political offshoot of the Khasi Students Union, filed an RTI query with the Urban Affairs Department about the legal status of many of the hawkers who were plying their business on the footpaths of the main commercial areas of the city. They claimed that most of them are illegal immigrants and street trade is providing them with the opportunity to settle in the State. However, membership records of the largest street vendors association of Meghalaya, Meghalaya and Greater Shillong Progressive Hawkers and Street Vendors Association (MGSPHSVA) revealed that almost 2/3rd of the vendors in Shillong belong to the Khasi-Jaintia community, majority of them being female.

In 2019 The KHADC (Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council) took out a drive to check non traders doing business without obtaining license led to a lot of shops being closed down. One such shop was from Nongmynsong. It was a food shop which I would frequent with my friend. The people who ran the business were from Sikkim and were probably Bhutia. Because of the large number of Nepali residents in the area they were encouraged to set up shop in the area. After since the inspection the particular shop has remained closed with the owners presumably returning to their home state. Cases like these rouse the suspicion of the local pressure groups who argue that if not stopped this will encourage more migration. The long term trend of Nongmynsong actually proves otherwise. Being a resident of the town, I remembered it having a very sizeable non-tribal population in the past. But ever since the 1997 riots there has been a demographic change. A lot of tribals have come to settle in recent years. Some have bought land and build houses for themselves while others have raised buildings for giving it on rent. Limited to only meat and vegetable sellers, tribal participation in local trade has also experienced a change. The biggest convenience store in the town is owned and manned by tribals. With time more of the business will be dominated by the tribals. You will still have instances of non-tribals (from outside the State) attempting to evade the law but these will be an exception rather than the rule.

CAA has thrown a spanner on this historical process whereby old fears are being more venom. The state has been trying to move on from the anti-immigrants fear and the heady days of violence against the non-tribals. Granted there are instances when the issues get revived and emotions inflamed. They though happen just before elections and die out immediately afterwards. In the meantime, tribal consolidation goes on with increasing acceptance of the non-tribal presence. Last Assembly elections there was the public call for garnering genuine non-tribal votes which I don’t remember being the case many years ago.

As the data shows, even without ILP, Non Tribal population percentage in Meghalaya has been decreasing over the years. Local land laws, reservation policy and sixth schedule protections have dis-incentivised non-tribal migration. It is mostly the labour brought into the state by mostly Tribal businessmen and contractors for infrastructural projects and mining that is the ongoing source of migration. ILP in such cases of labour movement won’t really stop migration as the examples from ILP states of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh makes it amply clear. The situation in Meghalaya is very different from Assam because unlike Meghalaya, many areas in Assam do not have constitutional protections for the indigenous people, so Demographic fall out from CAA will be a much slower process in Meghalaya.

Thus policy response of Meghalaya has to be more contextual and deliberative rather than what happened recently when owing to public pressure from a section of the people, the state government in a hurry and without proper pre-legislative consultation passed a resolution to request the Union Govt to extend ILP provisions to Meghalaya. But nod from the center does seem to be coming and now other indigenous voices examining the ramifications of ILP have also started being voiced. While opposition against CAA has to be intensified while strong measures to protect indigenous tribal groups also needs to continue, it is also vitally important to understand the complexity that surrounds the case of Meghalaya and remove propaganda from truth. 


Subscribe to RAIOT via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 15,456 other subscribers

Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

One Comment

  1. Avatar
    Saswati Biswas
    December 2, 2020

    Thanks for this article, Iwas born in Shillong and though I don’t live there now, it is the only place I know as home. It hurts to think that had I been in Shillong I would have been called a Bangladeshi though my grand Father had made Shillong his home in 1898. My Father was a doctor in Welsh Mission Hospital, my mother a high school teacher and we have always known Shillong as our home. The hate mongering going on at present will lead to nothing more than hate crimes and misery for all the affected people

Leave a Reply