Railways and Dress Code in Meghalaya

The issue of Tailin Lyngdoh has garnered a lot of attention in the last few days with many (rightly) condemning the treatment that was meted to her. She was told that her dress (jainsem) is not appropriate for the social setting in which she had been invited. She was called a ‘Nepali’ and a ‘maid’ and was asked to leave the premises of the Delhi Golf Club. The two terms were not used in isolation but were conjoined to imply an undesirable presence in a privileged space. Intrinsically the terms are not derogatory, one signifies membership to an ethnic group while the other describes one’s occupation. However, what is upsetting is the connotations that these two terms carry. Maid is used as a symbol of belonging to a low class and hence not qualified to take part in respected activities or settings. On the other hand, Nepali is used as an insult to imply that one is exotic (to the mainland) and comes from an undesirable background (socio-economically and culturally). In Bollywood, the character of ‘Bahadur’ signifying a chowkidar is a common stereotype of Nepalis. Because of poverty many Nepalis have migrated to different parts of the country and the world and are seen doing low paying and dangerous jobs. Many of the migrant workers who died during the building of the infrastructure to host the 2022 World Cup were Nepali. Thus, in spite of the captain of the Indian football team being a Nepali (the fourth highest active goal scorer in the world), they are assumed to be synonymous of belonging to an undesirable class and as such an object of derision. This might also explain their demand for Gorkhaland – a place of their own.

I, though, have reservations about the demand for Gorkhaland because of the impact it might have on the minorities in the event of a statehood. Among the minorities the Lepchas are the indigenous people of Darjeeling-Sikkim who now have become a minority in their own land. For long they had been demanding for measures to protect their land and culture. But when the West Bengal Government agreed the set up the Lepcha Development Borad, the Gorkha Janmukthi Morcha opposed it. Tripura is another lost cause where the tribals have not only become a minority but second class citizens. From friends I have heard countless stories (some personal) of discrimination against the tribals by the majority Bengali population. The context maybe different but I do not want our state to become like Tripura or Darjeeling-Sikkim. For me they represent what happens when we become strangers in our own land.

It is for the fear of immigration that I do not support the introduction of the railways without the proper mechanism being in place. The way the government has gone about it is also highly disconcerting. If the papers are to be believe many people who are going to be affected by this have not been given proper information. For example, Shillong Times reported that the people of Umrynjah, Mawsiatkhnam, and Umphrew were in dark about the railway pillars erected in their villages. Meghalaya has the land transfer act which does provide some protection. But in case of continuous and extensive immigration aided by railways this legislation itself will be under threat in the future. The government may be at fault for not handling the issue of railways in a more matured manner but the violence that has been perpetuated in its wake is also not acceptable.

The targets of the anti-railway violence have been very obvious, state institutions and non-indigenous residents. The latter have especially been vulnerable to all kinds of harassment for the last many years. There is a widely held perception that illegal immigration is a big problem in Meghalaya and this is used as justification for acts of violence against the non-indigenous population. However if one looks at the Census statistical reports this perception is proved to be unfounded. The state has been losing thousands of its non-indigenous population every decade and in consequence the share of tribal population has been rising. This is in contrast to the highly subjective anecdotes one constantly hears as evidence of the large scale illegal immigration that is happening in the state. This number game however obscures the personal history of those who have been forced to leave the land of their birth. These are people who were born and brought up in Meghalaya and who are an integral of its society and history. They care as much about this land as much as any Khasi or Garo. And all I can say is that the state has and will become poorer without them.

I have reservations about the demand for Gorkhaland and do not condone what the Bengalis have done to the tribals in Tripura but I support the rights of the Nepali, Bengali, Assamese, Bihari and other non-indigenous people to live in this state in peace and harmony. Tailin Lyngdoh was mistreated in Delhi Golf Club because she belongs to a minority group and many rightly condemned it. However we will be hypocrites if we do not condemn the violence on our own minorities. The latest case of arson happened in Pynthorbah where the family of a Khasi lady got injured. One child was seriously injured and has received burn injuries on both the hands and the face. Some may say that it was a case of mistaken identity. However the pattern of the places affected by these cases of arson is an indicative of a trend. The places that have faced attacks are areas of low-income households. The poverty rate in Meghalaya in almost 50% while the proportion of tribal population is more than 80%. This means that many of our indigenous people are poor and therefore will prefer locations where rent is less. And they most likely will be victims of collateral damage as is seen in this case. But does it mean that once the non-indigenous population have moved away everything will be alright? Actually the opposite is going to transpire.

Last year, I came across an incident in a particular locality of Shillong. The headman of that locality was chasing the local vendors from selling on the footpath because according to him “ki dei ki nongwei’, i.e., “they are outsiders”. So the incident where the family of the Khasi lady got injured is not just a case of mistaken identity but is a part of the long-continuing trend. For many years the same group who now condemn the treatment meted out to Kong Tailin Lyngdoh were intent on destroying the livelihood of the local street vendors. Even now they are adamant in not accepting the Central Act which has been passed by the Parliament for proper regulation of street trade. Is this also not a case of discrimination wherein a certain group is barred from having access to public space because of their background? Now the very lives of these indigenous poor are at risk because they cannot afford to live in an affluent locality protected by high walls. I have fully sympathy for Kong Tailin Lyngdoh and I fervently wish that she will get justice but unless we can fight for the right of everybody and try to protect everyone we will not be able to protect anyone (including ourselves) from injustice.

I am not convinced about the benefits of railways and I am not in favour of it unless proper mechanisms are in place. Unabated immigration aided by the introduction of railways will bring more danger to our own minority communities. In case of a large scale conflict (because of increased immigration) the outsiders can go back to their homeland but what will happen to those who belong to this land: those who have been born and brought here. Where will they go? At the same time I also believe that ethnic issues has made us turn a blind eye to the issue of class struggle in this state — the rise of neo-tribal elites and the increasing rate of corruption in the state. We must remember that the other term which was used to exclude Kong Tailin Lyngdoh ‘maid’ is class-based. We have to aware of our status as an indigenous tribe but we must also not forget the implications of the class system in our own state/society. By the way what are the rules of our own Shillong Golf Club? Are all the classes allowed to enter it? And if not what are we going to do about it?




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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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