On August 24, 2023, it was reported that a couple of Karbi houses were torched in the village of Tapat, Karbi Anglong, by people who had allegedly entered from the Meghalaya side. This latest incident is part of a series of violent events that are taking place along the Assam-Meghalaya border around the area of Khanduli.
Previously, the Khasi Students Union (KSU) had also made allegations that the Karbis had burned down a few huts and prevented residents of Khanduli from accessing their farmland, which is under the jurisdiction of Meghalaya. The Karbis, on the other hand, have maintained that there has been “constant aggression from Meghalaya to Karbi Anglong”, thus putting the blame on the Khasi instead.
The incident in Tapat, however, highlights the complexity of the issue, where it is not easy to blindly agree with one side even though one may belong to one of the groups.
The houses torched in Tapat happened to belong to the relatives of someone I know whose mother came from the village. The person is of mixed Pnar-Karbi heritage, and incidents like these force such people to choose sides against those whom they consider their own.
If they don’t take sides, then both groups will brand them as traitors and treat them as outcasts. The impact of this conflict, however, will go beyond the personal travails of any one or a few individuals. It will affect the lives of many innocents on both sides.
This is not the first time that the Khasi and Karbis have clashed. In 2003, over 4,000 Pnar villagers (another name for the Jaintia, who are a subgroup of the larger Khasi tribe) had to flee from their homes in Block I of Karbi Anglong into Sahsniang in the Jainita hills of Meghalaya when militants suspected to be from the United People’s Democratic Solidarity, a Karbi militant group, killed three people.
This led to retaliation against the Karbi in Meghalaya, with a Karbi seminarian being set on fire in Shillong. The KSU also issued quit notices against the Karbi residing in the city, resulting in many fleeing the state. Then, on the 25th of November, three labourers working in a coal mine in Pohkyndong village in the Jaintia Hills were abducted and killed by unidentified miscreants.
In 2012, clashes erupted again at the Moosakhia-Lumpyrdi locality of the Khanduli area, which falls under the West Jaintia Hills. Several people were injured in the clash, and several Khasi houses were burned down. This was at a time when I was doing my PhD at NEHU, and the police came to our campus inquiring if there were any Karbi students so that they could be given protection against retaliation by the Khasis.
These recent clashes have come on the heels of the ongoing border talks between Assam and Meghalaya. The hotly disputed areas of Block I and II in Karbi Anglong, where thousands of Pnar are residing, are currently under review. Any rise in tensions will affect them very badly.
This was revealed to me in worrying detail when a Pnar boy residing in one of the villages in those areas messaged me a few weeks ago. He confided in me that the people in the area have been living in great fear ever since the tensions started to rise. They feared that any escalation could put them in great danger.
On the other hand, I was also contacted by a Karbi student after some miscreants hurled petrol bombs at Karbi Bhawan in Shillong. The student was worried that the tension along the border could lead to a flare-up in the city, which would put him in danger. The danger of innocent people getting caught in the crossfire is very real and something that is guaranteed to happen if the tensions are not contained.
The ongoing crisis in Manipur is clearly a very pertinent example of the price innocent people always end up paying in a conflict situation. If the Khasi-Karbi conflict escalates, it will not matter who initiated the conflict or whose claim is true.
Thousands of lives will have been destroyed, and many will have lost their loved ones. Even if one of the groups ends up getting what they consider a win, it will be of no solace to the victims of the conflict. The dead will not come back, and no matter the compensation, lives destroyed cannot be rebuilt. Imagine if something happened to the loved ones of the Pnar boy who messaged me.
Will he be satisfied if I tell him that the loss he has endured is for the good of the community? The same goes for the Karbi side as well. Will the Karbi NGOs, who threatened a Manipur-like situation if the Pnar staying in the disputed areas chose to go with Meghalaya, be willing to sacrifice their own people (staying in Shillong like the student who messaged me and along the border) so that they can claim victory? What about the trauma that will be especially hard to forget and that will have life-long debilitating effects on people’s lives? Is that justified?
Of course, such exhortations will not convince some people, who will label such questions as taking sides with the enemy as a sign of weakness. For such people, the glory of the community and what they perceive as their rightful claim are more important than the lives of their own people.
My question is: How can such people claim to love their people when they don’t care what happens to them? Also, most of the time, people who speak aggressive language are not the ones who will be at the forefront. I remember the interview of Meitei Lipun Chief Pramot Singh, who has been accused of instigating violence against the Kuki-Zomi when he was calmly giving interviews while his own people, the Meitei, were getting killed in the fighting on the ground.
I can claim with absolute certainty that long after the conflict has died down, he and leaders like him will be safely ensconced in their lair while their own people struggle to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
If the conflict on the border escalates, there will be rallies in Shillong with firebrand leaders shouting at the top of their lungs, claiming that they will take matters into their own hands because they believe that the government cannot protect Khasi lives.
Political parties will follow suit, as they have already tried recently to create communal tensions in the state with the demand for a Khasi CM and the reservation issue. The aggressive rhetoric that will follow will further escalate the conflict.
More of the Pnars and the Karbis will be affected, further deepening the crisis and putting the lives of more innocents in danger. I don’t know the political dynamics on the Karbi side, but there will be those who will look to take advantage of the situation, whether they are from the Karbi themselves or from outside.
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Coming back to Meghalaya, the future of the MDA government might also be at stake here. During the last election, I asked a Garo friend if she would be voting for TMC. She told me that she would never vote for Mukul Sangma (the former Chief Minister of Meghalaya and leader of TMC) because it was during his term that the GNLA (Garo National Liberation Army, a Garo militant group) was most active, and she cannot forget the atrocities committed by them. Imagine the Khasis harbouring the same feeling against this MDA government headed by a Garo come the next assembly election or the upcoming MDC elections.
But political machinations aside, it is the duty of the government of Meghalaya to take all steps to prevent any escalation of tensions. They must insist on the other side to prevent any attempt to create conflict from the Karbi side. For its part, it must also prevent any provocation from our side. At all costs, restraint must be practised because the cost of not doing so will be very heavy.
I don’t want any Karbi to be harmed because I know the Khasis will be harmed in retaliation. And I am sure that many people on the other side also feel the same way. We need to do all we can to maintain peace because if we don’t, we are looking at a repeat of what happened in Manipur. The conflict in Manipur has shown that it will be the innocents who ultimately pay the price. I pray that is not repeated in Meghalaya and Karbi Anglong as well. If that happens despite all that we know from the past and the present, it will be a travesty of the gravest order.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)
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