Parts of Shillong remained tense for the third straight day as protesters clashed with security personnel until late Saturday night and authorities declared a seven-hour night curfew across the city.
Late Friday night, the Army conducted a flag march in the restive areas after protesters set a house near the Them Iew Mawlong locality on fire and threw stones and petrol bombs at security personnel.
Police have so far arrested 10 people in connection with the violence that began on Thursday following an altercation between a Khasi boy and a Punjabi woman in Them Iew Mawlong, a Punjabi settlement in Shillong with around 350 households.
Sunny Singh, a resident of Shillong’s ‘Punjabi Lane’, as the Them Iew Mawlong locality is also called, said he hadn’t slept the last two nights. “A few metres from here, the house of a Punjabi family was set on fire last night. We are scared for our lives,” said Singh, who is in his late 20s and works in a bank.
On Saturday morning, several men from the area huddled anxiously on the road, both ends of which had been cordoned off by the police.
Singh and the other residents of the locality say the anger directed at the community is part of a long-standing demand from sections of the Khasi society to get them evicted from the area.
Gurjeet Singh, general secretary of the Gurudwara Committee of Punjabi Lane, and Billu Singh, headman of the Harijan Panchayat Committee, allege the violence is part of a larger agenda.
“Since the 1980s, they (Khasis) have been calling us illegal settlers and asking for us to be shifted out of this place. But we have been living here forever and we will stay here. That is our stand. Though several political leaders have over the years spoken of rehabilitating us to some other location, we have never seen anything concrete. It has just been empty talk,” he said.
He said his ancestors, mostly Dalits from Punjab, had come to Shillong around 200 years ago, brought by the British to work as cleaners and sweepers.
Soon after the incident, several organisations in Shillong, including the powerful Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), reiterated their demand for the “eviction” of the “illegal settlers”.
Calling the residents of Punjabi Lane “trouble-mongers who often harass Khasi people”, KSU general secretary Donald Thabah said, “We demand that the illegal settlers in that area are immediately evicted. Those who assaulted the minor Khasi boy should be booked under stringent laws. And the Khasi protesters arrested in the clashes should be released and those injured must be compensated.”
On Saturday, Chief Minister Conrad Sangma and other Cabinet ministers met with residents of the troubled areas, including Khasi community elders, to discuss the law and order situation. A government press release issued later in the day said, “The headmen spoke at length regarding the hardships faced by the local and genuine residents of the area and requested the government to immediately withdraw the police force from… the localities… The Home Minister informed them that the police force had till now exercised maximum restraint and would continue to do so.”
The press release also said that the Khasi community members had “sought for the removal and rehabilitation of the inhabitants” of Punjabi Lane.
Earlier in the evening, senior officials insisted the tension in the city was easing. “The situation has improved a lot since yesterday but protests have erupted today in certain areas,” said P S Dkhar, Deputy Commissioner of East Khasi Hills District.
Davis Marak, Superintendent of Police, East Khasi Hills district, said, “We can say the situation has improved but we still have to look out for miscreants who might cause some problem.”
Besides the indefinite curfew imposed on Friday in 14 localities of the city, the district administration officials announced a night curfew from 10 pm to 5 am across the city.
In a bid to check rumours spreading on social media, mobile internet and SMS services remained suspended for the second day.