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Scotland of the East on the Boil Again

After a lull for nearly two decades, Shillong, known as the Scotland of East, is on the boil again over a sporadic incident which spread like wildfire duly helped by the dissemination of fake information over social media tools like Whatsapp. A minor scuffle between people belonging to two communities in a ghetto area of the city took an entirely different turn and disturbed the much-cherished peace in the hilly town. Three days running the tension in Shillong refuses to die down with curfew being imposed in several localities as the miscreants are still gathering in groups and are resorting to violence like stone pelting.

Different narratives are emerging as to what prompted the large-scale violence, but one thing became amply clear: that social media is toxic to flare up communal conflict and most of what is happening in Shillong in the last three days has been precipitated by it. After the first flare-up at the Punjabi Lane, the police also acted very late; prompt action on the part of the administration should have avoided further escalation. And it should also be noted that in last three days, facts revolving around the incident, which led to such a situation, were twisted and given a communal colour, creating more unrest in the city. Home Minister James Sangma has issued a strong warning against those who spread fake news on the issue. Police response is critical at such a juncture.

However, one must admit that police in Shillong acted with great restraint and did not react violently despite extreme provocation and stone pelting. Situation at the moment is not calm and appears that certain groups of people are prone to stimulus. A sporadic incident took into grip the entire city within hours. It is not that Shillong is new to such type of situations. During the late eighties and the early part of the nineties, there used to be frequent bandhs and protests over the local versus non-local issue. However, in the last 10 years or so, the law-and-order situation had drastically improved, which also helped the tourism industry in the state grow in leaps and bound. With the tourist season on, the travellers from outside the State are also caught in this crossfire of violence. Tourists had to shelve all their plan and return to safety. It goes without saying that the due to the incident, the tourism industry in the State will take a hit and the State government has to put a lot of efforts to put the industry back to its track.

With other winter destinations of the country like Darjeeling facing unrest over the Gorkhaland issue, Meghalaya attracted lot of inbound domestic travellers. An ecosystem was building across the tourism industry in the State with the sunrise sector also generating the much-needed employment opportunities for the locals. But for all this to happen, peace was perquisite, and now one hopes the recent incident of arson in the hilly State does not again put itself on the black list of tourists across the country and the world. With the advent of social media, the information spreads across the globe in a lightening speed and the bad news travels even faster. So as soon as the situation gets normal in the pine city, it is better. With incidents of the last three days, much damage has already been done to the image of Shillong to the outsiders. The need of the hour is that responsible citizens, media and administration need to work with a unity of purpose to bring back the much-needed peace.

After ages, Shillong felt tense and brought back memories of the past when the city used to be under curfew for several months running. Ethnic tensions between tribal and non tribal populace of the State used to reign supreme. Scores of innocent people lost their lives in those strife-ridden times. Even in 2012, over the demand of introduction of Inner Line Permit (ILP), two non-tribals were burnt alive by miscreants during daytime. However, that time, the situation was brought under control with swift action of the government machinery. It will not be wrong here to say that Shillong has had a history of conflicts between outsiders and locals, but in the last few years the situation changed mainly due to the mushrooming of tourism industry as the locals were absorbed in their livelihood earnings. But any hint of return of those days of curfew could seriously hamper the prospects of the industry and which has all the making of throwing back the State into the dark days of yesteryears. So it would be prudent on the part of the citizens to stop rumours and fake news from doing any further damage. And the administration should deal with the situation in a non-partisan manner and bring the offenders to book for whom the long-lasting peace in the State were broken. The fragility of peace in uncertain times like these is always attacked by people with vested interest. Those people who try to do those should be identified and questioned so they could prevent further damage to the situation.

About the author

Ankur Kalita