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Lessons from Motphran

By Toki Blah

            This author has been under tremendous pressure right from the second day of the recent Motphran troubles, to come up with his views and comments on the issue.  The pressure was resisted simply because of the prevailing confusion and the inability to understand the situation in its correct perspective. It would have been foolish and simply adding fuel to the fire to make public comments on something one didn’t properly understand. There is no shame in admitting that a haze still shrouds the mind as to what really happened in and around Motphran; how it happened and what really caused it to suddenly fizzle out as it did. Rumours by the dozen, suspicion by the hundred and doubts galore exist over the existence of agent provocateurs; paid agitators and of a failed coup attempt. These exist and simply add to the prevailing confusion, gossip and bewilderment that now grips each and every household of this city and Meghalaya as a whole.  To tell the truth what happened is something that we have never encountered before. It would take time and some serious inquiry to fully comprehend what befell Shillong from the 31st of May. What we do have with us however is the wisdom of hindsight. Hopefully,  introspection can help throw light on the gloom and darkness that prevails.

The Government came out with the claim that the stone pelters at Motphran were paid mercenaries and that the trouble makers were hired and then directed by unnamed provocateurs to come and create mayhem. This author cannot confirm nor deny the veracity of such statement but be that as it may, the negative and sordid contribution of social media to the troubles is simply too obvious to be glossed over. Mobile WhatsApp and text messages flew thick and fast that fateful evening. Rumours, heresay, unconfirmed gossip, fake news, unfounded cries for help, made up information simply spread like wild fire to all over the place. The news that one of the local boys had died and that the local indigenous community was under attack went viral. Whether the false alarm was raised by design or by default is yet to be determined. It however caused hordes and droves of young Khasi men to rise to the rescue of the Jaitbynriew. To me the issue here is not the agent provocateurs, as vested interests will always be there to cause social upheaval whenever the opportunity arises. Of concern is the inability of people; recipients of social media messages, to distinguish fake news from real news; the absence of logical thinking;  the readiness to share without verification; not caring whether such sharing could result in tragic consequences for one and all; the gullibility in believing all and any message from friends and acquaintances without taking the trouble of verifying the same. The people of Shillong suffered because of this implicit faith in the veracity of social media. Chinese whispers can hurt but unreliable Motphran messages can be lethal! One of the lessons to be learnt!

There is all round praise for the restraint shown by the police and the willingness of the force to take upon itself the brunt of the attack by the stone pelters. This prevented a communal clash at Them Iewmawlong and the Meghalaya police deserve praise for this. This however should not blind us to the fact that some critical lapses occurred which could have been avoided. First was the tardiness of the law and order machinery to respond effectively to the initial build up of mob violence at Motphran on the May 31st evening. Apparently the administration was caught completely by surprise. Police intelligence failed to anticipate the turn of events that fateful day. In the initial phases the deployment of forces was insufficient for the task at hand. By the time adequate forces were brought into play, fake news had already played its devilish role and it was too late to break up the mob. The rest is history! Second was the indiscriminate lobbing of teargas shells into the residential areas of Mawkhar, Mission Compound, Umsohsun and Wahingdoh. Innocent inhabitants suffered and in next to no time it was the police who were seen as aggressors rather than the unruly mob that invaded the localities and wreaked such havoc. The image of the police needlessly took a hit! Third and the most unforgivable was the ability of the agitators to breach the inner most sanctum of the Government – the Meghalaya Secretariat. How in God’s name was this allowed to happen? Imagine if a petrol bomb had been lobbed into any of the secretariat rooms or if the mob had entered and run amock inside the building? Thank God nothing of the sort happened but a serious security lapse had occurred. Again a failure to anticipate and check the intention and direction of a mob! Apparently timely intelligence and appropriate tactical deployment are the weak points of the police force and these need immediate and urgent toning up.

While introspecting, the role of the traditional institutions, especially the Urban Dorbar Shnong in preserving peace and tranquillity, needs to be re-examined.  The primary role of the Dorbar Shnong is to provide security and protection to its inhabitants.  This concept was shattered when agitated youths from outside made a determined onslaught into the shnongs starting the evening of May 31. The concerned shnongs in and around Motphran quickly turned into battlefields between the agitators and the police.  The Dorbars, initiated as they are by the traditional concept of insular governance, found themselves singularly out of depth to handle the situation. Agitators who were from outside the locality refused to heed the Rangbah Shnongs. That was when the women of the area decided enough was enough.  Ignoring mundane male formalities; discarding Shnong boundaries and area of jusrisdiction, the women of all affected shnongs simply got together. They started off with a joint prayer. Next they told the police in no uncertain terms that use of teargas in residential areas was unacceptable and that the police should restrict themselves to Motphran Square and not enter residential areas. They then formed night patrols with their men folk  and chased away the slinking stone pelters, preventing them from assembling and creating  more mischief. Their joint action won the day and peace finally descended on the area. It just goes to show that empowered women do have a definite role to play in dorbar affairs. The incident also illustrated in no uncertain terms that in an urban setup, contiguous Dorbars working in tandem and towards a common objective, are more effective than a singular Dorbar struggling vainly on its own. Another lesson to be taken note of!  

            Now that normalcy has returned to the city, what do we do next? I sincerely believe the entire matter needs a closure and now is the time to do it. Shillong is no longer the sleepy village it was 100 years ago. It is a throbbing metropolis but still a thoroughly  unplanned city at that. We need to clean up some of the urban mess we have inherited from the past. Them Iewmawlong and the slum that has been allowed to grow there needs restructuring. At present it is not only unhygienic and unfit to be termed as a residential area but has unfortunately also gained the reputation of being a highly unsafe, dangerous and insecure locality for commuters and passersby. A similar situation prevailed at Polo Bazar once but a determined Government and an enlightened citizenry changed all that and now a well planned multipurpose marketing complex is about to come up in its stead. The residents of the area were relocated elsewhere. It was slum clearance at its best. It adds to the beauty of Shillong. Why can’t the same thing happen at Them Iewmawlong? Why should the terms ethnic cleansing and eviction be used for an utterly legitimate action of the Government? The jobs and economic interest of all displaced legal residents need protection and Govt should provide the same while relocating them. We have inherited this problem from the past but as citizens of Shillong  we need to put our heads together and come up with the best viable solution for all concerned. The view of concerned outsiders is noted but the plea is kindly leave us alone to sort out our own mess. An elected Government is already on the job towards an amicable settlement of the issue. Let’s give Peace a chance! 

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