With added attractions of cloud-shrouded Cherrapunjee and spotless Mawlynnong, picturesque Shillong, during the last couple of years, suddenly started to feature in the bucket-list of the mainland Indians. And to the music buffs, Shillong is the “cool city” of rock ‘n’ roll.
Tourists from mainland Indian states visit Shillong and the nearby destination to discover the natural paradise and leave enchanted with its beauty and inherent charm. The beautiful locales, wonderful people and their rich culture, the breath taking waterfalls and serene lakes add to the splendor of the hillside city tucked away.
During the last few years, Shillong, which is popularly known as the ‘Scotland of the East’, started to find tourism as a source of livelihood for the tribal Khasis. Cent-percent occupancy rate in hotels and mushrooming of private guest houses and home-stays is an indicator that tourism is fast emerging as money-making machine for everyone in Meghalaya.
Sadly, the “cool city” suddenly erupted into violence over an altercation over parking between two or three individuals. Within hours, the issue snowballed into an ethnic battle between Dalit Sikhs and indigenous Khasi tribals. For more than a week, normal life came to a grinding halt in the city, curfew was imposed.
The mob clashed with police and CRPF personnel, resulting in injuries on both sides. Superintendent of Police of Shillong City Stephan Rynjah sustained injuries after he was hit by a rod. The police had to fire tear gas shells to disperse the crowd. Internet and text messaging services were shut down across the city to prevent rumours from spreading. Even the Army had to stage flag marches to bring situation under control.
The violence had its immediate impact on the flourishing tourism industry of Meghalaya. All taxi operators stopped its services to and from Shillong to ensure safety of the tourists. All the hotels in Shillong, Cherrapunjee and Mawlynnong reported cancellation of more than 70 percent of its bookings because of the unwarranted violence in the peak tourist season.
Most of the popular tourist spots around Shillong like Elephants Falls, Shillong Peak, Dawki, Krang Suri, Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee reported poor footfalls during the last one week. All tourist facilities at the attractive locations are managed by the local communities, and they have started to feel the pinch of the unwarranted violence. From mid-May to July is the peak tourist season in Shillong. Tourists prefer to visit Shillong during the summer holidays of schools and colleges and spend high-quality times in the beautiful hill city.
Under pressure, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad K. Sangma had to convene a series of meetings with different groups to bring the situation under control. Sangma said protest to vacate the Dalit Sikhs is a sponsored and well organized move, and even alcohol was supplied in plenty to the protesters.
High-level committees had to be constituted to find solutions to the demand of the indigenous tribal Khasis. The tribal demand is to shift the 500 or so inhabitants of Dalit Sikh community, who have been settled in Them Metor (also known as Punjabi Line) locality in downtown Shillong for more than 140 years. The Dailit Sikhs claimed they have been living in the area since 1853 when the Syiem of Mylliem (tribal chieftain) donated the land to them.
The local tribals should understand that ethnic violence, which began with a small incident of eve-teasing, brought the booming tourism business to a grinding halt. Everyone engaged directly or indirectly with the industry, suffered. Such act of violence is not only bad for the society, but also is detrimental to the economy of the poor tribal state.
Since Meghalaya is yet to see the light of industrialization and coal mining business suffered a major jolt because of National Green Tribunal (NGT) ban on coal mining, tourism business could have been a major source of earning for the state.
Despite being blessed by nature, it took several decades for the Meghalaya Tourism department to establish Shillong as a tourist destination. In the past, tourists identified Shillong as a “troubled” and “unsafe” city, especially after the first major riots in 1979 which was aimed to chase out local Bengalis.
In 1987 there were curfews for a whole year in Shillong. All outsiders were targets, and the mobs targeted Nepalis, Marwaris, Sindhis and Biharis. Violence against outsiders continued into the 1990s with houses burnt and people murdered and raped in Shillong. Majority of the Bengali and Nepali populations left Shillong. It took almost two decades for the Tourism Department to establish Shillong as a “cool cosmopolitan city” of rock’n’roll.
People of Shillong will now have to choose between a “homogenous tribal settlement” and “thriving cosmopolitan rock ‘n’ roll tourist destination”. If they prefer to go back to the phase of 1979 and 1987, the tourism industry is sure to crumple.