By Nafis Hasan
In December 2019, at the peak of the anti-CAA protests, my high school WhatsApp group was abuzz with flaring tempers. One friend wrote, “It seems that J is the most critical person in this group of the different issues that the indigenous communities are fighting for without knowing the facts. Wake up bro…don’t rely too much on the internet.” “J” responded immediately, “No clue where you got that idea from…the problem is that people who call Shillong their home but are not ‘indigenous’ like D mentioned [,] will be the ones who will bear the brunt and that’s been happening over the last few days hasn’t it.”
My argument in this essay is that the CAA in Meghalaya disrupts an existing binary between ‘tribal’ and ‘non-tribal’ people and strengthens embedded class distinctions, making ‘non-tribal’ people even more insecure. Shillong is the diverse capital city of Meghalaya, a small state in northeast India comprising in large part of a community called Khasis. The use of the word indigenous to describe Khasis has been challenged (see Mukhim 2020); a more common term to describe ethnic groups from the northeast is “tribal,” a reification that conflates the hierarchies, inter-clan politics, kinship alliances, and political factions that constitute present-day northeast. Posed against the term “tribal” is the equally inadequate label of “non-tribal,” used for people like J, ethnically from outside the northeast (in this case, Bengali) but whose families have lived in Shillong for several generations. J’s claim that non-tribals will bear the brunt of the CAA’s impact reflects a re-emergence of insecurity in this longstanding binary distinction in Meghalaya.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Shillong experienced sporadic, vitriolic, and vociferous events of sectarian violence against “outsiders.” This violence worked to efface its cosmopolitanism in favor of a more homogenous tribal homeland. More recently, Shillong has seen a tenuous arrangement of peace, emerging primarily from material concerns, between the Khasis (and other communities in Meghalaya) and a significant non-tribal population (Hasan 2018). The overt physical violence of the past has been replaced by a structural arrangement in which rich Khasis, already owners of large tracts of land, are consolidating even larger tracts, paradoxically leaving a lot of Khasi people landless and dependent on cheap non-tribal labor to run their many businesses (Mukhim 2020). A consequence of the ensuing social “peace” is that the non-tribal middle class felt a little more secure than it did in the past.
The coming of the CAA has disturbed this tenuous social arrangement. This is visible in the disorder that Shillong and parts of Meghalaya experienced in late 2019. Physical attacks on non-tribals, (and retaliation against tribals) while infrequent, have now increased, alongside calls for an NRC exercise in Meghalaya. At the same time, as during in past riots, the non-tribal middle class has become more insecure. Confusion and frustration in formerly innocuous WhatsApp groups, and panic over securing records, signify these renewed insecurities.
The reasons for Khasi opposition to the CAA largely diverge from more popular concerns with secularism, and are instead embedded in an older politics of ethnicity, land, and ownership. A few weeks before my Whatsapp group began arguing, a sea of Khasis took to the streets, protesting the CAA. I watched them from my mother’s balcony as I stepped out to search a long forgotten sea-trunk, stuffed with memorabilia from my parents’ past—old photographs, my deceased father’s diaries, and other records that I had never seen or touched before. My mother wanted her graduation certificate, a single page with an imposing, gold title, documenting in cursive writing the city of her birth, Amritsar. As Shillong raged against the CAA, non-tribals like us were preparing to have our citizenship tested and were busy ratcheting up documents that proved we were Indian—things we hadn’t worried about before the massive NRC exercise in neighboring Assam.
My parents had been teachers for forty years in Shillong, and were widely known and loved, yet those social bonds were coming to naught against trenchant calls for paper proof. These social bonds were created within social differentiations based entirely on ethnicity, without the language of legality that NRC and CAA introduce. I can’t remember a single moment during my school years where I was identified as Muslim, while I was consistently bracketed as non-tribal. Social life was organized around the binary of tribal and non-tribal, and was not characterized by what the political scientist, Niraja Gopal Jayal, calls “differentiated citizenship,” in which claims to belonging depended on documented status in law. The NRC and CAA produce a new, more stratified regime of identification, one that disturbs the simplicity of the tribal/non-tribal binary.
The state-imposed curfew in early March 2020, following violence between anti-CAA protestors and alleged “illegal Hindu migrants,” is another eerie reminder of past riots. As a result, tourism, a big source of employment, has taken a hit. In the words of a Khasi scholar:
CAA has thrown a spanner on this historical process whereby old fears are being [sic] more venom. The state has been trying to move on from the anti-immigrants fear and the heady days of violence against the non-tribals. Granted there are instances when the issues get revived and emotions inflamed. They though happen just before elections and die out immediately afterwards. In the meantime, tribal consolidation goes on with increasing acceptance of the non-tribal presence (Mawroh 2020).
Both the CAA and NRC have helped perpetuate a misguided view of what ails Khasi society. The NRC, with its promise of removing “illegal” residents from the state fits in with calls for introducing a colonial-style Inner Line Permit, or ILP, emanating from a section of Khasis for a few years. The main idea here is that a document like the ILP will help regulate the influx of migrants from bordering Bangladesh into Meghalaya. Young Khasis believe that this migration is a threat to their “culture,” via intermarriage between Khasi women and Bangladeshi men and the taking over of their homeland. While this may be a genuine concern, people from within the community have downplayed its significance:
As the data shows, even without ILP, Non Tribal population percentage in Meghalaya has been decreasing over the years. Local land laws, reservation policy and sixth schedule protections have disincentivised non-tribal migration. It is mostly the labor brought into the state by mostly Tribal businessmen and contractors for infrastructural projects and mining that is the ongoing source of migration (Mawroh 2020).
The CAA, on the other hand, is being protested against by some Khasis, not on the grounds of its anti-secular nature (with a few exceptions), but because of their fear that it may bring back the same Bangladeshi migrants that NRC and ILP propose to keep out. However, unlike other states in the northeast, Mawroh (2020) also points out that with the sixth schedule in Meghalaya, such demographic upheaval is unlikely.
Yet the question of land and property ownership is another central concern that drove protests against the CAA. At the heart of fears of non-tribals marrying into the Khasi community, which the CAA would purportedly make simpler by bestowing citizenship on migrants from Bangladesh, is the concern that land, which passes through women in a Khasi matrilineal society, will then pass on to the non-tribals who marry them. However, as the anthropologist Bengt Karlsson (2011) argues, land is not always communally held by Khasis, as is often presented, but instead is agglomerated by a Khasi elite. The CAA and NRC help perpetuate the misguided view that non-tribals are the nemesis of Khasi society, which disrupts what Mawroh in the quote above calls the delicate process of “acceptance of non-tribal presence”; at the same time obscuring inequalities pertaining to the ownership of land and skewed labor demographics.
Nafis Hasan is a PhD candidate in anthropology at UCLA and is currently writing his dissertation on the techno-politics of digital media in public bureaucracies in India. Shillong is his hometown.
 Outside a tribal-non-tribal binary, traces of a cosmopolitanism in Shillong, since the coming of the British in the mid-nineteenth century, is still part of the city’s ethos. The city attracted people from Bengal and Assam to work in the colonial administration and teach in the new schools and colleges. The Marwari community arrived in the 19th century and played a leading role in the city’s trade. Sindhis, Sikhs, Pathans, Nepalese and Chinese all came to settle here and participate in the city’s economic life. The British brought in Mazhabi Sikhs as sanitation workers and their descendants continue in that line of work. This migration has led to a history of intermarriages, making Shillong home to a very large number of people with mixed origins, alongside Khasis, other tribals from Meghalaya and the northeast, and non-tribals proper.
This constitutional provision offers autonomy to the communities it identifies as “scheduled tribes,” primarily on questions of communal land and self- government.
Hasan, Nafis. 2018. “Meghalaya’s ‘Anti-Railway Protests’ Highlight Complexities of the Development Discourse.” Economic & Political Weekly 53 (3).
Karlsson, Bengt G. 2011. Unruly Hills: A Political Ecology of India’s Northeast. Berghahn Books.
Mawroh, B. “Is There An Immigration Problem In Meghalaya Which ILP Can Solve?” RAIOT. February 24, 2020. https://www.raiot.in/is-there-an-immigration-problem-in-meghalaya-which-ilp-can-solve/. Accessed March 6, 2020
Mukhim, P. “Tribal Societies: Trapped in Jargons and Definitions.” The Shillong Times. January 31, 2020 https://theshillongtimes.com/2020/01/31/tribal-societies-trapped-in-jargons-and-definitions/. Accessed March 6, 2020.