What if the hot debate was not about the ‘migrant question’, but the diverse range of crises that migrants themselves encounter? A case in point is the picturesque city of Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.

Here, a complex tapestry of mounting tensions rises against the backdrop of turbulent history. It weaves a narrative that impacts the lives of migrants working in the region.

“Dying is an accepted part of living,” said Syed Mohammed, a 35-year-old miner. A statement that shows how death has woven itself into the everyday lives of migrant workers. Their search for better opportunities and livelihoods has come to be riddled with issues that just reinstate their status as ‘outsiders.

Despite the hurdles they encounter, the resilient migrant workers continue to carve out a space for themselves, and contribute to the city’s fabric. However, as a result of the tenuous relations between locals, Khasi Students Union, and the state government lies the reality of migrant workers living with the threat of violence.

Historically, non-tribal settlers arrived in Shillong for trade and work in uranium mining projects primarily from the states of Bengal, Bihar, and Nepal. They found themselves grappling with not only the daily hardships of living and working in an unfamiliar environment, but also with a prevailing atmosphere of hostility and discriminatory policies.

In the undivided State of Assam, the possibilities opened up by uranium mining and the introduction of railways were reportedly met with resentment by locals in hilly regions. Since gaining statehood in 1972, Meghalaya has had several riots targeting the non-indigenous population, specifically those of Bengali and Nepali descent.

These riots occurred in 1979, 1987, 1992, and 1997, resulting in the departure of thousands of non-tribals from the state. Census reports reflect a consistent decline in the non-tribal population in Meghalaya. The figures steadily decreased from 19.52% in 1971 to 13.85% in 2011.

Although official data is unavailable as the census for 2021 was postponed due to COVID-19, anecdotes indicate that now the non-tribal population, in the form of migrant labour, is primarily engaged in sectors such as mining, domestic aid, labourers working in military stations and at street markets.

“Mining proves easier than military stations, the punishments and the comments are not derogatory or unwarranted,” said a 28-year-old migrant worker who chose to remain anonymous. While defence jobs are generally classified as formal employment, it is important to note that most migrant workers in Shillong are employed on a contractual basis.

This is primarily due to the nature of their work, which often involves precarious working conditions and minimum wages. This further adds to their socio-economic vulnerability.

Many migrant workers struggle to make ends meet and send money home to their families. Their earnings often fall below the minimum wage standards set by labour laws.

“We do not get holidays even for religious festivals when employed as a domestic aid. When fasting during Ramadan, I was told that poor people like me should not fast because we cannot afford to do so. It hinders the work I am supposed to do for them,” recalled Ameena Begum who has worked as a domestic helper for eight years in Shillong.

Another domestic aid worker, Rani Devi, said that “speaking up often gets us blacklisted. We are at their [employers] mercy. However much we try to be happy with the work, fear always overrides it.” Her 25-year-old sister who chose to be anonymous added, “We expected a better life here, but we do not even have access to tank water, we have to wait for freshwater supply, that comes at random times.”

The isolation that is created by working within military stations proves challenging. It further alienates these workers from the local population, creating a more hostile environment for them once their job contracts end.

When asked about the reasons for their move, the migrant workers mentioned floods and other disasters in their home state. They say the lack of employment opportunities in their villages, and large-scale contractual hires as the primary reasons for their move.

“We were born into poverty. Our parents were born into poverty. Our parents were migrant labourers and so we have followed that path. It is difficult to find jobs in our village, so we have to go where they (contractors) take us,” said Mohammed Junaid, a miner in Shillong who migrated after the pandemic.

The women workers added that it was both the economic crisis, and marriage, that were the primary reasons for their move. “We got married and learned to make a life where our husband took us. Making a new home is not easy here. We are only welcome to work and contribute but not live. Living here is different, not all of us have done it” said Fatima Jaan, a homemaker in Shillong.

While the migrant workers are welcomed as skilled laborers, the provisions for their survival, such as adequate housing and access to water resources, are scarce. Beneath Fatima Jaan’s reserved smile, lay the hidden truth of the challenges she faces in living as equal citizens within the state.

The fear of being overwhelmed by the non-indigenous population, particularly the non-tribal population, is widespread across Meghalaya. Any perceived threat to tribal sovereignty is vehemently opposed by the local population.

Historical instances such as the resistance against uranium mining and the introduction of railways in the state reflect this deep-rooted concern. The degradation of the environment, limited job opportunities, and perceived cultural threats are considered valid reasons behind the demand for Inner Line Permit (ILP), which would impose stricter regulations on migration.

The fear of losing tribal sovereignty and the associated anxieties have shaped the social and political landscape, leading to the marginalization and displacement of non-tribal communities over the years. The Khasi Students’ Union has been an important factor in expressing concerns over a supposed influx of migrants.

The union has organised numerous demonstrations, issued statements, and reportedly, even intercepted a bus carrying allegedly illegal migrants into the state. The union had disapproved of new state policies welcoming highly skilled labourers.

A shopkeeper in the city who chose to be anonymous told us “It is not as if we are not friends with locals, we have managed to make friends over this time. But that is not enough to be treated equally. We have seen many small fights where people like us can get beaten over small things, or for no reason at all. Our identity is on our faces, and it is dangerous. The suspicion is always on us.”

Adding onto this conversation, a former miner, who also chose to be anonymous said, “In the previous years when somebody did not come back after work, we would know that we have lost them. We have come to live with the loss and the abruptness of it. Most days it is the mining fields and sometimes it is in the protests that take place. When you start expecting such beating and violence, it stops us from getting angry but does not stop us from feeling sad.”

While the government claims to welcome migrants, these individuals often find themselves caught up in legal issues related to petty crimes. They receive minimal to no support when searching for missing family members, or when following up on treatment and compensation after accidents.

Migrant workers also face significant barriers in accessing institutions due to rigorous identification processes. Their complaints about labour exploitation are frequently brushed aside.

Amidst the tensions and the inability of the three stakeholders to find common ground, the migrant workers express finding moments of happiness. Such moments fuel their will to persevere amidst the prevailing hostility.

They cherish the friendship and camaraderie they experience with the locals, sitting together after work and sharing meals. For some men, forming drinking groups serves as a coping mechanism to deal with daily inconveniences.

Biswas, a contractual employee in a military station, said they would “often get alcohol along with our pay. No matter what happens over the day, it is a delight to sit with everybody and drink at night. The small bars are places we get to be with locals as well. Amongst our many differences, we understand the effort of being wage workers.”

Animesh Das, a friend of his added with delight ,“Death and violence are small things in the face of survival. Maybe a [political] party will come to think about us, but we also have to think about ourselves. When things get difficult we also have the ability to start our lives in a new place. To lead a different life is never easy, but survival for us, for our kids, gives us confidence.”

Ultimately, the migrant workers have become more resilient and adaptable, equipping themselves to lead a more mobile lifestyle. The solidarity and camaraderie shared by some tribal and non-tribal groups also gives hope of healing the differences of the past.

This story is published as part of The Citizen's two week mentorship programme.