Updated: October 16, 2021 9:31:43 am
A Meghalaya Cabinet decision to relocate the Dalit Sikh residents of Shillong’s Them lew Mawlong area, also called Punjabi Lane, is facing opposition. Sikh groups have called it “illegal” and “unjust”, with Punjab Deputy Chief Minister Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa saying he would take the issue up with Union Home Minister Amit Shah. On Thursday, a Sikh delegation from Delhi met Meghalaya Governor Satya Pal Malik, seeking his intervention. At the heart of it is a simmering issue between the Sikh residents and the local Khasi community, centred on a decades-old land dispute.
Who are the Punjabi Sikhs of Shillong?
They were first brought to Shillong by the British as manual scavengers and sweepers more than a hundred years ago. Today, the community of about 300-odd families lives in Them lew Mawlong, located next to Shillong’s commercial hub, Iewduh or Bara Bazaar.
Himadri Banerjee, former professor of Indian history at Jadavpur University, who has extensively researched the Sikh community in the Northeast, said the Mazhabis were brought first, with a British military contingent, to work as sweepers. They were followed by the Ramgarhias (carpenters, blacksmiths and masons), and then the Soniars or goldsmiths, who came after 1947.
Mazhabi Sikhs, the largest of the groups, were recruited by the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB), and many lived in Bara Bazaar. Over the years, their ranks swelled in the SMB, Banerjee said. “We have been staying here for generations,” said Gurjit Singh, president of the Harijan Panchayat Committee (HPC), which represents members of the Sikh Dalit community in Shillong. “In the 1990s, more than 800 members of our community were employed by the SMB, but the numbers have reduced since then.”
Banerjee said younger generations have moved on to professions such as driving or setting up mobile repair shops. Some integration has also happened. “Some Mazhabis speak Khasi, enjoy Khasi food, and a few are even married to Khasis and have converted to Christianity,” Banerjee said.
Why was the plan to relocate them made?
On October 7, the Cabinet approved the proposal, based on a recommendation by a high-level committee set up in June 2018 to find a solution to a decades-old land dispute, following violent clashes between Khasis and Sikh residents the previous month. While the immediate trigger was something else, the clashes were rooted in the old land dispute.
The government claims the land belongs to the Urban Affairs Department, while the Sikhs say it was “gifted” to them in the 1850s by the Syiem (chief) of Hima Mylliem – one of the chiefdoms in Khasi Hills. Punjabi Lane is part of Mylliem, one of the 54 traditional administrative territories under the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council today.
According to the Cabinet decision, the Urban Affairs Department would take possession of the land from the Syiem of Mylliem (the custodian of the land) within a week. Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said permanent employees of the SMB would be relocated to constructed quarters.
What is the land dispute?
For three decades, sections of society and political organisations have been demanding that residents be shifted out — the primary argument being that a prime commercial area shouldn’t hold a residential locality.
Donald Thabah, general secretary of the powerful Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), said Punjabi Lane was the site of a lot of traffic congestion and needed to be cleared for “public convenience”. “The name Them lew Mawlong literally suggests that it is the valley area of a market — so it doesn’t make sense for it to function as a residential area. It should be used for alternative constructive purposes such as a parking lot or a commercial space,” he said.
Over the years, there have been proposals to build a parking lot or shopping complexes. The Sikhs have often sought legal recourse against this, maintaining they have “full rights to” the land, and two documents to prove their claim: a 1954 agreement and one more in 2008.
In 2018, after the committee was formed, the Sikh HPC filed a petition in the Meghalaya High Court. In February 2019, the court said it was a “civil” matter and needed to be addressed in the civil court. On April 9, 2021, it ordered that status quo be maintained.
Has there been previous conflict between the Sikhs and Khasis?
With the main bone of contention is the 2.5-acre Punjabi Lane, brawls at a local level between residents and Khasis have been reported over the years.
Distrust of the “outsider” — a sentiment expressed among sections of many communities in the Northeast states — also adds to the friction. Banerjee said local Khasis were “initially less enthusiastic” about doing the work the Mazhabis did. “But over time, as Khasis found themselves being squeezed out of a part of the job market, their anxieties manifested themselves in suspicions, hostility, and a hardening awareness of dissimilar identities.”
According to KSU’s Thabah, there was a major clash in 1996 too, which led to the deaths of Khasi youths at the hands of the police. He alleged that the locals were “frequently harassed by some from the Sikh community.”
What are the Sikhs being offered now?
The state government has said those who are permanent employees of the SMB will be relocated to constructed quarters elsewhere in the city. For the other residents, the government was “exploring other locations”.
The government said that while a number of the Sikh residents worked with the SMB, there were many “settlers” in the colony. “We do not know where they came from and thus there is a need to make an inventory of those residing there,” said Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong, who led the committee.
Singh said now only about 20 people (who are close to retirement) were currently permanent employees of the SMB. “The government claims the rest of the people are illegal or unauthorised settlers. But that is baseless… our children and grandchildren have moved into new professions — that does not mean they do not belong here,” he said.
How have the Sikhs reacted?
“We have lived here for 200 years. Time and again, the government tries to move us and our people get scared,” Singh said. The community, however, had not received any official intimation about relocation yet.
Manjinder Singh Sirsa, who had led the delegation from the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee that met the Governor, said the matter was sub judice, and the high-level committee had “no power to make such a decision”. He said the relocation plan had “not granted the residents an opportunity to say anything” or taken in their view.
What is the government’s stand?
CM Sangma had earlier said the government was ready to challenge the court order. Governor Malik on Thursday assured the Sikh delegation that “no injustice will be done and the residents will not be removed illegally”.
Tynsong said the government had followed “due diligence”. He the Sikh community should not “get confused” that they were “being thrown out”. “They are people of Meghalaya and we are here to help them,” he said. “We request them to help us make an inventory.”
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