An altercation between a Punjabi woman and Khasi bus driver on May 31 in Shillong’s Punjabi Lane, followed by rumours on social media about the death of a minor Khasi boy, triggered four days of intense clashes and curfew in the city. Khasi protesters threw stones and petrol bombs at security personnel after being prevented from entering the Punjabi settlement adjacent to Bara Bazaar, Shillong’s commercial hub.
A demand to move the residents of Punjabi Lane out of the city’s prime commercial area has been hanging fire for at least three decades now. Mobile Internet services — suspended at the height of the tensions — were restored on June 13, but cut off again in many areas for 48 hours starting Saturday. Night curfew continues in the city. While there have been no fresh clashes, tensions between the Khasis and Punjabis continue to simmer just beneath the surface. What is the genesis of this situation, and where is it headed?
OPINION | Shillong: Impossible homeland
Who are the Punjabis of Shillong?
The Sikhs, or “Punjabis”, of Shillong have been residing there for more than a century. The numerically dominant group, the Mazhabis — who are mentioned in multiple British ethnological studies as people who were at the bottom of the social scale in rural Punjab — were brought by colonial officials to serve as safai karmacharis (sweepers) who would keep the hill city clean.
Most of those who were brought belonged to Amritsar and Gurdaspur, and though it is difficult to put specific dates to their arrival in the absence of written records, it is generally agreed that they began to reach Shillong in the last decade of the nineteenth century. They started out on foot from their villages in Punjab, and a four-day journey by train to the banks of the Brahmaputra followed. They then used a ferry to reach Amingaon in Guwahati, from where began the long journey to Shillong — by bullock cart, until vehicular traffic started on the road from Guwahati to Shillong in the second decade of the twentieth century.
The Ramgarhias, a composite caste of carpenters, blacksmiths and masons in rural Punjab, followed the Mazhabis. They possibly reached Shillong around 1896 when they were commissioned to rebuild the British city damaged by a large earthquake. The small group of Ramgharias that settled in Shillong in the early decades of the twentieth century remained loyal to the colonial bureaucracy, and were rewarded by regular contract jobs.
The other group from Punjab who came to Shillong were the Soniars or goldsmiths, who traced their origins to Abbottabad and Rawalpindi in what is now Pakistan. This group came in the aftermath of Partition in 1947.
There are no concrete estimates of the numbers of people who were brought from Punjab. Some indication may be available in the Shillong Municipal Board’s old records, but those documents are not accessible to researchers.
Why did the British seek labour from faraway Punjab?
It is likely that the sweepers first came with a British military contingent which had earlier served in Punjab, and had been happy with their services. From the time of Lord Lawrence, Viceroy of India from 1864-69, Punjab had been perceived by many colonial officials as a model province that provided, besides many kinds of services and goods, a large chunk of the British Indian Army. A sizeable number of Mazhabis too, had been serving the British armed forces since the Great Revolt of 1857.
In Shillong, the Mazhabis were initially given accommodation close to the military cantonment. In the early twentieth century, on the recommendation of local military officials, many Mazhabis were recruited by the Shillong Municipal Board. Besides sweeping the city’s streets, the Mazhabis carried night soil from private and official residences and offices. The Municipal Board allowed the Mazhabis to reside in the Bara Bazaar and Laitmakhara areas of the city, so they could closely monitor their daily work.
What explains the Khasis’ deep distrust of the Punjabis now?
Initially, local Khasis were less enthusiastic about doing the work that the Mazhabis did. Having made the long journey to Shillong, the Mazhabis saw an opportunity to make a fresh start in a new land, breaking free of the social degradation and bondage of their rural homeland. Over time, as the ranks of the Mazhabis swelled in the Municipal Board, they came to dominate certain kinds of jobs.
Successful and enterprising minority communities often end up upsetting the majority in a range of social and historical situations. 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. The Khasis saw the Mazhabis as a community of outsiders who practise a different faith, speak in a different language, and dominate a semi-governmental job market over which they have no control. There was also the realisation that unlike the affluent Soniars, the Mazhabi Sikhs were unlikely to leave Shillong — not only because they had nowhere to go, but also because they had developed occupancy rights over their residential holdings by virtue of uninterrupted residence for over a century.
Punjabi Lane is now in the heart of Shillong city, and the younger generations of Mazhabis have moved on from the degrading menial jobs their forefathers did, to driving cars, setting up mobile repair shops, etc. While strict laws against transfer of land to non-tribals prevent them from acquiring property elsewhere in the city, they are not completely unintegrated in the local society. Some Mazhabis speak Khasi, enjoy Khasi food, and a few are even married to Khasis and have converted to Christianity.
How is this situation likely to evolve now?
The tensions between the Khasis and Punjabis isn’t new, and unless current equations of social and economic power change significantly, any possibility of reconciliation between the two communities appears remote. Largescale investment of economic resources to create wider and more diverse economic opportunities will help both sides, besides improving the living conditions of the Mazhabis.
Prof Himadri Banerjee was Guru Nanak Chair in the Department of History at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, until 2010. He has extensively researched and written on the Sikh diasporas within India, with special focus on the Sikh communities living in West Bengal, Assam, and Manipur.