THREE DAYS after the Meghalaya government took legal possession of the disputed Punjabi Lane in Shillong’s Them lew Mawlong area, the local Dalit Sikh community on Monday responded, saying they would “rather die in their homes, than be forcibly evicted”.
In a statement, Gurjit Singh, president of Harijan Panchayat Committee (HPC), which represents members of the Sikh community in Shillong, termed the government’s move “illegal” and said they would “socially, legally, religiously and politically” challenge the state government.
“Let it be known to all concerned that this is a fight for our survival and habitat and we will spare no effort to win this battle of honour, dignity and legitimate rights,” the statement said.
On Friday, following up on the Conrad Sangma-led Cabinet’s relocation decision earlier this month, the Urban Affairs Department took possession of the land on paper, amid protests from the community.
A letter from Joint Secretary G Kharmawphlang to the Additional Chief Secretary said that following a tripartite lease signed between the Syiem of Mylliem, Shillong Municipal Board and Government of Meghalaya, the land measuring 12,444.13 squares metres had been “handed over” to the Urban Affairs Department.
Chief Minister Sangma on Monday told reporters that the issue would be resolved “amicably” in a “phase-wise manner”.
“They are emotionally charged and giving statements but we are ready to talk to them amicably,” Sangma said, adding that this was the first time in the history of the state that any government was taking strong, concrete steps towards resolving a long-pending issue. “It is not easy but we are committed to this, and we will talk to the people,” he said.
Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong told reporters on Friday that the next step would be done “legally” with “due process”. He said once the issue was resolved, there would be “beautification” in the area.
Speaking to The Indian Express earlier, Tynsong had said that the Sikh community should not “get confused” that they were “being thrown out”. “We are here to help them,” he had said.
The Sikhs, who have been living in the area for about 200 years, have termed the tripartite agreement “patently illegal”, “malafide” and a “clear violation” of their “constitutional and fundamental rights”. “The assurances of the government do not cut ice, in fact, they are full of loopholes and obfuscation of facts and figures,” the HPC statement said.
Additionally, the three chiefs of the religious institutions (gurdwara, temple and church) – which are located in Punjabi Lane – will petition the office of the Governor of Meghalaya seeking his intervention.
“Religious places of worship are sacrosanct and cannot be demolished under any circumstances. I shudder to think of the consequences, should the Meghalaya government make a misadventure in this direction,” said Singh in the statement.
The decades old dispute stems from a disagreement over ownership of land. While the government claims the land, which is located next to Shillong’s commercial hub Iewduh or Bara Bazaar, belongs to the Urban Affairs Department, the Sikhs consider it to be a “gift” to them by the Syiem of Milliem – in the 1850s.
The land dispute has simmered for decades, with sections of society and political organisations in Meghalaya demanding that the residents be shifted to some other area — the primary argument being that a prime commercial area should not hold a residential locality. It took a violent turn in 1996 and later in May 2018, leading to clashes between local Khasis and Sikhs, after which a high-level committee was formed to settle it. The Cabinet’s relocation decision is based on recommendations made by the committee.