Amarveer Singh (26) thought he had washed away the troublemaker tag from the blue turban that matched the colour of his checked shirt. He was dressed for the occasion — reporting to duty as laboratory assistant at NEIGRIHMS (North East Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences) after 12 days of virtual house arrest. But the colour scheme added to the conspicuousness of his Sikh identity. Taxi drivers either ignored him or refused to drive him to his workplace, about nine km from his house at Punjabi Lane or Sweepers’ Lane. Also known as Harijan Colony, it is often considered a blot in a hill station that prefers to be known as ‘Scotland of the East’.
“I gave up after waiting for an hour at the junction (of Punjabi Lane and Guwahati-Shillong or GS Road, about 30m from his house). The drivers obliged every other passenger. I know some of them, but they either avoided me or did not want to be seen ferrying someone from this much-maligned locality,” Amarveer says.
Amarveer was not the only one from Punjabi Lane to have been spurned on June 12, less than a fortnight after a heated argument between a woman of the locality and the driver of a Shillong Public Transport Service (SPTS) bus snowballed into a communal standoff. Residents claimed that half a dozen children were ejected from a bus, preventing them from attending a government-run school away from Punjabi Lane.
“We expected life to return to normal after the relaxation of curfew and resumption of business at Bara Bazaar next door. Tempers seem to have cooled down, but we feel a psychological battle is being waged against us, as if we are unwanted or have no right to be here,” Gurjit Singh, general secretary of Punjabi Lane’s Gurdwara Committee since 1995, says.
Bara Bazaar, locally called Iewduh, is the commercial hub of Meghalaya’s capital Shillong. Punjabi Lane, barricaded and guarded by Central paramilitary personnel, connects Bara Bazaar and GS Road.
The 2011 census says Shillong has 1,631 Sikhs, which is 1.14 per cent of the total population. The dalit or Mazhabi Sikhs, brought here by the British for manual scavenging and sanitation work, were the earliest settlers in the Bara Bazaar area. The other major Sikh settlement in the city is at Gora Line, in the upmarket Laitumkhrah area; they are primarily descendants of soldiers who came with the British more than 150 years ago or traders who set up shop later.
Unlike the fairly orderly structures of Gora Line, Harijan Colony is a chaotic jumble of shacks spread over two acres and flanks a 300-m lane. Nearly 350 families in the colony are packed into two-storey hovels that are patched up with wooden planks and corrugated tin sheets. The appearance of the colony is in stark contrast to the landscape around — part of a manicured army cantonment and high-rise commercial and residential buildings.
The only concrete structures in the colony are the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara (which is being reconstructed), Guru Nanak Upper Primary School, a Hindu temple and the Sadhu Sundar Singh Church, named after a Sikh who converted to Christianity long ago. The school is also a polling booth since 1960.
“This land used to be a wasteland owned by the Khasi royalty. Our people have been living here before 1853, when the Syiem (king) of Mylliem donated the land to our forefathers, saying we could live here as long as we want,” Gurjit says.
Mylliem is among the 54 traditional administrative territories under the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), which is one of three for as many tribes constituted under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, granting indigenous tribes more rights over their land and resources. The other two councils are for Jaintia and Garo tribes.
Gurjit says he has a 2008 letter that the Syiem of Mylliem issued to the chairman of Meghalaya State Electricity Board acknowledging that his predecessors had allotted the land to the dalit community through an agreement with the British government on December 10, 1893, to establish a civic and military sanatorium. The gurdwara, too, is of 1893 vintage, he says.
“In 2009, 10 years after we petitioned, land deeds were issued to the school, the gurdwara, temple and the church in the colony. But 218 colony residents were not issued land titles, despite the local authorities assuring the National Commission for Scheduled Castes back then,” adds Gurjit.
Fire from a spark
Many local Khasi tribal people perceive the dalit Sikhs and non-Sikhs of Harijan Colony as bullies, prone to harassing or intimidating vendors who pass through the area. This prejudice is said to have been at work on May 31, when young girls of the locality asked an SPTS bus driver to move a vehicle that was blocking a roadside water tap. The SPTS has a counter on the eastern end of the colony.
The driver allegedly abused the girls, who went on to summon their male relatives. These men reportedly assaulted the driver and two others in the bus. The three injured lodged a complaint at the Cantonment Police Beat House. Following a counter-FIR, the two groups are said to have arrived at a compromise. The Sikhs also paid ₹4,000 towards the treatment of the three Khasi boys.
The narrative, however, got twisted via WhatsApp. Rumours that the Sikhs had “killed” three Khasi boys spread like wildfire, and a mob attacked Harijan Colony that night with stones and petrol bombs. Security forces stepped in to bring the situation under control and also cordoned off the settlement.
For most non-tribal communities in Shillong, it was a sense of déjà vu. The city, established in 1874 as the headquarters of the erstwhile Assam Province, started showing xenophobic tendencies after Meghalaya was carved out of Assam as a separate State in 1972. The Bengalis, who were brought by the British primarily for clerical jobs, were the first victims of ethnic cleansing, in 1979. More communal violence followed in 1984, 1987 and 1992, also targeting Nepalis and Biharis. Many were dragged out of public vehicles and beheaded, or set on fire. The Sikhs saw it coming, sooner or later.
“This has not happened in a day. They have been trying to brand us troublemakers for 25 years, so that we can be evicted and some realtors can build a shopping complex here,” Gurjit says.
The standoff eased after Conrad K Sangma’s coalition government formed a high-level committee, headed by deputy chief minister Prestone Tynsong, to explore the feasibility of a relocation plan for Harijan Colony residents.
Nowhere to go
Harijan Colony is under North Shillong Assembly constituency. The residents believe that trouble started brewing after Adelbert Nongrum became the local MLA after the polls in February this year, and that one of his poll promises was, reportedly, the eviction of Punjabis from the area. “The colony needs to shift as it is a market area, and local hawkers need a commercial complex,” Nongrum says.
Khasi nationalist politician Paul Lyngdoh, who headed the Khasi Students’ Union in the ’90s, when it wanted the colony shifted to Nongmynsong on the outskirts of the city, says there is nothing communal about relocating the Sikhs. “I had, in 2006, proposed a parking complex at Punjabi Lane, besides a flyover. Everyone, not just Khasis, would have benefited,” he adds.
Alexander Laloo Hek, one of the members of the committee for the Harijan Colony issue, claims that Nongmynsong was never a part of the relocation plan. “This is a misconception that started a decade ago, since Meghalaya Urban Development Authority started building houses for BPL families there. The committee has asked KHADC and the Shillong Municipal Board to prepare an inventory of the residents of Punjabi Lane... The committee can suggest a plan only after it has the details,” he says.
Ricky Nelson Syiem, the Syiem of Mylliem, says his office has no role to play since the former Syiem had handed the Punjabi Lane over to the municipality through a 1954 agreement for the construction of quarters for the sweepers, shops and other structures. “The colony was meant for a few sweepers, but due to lack of administration, many came to stay there illegally. The illegal settlers need to be weeded out,” he says.
“No one here is illegal. This place is our home and we are not budging from here because the government cannot guarantee that we will be welcome elsewhere. More than 80 per cent of us have no land in Punjab. We have nowhere to go,” says Billu Singh, the headman of Punjabi Lane.
Pressure groups have threatened to take to the streets again if the committee fails to come up with a proposal to “remove the eyesore of a colony”. But the likes of Amarveer know Shillong has a way of moving on, no matter what the verdict. “If not, we will have to fight it out too,” he says.