North East Politics
The Meghalaya government has taken possession of Punjabi Line, home to the community since the 19th century.
Punjabi Line is a densely packed strip of land on the edge of Bara Bazaar, the commercial hub of Shillong. On October 30, the Meghalaya government took possession of this land and handed it over to the urban affairs department.
Several ideas have been floated about what to do with the 2.5 acres – maybe build a flyover or a parking complex, the deputy chief minister mentioned “beautification”. The verdict was that the strip of prime real estate could not be occupied by squalid homes. Especially if many of those homes belonged to “illegal settlers”, as a government-appointed committee claimed.
The takeover had been enabled by a tripartite agreement signed last month by the Meghalaya government, the Shillong Municipal Board and the Syiem of Mylliem, the head of the tribal body that controls land ownership in Shillong.
The actual residents of Punjabi Line, often referred to as Sweepers’ Colony, were not consulted. Most are Dalit Sikhs, or Mazhabis, a community that has traditionally worked as sweepers in Shillong. The government has extended the offer of talks to them only now, after having taken over Punjabi Line. As they face forced relocation, the local Harijan Panchayat Committee has vowed to fight back.
It will not be easy. Many stories of marginalisation intersect in those 2.5 acres. Maligned as “outsiders”, they have been the target of hostilities from communities considered indigenous to Meghalaya. As Dalits, they have faced exclusion within Shillong’s Sikh community. They may have been intrinsic to Shillong’s growth as a city, but now the Mazhabis of Punjabi Line could be displaced by new patterns of urbanisation in the same city.
The residents of Punjabi Line claim the land was gifted to them by the Syiem of Mylliem in the mid-19th century, around the time the village of Yeodo became Shillong, a colonial town central to British interests in the region.
In 1874, the province of Assam was carved out of Bengal. Shillong became the political and administrative headquarters of the new province. Over the next few decades, it would also be fashioned into one of the many “hill stations” that served as summer retreats for Europeans in India. The burgeoning township needed, among other things, adequate sanitation and a waste management system if it was to keep the title of “Scotland of the East”.
While the British got Bengalis to man the administration, Mazhabis were brought in from Punjab to clean the city, sweeping the main thoroughfares, ferrying out the night soil. By the late 1910s, they were on the rolls of the newly formed municipal corporation, writes historian Himadri Banerjee. They were settled around the Bara Bazaar area, then a sparsely populated part of town. Over the years, wives and families joined the original group of workers settled in Shillong. As their numbers swelled, some were accommodated in Gora Line.
Their Dalit identity meant they were ghettoised in these localities, even if they spread into jobs outside the municipality. “In spite of the rapid expansion of Shillong, they were strictly advised to reside within their restricted areas,” writes Banerjee. So Dalit Sikh settlements remained two small pockets of the city, surrounded by other ethnicities. Poverty and population pressures meant these were congested, poorly heated, poorly sanitised places.
Shillong. Picture credit: Windrider24584 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,
In the shadows
The squalor of these localities, the grim work that their residents had to do, struck a discordant note in the idyllic urban spaces they were supposed to preserve. Banerjee notes how colonial officials stuck behind processions carrying night soil out of the city complained about being exposed to the “uncivilised” demeanour of the municipal workers.
The city’s higher caste Sikhs also echoed these ideas, abusing Mazhabis for their “dirty and unclean style of living”, excluding them from sacred spaces and community groups, continuing practices of untouchability.
These prejudices, of Mazhabis sullying the city with their living habits and their anti-social behaviour, have also surfaced in more recent articles written in local papers. Take this piece from 2018, where the author complains of the “filth” of Them Mawlong, the Khasi name for Punjabi Line. While he acknowledges the practices of untouchability and rebukes the Syiem for not spending money on improving local infrastructure, the author also complains about the “brigands” of Them Mawlong who allegedly lurk in the shadows to harass passers-by, especially women. If chased, they will disappear into homes “built like rodent holes”, the author claims. He also laments that the Mazhabis have erased the Khasi name, Them Mawlong, and christened the area “Punjabi Colony”.
The article was published shortly after Khasi groups – triggered by social media rumours – closed in on Punjabi Line and clashed with security forces as they tried to break into the Sikh colony. Members of Khasi civil society groups claimed the clashes could not have been communal – why else would Sikhs in other parts of the city be spared?
These claims do not acknowledge the way faultlines of caste and community have converged in the marginalisation of Mazhabis in Shillong.
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