Shillong: In the grand old Iewduh or Bara Bazar in the Meghalaya capital, the pedestrian flow remains high even as vehicles struggle to find passage. The market is bustling with activity as shopkeepers sell different wares, and farmers offer local produce. Teer (betting games) and lottery counters seek to draw customers with the promise of a quick buck. Sounds from different directions come together in cacophony.
Located adjacent to the market is the Harijan Colony or Sweepers’ Line at Them Iew Mawlong, where the residents — Punjabi migrants who have known Meghalaya as home since the British era — mill about their houses, structures of tin and cement that are cramped together along a narrow street.
There is nothing tense about the scene. Children play around on the road, giggling or hiding as the camera turns to them, and some women are hanging washed laundry out to dry even as others handle their shops in the market. A couple of elderly women have a chat, enjoying sunshine on a winter day.
But the tensions that underlie life in the area leap out at the sight of security personnel, including state police, posted at the entry and exit points of the colony.
This colony is the place where, in May 2018, a scuffle between a Sikh woman and a local tribal resident resulted in wider unrest. Security forces were rushed to the area in the aftermath and several affected pockets put under curfew for over a month. Three persons from the colony were arrested but later released on bail.
Over the years, there have been constant discussions to relocate the residents of this colony to a suitable place within the city.
Pressure groups like the Khasi Students’ Union (KSU), an influential students’ body in Meghalaya, cite an agreement signed by a local chieftain with the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB) in 1954 to state that the land is only meant for people who work with the civic agency. They claim there has been an influx of illegal settlers in the area over the years that has caused a spurt in criminal activities.
However, the prospect of relocation is anathema for the residents of the colony, who say they have only ever known this piece of land as home. Years of cohabitation have helped them assimilate with the local population, they add, blaming the relocation bid on a “handful of people” and the state government.
On its part, the state government says residents of the Harijan Colony have no reason to fear, emphasising the shared Indian identity to assuage their concerns.
How the colony was set up
Since the 1850s, the Harijan Colony has accommodated hundreds of Mazhabi (Dalit) and Masih (Christians) Sikh migrant families, largely from Punjab’s Gurdaspur and Amritsar.
The Mazhabis are members of the Scheduled Caste community who converted to Sikhism. It is believed that these Punjab residents were brought to Meghalaya by the British to work as sweepers.
The colony currently has a population of approximately 2,000.
Bara Bazar, one of the largest and oldest trade centres in the region, comes under the jurisdiction of the Hima Mylliem, one of the ‘Syiemships’ or chiefdoms in the Khasi Hills, with the Syiem of Mylliem as its administrative head.
The Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act 1971 prohibits non-tribals from claiming ownership over any land except in areas located within the European wards of Shillong Municipality. Them Iew Mawlong is not a European ward.
The land on which the Harijan Colony is based was donated to the Sikhs by Khasi royalty after an agreement with the British. In 1954, say members of the Harijan Panchayat Committee (HPC), an agreement signed between the Shillong Municipal Board (SMB) and the Syiem of Mylliem further secured their right to it.
Around 40 per cent of the residents in the Harijan Colony are employed by the SMB and various government agencies, say residents.
Efforts to relocate them have been talked about for close to three decades, but nothing has happened so far. Now, a fresh attempt is believed to be underway.
Titosstarwell Chyne, the Chief Executive Member (CEM) of Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) — a constitutional body created under the Sixth Schedule to protect the tribes’ traditions and their lands — said the Syiem of Mylliem will soon sign an MoU with the state government that would facilitate the transfer of land ownership to it, and thus set the stage for relocation.
“We received a recommendation from the Syiem of Mylliem two weeks ago — about transferring the land to the state government, after which it will pursue taking over the land and shifting the residents from the area,” Chyne added in an interview on 1 February. “Now, the matter is still under the district council, we have sent it to the legal adviser and will revert to the Syiem of Mylliem. The Syiem cannot send the MoU to the government without our approval,” said Chyne.
Gurjit Singh (48), a resident of the colony and secretary of the Harijan Panchayat Committee, said it was a “forced and targeted attempt” to evict them.
“Whenever there has been a change in government, we are the first target. In 2018, they did the same. They know that legally they cannot evict us, we have all the rights. The Syiem of Milleum gave us this land, three acres, but because of municipal encroachment, we are now left with about 2.5 acres,” he added.
Citing a Meghalaya High Court order of February 2019, Gurjit Singh said the state government cannot “trouble them” till civil courts are approached and titles decided.
Two years ago, the Meghalaya High Court had directed the government and all other agencies “not to disturb” the residents of the Harijan Colony in any manner. If at all they want to remove or evict them, the court said, they ought to approach the civil court, which will pass a judgment and decide the title in accordance with law.
“We have been living here since so many years, the land now belongs to us,” said Gurjit.
KSU wants relocation of ‘illegal settlers’
Over the decades, residents of the Harijan Colony say, they have built a good relationship with local Khasi and Jaintia families. According to Gurjit Singh, a few men from the Sikh community have married into Khasi and Jaintia families. He blamed the issue of their relocation on the government and a handful of people “who don’t like us”.
“We want to stay in harmony with the locals,” he said. “They don’t really discriminate against us, but there might be about 50-100 people who don’t like us.”
While the government has yet to initiate the process of acquiring ownership of the land, the residents of the Sweepers’ Colony or Them Metor, as it is locally called, have refused to move anywhere, stating they share an “emotional attachment” with the place.
Meanwhile, local pressure groups’ demands that residents of the Harijan Colony be relocated have intensified since May 2018.
Citing the 1954 agreement, Khasi Students’ Union (KSU) chief Lambok Marngar said the land is only meant for “those who worked with the SMB, not individuals or groups”.
“It’s not a new issue, but a long pending one. Not only in 2018, but in 1996 as well — there was an agitation demanding relocation of these people at Them Metor. A lot of criminal activities have been happening in that particular area,” said Marngar, adding that it is now home to “illegal settlers”.
Among the indigenous peoples of Meghalaya, there has been a fear of unchecked migration, and its long-term impact. The issue of illegal settlers at the Harijan Colony has festered for years. A survey conducted in 2007 by the Meghalaya urban affairs department showed 1,024 people were authorised to stay in the SMB quarters.
“We don’t know how, but these illegal settlers — year after year — keep coming and are now engaged in businesses in the area. In the daytime, locals visiting or passing by the settlement often get beaten up,” said Marngar, adding that the “criminal activities” and poor living conditions affect the health of the residents in the settlement.
“We don’t beat anyone. But if someone visits our area and hurls gaalis (abuses), we inform police,” said 23-year-old Jovanjit Singh, a young resident of the colony.
A police officer, who didn’t wish to be named, said no such incident or clash has been reported from the area in almost three years.
The KSU has also called on the government to make an agreement with the Syiem Mylliem at the earliest to develop the area. “We need that space — Shillong is very congested, we need government to develop that area — whether in the form of a shopping mall or parking lot,” said Marngar.
Life in Sweepers’ Line after 2018
HPC headman Billu Singh (70) said life has been difficult for them since the 2018 Shillong unrest, with permissions required from police every now and then — for movement and activities.
“They have closed this route after the 2018 clashes, one requires car passes to come here. If there’s any function at the gurdwara, our relatives need permission to enter the lane. We want to stay the way we had been staying here,” he added.
In 2008, the Syiem and his dorbar (the traditional village institution of the Khasis that looks after the welfare of people and takes charge of customary practices and imposes discipline among members) issued pattas (land documents) to five religious institutions and an educational institute — three temples, a church, a gurdwara and the Guru Nanak Dev Upper Primary School, of which Gurjit Singh is the headmaster. Around 250 children study in the school — mostly non-tribals from all castes and a few Khasis.
Following the unrest in 2018, the state government planned to start an exercise to determine the legal residents of Punjabi Lane. A high-level committee (HLC) was formed over the issue under the chairmanship of Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong. The HLC has not submitted its report to date.
Two notices were served by the SMB in 2019 asking dwellers at the settlement to furnish documents proving the legality of their stay. But the residents say they have deliberately remained unresponsive.
Asked about the relocation efforts, Tynsong said, “We are yet to take a decision, but we must understand that we are all Indians. It’s not that we want to harass anybody. They are our own brothers and sisters. They contributed a lot for the growth of the state. But sometimes, some people create confusion.
“But, let me assure you from government side, we are together, we work together — they should not be scared of or worried about anything,” Tynsong added.
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