The state government’s move to shift the Sikh residents of Sweepers’ Lane has become a contentious issue
The many sides to Sweepers’ Lane in Shillong
Patricia Mukhim, Shillong
A housing colony called Sweepers’ Lane for Mazhabi or Dalit Sikhs who have for generations been municipal workers in Shillong has been under constant surveillance by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). The reason? An altercation between a young Sikh woman and some Khasi young men over right of way to a water tap.
In Meghalaya, every incident that involves non-tribal residents and tribals — who feel they are indigenous to the land and have first claim to everything — quickly turns into a communal conflict and an “us” versus “them” tug-of-war.
Sweepers’ Lane or Them Metor, in the local language, is adjacent to Iew Mawlong or Mawlong Hat which houses hardware stores, and the like. It is crowded and dirty and adjoins the biggest market, the Iewduh or Bara Bazaar. The Iewduh is where all farmer-producers converge to sell their products at wholesale prices.
Close to Sweepers’ Lane there used to be a parking lot for city buses. But due to perennial traffic jams, the place is no longer feasible as a parking lot for vehicles carrying passengers to and from Bara Bazaar. This place has been out of bounds since May 2018 and barricaded on two sides from where people can enter or leave the colony.
The Mazhabi Sikhs were first brought into this region by the British after they entered here following their victory over the Burmese in the aftermath of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826. The British, who entered from Sylhet, now in Bangladesh, set up their administrative centre at Cherrapunjee but soon shifted to Shillong and made it their headquarters since they could not endure the constant rain in Cherrapunjee and its gloomy weather.
In those days there were only dry latrines and the locals would not agree to work as manual scavengers. The Mazhabi Sikhs were brought in precisely for this work and settled as municipal workers in Sweepers’ Lane or Harijan Colony sometime after 1863.
Land ownership among the Khasi-Jaintia people of Meghalaya is a very tenuous idea. The State does not own land and claims ownership only over four percent of reserved forests. Some revenue land was acquired by the British from Khasi chieftains and handed over to the Indian establishment after Independence. For every other requirement, such as road construction and building various institutions, the State has had to acquire land from the community, clan or from a few rich members of the tribal elite who learnt early the value of land as a capital asset.
Community land is in the custody of the chieftains or syiems and in other cases under the clan elders. Normally, community land is distributed to every member of the community who has married and has to set up an independent establishment or for farming. If such land is not used or developed for three consecutive years it reverts to the community.
But because Khasi society has not codified these traditional land ownership/custodianship practices, it became an unwritten code which allowed village heads and chieftains to barter land for money. The chieftain of Mylliemat had given permission to the British to use the land at present called Sweepers’ Lane to house the manual scavengers.
With time, their population grew but the space in which they resided remained the same. This writer visited one such home to speak to an elderly Sikh lady. To my utter surprise, I found that what was earlier only a two-roomed house had become a maze of rooms with steps going up to other floors to house additional members of the family. The rooms were tiny and the family could hardly move around. No wonder they spent much of their time in a common courtyard around the colony.
After the skirmish of May 2018, the government set up a high level committee headed by Deputy Chief Minister Prestone Tynsong to carefully analyze what future action could be taken to relocate the residents to a better location. Earlier governments, too, had proposed shifting the residents of this colony to a more spacious location, but they had rejected the idea.
The reason is that the number of Sikh municipal workers is only a handful while the number of residents in that colony today is over 300. The vast majority of these 300 residents are carrying out small businesses in the Sweepers’ Lane area and have become comfortable there. The new location would only house legitimate municipal workers, thereby leaving out a large chunk of their family members. It is this issue which has pushed the Sikhs to resist the government’s relocation plan. They have succeeded in making an emotional appeal to their brethren across the country and even abroad. This is fraught with serious consequences because different Sikh organizations have started meddling with what is Meghalaya’s internal affairs.
On September 28, the high level committee submitted its report and recommended shifting of employees of the Shillong Municipal Board from Sweepers’ Colony. The committe suggested that the government should take ownership of the land by paying the chieftain of Mylliem a certain amount. The government is clear that after taking an inventory of the number of municipal workers residing in Sweepers’ Lane, it will house them in a location where homes have already been built for them. It is, however, silent on what would happen to those residents who are not on the payroll of the Shillong Municipal Board. This is the bone of contention.
Unfortunately, the media has pitched this issue as a Sikh versus the government of Meghalaya one and turned the former into some sort of victims. Sweepers’ Lane is today one of the biggest slums in a commercial area. By no stretch of imagination can there be residential colonies in such an area without serious health and law and order consequences.
It is the considered view of most local Khasi residents that this cannot be turned into a communal issue and that the Sikhs are only being relocated and not “evicted” as is being made out by a section of the media parachuted from outside the state.
The Harijan Panchayat Committee representing the Sikhs of Shillong has also opposed the move of the state government. “We will die for our land but will not allow any unlawful, illegal and unjust action by the government of Meghalaya,” said Gurjit Singh, secretary of the panchayat.
But do the municipal workers have the right to claim the land at Sweepers’ Lane?