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Posted at: Jun 10, 2018, 12:12 AM; last updated: Jun 10, 2018, 12:12 AM (IST)

Fight for right at Shillong’s lane of squalor

Bijay Sankar Bora
Punjabi Lane, a locality lying in dirty surroundings, has rightful claimants. Keeping a hawk’s eye on it are the vested interests. Successive govts have been unable to relocate the residents as there are legal issues
Fight for right at Shillong’s lane of squalor
On the boil: Police personnel guard a street during a curfew in Shillong. The tension stems from a long-standing demand of locals to relocate residents of Punjabi Lane. PTI
Bijay Sankar Bora in Shillong

The picturesque hill city of Shillong recently saw something sinister: Mindless violence was let loose on the streets for about five days since May 31 night, bringing to the fore the unresolved issues of relocation of Punjabi Lane locality inhabited by 350 families, mainly Sikhs, from the city’s prime Bara Bazar area. The real estate prices in the area are now measured in multiples of a square-inch unit.

It all started with a minor altercation involving a few women from Punjabi Lane and three local Khasi boys on board a Meghalaya city bus. One of the boys was allegedly roughed up on May 31 morning but both sides quickly compromised in the local police station later. But the matter did not end there.

The incident was a godsend for the vested interests with strong political connections. They have kept a hawk’s eye on the prime plot of land inhabited by Sikh Scheduled Caste settlers for over a century. The local pressure groups seized the opportunity to such an extent that the new coalition government in the state came under a strain over relocating Punjabi Lane.

“It is a ruthless political game in which our lives and property have been put at stake. Local tribals have been used as a tool,” says Gurjeet Singh, leader of Harijan Sikh panchayat and president of the local Gurdwara committee.

People were incited to scare way the Punjabi Lane inhabitants, or possibly, raze the colony facing a host of legal issues. Over 100 police men were injured as they tried to contain violence that spread to other localities inhabited by non-tribals. The Army was called out thrice in two days. The streets were strewn with stones. The attackers, most of whom, as Chief Minister Conrad Sangma stated, were brought from a neighbouring district.

“It was shocking to see marauders creating mayhem in our city in a manner that resembled stone-throwing mobs in the Kashmir valley. It is unprecedented in the entire North-East. The state’s economy has suffered. Frustrated youths were used to unleash violence in exchange for money and liquor,” said RG Lyngdoh, former state home minister. 

He said shifting Punjabi Lane is not as easy as there are serious legal issues. “The erstwhile tribal kings, and later British rulers, had hired a few sweepers from Punjab. Over the decades the place has degenerated into a ghetto where living conditions are inhuman,” said Lyngdoh.

“The residents of Punjabi Lane have been used as a vote bank by politicians. The Sikh families should be persuaded to shift to a cleaner place. I hope the committee formed by the government would find a way out,” says Patricia Mukhim, a journalist. 

Though they are staying in accommodation provided by Shillong Municipal Board and Cantonment Board, most of the members of these safai karmacharis no longer work for the two organisations. “Most of our educated youth are into business,” says Joginder Singh, a community leader who also works in North Eastern Council as a karmachari in Multi-Tasking Service (MTS). The Punjabi Lane community has legal papers and it has the support of the Hima Mylliem (a traditional tribal council). So, it is very difficult for any government to relocate them unless the community relents on its own. The residents have won three court cases. They also have the permission from the Hima Mylliem to construct buildings, a school and religious places.

An official document says: “Syiem (chief) and Dorbar (executive body), Hima Mylliem never issued any land document to the Harijan community, but recognized and respected them since the plot of land was allotted to them long back by the predecessor Syiems of Hima Mylliem.”

Another document says the state education department in 1972 accorded the status of minority institution to the Guru Nanak LP School. Gurjeet Singh, secretary of the Harijan Panchayat Committee, claims their forefathers were settled in the area in the 1850s. He says after a fire damaged the LP School building in 1996, the Hima Mylliem did not object to the reconstruction. 

The community has an official letter written by the Hima Mylliem in 2008 addressed to the chairman of the state electricity board that shows the land belongs to Guru Nanak LP School. 

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